“You Are My Servant, Israel” (Isaiah 49:1-7)
Two weeks ago, for the Baptism of Our Lord, the Old Testament reading was from Isaiah 42, the first of four so-called “Servant Songs” in the second half of Isaiah. “Behold my servant,” Isaiah 42 begins, “my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” And we certainly see Jesus as the fulfillment of that prophecy in his baptism, as he sets out to do the will of his Father, fulfilling all righteousness. The Father voices his approval, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” And the Spirit comes to rest upon Jesus, anointing him as the Messiah and empowering him for his mission. Jesus clearly is seen as the servant of the Lord.
Also two weeks ago, I said we would be hearing all four of Isaiah’s “Servant Songs” in the readings coming up: Isaiah 49 on January 15; Isaiah 50 on Palm Sunday; and Isaiah 53 on Good Friday. So we should have heard Isaiah 49 last week, but we were iced out. That’s why I’m taking it up today, so we don’t miss out on the complete set. Thus today we come to the second Servant Song, from Isaiah 49, under the theme, “You Are My Servant, Israel.”
“‘You are my servant, Israel’? But Pastor, I thought you just said that Jesus is the Servant of the Lord. Now you’re saying that Israel is the Lord’s servant? Which is it, Jesus or Israel?” Well, answer: Both. Both Israel and Jesus can be identified as the servant of the Lord. And guess what? By extension, so can we–we the church–be seen as the servant of the Lord, carrying out the will and the work of the Lord here on earth. So Israel, Jesus, the church–to each the Lord says, “You are my servant.”
Let’s trace this through. If we look at the Book of Isaiah, we encounter a somewhat mysterious figure called “the servant of the Lord.” You see the first mention in Isaiah 41, where the Lord says, “But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, ‘You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off’; fear not, for I am with you.” This is encouragement to Israel as God’s chosen people, called to carry out his mission on the earth. Remember how the Lord had called Abraham, saying to him, “I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you, so that you will be a blessing. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” This was Israel’s identity, this was Israel’s calling: to be the chosen, blessed people of God, chosen to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth. And here in Isaiah the Lord reminds Israel of their identity and their calling to be the servant of the Lord.
That was Isaiah 41. Then in Isaiah 42 we heard the first of the four full Servant Songs: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” Now what is said of the servant certainly fits Jesus best, as we saw at his baptism. How true this would be of Christ: “He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law.” Christ brings righteousness to all the world. He is the Word of God made flesh. The Lord says to his servant: “I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” And that is exactly and literally what Jesus did in his ministry.
So in the first part of Isaiah 42, the servant of the Lord receives God’s highest approval and praise, as Jesus did at his baptism. But later in this same chapter, the servant receives a rebuke from the Lord: “Hear, you deaf, and look, you blind, that you may see! Who is blind but my servant, or deaf as my messenger whom I send? Who is blind as my dedicated one, or blind as the servant of the Lord? He sees many things, but does not observe them; his ears are open, but he does not hear.” Now that fits Israel as a whole. They were a nation that did not listen. God spoke to them through his prophets, yet they did not hear or heed the word of the Lord.
And how that fits us! Like Israel, we have been benefitted in every way. The Lord has called us. The Lord has blessed us. The Lord has equipped us to be his servant in the world. But how often have we shrugged that off. How often have we lost our way. How often we have forgotten our baptismal identity and lived like the people of the world. This is not good. Like Israel, we too have been a deaf and blind servant.
But not so Jesus. Where Israel failed, Jesus was faithful. Where we have strayed, Jesus stayed the course. And that course would take him to the cross, where he would identify with us and take our sins upon himself, suffering God’s judgment in our place, so that we would not have to. His righteousness gets credited to our account. Our sins get covered by his blood.
You see, Jesus is really Israel reduced to one. He is the embodiment and the epitome of what Israel was called to be: the faithful and true servant of the Lord. Jesus gets it right. Jesus is Israel reduced to one. He even replays the experiences of Israel. In the Old Testament, when Pharaoh tried to wipe out all the baby boys of Israel, one was saved, Moses, who would deliver Israel out of their bondage in Egypt. When Jesus was an infant, another evil king, Herod, tried to wipe out the baby boys of Bethlehem. But Jesus was spared, when the family fled to Egypt to escape, later coming back out of Egypt, back to Israel, where Jesus would grow up to be the great Deliverer. Jesus is Israel reduced to one. Israel comes into the Promised Land through the Jordan. Jesus is baptized in the Jordan. Israel spends forty years wandering in the wilderness, being tempted to sin and often succumbing. Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness, being tempted by Satan, yet overcoming temptation and remaining faithful. And so it goes. Jesus is Israel reduced to one, the one perfectly faithful servant of the Lord.
Jesus is faithful. We have faltered. But the Lord reassures us for Christ’s sake. Isaiah 44: “But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen! Thus says the Lord who made you, who formed you from the womb and will help you: Fear not, O Jacob my servant. . . Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant; I formed you; you are my servant; O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me. I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud and your sins like mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you.” Yes, there is hope and restoration for you, my friends! God has not forgotten you. You are precious in his sight. Jesus shed his blood for you, that’s how precious you are. God is calling you back today. God is calling us back today, to see our identity and our calling as the servant of the Lord, the church, the body of Christ in the world.
And so now we come to Isaiah 49, the second full Servant Song, where it says: “Listen to me, O coastlands, and give attention, you peoples from afar. The LORD called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name. He made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow; in his quiver he hid me away. And he said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’”
Truly we can see this in the case of Jesus. From the time the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would give birth to the Messiah and name him Jesus–even before then, from the foundation of the world–the course of Jesus’ life was laid out for him. “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” And how Jesus brought glory to the Father! God’s power is made known chiefly in showing mercy, and that’s what Jesus did. He forgave sins, he healed the sick, he fed the multitudes. He suffered and died and rose again to give you eternal life.
And this mercy would not be limited to the nation of Israel: “And now the LORD says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him . . . he says: ‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’” And so the gospel of Christ has gone out into all the world. Our ancestors were among those dwelling in darkness to whom the light came. And we are the beneficiaries of that outreach.
Now the light of Christ will shine through the church. That’s us. To be a light only for those already gathered is too light a thing. Certainly we should recall those who have wandered from the faith and from the church, and the Lord will use us to do that. But we also will shine and share the light of Christ with those who do not yet know him. This Epiphany season is a time when we emphasize that aspect of the church’s life. Through missions in other lands, through our congregation’s ministry here in this area, and through our own personal witness to friends, relatives, associates, and neighbors, we shine the light of Christ in places and pockets of darkness. This is what people need, and this is what we have to share. There is enough light to go around–for us, for people we know, and for all the people around the world.
Will we get discouraged in our witness? No doubt. In the words of the Servant: “But I said, “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” I feel like that at times. Maybe you do, too. You share the word of God with people, you invite them to church, but they don’t respond. So we get discouraged. But like the Servant we can say: “Yet surely my right is with the LORD, and my recompense with my God.” Friends, God will pick us up and refresh us and strengthen us to get going again. Never give up. God will help you.
Our hope is in Christ. Our help is in Christ. Any power in our message is because of him. His word does the work. Jesus is the Servant of the Lord, who came to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. Christ was rejected, but he was vindicated in the end. From Isaiah: “Thus says the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation, the servant of rulers: ‘Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves; because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.’” That Christ himself was vindicated and victorious gives us encouragement.
“You are my servant, Israel.” It was Israel. It is Jesus. And in Christ, it is the church also. Take heart, my friends. The light is shining in the darkness, and the darkness has not–and will not–overcome it.
Christ, in every congregation
Build Your temple, stone by stone,
With Your word as firm foundation
For a faith matured and grown:
Christ the Savior, Christ the Servant,
Make in us Your Gospel known.
Come, O living Christ, renew us,
As of old in wind and flame;
With the Spirit’s power endue us,
Servants of Your saving name:
Christ the Savior, Christ the Servant,
Christ whose kingdom we proclaim.