Humble servant - big plan - Isaiah 49:1-13
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
There is the story of the Texan farmer whose great grandfather was a crofter in Scotland. After the family emigrated they became very prosperous. One day the farmer decided to visit the place of his origins, went to Scotland and eventually found the actual croft in which his family had lived. He marvelled to the Scottish farmer who then lived there: ‘Everything’s so small here. I can drive around your little farm in a couple of minutes, but at my ranch in Texas it sometimes takes me half an hour to drive from the freeway to my ranch house.’ The farmer nodded and replied, ‘I know what you mean. I used to have a car like that too...’ You see, it’s all a matter of perspective. Get your perspective wrong and you get everything else wrong. It was GK Chesterton who once said that it is better to live in the valley than on the mountain top. For when you are on the mountain everything seems so small and it is you who are big and important. But in the valley you look up and see the mountains and you are small and so you are reminded of God. And what we are going to discover this morning as we turn to Isaiah 49 is the way God the Father gives his Servant, whom we now know to be the Lord Jesus Christ, the perspective he needs as he makes his way through the valley of this world in order to fulfil God’s work. So enthralled is the Lord with his Servant, so consumed with love and devotion to him that as far as God is concerned nothing is to great for him, God wants to give him the whole world which we see in verse 6, ‘It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light to the nations, that you may be salvation to the ends of the earthy.’ For this Servant God is more than happy to borrow the family motto of James Bond and apply it to him- ‘The World is not enough’. So let’s see how this works itself out.
In this passage we hear two voices- what the Servant has to say about himself in vv 1-6 and what God-Yahweh has to say about his Servant in verses 7-13. And both voices join together in perfect harmony to declare that the humble servant is part of God’s big plan.
First, the identity of the Servant- vv 1-3- ‘Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations: Before I was born the LORD called me; from my birth he has made mention of my name. 2He made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver. 3He said to me, "You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendour."’ We are told that the LORD has made mention of his name but we are not told what his name is, but we are told what he will be because of the description given in verse 2-‘He made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver.’ This is a description of someone who will have a prophetic ministry, declaring God’s Word to God’s world because the focus is on the nature of his ‘mouth’. And weapon language us used to describe the effect of his ministry- his words will be like a sharp sword-a weapon used at close quarters, and a polished arrow, a weapon used to hit targets at a distance. We are told that God concealed him, like a sword in a sheath or arrows in a quiver, but when the right moment comes he will be unleashed to put God’s mission into action and people simply will not know what’s hit them. And of course that is exactly what happened. For nearly thirty years Jesus lived quietly; hidden in the backwaters of Nazareth and spent all his time fixing broken tables and wobbly chairs. But at the right time he exploded seemingly out of nowhere onto the public stage in order to engage in the most powerful preaching the world had ever known. When the Servant preached you didn’t dare go to sleep, you couldn’t, you were riveted. He disturbed people by what he said, ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters, cannot be my disciple.’ He shocked people by what he said: ‘Before Abraham was I am’ - a direct claim to be God. And he delighted people by what he said, ‘Whoever comes to me I will never turn away’. Beautiful words, tender words. The common people said that he spoke as ‘one with authority’, as if it were the very voice of God they were listening to. And the result is that people’s lives were changed for ever.
And he still does the same today. No other book on earth has the power to change as does this book which contains the words of the Servant.. During the Second World War a native South Sea Islander proudly showed his tattered Bible to an American GI. And looking down his nose, the soldier said, ‘We’ve grown out of that sort of thing buddy.’ ‘The islander simply smiled back at him and said, ‘It’s a good thing we haven’t. Because if it weren’t for this book you would have been my lunch by now.’ Cannibals, atheists, good people, bad people, rich people, poor people-there is not a single people group on this earth that has not heard the voice of this Servant Jesus and been changed for the better.
But it is not just the words of this Servant which are impressive, but also his works- v3 ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendour.’ Now this phrase ‘display’ is one which we often associate with the world of fashion. Just as a model will display along the catwalk the latest designs from Paris, God’s Servant is going to display before the whole world what it really means to live a fulfilled God-centred human life. Of course it was Israel, the Jewish people, who were meant to be such a model, but they failed, that is why they are in captivity in Babylon as the prophecy comes to them afresh. But where they failed, this one individual- also called Israel- will succeed. Everything
Israel should have been and done; he is and does- so he has every right to that name. In other words, Jesus is not just God incarnate, he is Israel incarnate. And people from every culture and every class have in some way been entranced by the person of Jesus. It was the Russian novelist Dostoevsky who once wrote to a friend these words: ‘I believe that nothing is more beautiful, profound, sympathetic, reasonable, manly and more perfect than Christ; and I tell myself with a jealous love not only that there is nothing but that there cannot be anything.’ Now can you see why for the LORD’s Servant the world is not enough?
But then there is a change in mood as we come to the despair of the Servant –v4, ‘But I said, "I have laboured to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing.’ The source of this profound disappointment is more than hinted at in verse 7- that he was to be ‘despised and abhorred by the nation’- that is the Jewish nation. And of course that is exactly what happened- culminating in Good Friday. From one point of view there was hardly anything that appeared to be ‘good’ about that day at all. The crowd which hailed him on the road on Palm Sunday nailed him to a tree less than a week later. One of his best friends betrayed him and the rest simply melted away like the spring snow. Whichever way you look at it, it seems that it has all been for nothing and Jesus actually felt that.
I don’t know about you but I find that strangely comforting to know. The thought that he knew what it was like to suffer setbacks; to have to handle disappointments, especially from the people you would have hoped for the most. And those of us who follow in the footsteps of the Servant must not be surprised if we also feel discouraged by apparent lack of success too. Believe me, Gospel ministry is very hard work and at time very disheartening work. You put all that time into a youth group, hours of preparation for that talk, so much devotion and prayer for someone you felt was really going on with the Lord and then they just walk away and it simply breaks your heart and you put your head in your hands and ask : ‘Is it worth it?’ But look at how the verse goes on, ‘Yet, what is due to me is in the Lord’s hand, and my reward is with my God.’
Do you see how the Servant handles such feelings of failure? He was content to place the results of his work into his heavenly Father’s hands. What from our perspective may seem a failure, might in God’s hands, operating according to his timetable, be the most significant thing we could ever have done, though we may not live to see it. Think of it this way: Perhaps you are a Christian parent or Grandparent-nothing special you may think. But there you are trying to be faithful to your Lord and you set an example to your children what a faithful Christian marriage looks like-just how Dad treats his Mum and vice versa. That impresses them, believe it or not. They in turn get married, have children and pass on the faith which you taught them in your own quiet, unspectacular way and so it goes on until-three or four generations later, from one of your own descendants God raises the next- John Wesley or Billy Graham. You can’t see that, but it can all be traced back to those little acts of faithfulness in your own little home here in Hull. Do you see how God works and why we shouldn’t get discouraged but plough on, as did this Servant? We are back to the matter of perspective again.
So what is the mission of the servant? We are told in vv 5-6 and it is all to do with restoring people to God. In the first instance the Jewish people, v5 ‘to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself.’ I have already mentioned that this prophecy in the first instance is addressed to Israel stuck in Exile in Babylon- modern day Iraq. And no doubt their main concern was to be gathered back to the land. But that is not God’s main concern; it is to be brought back into a restored relationship with himself. It is possible to have the symbols of God’s presence-like the land and the temple without having the reality of God’s presence. And the same is true today. The Jewish people have land, but they do not have God. Well, that is not quite true because there are now more Jewish Christians living in the land of Palestine than at any time since the days of the early church. Some have been gathered by the Servant. But similarly it can sadly be the case that a local church has all the trappings of Christ- the building, the sacraments, the pulpit but without the presence of Christ because his Word is not central- the sword and polished arrow- he has been effectively pushed out. Of course that happened in the first century at a church in Turkey called Laodicea- that is why Jesus says he ‘stands at the door and knocks’ for he is outside the church door while his professing people are inside. But he does go on to say, ‘If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.’ A few years ago there was an article in an American newspaper of a christening party being given in a wealthy Boston suburb. The parents opened their palatial home to friends and relatives who had come to celebrate this wonderful event. As the party was progressing and people were having a great time, eating and drinking enjoying each others company, someone innocently said, ‘Oh, by the way where’s the baby?’ Then the heart of the young mother missed a beat and she instantly left the room and rushed into the master bedroom where she had left the baby sleeping in the middle of the massive bed. The baby was dead, smothered by the coats of the guests. That is a sad picture of what was happening in Laodicea and is happening in the lives of some Christians and churches today. We are meant to be meeting with Christ, but he becomes smothered by self-indulgence and complacency. But, there are some who do respond to the call of the servant and he does come in and have fellowship with them.
But not just Jews, but foreigners too will respond because God has told his servant that the Jewish nation is not big enough for him in verse 6- people throughout the world are to be his gift, for he is to be a light to the foreigners-the gentiles, and it should read, ‘to be the salvation to the ends of the earth.’ You know it was a very old man who could hardly see that was one of the first people to realise that this prophecy was being fulfilled in the little baby he was holding in his arms. His name was Simeon. This is what he says in Luke 2:29ff, ‘Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the gentiles and for the glory of your people Israel.’ That is pure Isaiah 49 wrapped upon in that bundle of joy-the baby from Nazareth. Was Simeon right in what he said or was his judgement rather premature?
Well, he was spot on according to verses 7-12 where we see the success of the Servant. Again we have an echo of verse 7, and I think verse 2 in Simeon for he goes on to say to Mary, ‘This child destined to cause the rising and falling of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ Jesus will be a sign that will be ‘spoken against’-that is despised and abhorred- using Isaiah’s language. He will cause some to rise and fall- ‘Kings will rise up and princes bow down’. But what does he mean when he says ‘the sword will pierce Mary’s soul also? No sword has been mentioned. But if Simeon has in mind Isaiah 49 and the Servant whose mouth will be like a sharpened sword, it is the words of Jesus which pierced people’s souls causing some to be shaken and humbled by what he said-hence the falling and rising of many, and this will also be Mary’s experience-which it was. For on more than one occasion she had to be rebuked and corrected by her Son, in fact it happens just over the page in v43. And if Mary found herself under the scrutiny of Jesus words, so shall we.
We have two emphatic promises made by God to his servant in verses 7 and 8- ‘This is what the LORD says’- in other words this is going to happen, there is no question about it. What is that? Well, he is going to restore his people- ‘I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant to the people (singular) to restore the land and to reassign its desolate inheritances, to say to the captives, ‘Come out’ and those in darkness, ‘Be free.’ This I think lies behind much of the Sermon of the Mount so in his new community of disciples Jesus forms the new Israel- the church. There then follows a list of reassurances which guarantee that the Servant’s people will make it to the end: first no need will deprive them-v9-10a ‘They will feed beside the roads and find pasture on every barren hill. They will neither hunger nor thirst.’ Secondly, no threat can harm them- ‘nor will the desert heat or the sun beat upon them. He who has compassion on them will guide them and lead them beside springs of water.’ Then, no barrier can prevent them, ‘I will turn all my mountains into roads and my highways will be raised up. See, they will come from afar- some from the north, some from the west and some from the region of Aswan.’ Is this just hyperbole- poetic language? Surely there are some people God will simply not be able to touch through his Servant? Well, the facts would prove you wrong if you think that. Let me give you just one example. A few years ago an Australian minister was invited to preach in a Russian women’s prison. As he was waiting in the warden’s office to meet his bilingual translator in walked a woman in her forties, nicely dressed -a regular middle-class type. The minister asked if she worked there, ‘No’ she replied. I am one of the inmates.’ 'Oh' said the minister ‘Do you mind if I ask what you are in for?’ ‘Not at all’ she said. ‘I am serving a sentence for murder.’ Well, he began to get a little nervous at this point, his eyes darting towards the door just in case he needed to make a quick exit. ‘Oh really’ he mumbled. ‘Yes’, she said. ‘I came home late one night and found my husband in bed with his lover, and in a fit of rage I killed them both.’ But it was what she said next which really stunned him: ‘Before I came into prison, I was not religious. But I began attending a Bible study and came to understand the Gospel and accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour. I now know I am pardoned by God, inspite of my crime, through Jesus death on the cross, and it is a great pleasure and privilege to act as interpreter for your meeting today.’ And that got the minister thinking. When you speak to a group of convicted criminals, you don’t have to work that hard to convince them they are sinners. Many of those women’s eyes lit up when he explained they could be forgiven and have fresh start because of what Jesus the servant had done- ‘salvation to the ends of the earth’ you see. But, the point is this: if God can forgive criminals who turn to Christ, then he can also forgive mild-mannered people like you and me who do the same.
And there can only be one response to a God who is like this: sheer unadulterated worship- v13, ‘Shout for joy, o heavens; rejoice, O earth; burst into song, O mountains! For the LORD comforts his people and will have compassion on his afflicted ones.’
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