The comforting servant - Isaiah 42:1-9
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Reality has a nasty way of sneaking up on us and catching us unawares. Take the writer, H.G Wells for example. In the early part of the 20th century you could not have wished for a more forward looking optimist. With humanitarian compassion in his heart and the technology of modern science in his hands, Wells really did believe that Utopia was within mankind’s reach. But at the outbreak of World War Two in 1939 he began to sing quite a different tune: ‘In spite of my dispositions to a brave-looking optimism, I perceive that the universe is now bored with man and is turning a hard face to him. I see him being carried less and less intelligently and more and more rapidly along the stream of fate, to degradation, suffering and death. The spectacle of evil in this world has come near to breaking my spirit altogether. Homo sapiens, as he has been pleased to call himself, is played out.’ More recently, the same tired, jaundiced view has resurfaced in a book called ‘The Fourth Turning’ by William Strauss and Neil Howe. They have in mind the United States which they claim ‘"feels like it's unravelling." The authors go on: “Though we live in an era of relative peace and comfort, we have settled into a mood of pessimism about the long-term future, fearful that our superpower nation is somehow rotting from within. Neither an epic victory over Communism nor an extended upswing of the business cycle can buoy our public spirit ... We yearn for civic character but satisfy ourselves with symbolic gestures and celebrity circuses. We perceive no greatness in our leaders, a new meanness in ourselves. Small wonder that each new election brings a new jolt, its aftermath a new disappointment.” That was written before the events of 9/11 which makes their comments all the more poignant, for now the elements of ‘peace and comfort’ are under threat.
The Western World at least does appear tired and hope seems to shine less brightly than it once did. Well, a similar situation confronted God’s people, the Jews, some two and half millennia ago. A dark cloud of doom and despondency hung over them. After years of rejecting God’s pleadings through his prophets to lovingly come back to him and his ways, the Jewish nation persisted in idolatry and corruption. That way always eventually leads to death. The political death came when the great King of Babylon, now Iraq, swept down upon Judea with unrelenting fury carrying what was left of the nation into Exile. The people had lost everything. Jerusalem was a heap of ruins, nothing but a breeding place for rats, barren and overgrown with weeds. The Temple, one of the great wonders of the world and the symbol of Israel’s privileged position as God’s people, the place where sacrifice was offered and sins forgiven was little more than smouldering pile. And so the people had lost heart. If God had abandoned them, and that is the way it seemed, then to whom could they turn for help? For most of these people it was as if the end of the world had come. By the Rivers of Babylon, they hung up their instruments of praise and simply wept. I guess an apt description of the way they felt and many people today feel, would be that of a bruised reed and a smouldering wick. Is there anything more frail than a bruised reed? There it is by the water’s edge. It was once strong, slender and sturdy, now it is bowed and bent. Is there anything more close to death than a smouldering wick? Once a flame passionate and glowing, now merely flicker and steadily failing. Not yet cold, but no longer hot. Those may well be perfect descriptions of the way you feel tonight if the truth be known, it was certainly the way God’s people felt then. You can remember a time when you were strong and upright. That is, until something happened. You were bruised -by harsh words, a friend’s anger, an unexpected illness, a religion’s rigidity. And so you are wounded. Bent ever so slightly, but you feel you could easily break any time. You remember how once you shone so brightly. But then came the dark voice of criticism leaving you feeling as if you were one pinch away from extinction.
So is there any hope for such people, such a world? Is there a Word from God? Well, yes there is and it is a word which is all about someone called The Servant. He appears in the second half of the book of Isaiah, as the prophecy is freshly applied to God’s people in the slough of despondency in Exile. In fact four poems or songs are written of this Servant, the first of which we are looking at tonight in Isaiah chapter 42. And I want us to look at this song under two headings; the Choice of the Servant and the Confirmation of the Servant.
First, the Choice of the Servant: 1-4. "Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations. 2He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. 3A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; 4 he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his law the islands will put their hope."
There are many people in the Bible who are referred to as God’s servant. There was Abraham, the nomadic Arab that God had chosen to whom God had promised a descendent who would be a blessing to the entire world. There was Moses through whom God gathered a nation and gave his law with the promise to be their God and them his people. Then there was David, the Shepherd King to whom another promise or covenant was made, that from him a ruler would come to rule the whole earth for ever. But none of these men or Israel as a whole was ever the Servant, the one who was so totally in tune with God, one in mind and purpose that God’s great plan of rescue and restoration could be carried out to perfection. But that was all soon to change.
With a great fanfare, God makes the great announcement in v1, literally- ‘Behold, my Servant’. As if to say, “Look everyone, see, here he is at last stepping onto the stage of world history and he is mine, I have chosen him, v2. I will uphold him, holding him fast in my grip, so unlike all the others he is not going to slip and fall. And as I look on him my heart leaps up with joy within me.” Like a father seeing his newborn son for the first time, the wonder of it all is overwhelming. In fact the word, ‘delight’ is often used to describe a person’s inner longings being affected by what someone else is doing. Think of the parent who sees their child excel in the game they themselves wanted to play but couldn’t. Or the proud music teacher whose pupil performs at the Royal Albert Hall. In other words, the reason why God is brimming with joy, full of satisfaction as he looks upon his Servant is that he is achieving exactly what God wants him to achieve for broken humanity.
What is that? Well, it is something to do with the word, ‘justice’. Notice how it is mentioned three times: v1 ‘He will bring justice to the nations’; v 3 ‘In faithfulness’ ,or better still, ‘according to the truth he will bring forth justice’; v4, ‘He will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth.’ What does all that mean? Well, when we think of justice, we think of it in terms of ensuring fairness, so that people get their proper deserts, their rights are met. Although there is an element of that included here, this ‘justice’ is more to do with making known what God wants, his perspective on things, declaring his judgements which are always spot on. In other words, the Servant is the bearer of divine revelation. That is why in verse 4 it is ‘in his law’ that the islands, that is the most remotes regions on earth, will put their hope. The teaching of this Servant, note ‘his law’, is completely one with God’s law.
But this is no mere teacher of religion, for he is the one endued with the very Spirit of God in a unique way, v1b ‘I will put my Spirit upon him’. This means that not only is the Servant dependent upon God in all that he will do, but such is the relationship between the Servant and God it seems to amount to an identity, for the Spirit is the Spirit of God. So the Servant is the unique permanent bearer of God’s presence, he is the dispenser of God’s power, he is the full embodiment of God’s wisdom. Why, the people must have been holding their breath waiting for this person to show up.
And eventually he did. No one noticed him at first. He was just one of the crowd who had turned up in the desert to hear his cousin preach. But then as he stepped forward into the River Jordan to be baptised and that is when John the Baptizer recognised him. This was the one he had been preparing the people to receive, as this very same prophet Isaiah had said so many years before juts two chapters earlier, ‘A voice of one calling in the desert, “Prepare the way for the Lord”’- that is God- Yahweh’. But who is it that comes? Jesus. Do you begin to see the equation? The Lord- the Servant- Jesus. And as he arises out of the water, the very heavens split open and the Holy Spirit descends upon him in visible form, appropriately like a dove, a bird of peace, for this is the Prince of peace. And to confirm that this prophecy had at long last been fulfilled, God the Father himself spoke- not a new word, but an old word- the word of Isaiah 42 and Psalm 2- ‘This is my Son- the promised King, whom I love, with him I am well pleased- this is the one in whom my soul delights.’
And so he begins to bring justice, the Word of God, to the nations with great power and authority that people are simply left reeling, asking ‘Who is this who teaches with such authority?’ He didn’t shout about it, or organise some glitzy road show, full of self promotion and glamour, as sadly some of his alleged followers do today. In the words of v2 ‘He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets.’ His is a quiet and gentle ministry. It is peaceful and unobtrusive. He does not force his way into people’s lives, instead he invites people to share in his life. But the truth was laid out in no uncertain terms. 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: ‘Before Abraham was I am’ - a direct claim to be God. And he delighted people too, ‘Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.’ Beautiful words, tender words. And for those who took these words seriously their lives were changed for ever.
And still it happens today. No other words on earth has the power to change people as the words of the Servant contained in this book. Let me tell you something. 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. And maybe you are here tonight and you are tired of hearing so many conflicting voices promising so much but delivering so little. The voice of politicians, academics, religious leaders and they have all left you feeling rather cynical. You have heard it all before. If so, let me ask you to just listen to one more voice- the words of the Servant Jesus.
What is more look at the works of the Servant –v 3: ‘A bruised reed he will not break, a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.’ Well, there were plenty of bruised reeds and smouldering wicks who came to him, and they came in their thousands- the poor, the dispossessed, those alienated by religion, those burdened by a guilty conscience, the sick, the lame, the blind, and the Servant met with them all. In fact, so perfectly does Jesus fulfil this prophecy that in chapter 12 of his Gospel, Matthew quotes this passage in its entirety. There his disciples had just received a good telling off from the religious leaders for daring to pick grain on the holy Sabbath day. Jesus was looked at with suspicion as a man with a withered hand was brought to him on the same day for healing- a real no, no in their eyes. So what happens? Well, the bullied disciples, he defends. The put upon man with his wizened hand he restores. That’s Jesus the Servant. He doesn’t despise our infirmities, he deals with them. At the point when we feel we can no longer go on, that is exactly the point at which Jesus quietly comes alongside as we feel the touch of his Spirit and hear the voice of his Word-he will not break us or snuff us out, that is not his way. The bruised reed he will bind, the smouldering wick he will fan into a flame.
But notice what else is said of the Servant in v4, ‘he will not falter or be discouraged.’ While others may feel like giving up that will never happen to the Servant. He will be obedient to the very end, even to the point where he dies for people’s sins on a cross, as we shall see in the final Servant Song; his light will not grow dim.
But what guarantee is there that he will succeed where others have failed? The answer lies in the Confirmation of the Servant-vv 5-9. ‘This is what God the LORD says-- he who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and all that comes out of it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it: 6"I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, 7to open eyes that are blind, and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness. 8"I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols. and new things I declare; I announce them to you."
You see unlike the idols worshipped by the Babylonians-v8 and the idols worshipped by so many people today, the one true God knows no limit. He is a God of infinite power and infinite wisdom and both are made available to his beloved Servant. At no point is God caught off guard thinking, ‘Whoops I didn’t see that one coming’, his perfect will is achieved. Herod the Great might try to kill the baby Jesus, but an angel warns Joseph in a dream and so the holy family is saved. Pilate and the later Herod might freely conspire to have Jesus put to death, but as the early believers said, they were only doing what by God’s power and will he had decided beforehand should happen (Acts 2:28). And if the might of omnipotence was available to the Servant, the power of the God who made heaven and earth, the One who gives breath to all life, then the miracles of the Servant should not come as such a surprise or pose some intellectual difficulty. The one who made the seas can still them. The one who gives the breath of life can surely raise the dead? The Creator God who gives us our daily bread can, if he so wishes, accelerate and by pass the normal process to feed five thousand.
But these were not just impressive part tricks as the atheist Richard Dawkins claims, they are described in the Bible as ‘signs’. In fact the Servant in person and deed is a sign according to verse 6, he is a ‘covenant for the Gentiles and a light to the nations.’ A covenant is a binding agreement whereby promises made by one party calls for commitments by the other party. You see through the Lord Jesus, all can come into a personal relationship with God. Through His Word, the Gospel, we hear the invitation. Through His life and death, he represents us and takes our place, doing what we could never do, living a life of complete obedience and dying a sacrificial death for sins. Now he is alive and reigning, the light of the Gospel is shining throughout the whole world. The results are as we see in v7: the healing of personal disabilities- represented by the opening of blind eyes; the end of restrictions imposed by others- releasing captives, and the most amazing transformation of circumstances- so people no longer need to sit in darkness. That is what this Servant Jesus achieves.
And as such we are given the most wonderful insight into the divine revelation- that ‘justice of God’, that what motivates him is love for the broken, blind and captive. To illustrate let me tell you about Lee Ielpi. He gave 26 years of his life as a fireman in New York City. But on September 11th , 2001 he gave much more, he gave his son, Jonathan who was a fireman as well. He was there when the Twin Towers fell. New York firemen are very clannish and stick together. When one perishes in the line of duty, the body is left where it is until a fireman who knows the person can come and quite literally pick him up. So Lee made the personal discovery of his son a personal mission. Every day he dug with others in the 16 acre graveyard until one morning three months after the disaster, his son was found and Lee was there to carry him out. He didn’t give up. He refused to turn and leave. Why? Because his love for his son was greater than the pain of the search. Cannot the same be said of the Servant whom we are told ‘will not falter or be discouraged’? His love for us is greater than the pain of his journey. He came to pull you out. Your world, spiritually speaking, had collapsed. That’s why he came. You were dead in your sins. That’s why he came. Put simply he loves you. That’s why he came. And that is why God the Father is filled with delight.
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