The saving servant - Isaiah 49:1-7
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Stephen Lungu was the oldest son of a teenage mother and he grew up in a black township near Salisbury in Zimbabwe. When he was three his mother ran away, leaving him, and his younger brother and sister, in the reluctant care of a relative. By eleven Stephen too had run away, preferring life on the streets. To survive, he slept under bridges and scavenged food from dustbins. As a teenager he was recruited into one of the urban gangs, called the Black Shadows, which ran a programme of theft and violence. On one particular evening his gang stumbled across a Christian meeting taking place in a large tent. Stephen Lungu hated Christians and so he decided his gang would teach them a lesson. He ordered them to surround the tent and on his signal to throw petrol bombs into the crowd. The attack was scheduled for 7pm. As they stood outside the tent one of the gang members pointed out that it was only 6.55pm. They still had 5 minutes to wait. And that’s when Stephen Lungu made a decision that changed his life forever. He decided to go in and listen. He soon found himself listening to the voice of a preacher. This is how he describes the event in his autobiography: ”Suddenly the preacher’s voice turned to a booming threat. He jabbed at the crowd with an accusing finger. ‘For all of you have sinned. You have cheated. You have lied. You have harmed people.’ Jab, jab, jab, went that finger. I flinched and thought of the people I had attacked. It seemed that the preacher was pointing directly at me, as if he knew every bad thing I had ever done…The preacher continued: ‘You have disobeyed God, and you think he does not see your evil lives? Your language is full of blasphemy and deceit. Your tongues are as full of poison as vipers.’ I was stunned. Only the previous day Robert’s stove would not light. So I had kicked it violently and sworn at it. But how did this man know? I could think of only one way. Robert, sitting near me on the bench must have told him. So I pulled out my knife and whispered to him savagely. ‘How dare you tell this man my sins? I will kill you!’
Robert jumped and stared at me in total amazement. Obviously, though, he was feeling guilty, because he said, ‘Well, you’ve told him about me as well, so I will kill you too.’ Meanwhile the preacher carried on talking about sin and the damage it did. He kept on pointing, and the more he spoke, the more I felt he was talking to me. I know now that I, Stephen Lungu, had without warning hit a spiritual crisis in my life.” And so that very night instead of bombing the Christians he decided to join them. He gave his life to Christ and he received the forgiveness that only Jesus can bring.
It’s a great story, isn’t it? I do love it! And you can read more about it in his autobiography Out of the Black Shadows. But here’s my question for us tonight. Do we think such a transformation should ever have taken place? Do we think a man in Africa should have been told about the man from Israel? And if so, why? Why should the name of Jesus be preached from a tent in Zimbabwe? Or forget Africa for a moment and just think about what we do here at St Johns. Every week we try and persuade as many people as we can to follow Jesus as their King. But why? What right do we have to do it? And what relevance does a Jewish man who existed 2000 years ago have for anyone living at the beginning of the 21st century?
Isaiah 49 was written before Jesus was even born. In fact, it is a section of the Bible which is over 2,500 years old. And yet I am convinced that if we want to remain committed to the uniqueness of Jesus Christ in a multicultural society and if we want to be those who continue to speak of his inclusive message, that his salvation is for everyone, then Isaiah 49 is one of those key Bible passages that we need to understand. Look at how it begins. The servant of the Lord cries out, “Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations.” Now here is someone who wants to get our attention. There is no messing with him. Straight away he tells us what he wants us to do. “Pay attention. Don’t you dare cross to the other side of the road to avoid me.
For once in your life take your headphones out of your ears. I have something important to say. So listen to me.” In the Old Testament, the prophets of God frequently called out to the people of God to listen. It is a common prophetic summons. But they never called out “listen to me.” In fact, the phrase “listen to me” is only found in the book of Isaiah and apart from this reference it is only used by God himself. So do you see the implication? The person who is speaking is deliberately putting himself on the same level as God. And yet we know from verse 3 and from verse 5 that this individual cannot be God. Why? Well, quite simply, because in those verses God speaks to him. So who is this individual who speaks as if he is God and yet can also be spoken to by God? Well, who else but the second member of the Trinity! Who else but the Father’s eternal Son! And so do you see what we have in front of us? It is an amazing piece of forward planning. Hundreds of years before God the Son became a man the script of his life was written down. Isaiah 49 was written in preparation for the incarnation.
At first sight we may be tempted to think the person who addresses us in these verses was a contemporary of the prophet Isaiah. In verse 1 he speaks as someone who has already been born. In verses 2 and 3 he describes a preparation process which has already been completed. In verse 4 he says, “I have laboured to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing.” Implication? His ministry has already begun. And then at the end of verse 5 he assures us that God has been his strength. So at first sight it would seem reasonable to conclude that the person speaking these words was a contemporary of the prophet Isaiah or even the prophet Isaiah himself. However, because of how he begins his speech we know this cannot be the case. Only God says, “listen to me”. So this person must be God. And yet the one who addresses us in these verses also speaks about his birth. So let’s put on our detective hats for a moment. The person we are looking for is an individual who was both God and man? “Hmm, let me think. That’s a toughie.” Can there be any doubt who this is? Scan through all the candidates of history and only Jesus Christ will remain standing. He is the only one who fits the bill.
So what we have before us tonight is a speech written for Jesus before he was even born. Somehow the prophet Isaiah, inspired by the Holy Spirit, wrote down these words that Jesus could use later to talk about the uniqueness of his mission and his relevance for everyone on the planet.
Jesus says, “Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations. Before I was born the LORD called me; from my birth he had made mention of my name.” Even before God the Son was born he was chosen by God the Father. His mission to save was eternally agreed between Father and Son. And then he was born. It is a truth which should blow our minds apart! One of the divine family becoming one of us. How did that happen? Well it did. And then as he grew up Jesus was constantly protected by his Father. I think that’s what the rather strange phrase at the end of verse 1 means. Jesus says, “from my birth he has made mention of my name.” But to whom? That’s the crucial question we need to answer. Who were the privileged people who heard God the Father speak about his Son as he grew up?
Naturally, we would assume God the Father would declare the arrival of Jesus to everyone in the world. How could he contain his excitement? Normally, when babies are born the father cannot keep quiet. After picking himself up from the cold maternity floor he rushes outside, desperately looking for a signal, and then phones everyone he can to announce the arrival of his precious baby into the world. So how much more should we expect God the Father to do the same? And yet listen to what Jesus says 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.” So, on the one hand, as Jesus grew up, God the Father was preparing him for the mission that lay ahead. And we’ll discover in just a moment what that mission was all about. But during the preparation stages Jesus was kept hidden.
There were no press conferences. No public meetings were held to announce his arrival. In fact, for about 30 years, 99.9% of the population had never heard of him. So, at the end of verse 1, when Jesus tells us that from his birth God the Father made mention of his name he cannot be referring to a global advertising campaign. There was a deliberate hiddenness about Jesus’ identity until the time was right. So what then are we to make of verse 1? Who was God the Father speaking to when he made mention of Jesus’ name? Why not himself? I know it may sound like a bizarre suggestion but I think it’s true. Now please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean that God the Father literally spoke his Son’s name in front of a mirror every single day. But rather this phrase is another way of saying that as he grew up the Father never forgot his Son. Jesus was always at the centre of his plans. He never turned his back. He always made sure his Son was protected and was being prepared for his future mission.
A mission that is described for us in verse 2. Jesus says, “He made my mouth like a sharpened sword [and] he made me into a polished arrow.” In warfare the sword wins battles close at hand and the arrow hits distant targets so it may be the case that even here the global mission of Jesus is being referred to. The sword for the Israelites and the arrow for the Gentiles. But let’s also notice how the sword and the arrow are described. They are not the type of mass produced weapons we would find at the ancient equivalent of Lidl. The description speaks of careful preparation. Jesus’ mouth was made into a sharpened sword and he was made into a polished arrow. Why a sharpened sword? To emphasise effectiveness and penetrating power. Why a polished arrow? To emphasise accuracy. A polished arrow is rubbed free from any roughness that might deflect it from its target as it flies through the air.
So do you see the picture we are to have of Jesus? He was not destined to be a military ruler. We are not to think of him as a mighty general with his sword and his arrow by his side.
That would be to completely misunderstand the picture language of this description. No, Jesus’ said his mouth was made like a sharpened sword and he was made like a polished arrow. Or in other words, we are being told that when the servant finally arrived on the scene he would be recognised as an amazing teacher. And isn’t that exactly what happened when Jesus made his public appearance? Listen to these words from Mark’s Gospel. They come from Mark 1:21, “They [Jesus and his disciples] went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.” Or from Mark 1:35, “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where to prayed. Simon and his companions went to look for him and when they found him they exclaimed: ‘Everyone is looking for you! Jesus replied, ‘Let us go somewhere else- to the nearby villages – so that I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” Read the 4 Gospels and you will have to conclude that Jesus was a magnificent teacher. The evidence is on page after page. His words were powerful, they were persuasive and on many occasions the crowds were simply amazed. They were left speechless as they listened to Jesus wielding his powerful sword.
But is that it? A magnificent teacher? Is that all he was? Was all his preparation from an early age simply a plan to get him a job at the Citizen’s Advice Bureau? Well, not according to verse 3. This is what God the Father says about Jesus, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendour.” At first sight it may strike us as very odd that Jesus is called Israel. Normally, we assume, quite rightly, that Israel refers to a group of people. And because Jesus is clearly an individual it seems absolutely bonkers to give him the name of a nation. So let me show you what is going on.
If you have your bibles open would you please turn with me to Isaiah 41:8? It’s on page 725 of the church bibles. And this is what God says about the nation of Israel: “But you, O Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend, 9 I took you from the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners I called you. I said, ‘You are my servant’; I have chosen you and have not rejected you.” When God rescued all those millions of people from Egypt he formed them into a nation, a nation he called Israel and a nation that was to be his servant. Israel were supposed to serve his purposes in the world. They were supposed to live with him as their King and by their lifestyle they were commanded to show the pagans a different way to behave. But listen to what God says about his people in Isaiah 42:19-25. “Who is blind but my servant, and deaf like the messenger I send? Who is blind like the one committed to me, blind like the servant of the LORD? 20 You have seen many things, but have paid no attention; your ears are open, but you hear nothing.” 21 It pleased the LORD for the sake of his righteousness to make his law great and glorious. 22 But this is a people plundered and looted, all of them trapped in pits or hidden away in prisons. They have become plunder, with no one to rescue them; they have been made loot, with no one to say, “Send them back.” 23 Which of you will listen to this or pay close attention in time to come? 24 Who handed Jacob over to become loot, and Israel to the plunderers? Was it not the LORD, against whom we have sinned? For they would not follow his ways; they did not obey his law. 25 So he poured out on them his burning anger, the violence of war. It enveloped them in flames, yet they did not understand; it consumed them, but they did not take it to heart.”
So you see the nation of Israel were supposed to be God’s servant to the Gentiles. That was their job description. But at this terrible point in their history they found themselves as slaves in Babylon, far away from the Promised Land. Because of their rebellion against the LORD he had sent them into exile.
So now instead of being a servant to the nations they found themselves in desperate need of help. In fact, they had two major problems. First of all, they were far away from their land and, secondly, they were far away from their God. They were exiled physically and they were exiled spiritually.
Now God revealed to the prophet Isaiah that he would solve the first of these problems by sending a Persian ruler called Cyrus to free his people from their captivity. And if you read chapters 43 to 48 you will find a detailed description of God’s plan of action. But as we prepare to begin chapter 49 there is still one major issue to be resolved. God’s people may have returned to their land but they are still far away from their God. And so we are left asking this question: How will God restore his sinful people to himself? It’s all very well bringing them back into the land but unless he solves the problem of their sinful behaviour it will simply continue in a different location. So how will he do it? Enter the servant of chapter 49. Here is an individual who will be everything the nation of Israel should have been but failed to be. He will not be a rebel. He will not be a sinner. Instead, he will perfectly obey God’s good commandments. In the next couple of weeks we will discover that because of his sinlessness this particular servant will be able to pay the penalty of other peoples’ rebellion. But for the moment I want us to concentrate on why his perfection is also good news for those of us who have sinned. If heaven is a perfect place, which it is, and if God is a perfect God, which he is, then surely we need to be perfect people if we are to stay in this perfect place? But here’s the issue. How can we become perfect? The Bible says only when we become united with the perfect saviour. Or to use the language of Isaiah 49, only when we become united to the perfect Israel.
Why do you think Jesus called himself the true vine? This is what he says in John 15: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.”
And then he continues in verse 5: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” Who does Jesus think he is? What an ego! Apart from me you can do nothing. But if we remember what the Old Testament teaches about the nation of Israel then all of this makes perfect sense. Throughout the Old Testament the nation of Israel is constantly referred to as God’s vine but never as God’s fruitful vine. And then we have Jesus, our perfect representative, who becomes the central focus for the people of God. He is the Israel we must join and he is the fruitful vine we need a connection with.
Which, I think, is one of the main reasons why Jesus had to be such a magnificent teacher. Of course, he knew he had been born to die. He knew his ultimate destiny was to pay the price of his peoples’ rebellion. But before he went to the cross he also had the responsibility of gathering a new people around himself. He had been sent to end the spiritual exile of the nation. And he was to achieve this by commanding them to follow him. Or if I can put it like this, sinful Israel were to be reconciled to God the Father by attaching themselves to God the Son, who for their salvation had become the servant they could never be.
So let’s ask the obvious question: How successful was Jesus’ mission? After three years of preaching, after three years of travelling, what did he have to show for it? Well, not very much. A few hundred followers perhaps but not many more. So how do you think he felt when he considered his achievements? Proud? Encouraged? Despondent? Well, let’s stop guessing and listen to what he actually says. Verse 4: “But I said, “I have laboured to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing.” Stop the press! This doesn’t sound like the voice of Jesus, does it? Are we really to believe that at the end of the day Jesus threw in the towel? As he contemplated the fruit of his labours did he hang his head in shame?
Well, that was certainly the temptation but listen to how verse 4 ends. “Yet what is due to me is in the LORD’s hand, and my reward is with my God.” What a brilliant way to deal with the temptation to be discouraged! All the evidence suggested that his years of ministry had been waste of time. But did Jesus throw in the towel? No! Because until the end he continued to trust that his Father never makes a mistake. Despite the apparent failure of his mission he knew it must have gone according to plan. Which is precisely what we are told in verses 5 and 6. “And now the LORD says — he who formed me in the womb to be his servant to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself, for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD and my God has been my strength — 6 he says: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”” So, according to these words, the mission to Israel had not been a failure. It may have looked like a small response but Jesus the servant had brought back everyone the Father intended.
Or at least for the time being. Because what is clear from these verses is that a mission to sinful Israel would have been too small for Jesus. It would be like asking Tony Blair to be in charge of the photocopier at No 10 Downing Street. What a ridiculous idea! The Prime Minister is too important for such a small task. And so was Jesus. Therefore, his mission to sinful Israel was just the beginning. The promise in these verses is of a future world-wide influence. And isn’t that what we see today? Billions of people have been influenced by Christ.
Of course, after his death and resurrection Jesus physically returned to heaven but he continues to spread his message through his followers. Do you remember how Luke begins the book of Acts?
“In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and teach until the day he was taken up into heaven, after given instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.” The implication? The book of Acts will teach us what Jesus continues to do, only this time through his followers left on earth. So, in Acts 13, when Paul quotes from Isaiah 49 and applies it to his own ministry we do not have to point the finger at him and accuse him of dodgy bible quotation. This is what we read in Acts 13, “On the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. 45 When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and talked abusively against what Paul was saying. 46 Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. 47 For this is what the Lord has commanded us: “‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’” But no he didn’t! As we have already seen the verses which Paul quotes from Isaiah 49 were not addressed to him but were spoken to God the Son in his physical state. So how can Paul use them to give legitimacy to his Gentile mission? Well, only because those who are united to God’s servant Jesus are given the responsibility of continuing his mission here on earth.
And that’s our task today. We have the amazing privilege of spreading the most inclusive message in the world. Jesus does not exclude anyone. He says to everyone, “Come to me as you are and I will transform you into the person I created you to be.”
And I do mean everyone. Isaiah 49:6 does not say, “I will make you a light for the Gentiles instead of the Jews. Forget ethnic Israel. They have lost their opportunity.” No, it says, “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles.” God does not have many plans for the salvation of different people groups. He does not have one plan for the Jews, one for the Muslims, one for the Hindus, one for the atheists and one for the Christians. No, God the Father has one plan. He has appointed Jesus to be the perfect Israel and so only by faith in him can anyone belong to God’s people. I want finish by asking two questions.
First of all, is there anyone here tonight who has still to put their trust in Jesus? I don’t know why you have come along to church tonight. People come for all sorts of reasons. Stephen Lungu came to kill hundreds of people by throwing petrol bombs into a tent. I do hope you haven’t come to do that! But regardless of why you came tonight, here you are sitting in the building and you still haven’t put your trust in Jesus. Is he for you? Absolutely! God the Father has appointed him to be your salvation. Does he offer anything useful? Yes, of course, he does! He will be your light in the darkness. Are you confused about the point of life? Jesus says, “I will be your guide.” And what of the future? What of your eternity? If you died tonight where would you go? Jesus says, “I am the perfect Israel and I am the suffering servant who died to make forgiveness possible. So come to me and benefit from all my great achievements.” We run a course at St Johns called Christianity Explored. It starts on the 5th October and runs for six weeks. You won’t be asked to read out loud, sing or pray but you will be given an opportunity to ask any question you want and also to find out more about this person called Jesus. Why not come along? Why not give it a go for at least a week? What have you got to lose? You’ll find all the information you need on the cards at the end of the pews. And if you want to come all you’ve got to do is fill in your contact details and hand it to me at the end of the service.
My second question is for those of us who have already connected ourselves to Jesus. I’m sure we appreciate how wonderful a privilege it is and how awesome a responsibility we have. But how many of us still feel the temptation to be discouraged? Do ever wonder if it’s worth it? All the energy, all the time, all the money, all the prayer, all the conversations and for what? 0.7% of the population of Hull go to church. Are we a successful church? Am I a successful Christian?
Or have I spent my strength for nothing? It should always be our desire to see numerical growth in our churches. Who does not want to see every space filled in this building? And we should labour with our energy and all of God’s strength to see it happen. We have a right and a responsibility to bring the salvation of Jesus to the ends of the earth. But we must remember that success is not to be judged by numerical fruit. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.” So whenever you are tempted to feel discouraged, whenever we you tempted to throw in the towel and whenever the results of your labour seem small and insignificant then why not turn to Isaiah 49 and make verse 4 your own? “But I said, “I have laboured to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing. Yet what is due me is in the LORD’s hand, and my reward is with my God.”” Let’s pray together.
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