The representative servant - Isaiah 50:4-11

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 17th September 2006.

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I wonder if you have ever been on the end of a crushing sporting defeat. Well if so, you’ll perhaps be able to sympathise with the cricketers of the Goldsborough 2nd XI team who play in the 4th Division of the North Yorkshire Nidderdale League. On the 22nd July Goldsborough were due to play Dishforth, which was a tough test, since Dishforth were top of the league. But no-one could have predicted the outcome. The match, which should have taken several hours was all over in 57 minutes. Goldsborough were all out for five, with every batsman scoring 0. If you are wondering how a team can get five with everyone scoring 0 that’s just one of the vagaries of cricket. Needless to say Dishforth quickly knocked off the imposing run chase of 6 and duly won by eight wickets. Now to put this in context, for those who don’t understand cricket, only one team in the history of the game in England has ever faired worse, and that was the Midlands team Shepstone who were all out for 4 in 1930. So this performance was the second worst performance in the history of cricket in England. Needless to say the losing captain, Peter Horsman, was rather sheepish. And most worrying of all, he said to the gathered press after the game: “We thought our strength was in our batting.”

            Well of course sporting blows are somewhat easy to shrug off. You just try harder next time, and at the end of the day it really isn’t that important. But far more serious are those blows and setbacks that happen to us in our daily lives. For some it’s the sheer weariness of a job which is hard to hard to handle. For others the debilitating effects of illness; for others the ongoing battles with a family member or an antagonistic friend. Whatever it is, many of us will be able to testify to feelings of being weighed down, or even crushed by the weight of a worry or fear or ongoing problem. And it’s at times like this that we are often tempted to ask two questions. Does God really love me? And is he powerful enough to do something about my situation? Does God really care, does he really love me as he says he does? Maybe it’s a punishment? Maybe he’s angry with me, or has forsaken me? And even if he does love me, is he really able to save me from this crushing blow? Can he really step in to help me? Well we may not vocalise it in precisely those words, but I doubt there are many here who have not at least been tempted to think such thoughts.

            And therefore it won’t surprise you to learn that the people of Israel were thinking such thoughts in the time when Isaiah’s message was meant for them. They were exiled, stripped of their homes, their land, their King, and their religious system. And they were asking those two questions as well. Does God still love us? And will he do something to save us? And Isaiah’s message in chapters 40-55 is specifically written into that situation, to a people crushed by a heavy defeat and weighed down with despair. And God’s message through Isaiah is a message of comfort. Comfort, comfort my people, says the Lord. And we’ve been discovering over the last few weeks that the answers to the questions of the love of God for his people and power of God to save are answered fully in this mysterious figure called the servant. Because God promises that it will be through his Servant that he will save and comfort his people. Now at the time, the identity of this comforter and rescuer was unknown, but for us as NT Christians, the answer has been made crystal clear. And it is Jesus Christ. He’s the servant. And that is why as we look back from our position knowing that the fulfilment of the promises is in Jesus, then we can see that Isaiah is teaching us about Jesus himself in these wonderful servant passages.

            And tonight as we come to Isaiah 50, we discover that this servant Jesus is the one who can provide a wonderful tonic for weary souls. However crushed and battered we feel, he is the one who shows us God’s love and kindness and who shows us that God is powerful enough to save us. And we’ll discover two challenges this evening that each one of us needs to take to heart if we are to receive God’s comfort and help. First we need to look to Jesus, and second we need to walk with Jesus. For this humble servant Jesus is both our representative in saving us and our model in leading us.

1) Look to Jesus (Vv 3-9)

So first then Isaiah urges us to look to Jesus. That is to see Jesus the servant for who he truly is. And this servant song, perhaps more than the other three, shows us the personal character of the servant in wonderful ways. And there are three characteristics of this servant Jesus that Isaiah shows us in verses 3-9.

a) He Listens- First, he listens, verse 4: “The Sovereign LORD has given me an instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being taught.” So this servant is a listener. But what or who does he listen to? Well the Lord himself. This servant has listened to the word of the God and has become instructed or taught. And notice how this is an ongoing thing. Morning by morning, he says, he’s listening to the voice of the Lord. Here is a picture of someone learning from God’s word each day, who is being nourished by God himself. And of course when we open the pages of the NT, we find that Jesus is the perfect fulfilment of this listening servant. His mind was so soaked in the scriptures that he was never lost for words. He answered his critics and enemies so powerfully from the Bible that they were stunned into silence. And we discover that Jesus would rise early in the morning to be with his Father, to listen to him and his word, and to pray. He was someone who was so perfectly in tune with his Father’s will because he sought to listen to him. And notice the wonderful consequence of this listening in verse 4. It means that Jesus knows the “word that sustains the weary.” In other words because he has been immersed in the Word of God, then he is fully able to strengthen the weak, to give a word of encouragement to the heavy laden, to nourish those who need strength. This Lord Jesus Christ will not crush a bruised reed not snuff out a flickering wick. No because he has fed from the word of the Sovereign Lord, then he can minister to us perfectly. You see, there is not a single life situation in this building that this Lord Jesus cannot minister to. There is not a single person here tonight who is beyond the help of the Lord Jesus Christ. Don’t ever think you are beyond help or comfort. No because he listens to the Word of his Father, he can give the very deepest comfort and help to each one of us who will trust him. He listens.

b) He Obeys- But notice too that this servant obeys. Verse 5: “The Sovereign LORD has opened my ears, and I have not been rebellious; I have not drawn back. I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.” When this servant listens to the word of God it leads to obedience. The opening of the servant’s ears has led him not to be rebellious. I have not drawn back, he says. And yet for this servant, obedience is very costly. It will mean physical pain and punishment. And it even becomes clear that this is a willing submission to the penalty that he is going to suffer. He says that he offered his back to those who beat him, to those who pulled out his beard. He says he did not hide his face from mocking and spitting. Now Isaiah will flesh out the details of this prophecy in chapter 53 which we’ll see next time, but these words in Isaiah 50 are different because they are personal. You see Isaiah 53 is written in the third person. There we will see that the servant was pierced our transgressions, and crushed for our iniquities. But here the servant himself speaks. He is saying: “I did this willingly. I was obedient and I knowingly gave myself to this torture.”  It’s one thing to read an account of the servant’s death, quite another to read his diary about the events. And of course when we come to the NT we see how it all works out in the life of Jesus. What does the apostle Paul say? “Jesus, whom Paul says is God, being found in appearance as a man, humbled himself and became obedient to death- even death on a cross.” It was a willing, humble submission to atrocious torture and suffering. And as we will see so wonderfully in Isaiah 53, it was all for our sakes. He, the innocent one, gave himself so that we the guilty might go free. And if you ever, even for one moment, think that Jesus was in the wrong place at the wrong time, or that he was coerced by a cruel, harsh God to go to the cross, then think again. I have not drawn back, he says. I offered my back to those who beat me, he says. I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting, he says. All because of a deep, eternal love for those he came to save. “Behold the man upon a cross, my sin upon his shoulders; ashamed, I hear my mocking voice call out among the scoffers. It was my sin that held him there until it was accomplished; his dying breath has brought me life- I know that it is finished.” He obeys.

c) He Trusts- But why go through all of this? Why put up with it all? Well because this servant thirdly trusts. For this servant knows that his death will not be the end. Verse 7: “Because the Sovereign LORD helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame. He who vindicates me is near. Who then will bring charges against me? Let us face each other! Who is my accuser? Let him confront me! It is the Sovereign LORD who helps me. Who is he that will condemn me?
They will all wear out like a garment; the moths will eat them up.” You see it looks to the onlooker as if this servant has been disgraced. Surely he’s been shamed and defeated. Surely the mockers have won! The charges will stick! But no. Because the servant knows that God will vindicate him. There are no charges to answer because he’s innocent. And because of his confidence in God’s eventual clearing of his name, then the servant is willing to place himself in the grip of death. And once again when we come to the NT, we see this wonderfully fulfilled. Because death could not hold the Lord Jesus Christ. His mockers and executors did not have the last laugh. Because three days later he rose triumphantly from the grave never to see death again. In fact, more than that he has defeated death and sin once and for all. And Jesus’ resurrection is a huge word from God saying that Jesus has been vindicated. The ministry of Jesus the Son of God has been accomplished and completed.

            Now when we take we a moment to stand back and look at this servant Jesus, then surely our response must be one of total adoration and worship. Who else could we possibly want to trust? Into whose other hands would we possibly want to lay our lives? Certainly not our own. We are so frail and feeble. And the wonderful thing about this servant is that when we do go through the tough times of life, then this servant has the power and grace to bring us through.

            Now this week we remembered 9/11 and the great tragedy of five years ago. But we were also reminded of the many acts of heroism and sacrifice that happened that day. And there’s one that sticks in my mind because it wonderfully illustrates the power of the servant Jesus to keep his people. It’s the story of Todd Beamer, who was one of the men on Flight 93 who tried to wrest control of the plane from the highjackers, eventually causing it to crash in a field in Pennsylvania, probably saving many hundreds of lives. When Todd died he left his wife Lisa with three very small children. But the Beamer family are Christians. And since that tragic day, Lisa has publicly testified to the power of Jesus the keep her and sustain her. Just listen to some of her own words. Some weeks after the event she attended a memorial service in the field where the plane had come down. She says this about that day: “I listened to the well-intentioned speakers, who were doing their best to comfort [us], but with little if any direct reference to the power of God to sustain us. I felt I was sliding helplessly down a high mountain into a deep crevasse. As much as I appreciated the kindness of the wonderful people who tried to encourage us, that afternoon was actually one of the lowest points in my grieving. It wasn’t the people, or event, or the place. Instead, it struck me how hopeless the world is when God is factored out of the equation..” What did give her comfort? She says: “If we believe wholeheartedly, each moment, that our destiny rests in the hands of Jesus Christ – the one with ultimate love and ultimate power – what do we have to be concerned about? Of course, our humanity clouds this truth many times but hanging on to glimpses of it keeps everything in perspective.” And describing her pain, she says: “God knows that I am hurting and in need right now. Every day He provides encouragement and resources just for me. Little things show me that He is with me: a Scripture with just the words I need to hear, a call from a friend when I feel lonely, help with a task that I can’t do alone, or a hug and ‘I love you’ from one of my children. God’s love is truly sufficient to meet any need that I have.” And for the future? Can she see any lasting hope? Well yes she can! “My family and I mourned the loss of Todd deeply that day . . . and we still do. But because we have a hope in the Lord, we know beyond a doubt that one day we will see Todd again. I hurt for the people who don’t have that same hope, and I pray that they will see something in our family that will encourage them to trust in the Lord.” It’s a wonderful example of someone who is trusting the servant Jesus in the very toughest times of life. And the question is whether you and I are doing the same. Because very simply the challenge is look to Jesus and put your hand in his.

2) Walk with Jesus (Vv 10-11)

But Isaiah won’t let it rest there. Because he goes on to tell us that not only should we look to Jesus, but also we should walk with Jesus. In other words looking to Jesus and putting our lives in his hands is an ongoing walk of trust and following him. So in verses 10-11 Isaiah outline what that will mean in practice. And the very things that the servant Jesus is commended for are things we ourselves should be doing.

a) Listening- So first walking with Jesus and following him means listening. And again like the servant it is the word of the Lord that we are to be listening to. Verse 10: “Who among you fears the LORD and obeys the word of his servant?” Now in a moment we’ll see what it means to be obey the word of the servant, but for now let’s understand that in order to obey we must first hear and know the word. And actually in Isaiah’s understanding, fearing God and listening to his word go hand in hand. So listen to these words from Isaiah 66 v 2. God is speaking and he says: “This is the one I esteem: He who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” How can you tremble if you have not heard. No, like the servant Jesus, those who follow Jesus must be people who listen to the Word of God. Like the servant we need to be instructed by the Lord so we can walk in his ways.

            Now of course, as with every aspect of life, who we listen to is very significant. For example, I heard a story this week about a police officer in a small town who stopped a motorist who was speeding down the High Street. "But officer," the man began, "I can explain..." "Just be quiet," snapped the officer. "I'm going to let you cool down in jail until the chief gets back." "But, officer, I just wanted to say...," "And I said to keep quiet! You're going to jail!" A few hours later the officer looked in on his prisoner and said, "Lucky for you that the chief's at his daughter's wedding. He'll be in a good mood when he gets back." "Don't count on it," answered the man in the cell. "That’s just what I’ve been trying to tell you. You see, I'm the groom!" Who we listen to is vital.

            And for us who claim to follow the servant Jesus, listening to God’s word the Bible vital. Because it’s through the Word of God the Bible that we hear voice of the living God and learn what it means to follow him. And putting it very practically it means making time for reading God’s word and for hearing it explained in church or Mark 2 or Homegroups and the many ways we lay on here at St. John’s. Now this is always going to be a constant challenge in our high octane fast paced lifestyle that we lead. But unless we are making time to hear the word of God both personally and corporately as a church, then we are in very serious danger. For there are many other voices that clamour for our attention, many of whom would lead us away from the servant. So are you someone who carves out the time to listen to God’s voice in the Bible? Perhaps you are a returning student for whom the summer has been quite frankly a struggle. Maybe you’re going through a tough time at work or home, and things have slipped with the Bible reading. Let’s resolve to start afresh this week and be marked by this first characteristic of the follower of Jesus. For if you claim to follow Jesus, then you must be someone who listens to God’s word.

b) Obeying- But notice again that Isaiah doesn’t stop there. Because it’s one thing to listen, quite another to do what the Word says. So if we are to be followers of the servant, then we, like him, must secondly obey. Verse 10: “Who among you fears the LORD and obeys the word of his servant?” And notice too something quite extraordinary in this verse. That if we fear the Lord, then we will obey the word of the servant. In others, the Lord and the servant are being put on the same level. Isaiah is saying that this servant Jesus should command the same respect and obedience as God himself. What he says goes. So the words of the servant Jesus are the very words of God. And what the servant requires is obedience. Putting it very simply, if you and I claim to follow Jesus we must do what he says. Now of course, sometimes obedience will be costly, like it was for the servant himself. But then Jesus does not ask us to go down a road that he has not already travelled. And quite simply the choice is very stark. Will we obey the voice of Jesus which may well be more painful, or will we obey our own desires which as we will see will lead to disaster? Is your life marked by obedience to Jesus or to yourself? And obedience to him covers every aspect of life. From our love life, to how we spend our money, to how we raise our children, to how we behave at work, to how we use our tongues. You name it, if we claim the name Christian, then we must be marked by obedience to Jesus Christ. Because following him means obeying his word.

c) Trusting- But following Jesus also means one last thing, and that is trusting him. Verse 10: “Let him who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the LORD and rely on his God.” Now notice here that following Jesus does not mean that life will be easy. Isaiah assumes that sometimes we will have to tread a path that is very dark. But the great thing about following Christ is that we are never alone. He is our light and our salvation. So it’s not that suddenly everything becomes light when we follow Jesus- rather he is our light in the dark times. Like the servant himself, we must trust God for the outcome; we must trust him to bring us through in the end and give us the victory. And because he has done that for the servant Jesus, because Jesus is the risen conquering victorious King, then those who follow him will share in that victory in the end. But for the time being, in the darkness, it means trusting him and holding onto him whatever happens.

            But notice too the other option that Isaiah lays out in verse 11. What happens if we try and tread the dark path on our own. What happens if we light our own fire and try to get through life on our own two feet? Verse 11: “But now, all you who light fires
and provide yourselves with flaming torches, go, walk in the light of your fires and of the torches you have set ablaze. This is what you shall receive from my hand: You will lie down in torment.” It’s pretty clear isn’t it and very sobering? Either we trust Christ to bring us through or will trust ourselves. The trouble is, only one leads to life, while the other leads to destruction. And if you have not yet put your hand in Christ’s, can you urge you to see the reality of this verse. We are not dealing with opinions here. We’re not dealing with a lifestyle choice, a mere hobby where you are a Christian or not. It’s not something for the religious or those who need a psychological crutch in life. It’s a matter of life or death. But I can tell you when you put your hand into the hand of the servant Jesus, then there is no greater adventure or joy than walking with him, whatever life throws at you.

            So as we finish let me tell you about one man who did just that, and who found that in his darkest day, Christ was a light to him. The man is Charles Colson. He’s best known for being President Nixon’s hatchet man during the Watergate crisis of the 1970’s. And during that time he became a Christian. But he was sent to prison shortly after and plummeted down a very dark tunnel of despair. One day was particularly bad. He’d learnt his appeal had failed, he’d been barred from practising law again, and worst of all his son had been sent to prison too for drugs offences. When he heard the news, it was the 29th January 1975. That night he prayed this prayer: “Lord, if this is what it is all about, then I thank you. I praise you for leaving me in prison, for letting them take away my license to practice law, yes, even for my son being arrested. I praise you for giving me your love through my friends, for being God, for just letting me walk with Jesus.” After that surrender to God, Colson says: “In the hours that followed I discovered more strength than I had ever known before. This was a real mountain top experience. Above and around me the world was filled with love and beauty. For the first time I felt truly free.”

            They are extraordinary words on the darkest of nights. And yet Colson knew the reality of the passage we’ve been looking at tonight. For he’d looked to Jesus and was walking with Jesus however dark the path was. And if we too put our hand into the hand of Jesus the servant, then we like Colson will find that however tough things get, he will never let us go.

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