A Light to the Nations | 2nd after Epiphany

Isaiah 49:1-7

1 Listen to me, coastlands; pay attention, peoples far away. The LORD called me before my birth, called my name when I was in my mother’s womb. 2 He made my mouth like a sharp sword, and hid me in the shadow of God’s own hand. He made me a sharpened arrow, and concealed me in God’s quiver, 3 saying to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I show my glory.” 4 But I said, “I have wearied myself in vain. I have used up my strength for nothing.” Nevertheless, the LORD will grant me justice; my reward is with my God. 5 And now the LORD has decided– the one who formed me from the womb as his servant– to restore Jacob to God, so that Israel might return to him. Moreover, I’m honored in the LORD’s eyes; my God has become my strength. 6 He said: It is not enough, since you are my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the survivors of Israel. Hence, I will also appoint you as light to the nations so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.

7 The LORD, redeemer of Israel and its holy one, says to one despised, rejected by nations, to the slave of rulers: Kings will see and stand up; commanders will bow down on account of the LORD, who is faithful, the holy one of Israel, who has chosen you. (CEB)

A Light to the Nations

This admission might put me close to a certain age category or even identify me with a younger generation, but the television station I watch the most right now is The CW. I know, I know, I’m technically in the latter part of Generation X, and The CW is almost exclusively geared toward Millennials. But, according to some, the first year of the Generation Y Millennials is 1976, which means that, at least some of the people who study this generational stuff, say I’m a Millennial. Either way, I figure I’m enough on the cusp between generations that I can get away with watching The CW. So, that’s my oddball justification.

Now, the reason I watch it is because that’s where I get to see The Flash, and Supergirl, and Arrow, and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. It’s where I get to watch the stories of superheroes unfold. Our culture is fascinated with the idea of overcoming who and what we are to become something more, something potent, famous, wealthy, and powerful. In a nutshell, superhero stories reflect our pursuit and desire for the so-called “American Dream.” Superheroes are people who overcome normal human limitations. Sometimes they just train harder than everyone else and hone their abilities—like the Arrow, sometimes they discover supernatural powers through some external event—like the Flash, and sometimes they have these superpowers because they’re not actually human—like Supergirl. (We should note that Supergirl, Kara Zor-El, would not have superpowers on her home world of Krypton, so her powers come from the circumstance of her location near Earth’s yellow sun).

Yet, the reason why we are enamored with superheroes and their powers, no matter how they got them, is the same. It’s the idea that they have become more than the rest of us. They have risen above being common. They have achieved a kind of greatness beyond our otherwise weak, fragile, and finite humanity. They have become something more.

The thing is, what the Scriptures tell us about God’s salvation is that we all shall become something more. In fact, we will receive eternal life. We are destined for more than what we are. That’s the very vision to which the prophet Isaiah speaks in the Second Servant Song of chapter 49.

In this text, we are faced with the servant who now addresses the world about himself. Then, the Lord speaks about the servant. As I said last week, the exact identity of the servant cannot possibly be determined for certain, but Christians have long interpreted these poetic Servant Songs as prophetic oracles that point toward Jesus Christ. The season of Epiphany in the Christian Year tends to focus on the identity of Jesus as well as his role in God’s plan of salvation. This Servant Song suggests something of both.

You may remember that part of last week’s reading from Isaiah 42 had God saying of the servant, “The coastlands await his teaching” (Isaiah 42:4c, CEB). That song celebrated God’s patient, nonviolent, peaceful servant who wouldn’t extinguish a dimly burning wick or break a bruised reed. Now, the servant of Isaiah speaks to the coastlands about himself by saying, “Listen to me, coastlands; pay attention, peoples far away” (Isaiah 49:1, CEB).

The servant describes his mouth as a sharp sword hidden in the shadow of God’s hand, and as a polished arrow hidden away in God’s quiver to be brought out at the appointed time to accomplish his appointed work.

The words that Christ spoke during his ministry are as potent today as they were two-thousand years ago. They pierce hearts like a sword, and souls like an arrow. In one scene in the Book of Revelation, Jesus is described as having a sharp double-edged sword coming out of his mouth, which symbolizes his word and teaching. The words of Christ can make us cry out in grief because they force us to recognize our sin, and they also offer the chance to shout with joy because the words of Jesus offer to us a comfort that is beyond anything we could imagine for ourselves: the gift of eternal life and the power to become children of the Living God.

The servant recalls what the Lord said to him, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I show my glory” (Isaiah 49:3, CEB). This suggests, in one sense, that the servant embodies all that the people of Israel are intended to be: the servant carries Israel’s history, law, and prophecy within him, and is the sum of all that has come or will be. Christians see Jesus as the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. The whole of Israel’s history looked forward to the Person of Jesus Christ. Even the present looks toward the future when the kingdom of God is brought forth in all its fullness when Christ returns in glory.

But I don’t think the interpretation stops there. While Jesus encapsulates all of Israel, we are servants of Jesus who continue to carry and live out his Good News in the world. Like I suggested in my sermon last Sunday: the servant is Israel, the servant is Jesus Christ, and the servant is us.

One of the really interesting elements of this text, to me, is the honesty with which it speaks. After telling us what God has called the servant to do, the servant tells us about his failure and frustration in doing God’s work. He says, “But I have wearied myself in vain. I have used up my strength for nothing” (Isaiah 49:4, CEB). That’s real-world stuff. It’s honest to say that the work to which we’ve been called as followers of Jesus Christ is tough. Sometimes it feels like we’re spinning our wheels and going nowhere.

I’ve been there. I’ve had the same feeling, wondering if any of the work I’m doing has any effect on anyone. Part of the reason these feelings come up is because the results and effects of the work I do aren’t always tangible or visible or readily measured. Sometimes I don’t see those results because I’m not paying close enough attention. It’s honest to admit that the work to which we’ve been called as God’s people can be frustrating and difficult.

Isaiah, himself, was called to a work of frustration, “Go and say to this people: Listen intently, but don’t understand; look carefully, but don’t comprehend. Make the minds of this people dull. Make their ears deaf and their eyes blind, so they can’t see with their eyes or hear with their ears, or understand with their minds, and turn, and be healed” (Isaiah 6:9-10, CEB). God called Isaiah to speak as God’s prophet, but was honest enough with Isaiah to say, It’s probably not going to work. But Isaiah did it anyway. Isaiah was called to speak God’s word, so he spoke.

The ministry of Jesus didn’t turn out so well, either. He was beaten, killed on a cross, cursed by the religious authorities, rejected by his own people, and abandoned by his disciples. His life and work ended not in triumph, but in failure. Jesus even asked the Father why he had been forsaken as he hung on the cross.

But these failures are never the end of the story. The servant proclaimed that the Lord would give him justice and that his reward was with God. After Jesus was killed, God raised him up from death to glory where he now sits at the right hand of the Father.

Then, the servant says something of his purpose, which was given to him by God. He says that the Lord formed him in the womb to be his servant, so that Israel might be gathered to God. He had a vocation and a purpose from the very beginning. He also says that he is honored in the sight of God, and God has become his strength.

Instead of making the servant’s job easier to manage after the servant describes his failure, God expands it. God says to the servant, “It is not enough, since you are my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the survivors of Israel. Hence, I will also appoint you as a light to the nations so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6, CEB).

Jesus has been revealed as the savior for all people. He even said, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will drag all to myself” (John 12:32, my translation). Jesus is not the savior of religious people alone, but he is the savior of sinners, the lost, and the forsaken. God has given Jesus Christ to be the light of the world, as Simeon said when he saw the infant Jesus when his parents brought him to the Temple for the purification and dedication, “for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for the glory of your people Israel” (Luke 2.30-32). The salvation of God will reach to the ends of the earth through Christ and his Church.

The servant was deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers. These words foreshadow Christ. Jesus was despised and abhorred, he was bound, beaten, and slaughtered by the rulers of the land. But those same rulers, indeed, all the kings of the earth, shall prostrate themselves before Jesus. He is the chosen one of God, and the agent of our salvation. Following Jesus isn’t always easy. If we’re honest, it can be frustrating. But we are called to shine as servants of God who let the light of Christ show forth through us, from the coastlands to the ends of the Earth.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!


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