1 But here is my servant, the one I uphold; my chosen, who brings me delight.
I’ve put my spirit upon him; he will bring justice to the nations.
2 He won’t cry out or shout aloud or make his voice heard in public.
3 He won’t break a bruised reed; he won’t extinguish a faint wick, but he will surely bring justice.
4 He won’t be extinguished or broken until he has established justice in the land.
The coastlands await his teaching.
5 God the LORD says—the one who created the heavens, the one who stretched them out, the one who spread out the earth and its offspring, the one who gave breath to its people and life to those who walk on it—
6 I, the LORD, have called you for a good reason. I will grasp your hand and guard you, and give you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations, 7 to open blind eyes, to lead the prisoners from prison, and those who sit in darkness from the dungeon.
8 I am the LORD; that is my name; I don’t hand out my glory to others or my praise to idols.
9 The things announced in the past—look—they’ve already happened, but I’m declaring new things. Before they even appear, I tell you about them. (CEB)
For those who study Isaiah, the “servant” has been a particularly difficult theme, at least, when it comes to the matter of the servant’s identity. There’s no certain historical indication of the servant as an individual who lived during the years of exile in Babylon. The tone of the poem seems to be Messianic but, originally, the servant might have referred to all of Israel. Yet, even that’s a difficult identification because Israel was in exile when this was written. It begs the question, how can a servant in exile serve its master? How can the servant perform their duties if they’re trapped in a foreign land?
It’s a strange and somewhat remarkable theme for Israel to be reminded of its role as a servant with duties to perform and obligations to fulfill while they are in the midst of exile, but perhaps that’s part of the point. During the exile, Israel tended to be more self-focused, self-absorbed with their own destiny, and who wouldn’t be? The main concern of many Jews in Babylonian exile were likely the questions, What about us? When the heck are we getting out of here? What about God’s promises of a kingdom that will last? Some of the people surely despaired in self-pity as their time in exile stretched into decades.
But, with the words from Isaiah, God changes the subject and summons a grieving people to look beyond their own self-concern to other work.
Another idea that we Christians tend to hold is to identify the servant with Jesus Christ, the gentle savior. It is Jesus who reveals the Good News to the world. It’s Jesus who does God’s work in the world. It’s Jesus who reveals God to us, and who has given us God’s teaching. The identification with the work and person of Jesus is why we read this text on this Sunday, which is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Jesus was identified at his baptism as God’s Son.
It is a curious work to which the servant is called. The servant’s purpose, according to Isaiah, is just… weird. The servant is empowered by God’s spirit or wind. The Hebrew word has both meanings. And the spirit or wind of God equips the servant to do what the rest of the world thinks is impossible. The impossible new thing that the servant is to do is to bring justice, and to make equitable, trusting, life-giving relationships available to the world.
It seems impossible because bringing justice to the nations is not something that is without risk. The list of justice-bringers, Christian or not, is filled with the names of martyrs: Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna of Russia, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Archbishop Oscar Romero.
And it’s the way Isaiah describes how the servant works that is interesting. “He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench” (Isaiah 42:2-3, NRSV). God’s justice is brought forth gently, carefully, caringly, quietly. The servant is gentle enough to respect the bruised and abused, and careful enough to respect those wicks that are barely burning with any kind of life left to them. The servant of God has respect for people who are weak, fragile, and in jeopardy.
The way the servant brings justice is as important as the fact that justice is being brought. Justice isn’t forced, but the goal of justice being brought forth into the world and the means by which it occurs are in harmony. The means serve the end. The servant practices vulnerability while being attentive to the way others are vulnerable. The servant’s ways are quite different from the ways of Babylon and—and every other worldly power—which prefer to snuff out vulnerable wicks and break vulnerable reeds.
The servant also perseveres and is able to accomplish the purpose God has given. In verses 3 and 4, the Hebrew suggests that the “bruised reed” and “dimly burning wick” of verse three highlight the metaphors of verse 4. So, the servant will not burn dimly [or be extinguished] or be bruised [or broken] until the work of establishing justice on the earth is accomplished. The servant will honor the weak, but the servant will also be strong enough to do the work that has been assigned.
The second part of the poem, verses 5-9, turns to the voice of God who has sent this servant. The God who intervenes in human affairs is the God who founded the earth and gave breath to everything in creation, who breathed into us the very breath of life. It’s the power of God that is at work in the mission of this servant.
The purpose of the servant is one and the same with the purpose of God. The servant enacts in the earth the purpose that has been intended from all eternity. God intends that human society should be re-ordered against every form of oppression. God now asserts power to enact that transformation and make it a reality in the world—a reality among the nations of the earth. The Creator intends that the creation should be rehabilitated and restored to its full, fruitful function.
The servant does God’s work and is empowered by God. God says of the servant, “I have given you as a… light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isaiah 42: 6b-7 NRSV). That’s powerful stuff. For some of us, that’s scary stuff. That isn’t how the world works. Yet, this is God’s work.
Everything about the servant in verses 6-8 is bracketed by the words, “I am the Lord.” The servant is identified by the self-announcement of God’s intention and sovereignty. It is the Lord, not the servant alone, who desires this transformation of creation and empowers the servant to bring it forth. No other voice proposes the transformation. No other person devises a way to accomplish it. No other person gets credit for it. This is, first and last, the Lord, the God of creation, exodus, and homecoming who works and wills the transformation of the world.
The question still remains, Who is the servant? Is it Israel? Is it Jesus? Or is it us?
I lean toward thinking that it’s all three. Have you ever thought of yourself as God’s servant? Have you ever thought that when God looks at you God says, “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights” (Isaiah 42:1a NRSV). The Christian Church exists as a missional body. If you’re part of the church—and I don’t mean, if your name is on the First Church membership roll—I mean, if you have been baptized or if you believe in Jesus Christ, then you are a member of the church. If you’ve been baptized, then you are a missionary. If you’ve been baptized, then you are God’s servant, and you are called to serve in a particular way: a way the world can’t imagine because the world operates differently.
God’s servants are to be the justice-bringers of the world, but not the way the world usually thinks of justice. The world tends to think of justice-bringers as gun-slinging vigilantes who wield power in order bring others to justice, to use force as a means of bringing justice upon the stereotypical bad guys. That’s why superhero movies are so popular. But worldly powers break bruised reeds and snuffs out dimly burning wicks. Worldly powers breathe threats and cry out in attempts to justify their violent words and actions which, ironically, often lead directly to injustice and atrocity.
As servants of God, we are called by God to operate very differently from that model. We are not to lift up our voices to scream in hatred, nor should we breathe threats. We’re to care for bruised reeds and protect dimly burning wicks.
God’s servant brings justice into the world by loving others—especially the most vulnerable, by caring for the needs of others, by building equitable, trusting, life-giving relationships with everyone we encounter, by working to re-order social life and social power so that the weak, the vulnerable, the powerless, the abused, the poor, the lost, the prisoners, the strangers, the orphans, the widows, the refugees, and the displaced may all live a life of dignity, security, and well-being.
And it isn’t we the servants doing this by ourselves or by our own power. God empowers us with the Holy Spirit, which blows in strange and unpredictable directions. The grace of God empowers our lives and enlivens our souls. God enables us to do God’s work.
Right now, we are a people who are facing tough times. We might wonder if anyone in our government has a brain. The violence taking place here and across the world every day is frightening.
We’re nowhere near the state of despair that Israel found itself in during the exile, but we are in troubled times. And in the midst of these troubled times—when we tend to focus more on ourselves, to be self-preoccupied—God reminds us that we are servants. God summons those of us who are concerned and worried about our own future to look beyond our self-concern to other work: to servant work.
The servant who does this work of God—who gently and caringly brings forth justice to the nations—will not burn dimly or be bruised. God is the source of this work of justice-bringing, and we are told that the coastlands wait for the teaching of the servant.
What emerges when the spirit-filled servant does the work of God is newness. It’s a newness, a vision, an act of transformation, that we’re sometimes too bruised and dimmed to imagine. Nevertheless, we are invited by God back into a powerful hope that is rooted in God’s purpose. We are invited back into God’s servanthood. The world needs servants, and each of us has already been called. We’ve been called whether we recognize it yet or not. How will we answer our summons to the ministry of a servant?
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!