Isaiah 49:1-7 What does it mean to be a servant of God?
But Christians have understood that this passage is speaking of Jesus.
This passage speaks of two servants. The first servant is Israel, the people of God. The second servant will bring Israel back to God. But then it seems that the second servant is also Israel.
It is complicated!
It is complicated!
But Christians have understood that this passage is speaking of Jesus.
He is both the servant, who called Israel back to God, but he is also Israel itself: he is the embodiment, the fulfilment of Israel
In the British constitution the Queen is the head of the State. But she is also, to a degree, the personal embodiment of the state. What the Queen does, at an official level, the UK does. If the Queen greets another head of State, then the UK is greeting that other nation. And if you are a UK citizen then you are, by definition, a subject of Her Majesty. She is the constitutional glue, if this helps, who holds us all together. So she is both the servant of the State, but she is also the embodiment of the State.
And Jesus, to a far greater degree, is both the servant of the people of God and the embodiment of the people of God.
But Christians have also understood this passage as speaking about us: about those who have chosen to follow Jesus, to trust in Jesus, to allow Jesus to live in us, and who have become part of Jesus.
1. They tell us that God chose us
‘The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me’.
It is saying that the reason that you are a Christian, the reason that you have begun to put your faith in Jesus is not because you are good, or clever, or gifted, or attractive, or humble – although you are all those things(!) – but because God decided to choose you when you were a foetus.
So it has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with him.
Jesus says to his followers, ‘You did not choose me but I chose you’ (John 15:16).
That should both humble us and give us confidence.
It should humble us because we are here by grace alone. We did nothing to deserve the choice of God. There is no place for arrogance or for pride.
But it should also give us confidence. Because if God chose us for no other reason than his love, and if it does not depend on us, then he will protect us and guard us.
Yes, we will face fierce temptation.
Yes, there will be times when we think that we have failed him so badly that we have stepped over the line and there is no way that he can continue to love us – but we are here by his choice and he will not let us go. And by faith we hold on to that.
So, for instance, in Romans 11, Paul is writing of the Old Testament people of God, the Jewish people. They were chosen by God. But they had rejected Jesus. They had crucified him. And now some of them persecuted the early Christian community.
Can you do worse than that? Crucify the Son of God? Persecute his people?
But did that mean that they were cast off? Far from it. Paul writes, ‘As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable’. (Romans 11:30)
And that bit about naming is very special.
Our name, for good or ill, describes who we are and shapes who we are.
That is why the name you give your children is so important: I love some of your names here - Mercy and Gift and Precious and Grace and Light, or names that mean those things in your language.
But we are told that God has given to each of us a name. It is the name which truly describes who we are and who we are truly called to become. We read of that name in Revelation 2:17. It is written ‘on a white stone’, and we will probably only know it on the other side of heaven. But it is God’s name for us, known only to God and to us. It is a secret name, a love name.
So we are chosen, called and named.
But that does raise the question, I suspect, for many of us as to why God chose me and not, for instance, my sister or my husband.
And that leads me on to my second point.
2. God called us to be his servants
This choosing, this ‘election’ is not to privilege, but to serve: to serve God and to serve people in his name.
Jesus says: ‘I have not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:45)
Paul writes ‘For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake’. (2 Corinthians 4:5)
This is important.
God never calls A instead of B. God calls A for the sake of B.
God did not call you instead of your sister. God called you for the sake of your sister.
Abraham was chosen - in order to be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth (Genesis 12:3).
Israel, the people of God in the Old Testament, was chosen - to be “a light to the nations, [so that God’s] salvation may reach to the end of the earth”
You have been chosen - to bring glory to God, blessing to God’s people, and to draw others into communion and friendship with God. You have been chosen to be a light in a dark world, bringing God’s salvation to the end of the earth.
[That is why God has equipped us, his servant, with what we need to do that task.
‘He made my mouth like a sharp sword .. He made me a polished arrow’
God has given us his word, and the means to communicate his word.
That doesn’t mean that you individually are called to be a preacher or evangelist. I know that sort of thing terrifies people. Having said that, there probably are quite a few of you who have been given those particular gifts – and we need to begin to take steps of faith and use them, sharing our faith in simple ways with those in whom we come into contact. And if we can’t do that, then there still will be times when it is appropriate ‘to give a reason for the hope that we have’, and invite friends along to church]
The task of the Church, all of us together – with our many and various gifts - is to proclaim, to declare to the world the Word of God.
Or using slightly different language, we are called to proclaim the Kingdom of God, and to proclaim the one who is the King: the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who lived among us as one of us, who died, who rose from the dead, who is Lord and who calls all people to come to him, to repent of their rebellion against him and to receive forgiveness and new life and intimacy with him.
Of course, we cannot proclaim the Word of God, the Kingdom, and not – in dependence on God and his Spirit - begin to live the word and live the kingdom
We cannot preach the mercy of God and not seek to show mercy and forgiveness
We cannot preach truth and not seek to live truth: being as honest as we can about ourselves and others
We cannot preach the generousity of God and not be generous ourselves
We cannot preach the compassion of God and not ask God to give us compassion.
We have been called, we have been chosen – but like Jesus, in Jesus, as part of Jesus – we have been chosen for a task: ‘to be a light to the nations, that God’s salvation may reach the end of the earth’ (Isaiah 49:6)]
3. God has called us – to continue to trust him despite our sufferings.
Look at how the servant has suffered. They have faced deep frustration and a seemingly fruitless and pointless ministry:
V4: ‘I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity’
V7: The servant is ‘despised, abhorred by the nations, a slave of rulers’
That theme is taken up a bit later in Isaiah 53
The call is a call that involves suffering
In the New Testament we are told of a man called Saul who hates the followers of Jesus. He asks his superiors for permission to take a death squad to the city of Damascus. But on the way, Jesus meets him. And Jesus says of the converted Saul – now Paul – ‘He is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings .. ; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:15f)
For some the call to be a servant of God and a servant of people in Jesus name is a call to acute suffering.
This season we are supporting – through our simple lunches - the Barnabas fund. They support Christians facing persecution.
And it is going on now. On December 26 an unverified video was released by Islamic State West Africa Province (former Boko Haram) showing the execution of 11 Christian men in Nigeria. There are Christians today – whether in Egypt, Eritrea, North Vietnam, many parts of the Middle East and North or central Africa - who face the possibility of imprisonment or death because of their Christian conviction. Some of you may have been in places where that was a real possibility.
But even for those of us who live in countries where we do not face such threats, the call to be a Christian is still a call to suffer – whether it is from comments from those who would dismiss us, or from making life style decisions that mean that we go against what is considered acceptable or normal, or from choosing to serve sacrificially when we could be having an ‘easy’ life.
And we suffer when people reject the message about Jesus that we bring. Because it is so important to us, it hurts. And it can mean that we stop sharing the message. I find that. I don’t want the message to be rejected and, if I’m honest, I personally don’t want to be rejected, and so I don’t say what I know that I should say.
And I think that as we grow as Christians, and as our love grows for friends and enemies, so there is another kind of suffering which we open ourselves to. As we see more the lostness and pain of others and of this world, as we become more aware of the depth and consequences of our own sin, so we will weep more for the people who we meet and for this world. The spiritual fathers and mothers speak of such tears as a gift of God.
It is not without reason that Jesus is described as ‘a man of sorrows’.
And yet, the servant is called to continue to trust in God even in our suffering – to trust in God even when our heart breaks for the world – to trust him even when we face ridicule or rejection – to trust him even when it seems that nothing happens and it is all pointless – to trust him when it seems that evil is winning or that life is falling around us.
And so the servant says, ‘yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God’ (v4)
And that leads me on to my final point
4. We are called to share in the glory of God
V3, He said to me, “You are my servant .. in whom I will be glorified”
On Friday, Alison and I went to the Gainsborough exhibition in the Pushkin museum. As we went home, we walked past a picture framing shop.
The frame for the picture is important, but if you’ve got it right, then however beautiful it is, the frame is almost invisible. When I went around the exhibition, I looked at the paintings and not at the frames. I would only have noticed the frame, if the frame was clearly wrong. The frame is not intended to draw attention to itself. The purpose of the frame is to present the picture, to bring out more the beauty of the painting.
We, as servants of God, are intended to point people to God. They should not really see us, and if they do see us then we’ve probably got it wrong.
But when we’ve got it right, then they should not see us – but through us to his love, his choice, his gifting, his faithfulness, his holiness, wisdom and his beauty.
Our task is to be like that picture frame and to glorify God, and our hope is one day to share in the glory of God
And on that day, when what is now hidden will become transparent and visible for all, it will be as if the veil is drawn away and the masterpiece of masterpieces, with its frame, is revealed.
And the audience will look at the picture in wonder and silence. And they will be amazed. And perhaps the more discerning might say, ‘Ah! I see now why the artist chose that particular frame’. And then they will stand and they will applaud.
Isaiah 49:7, “Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you”.
Who do you think the Prophet is speaking to in Isaiah 49?
Does the idea that God chose you to be a Christian concern you or encourage you?
If God does not choose A instead of B, but A for the sake of B, for whom (specifically) has God chosen you?
How can we have confidence in the face of suffering?
How can we bring glory to God?