A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (22/01/23): You are my Servant

Isaiah 49:1-7

You are my servant . . . .
I will give you as a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.
One of the first questions that might ask of this, or for that matter many passages of scripture is: Who are these words addressed to? Who is it that God speaks to and declares his servant? The historical answer, the answer that perhaps Isaiah might have given himself, is that the children of Israel are the servant that God speaks to. These words are addressed to the nation, the descendants of Abraham through Jacob, the ones who God later delivered later from slavery in Egypt. This is the servant that God speaks. They are the people chosen with a special purpose from among all the nations of the earth. Who through God’s relationship with them, through the maintenance of the covenant God would have a place in the world and could be made God known to all people. Israel was chosen to serve God so that the world might know that the only true and living God is God. Of course with scripture it is never as simple, or as trivial as that. That is not how we read the Bible. We don’t read the Bible, even the Old Testament, as a report of the religious opinions of people now long dead. Whilst the Bible undoubtably contains history, and is itself an historic document It has a more important purpose for us. As Christians the Bible serves for us a theological purpose. It may contain history, but more importantly it contains theology, word about God. Our faith is that the Bible, the Old Testament included is a trustworthy report about God. So in addition to a historical answer we would also want to give the theological answer. And the Christian theological answer to the question “Who is being addressed?” is Jesus Christ. We view prophecy through a particular theological lens, that of fulfilment. The subsequent events reported in the Bible after Isaiah prophesied and especially the New Testament Is that prophecy is about and is fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. For us it is Jesus who is the servant. This passage is the second of what are called “The servant songs.” The passages in Isaiah which for Christians speak most clearly of the role of Jesus in the salvation of the world. If Israel’s task as servant was to make God known, Then it is more so of Jesus.

God is made known most decisively and most clearly in the service, the life death and resurrection of Jesus. The words of Isaiah are addressed to and are about Jesus Christ. That is the theological answer. Theology though can seem a little remote or somewhat abstract. There is yet another way that the question “Who are these words addressed to?” can be answered. After the historical and the theological answer there is the homiletical answer. That is the answer you’d give when preaching. And the answer at that point becomes “us,” we are the servant of the Lord, the words address us directly. Of course the words of Isaiah started out as a sermon. They were originally directed at the people of Israel. And we are the body of Christ, our service picks up, as it were, where his left off. We are God’s chosen servant. We are the ones who make it possible for God to be known in the world! Isaiah though vocalises the response that God gets from his servant:
“I have laboured in vain”
If we are claiming that this passage is addressed to us, then this is the part of the passage that is probably easiest for us identify with. Isaiah of course first spoke for God to the people of Israel in a time of national disaster. By the time he spoke these words they were already in exile in Babylon. No wonder Isaiah can anticipate their retort: “We have laboured in vain.” “Look at us,” they say, “how can God be made known, let alone be glorified through us, utterly defeated and in exile? The temple destroyed, the sign of God’s presence in ruins. All that we have strived for has come to nothing.”
The time we are living through, likewise, is a demoralising, dispiriting time for the Church and for Christians. The Church, in this country and countries like us at least, appears to be in an almost terminal decline. Time and again the end of our own part of the church has been predicted as only a few years away. The descending line on the membership graph is extended and it reaches zero in less than a generation. We have seen congregation after congregation dwindle and disappear. Even the signs of hope often seem temporary or vain. The position of the church in our society, politics and culture has become more and more marginalised. The world around us wants less and less to be reminded that God is God. And there seems to be nothing that we can do that can put a stop to this. In exile, or experiencing the decline of the church, it becomes tempting to think and say that every thing we have done has come to nothing.

Of course just as we think we’ve reached bottom, just as the children of Israel are weeping by the rivers of Babylon, just as we run out of energy to keep our churches open, God says: “You know what? That’s not enough for you to be doing. It’s not enough for you to hold together as a people in exile. It’s not enough for you to try to keep on keeping on.”
I will give you as a light to the nation that my salvation may reach the end of the earth.

It’s one thing to say “If you want something doing; get a busy person to do it.” It’s quite another to claim “If you want to raise a dispirited person; give them an extra burden” But that does appear to be what God says through Isaiah. God does indeed work in mysterious ways. And it is often easy to forget the ways in which God does work. God had chosen Israel as one of the smallest and weakest nations of the earth. That was part of the point. Success, power, greatness, glory were never part of the bargain. Though sometimes it came Israel’s way and so they were inclined to forget that was never the main point. God chose to work though them because that’s they way God chooses to work, Through the marginal, though the unexpected, not with an earthquake, but with a still small persistent voice. Even as the Church declines, even as we lose our size and the power and the influence we were once able to wield with it, even as we are pushed to the margins and are almost completely ignored, we are perhaps become more truly what we should be: A light to the end of the earth, that sign of contradiction. It is not through bigness, or loudness, or by weight of numbers, or by any coercive or violent means, but by the small, quiet persistent witness of a weak and marginalised church that the true nature of the only true and living God is made known.

What keeps us on this path is the promise of vindication. The promise that what we hold to be true will finally be revealed to have be true all along. As Jesus died on the cross he cried out, “My God my God why have you forsaken me.” That seems to be an echo perhaps of “I have laboured in vain.” But at that very moment the centurion, a foreigner, someone from the ends of the earth saw something of God. In that moment it became clear that Jesus was more than just another Hebrew prophet, more than a local miracle worker or wise teacher, a reviver and restorer of the Jewish nation. That was too small a work for him. In that moment his light of salvation started out to all the ends of the earth. And the resurrection comes as that vindication that Jesus is indeed that servant through God make himself known. Perhaps it is from our very weakness that our most powerful witness will emerge. Amen

You Are My Servant by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 

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