One of the problems people living in 2011 have when we read the Old Testament book of Isaiah is something the literary critics call its richness. Unlike most of the things we read each day, in any given passage of Isaiah, there may be words about more than just one thing. Sometimes, a passage may be about three things at once. It confuses us. Let me explain.
Last Sunday, I mentioned that tucked among the promises Isaiah received from God about ancient Israel’s impending release from slavery to the Babylonian Empire, were promises about the Servant Who would be sent by God to free more than just Israel from humanity’s greatest enemies: sin, death, and futility. The Servant would come to set things right for all who would welcome His rule over their lives, including you and me.
There are four "Servant Songs" in Isaiah. Today’s first lesson is one of them. As we consider this passage, along with our Gospel lesson for today, I want you to keep the image of an hourglass in your mind. It may help us to understand some of that confusing richness we encounter in Isaiah this morning.
When you stand an hourglass on end, it’s wide at the top, tapers to a narrow shape in the middle, then widens out again at the bottom. If we mapped God’s mission to bring humanity new life, from say, the moment He delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt about 1000 years before Isaiah, followed it through Jesus some 600 years after Isaiah, and then to the Church today, our map would look like an hourglass. The top of the hourglass would be the descendants of Abraham, more numerous than the stars in the heavens, before the coming of the Servant. The bottom of the hourglass would be chock-full of those who are spiritual descendants of Abraham through their faith in the Servant foretold by Isaiah.
Both ancient Israel and the Church of Jesus Christ were called to be God’s “light to the nations.” But, in a phrase used by Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten, “the flaming center” of history, the One Whose life is the light of the world, the narrow center of the hourglass, is Jesus Christ.
All the voices that spoke for God before Christ was born pointed ultimately to Him as our only hope for forgiveness and life, the Messiah who would come into our world to set the lives of all who believe in Him aright.
“Long ago,” the preacher in Hebrews said to his fellow Jewish Christians sometime before 70AD, “God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days He has spoken to us by a Son…”
Jesus, the Servant Messiah, Who suffered and died to erase sin and death as powers over our lives and rose again to rend eternity open for all who believe in Him, is God’s ultimate self-expression, His Word of love and power and restoration for fallen people and our fallen universe.
The Church is commissioned to share Christ’s light, to make disciples of Jesus Christ, and to do so by being completely focused on Jesus, the Servant King. The Celebrate introduction to our lesson from Isaiah that Ann read a few moments ago is right as far as it goes. It identifies the Servant as Israel, saying that in the lesson “the Servant Israel speaks for herself.” But that’s only part of the story.
One of my favorite seminary professors, Tryg Skarsten, once recalled looking out onto a harbor at night. A large light, visible for miles, stood high over the harbor to guide ships coming in. Strung out into the harbor for thousands of yards were smaller lights. Each of them, Tryg said, were connected to the larger light from which they derived their power. Ancient Israel was God’s servant, of course, and it was a light to the nations. But it derived its capacity to be God’s servant and its power to be God’s light for the world from the true flaming center of life, “the Light of the world,” Jesus, to Whose coming Isaiah and other prophets pointed.
That’s why contemporary New Testament scholar Christine Roy Yoder writes that Christian readers cannot read our first lesson without seeing Jesus. Please pull out the Celebrate inserts. Read along with me silently:
Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away.Jesus, as the Gospel of John tells us, is “the Word of God.” He is God’s Word to you and me. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus tell us that every one of our lives is of infinite value to God. God so loved you—you personally and individually—that He sent Jesus to take your punishment for sin so that all who turn from sin and take Him as the Lord and ruler over their lives, trusting their lives to Him, will have life forever with God.
If you’re anything like me, you don’t mind the message of the salvation Jesus brings, but you may not be so hot to make Him the ruler over your life. Jesus as Lord will sometimes tell us to do things we don't want to do. He'll sometimes tell us not to do things that we want to do. Let’s face it: Jesus can cramp our styles. When Jesus was eight days old, a man named Simeon spotted Him in the temple in Jerusalem, where Joseph and Mary had taken the baby to be presented to God. Simeon declared that Jesus was exactly Who Israel (and he himself) had been waiting for at the top of the hourglass. Simeon quoted verse 6 of our lesson from Isaiah, calling Jesus “a light” for the nations. But then, Simeon told Mary, Jesus’ mother, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed…”
Will we take Jesus as our King as well as our Savior or will we oppose Him?
Will we trust or selectively ignore the Word of God in the Bible and the Word of God enfleshed in Jesus?
Those aren’t abstract philosophical questions, but urgent ones on which our eternal destinies hang.
True story: Santosh was a blacksmith in India. He was part of the Dalit, the untouchables, the permanent underclass who are denied access to food, housing, clothing, education, or health care. Along with most of his people, Santosh worshiped his Biskarma (the tools he used in his work), thinking that it was them that gave him life. And Santosh led a miserable life, wasting what little money he had on getting drunk. When he came home, he beat his wife and children, who dreaded his very presence in their home.
One day, two missionaries who saw how troubled he was, invited Santosh to church. Surprisingly, the next Sunday, he took a place in the back of the sanctuary. The music was in his language and in a style he liked. Santosh kept coming back, intrigued by the word about Jesus sandwiched between this music he enjoyed.
Eventually, he gave his life to Christ and wanted to share the Good News about Him with his fellow untouchables. With the missionaries’ help, he got a scholarship to study at a Bible college. The day before he was to leave for college, a large group of villagers confronted Santosh. They threatened to beat him if he didn’t return to the worship of Biskarma and renounced his faith in Christ. Santosh didn't back down, knowing that Jesus had saved him not only from sin and death, but from the meaningless life that had driven him to drink.
After Santosh went to Bible college, the villagers threatened Santosh’s family and they eventually had to be moved to safety with him. Today, Santosh is the pastor of a thriving congregation that bravely (and joyfully) invites other untouchables to come and see and follow Jesus.
In the world and even in the Church, Jesus and His Word are signs that are spoken against. That’s no surprise. That’s because, as Hebrews 4:12, says, “…the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before Him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the One to Whom we must render an account.”
Jesus is the Lord Who said that while we are saved by grace, He had not removed a single one of the Ten Commandments. If we show contempt for the commands in God’s Word, we also show contempt for Him Who is God’s Word. We cannot take Jesus as Savior if we don’t also take Him as Lord. We cannot be free of what enslaves us until we surrender to Christ the way Santosh did.
Now, look at Isaiah 49:6 on the Celebrate insert. These are words from God the Father:
It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.Israel was not the incubator for the Servant Jesus just for itself. Through Jesus Christ, the truth of God’s love for all humanity and His offer of eternal reconciliation with God, would go global. And that’s where you and I come in.
In our Gospel lesson today, when two disciples of John the Baptist, one of them Andrew, brother of Simon Peter, wanted to learn more about Jesus, Jesus issued a simple invitation, “Come and see.”
Later, a man named Philip told someone named Nathanael that he had found the long-awaited Servant-King. Nathanael was skeptical. Philip didn’t argue. He just said, “Come and see.”
Simon, Philip, you, and I are all at the bottom of the hourglass of God's salvation history. We are the small lights ignited by the cross and empty tomb of Jesus and by the Holy Spirit with whom baptized Christians are filled. Our power for living comes from Jesus. Jesus tells us to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven,” words we use in our Baptismal service.
The Servant Jesus came to save a dying world from itself, to save us from ourselves. He invites all to follow Him, be reconciled to God, and live eternally.
This week, this month, this year, be a light that helps others to come and see Jesus. God wants to fill eternity with people who have turned from sin and death and turned to Jesus for life and eternity. You are the lights God wants to use to guide others to the true Light of the nations, Jesus Christ. Jesus wants to fill His kingdom with those who have come and seen and believed in Him.
So, this is my simple plea to you this morning:
- Share Jesus.
- Share Jesus with words and actions.
- Share Jesus with honesty, not as self-righteous egotists, but as forgiven sinners grateful for the grace of God.
- Share Jesus so that all the world will come and see what a wonderful God we have!
- Share Jesus so that all the world will have peace with God and with themselves today and in eternity.