1 Listen to me, O coastlands,
and give attention, you peoples from afar.
The LORD called me from the womb,
from the body of my mother he named my name.
2 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.
3 And he said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
4 But I said, “I have laboured in vain;
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my right is with the LORD,
and my recompense with my God.”
5 And now the LORD says,
he who formed me from the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him;
and that Israel might be gathered to him—
for I am honoured in the eyes of the LORD,
and my God has become my strength—
6 he says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
7 Thus says the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation,
the servant of rulers:
“Kings shall see and arise;
princes, and they shall prostrate themselves;
because of the LORD, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.” (Isaiah 49:1-7 ESV)
Last Sunday we had the paradox that at Jesus’ baptism when the voice from heaven declares that Jesus is “my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17) he is dripping wet having just undergone the baptism of repentance. It reveals a Christian spiritual tension that will always exist in this world – will always be part of our lived experience – that what we see gives one picture but what we hear gives us something else – often so radical that it seems nonsensical – like trying to tell the world that this wet sinner is the Son of God or that 3 years later this crucified man is the King of kings and at his most powerful on Earth when on his throne called the cross. Faith and sight don’t have to be in tension but, as I said, they often are. Similarly our experiences – what we feel, what we desire, what we want – and God’s Word – which tells us who we are, declares our identity, and offers guidance that flows from that identity – are also so often in tension. It doesn’t take too much living to face the experience and know the truth that sin is never not part of our existence – while at the same time God’s Word tells us we are forgiven, we are God’s child, we are reconciled to God. We live in the paradox. Saint and sinner. It is a mystery how this can be so but we are strengthened by the mystery of a holy communion again where God comes to us and we grow imperceptibly in faith and in body.
I mention this tension because often in people who attend church there is a feeling that everyone has got it together but me. If they knew me on the inside, then I’d probably be asked to leave. After 2,000 years of history it is easy to forget that essentially the Christian Church is a ‘sin hospital’ and it isn’t a matter of targeting Patient Zero but realising that the pandemic has happened and everyone is plagued by sin but the tension remains and we participate in it because we only want people to see our ‘good sides’ so to speak or we reveal the socially acceptable sins but often the ‘real me’ is kept hidden. Who is the inner you? How different is this person to the person I know? I suppose if people are married then their spouse might know such an answer best. And of course, the other person who does know, is God – and remember his first words to people (‘I love you’).
But this gets us thinking about Jesus and his inner life. What was he like on the inside? We only get a few glimpses – scenes of compassion, incredulity, tears, rejoicing, a cry of desolation – but not a lot. We turn to Jesus’ prayer book – the Psalms – and ‘listen in’ to the prayers he prayed and sang. And we can turn to prophecies which we say are fulfilled by Jesus – one of which is today’s First Reading – known as the Second Servant Song in Isaiah. There are four Servant Songs in Isaiah, the most well known is the fourth one – the Suffering Servant Song in Isaiah 52 and 53. This one in Isaiah 49 is less well known. We don’t know to whom Isaiah is referring – himself? Israel itself? An unknown prophet? But whomever he is he has an awareness that he has been chosen by God – from the womb – to speak to the people so that God will be glorified – God promised this would happen but now he is saying he has laboured in vain and he has spent his strength for nothing.
What a fascinating insight into this servant of the Lord! And yet the inside us can no doubt nod at times and think ‘been there, felt that and I’m not even a special servant’. This is the wonder of the Bible that it reveals people on the inside and it is rarely, if ever, pretty.
But the Servant Song continues because God is now speaking and he doesn’t tell the servant off for lack of faith or lack of success but says that the task is increased – not to kick the servant when he is down – but to help more people and reveal God’s glory not just to Israel but now to all nations. And the world – including – especially – the powerful – will one day acknowledge that God’s servant has been chosen by God so that salvation may reach to the end of the Earth. To whom Isaiah was specifically referring is lost in time. But you can understand how the early Church when it had its Bible Studies on Isaiah would go ‘see – Jesus! – and there’s Jesus, and there he is again, and oh this has to be Jesus!’ and so on.
It is too easy to think of Jesus as a type of Superman and essentially forget his humanity and more than that that he is the Lamb of God who has come to take away the sins of the world. But Jesus is not removed from us and if his life teaches us anything it is that he always lived his life for us – in the hospital with us – getting infected for us – dying for us – and giving us his antibodies so that fear and shame and death no longer need have the final control over us.
It is too easy for us to think and be consumed by our humanity – especially by the inner us – and not hear words spoken to us by Jesus which can create new life, new hope, new starts, new perspectives – in fact Paul will call the followers of Jesus in 2nd Corinthians ‘new creations in Christ’ which we bring into our lives – the real one, the one we live on the inside, and find Jesus there as well. We can argue, push away, debate what is a sin or not, point out that we’re not as bad as others but Jesus still offers his words – as he did to the woman brought before Jesus caught in adultery – his ‘Neither do I condemn you’ and his ‘go and sin no more’. He keeps saying them through words, water, bread and wine.
When John the Baptist pointed Jesus out to his disciples as the Lamb of God, he was pointing to someone who knows the inside us, the inside sins, and has the will and the power to bring healing, forgiveness, and salvation to all people – no matter their nation or their deeds. This salvation, this forgiveness is for the whole world.
And as it changes us – gives us life – so it can change the world.
- Isaiah 49:1 - 7