Year A. 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany, January 20th, 2002
Isaiah 49: 1-7
Title: “God’s Salvation”
We need to understand the history- political and religious- going on behind this text, on which it is based and which it interprets. The inspired writer gives prosaic history a poetic interpretation, turning physical objects, political realities and human events into metaphors, opening them up to a broader view and vision. Politically, Cyrus, the Persian king who conquered Babylon and decreed the return of the exiled Jews to their homeland, the rebuilding of their Temple and restoration of the worship of their God, is now dead. He is succeeded by Darius. The question for the Jews is: will Darius continue the tolerant policies of Cyrus? Deutero-Isaiah preached that Cyrus, a Gentile, was God’s servant, his instrument, heresy to pious Jewish ears. In 41: 1-8 he is called “the champion of justice” and “God’s attendant.” The prophet’s point is that Israel’s role in world history is not to rule over the nations. For now, that is Cyrus’ role and, as such, he, too, is God’s “servant.” In 520 BC Darius, unlikely and surprising successor to Cambyses, in fact, he was his military aide, issues a decree, becoming the second Persian king to directly support the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s Temple, which was completed in the sixth year of his reign. Darius had to fight hard to bring the disparate “nations,” under his rule. Like Cyrus, he felt Persia proper was “too small,” a domain. He, too, was to rule over the nations of the world. And the prophet saw this as God’s plan.
Because of this eventual peaceful situation, much like that of Rome, her peace and roads enabling the Church to spread to the nations, Israel could do her assigned task as “light,” to the nations, as opposed to beating them by military means- by “fight” or “fright”- into submission. She would lead by the attractiveness of her example, fruitfulness of her life, integrity of her worship. All nations would one day come to accept Yahweh on his terms, but not through war or force or violence. If Persia, through Cyrus and Darius, had a role in God’s plan in the political sphere, Israel, and the Suffering Servant, had a role in the religious sphere. Because she did not accept that role and wanted the political one, she persecuted the prophets, especially the Suffering Servant, claiming their claims were heresy.
In 40: 1-11 Deutero-Isaiah receives his commission from God to give comfort, read salvation, to his people Israel, Jerusalem. Having failed, because people wanted “salvation,” on their terms. The prophet somewhat discouraged, receives in the present text, not a reprimand for failure but a broadening of the scope of his mission to the entire world. Of course, the individual prophet servant represents his entire people and the language of the call or God’s commission can be read as addressed either to one person or the one people. Thus the Servant, Israel is the religious equivalent of the political Cyrus, Persia. The sacred writer will take ideas and images he used to describe the secular king and apply them to the religious Servant. Yahweh has protected Israel while in exile, but now shows no signs of allowing her to re-conquer Palestine and she does not like it.
In verse one, “Listen to me, O coastlands.” In 41: 1 this address began the Lord’s commissioning of the secular king, Cyrus. Now, the Servant receives a similar commission, a re-affirmation and extension of his original one recorded in 40: 1-11.
The Lord called me from…my mother’s womb: This is all part of God’s long term plan, the God who “has called forth the generations since the beginning (41:4).
In verse two,2 a sharp-edged sword…a polished arrow: In 41:2 the prophet, referring to Cyrus, said, “With his sword he reduces them, the nations, to dust, with his bow, to driven straw.” Now, he turns these physical objects, historical realities, into metaphors to describe what the Servant will do. Sword and arrow are hidden until the time they are needed. When drawn or shot they are effective means for accomplishing the end for which they were designed. The Servant was “hidden,” in the depths of the ages until now, the appropriate time, Greek kairos, for effectiveness. The “weapon,” will be not the sword but the word of God.
In verse three, you are my servant…Israel: The Servant embodies the entire people. What is true of him is true of them. This is an excellent example of what scholars call “corporate personality.” It means that an individual cannot be separated from the group. If an individual does good or evil, the group to which he belongs is affected by it for good or evil. If one member of the group is sinless throughout his life, then anyone who attaches to him will also experience freedom from sin. Here Israel is being told in no uncertain terms that her role in God’s plan, God’s Vision, God’s interpretation of history, is not the role of “ruler,” leave that to Cyrus and the secular powers, but that of “servant,” providing service to the nations in obedience to God.
In verse four,4 though I thought I had toiled in vain: The prophet’s personal experience, the experience of failure to get the people to listen and return to the Lord, is now seen as a model for Israel. Israel might think that her role as servant is “too small,” for her exalted opinion of herself as God’s “Chosen,” Side bar: see 42:1-4, the first Suffering Servant Song, and that all her toil to be number one has been in vain. She would be wrong on the first count. Her mission is not too small. And she would be right on the second count. She will never be top nation in the world. Her “reward,” will be her loving union with the Lord, not the political center of the union of nations.
In verse five, that Jacob may be brought back to him: In 42: 7; 44: 28;45: 4,13 this role of bringing Jacob, Israel back home was assigned to Cyrus. The political part of God’s plan is now accomplished. The religious part is deeper and more involved that a political restoration. The, prophet and servant, still has a role within the community to restore her to full union with God and one another. But, he now has a larger role, as does Israel herself. He and she are to be “a light to the nations.” In verses one to three, the servant was chosen for the task. In verse four, he has become discouraged. In verses five and six, he is reassured that he is on the right path, a path not of his designing or choosing. He is appointed and anointed. In a way both Cyrus and the Servant have the same task, each a light to the nations, each God’s instrument to bring about universal recognition of Yahweh’s sovereignty. Their tasks were the same in their origin, Yahweh assigned, and aim, world unity under Yahweh, and thus the prophet uses similar language and metaphors to describe both. What the prophet and servant thought in chapter forty was his mission was only the beginning of it, the first phase. As he grew in conscious contact with God he grew in expanding awareness. The two-Cyrus and the Servant- would use entirely different methods, one military, the other preaching, to complement each other in the same task.
In verse six, it is too little…for you to be my servant: This means that the prophet’s ministry to his own people is meant to renew them for a ministry to all people. The task is not over when one personally repents and changes one’s life. The purpose of that is not merely personal or internal, either within one’s personal boundaries or national boundaries. What one has received freely must be given away.
I will make you a light to the nations: This is addressed both to the individual and to the group. In 42:6 some think this phrase is also used of Cyrus. Israel has a role in world history. It is not political domination, but religious “salvation.” Now, “salvation,” could mean the restoration of economies and social order. That is what Cyrus was to bring. But here it is “my salvation,” Hebrew yeshu`athi, “theological” salvation. The Servant and Israel would do this, bring this, by being a light, a reflecting light, a mirror really. God is the light and he provides light which shines on a mirror, the Servant and Israel, to expand its refulgence and illumination for all the world to see. Those who “mirror,” the behavior of God will attract others to that light. A mirror is really nothing in itself until there is light enough for it to reflect. So it is with the Servant and Israel. Some might not like that role, think it “too little,” but that is the assigned role for Israel. She will spend even more centuries trying to get that role changed into a more political one, but, alas, “in vain.”
This is the second of four “Songs,” or “Poems,” concerning the “Suffering Servant.” Each one Isaiah 42: 1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 2-13-53:12, progressively adds to the richness of the concept behind a servant of Yahweh, who would suffer innocently in order to save his people. As we read the gospels we discover that these texts from Isaiah had the most profound influence of Jesus, helping to shape his own understanding of himself and his mission in the world. We know from Luke 2: 41-52 that Jesus was well versed in Scripture from a very early age. It is not hard to imagine him going to weekly synagogue, a fact Luke also records, and soaking up the word of God. Since there were no readily accessible libraries in those days and certainly no books at home on the bookshelf, Jesus had to sharpen his memory to remember what he heard read each week. We can easily imagine him reflecting on the Scriptures in the solace of his meditations and prayer and discovering that God was addressing him directly through his revealing word, something God does to us, too. When he finally emerges into the public eye, he is like a sword unscathed and an arrow “unquivered,” revealed, made visible, at the appropriate time, the kairos, as he called it. The sharpness of his wit and wisdom and the direct hits he scored on his opponents did not just happen. His identity emerged as did his understanding of his mission through hours of thoughtful reflection, like a light, and was “mirrored,” in his behavior. The Suffering Servant theology found in Isaiah had a more profound influence and effect upon him than any other aspect of the Old Testament. Virtually every sentence uttered by Jesus is colored with some shade, at times light, at times heavy, of this point of view. And those who followed Jesus knew it. The Suffering Servant idea was carried through the entire New Testament and is at the very root of the Christian Church.
The idea that anyone attached to Jesus benefits from what he has done is the key notion of the Church he founded. The idea of corporate personality, so presumed in the Old Testament, that it is never explained, a sort of self-evident truth, was carried through in the New Testament, with the imagery of the human body, many parts but one body, as a metaphor, but more than a metaphor, for the Church. John used the vine and branches theme in the same way to explain the Church and “Lamb of God,” theme to explain the atoning death of Jesus.
If we evaluate our personal success in political, this-worldly terms we may have the same experience as the Servant. We may judge that we have failed and we would probably be right. And if we judge our personal success as a religious representative of the Lord in this-worldly terms- like how many people did we change or influence- we may pronounce ourselves as failures. And we would most likely be right. But if we judge our success in terms of fidelity to God’s word, the vocation he called us to and we accepted, we would find that we cannot make that judgment. That is God’s. All there is for us to do is to imitate Jesus. He leaves the results to God, knowing that God will succeed where humans fail.
As a Pastor all I could do was preach the Word, explain what Jesus was teaching to the best of my ability, pray for the members of the congregation and give the Sacraments in a proper manner. If the congregation decides not to reward or pay me or renew my call, that is up to them, not me.
Jesus as God, is concerned with why we do what we do and much less with how great the visible results are. Success, a successful life, for Jesus is found in service, faithful, unqualified service to the Lord according to the light he has given us. Whether it seems to us too small, a mistake the Jews constantly made, or too large, a mistake many prophets initially made, is immaterial. No matter how fantastic, how unheard of throughout human history, it is do-able if God wants it. Jesus did the seemingly “un-do-able” and, he says, so can we, if we are linked to him through his Spirit and if our, human, spirit is that of the Suffering Servant. We need to imitate Jesus and soak up every word from God, study it, pray it, think it constantly. If so, we will also find our identity, who and whose we are, and our mission. Not only our general mission- to be good and do good- but the specifics, how the mission unfolds in concrete circumstances and how it grows from a “small,” internal, personal one into a huge, universal and inter-personal one. God speaks to each of us in these verses and every verse of Scripture. Jesus taught us that as he also lived them out. He not only believed in God’s word, he believed it in by his life, into our world. To all of history- every moment- he applied mystery, the mystery who is God and he came out with a life so bright that it continues to attract people from all the world.
Every human being has a God-given purpose and mission in life, up to each to accept or reject.
Those who listen to God’s revelation, both in Scripture and in life events, might not like what they hear and try to change it.
In God’s eyes success is not measured by the contents of accomplishments but by faithful acquiescence to his intentions.
The “reward,” of fidelity is an intimate relationship with the Lord.
Fidelity is simply reflecting the light of God through Godlike behavior.
The Meaning of Life: Why did God give us life at all? Why did he bring us into existence? When we realize that it only takes one sperm to unite with an egg and that there are hundreds of millions of sperm in competition to be the first to unite with that egg, we can only sit back in awe that we came into existence at all. A cold, objective scientific look at the facts can only conclude that it was mere chance that caused it. However, humans are not cold, objective observers and few of us, especially if we look also at the subsequent “facts,” of our lives, can conclude that we came into being by mere chance, by a haphazard confluence of impersonal forces. Even if we do conclude that it was by chance, we would have to nuance that conclusion by saying it was “directed chance.” When we look for the meaning of life, ours and everyone else’s, we need to start at the meaning behind, before, prior to, our individual life. Most of us call that meaning “God,” or some similar title. As a title it “means,” more than an impersonal force. Though not a person as such, God is not a “person,” strictly speaking but neither is God less than a person, our experience of God is best described as personal or interpersonal. It is possible, indeed it is well nigh unavoidable, to have a personal relationship with the Power who created us. For Christians that is not all. Through Christ, God’s supreme Suffering Servant, it is now possible to have an intimate, friendly, intensely vibrant personal relationship not only in this life but after it! Even sinners have some sort of personal relationship with God, if only the awareness that they are estranged from their Creator who loves them. Now, thanks to Christ, we can experience the meaning of life as God himself means it to be. In that full light we care little what the details of living our lives involve. We become quite content to take God’s word for it that we do have meaning and we have meaning because he gives it to us. We do not create it ourselves; we discover it hidden, at times, in the very details we find ourselves immersed in. Like the Suffering Servant, like Christ, like John the Baptist, like Isaiah, we were purposely brought into existence to enjoy life with God, life in God, to enjoy God who enjoys us. We quickly learn that we only really enjoy life and that God really enjoys us when we behave, think, and hold the same attitudes as God himself.
Size: Because we perceive a relationship between size and importance we are easily deceived to conclude that “the bigger the better.” We measure populations and miles to determine the biggest city or country, the biggest property or diamond, etc. and we erroneously conclude that size, amount, quantity has something to do with value, worth, quality. Not only did the Jews of old make that mistake, not only did Cyrus, Darius, Caesar Augustus, Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, etc., etc, make that mistake, even the prophet behind this reading did. The difference, of course, was that the prophet listened to the Creator of “size,” and “sized up,” the situation correctly, as God evaluates “size.” He thought his “success,” was not big enough, not enough people listened to him. He was wrong. His role was to be a mirror for people to look at and compare themselves to what they saw. Now many people are infatuated with mirrors because they look at them and see an imaginary self. Or they are disgusted by what they see. If they are disgusted because they see how different they are from how God “imagines,” them to be, all well and good. They will be motivated to reform. But if they are disgusted because they wanted to be a person of their own choosing and making, the mirror will do them no good. That is not the mirror’s fault. All we as mirrors need to do is be good mirrors. It is up to the looker to decide how to respond. Amen.