Summary: God has claimed each of us, and like Jesus, God calls us to be a light shining in the darkness of this world.
As you all are aware, in this part of the world, we recognize four relatively distinct seasons each year; there is winter, spring, summer, and fall. Of course, each season has its characteristic traits related to the weather or the blossoming of certain plants or the coming or going of foliage. And right now, obviously, we are deep in the barren chill of winter. Well, just as there are seasons of the natural year, there are also seasons of the church year. And currently, we find ourselves in the midst of what is called the “Season After Epiphany.” Of course, Epiphany itself is the day we observe the arrival of the wise men at the baby Jesus’ home, and their recognition and worship of him as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Well, the “Season after Epiphany” extends from Epiphany to Ash Wednesday, and it is during this time that the church celebrates the fact that God is manifest in the human being named Jesus of Nazareth. Quite simply, in these weeks, we take an extended look at how Jesus is revealed and illumined as the true Son of God, Savior of the World, and King of the nations.
So it is that we come this morning to this text from Isaiah. Quite often, we identify biblical texts by their book, chapter, and verse, but in this case, Isaiah 49: 1-7 is also known as “The Second Servant Song.” There are four servant songs in Isaiah, and of course they are all prophecies, just as all of Isaiah is a prophecy. As Christians, we understand the “Servant” described by Isaiah in these “Servant Songs” to be Jesus Christ. What’s interesting and unique about this Second Servant Song, though, as you may have noticed, is the fact that it’s not entirely clear who exactly the servant is. The song begins as if the servant himself is speaking, “The Lord called me before my birth.” But then it is reported that God said, “You are my servant Israel.” And later on, the name of Jacob is mentioned. The final portions of this song only say “You.”
Obviously, with this kind of ambiguity, it drives the biblical scholars about nuts, and everyone has a different opinion about who exactly this servant is. Some say that in this song, the servant is Jacob himself, who of course is named Israel after he wrestles with God. Others say that the servant is all of Israel, a sort of collective or communal identification of God’s servant. There are others who consider the prophets’ roles of speaking truth into the present situation, and so they consider the servant to be one of the Israelite kings around the time Isaiah was prophesying. Then there are those who of course identify the servant as the coming Messiah, Jesus the Christ.
As a Christian looking at this passage, I join those who identify the “servant” as Jesus Christ. In this season of Epiphany, these words from Isaiah illumine for us who Jesus is and why God sent him to live the life of a human on earth. But I also believe that by being quite ambiguous here, God, speaking through his prophet Isaiah, is also telling each of us something else about his nature, about Jesus, and about each of us. I think God wants us to understand that while Jesus is the one perfect servant, Jacob is a servant too, and all the people of Israel, from the kings to the lepers, are servants as well. And all of that can only mean this; we are servants, too. I think we find it hard to believe that this passage could be about us, but I think that’s exactly what God wants us to know.