A Light to the Nations, Isaiah 49:1–7, Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 19, 2020
Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall. Of course, each season is different, even in South Mississippi. Each season has its own distinctive traits, like those related to the weather, or the blossoming of certain plants, or the coming or going of foliage.
And right now, most would say we were in winter, although sometimes the temperature ranges cause us to question that fact. I often find myself turning on the heat in the morning and the air conditioner in the afternoon.
Yet, 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 the Epiphany.” Of course, Epiphany itself, January 6th, was the day we observed the arrival of the wise men at baby Jesus’ home, and their recognition and worship of Him as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Well, the “Season after the Epiphany” extends from Epiphany to Ash Wednesday, and it is during this time that we celebrate the fact that God is manifest in the human being named Jesus of Nazareth. Quite simply, in these weeks, we often take an extended look at how Jesus is revealed and illuminated as the true Son of God, Savior of the World, and King of the nations. The message of this season is intense. The Babe of Bethlehem is no ordinary man. He is the very Son of God.
So it is, this morning that we come to our Old Testament 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 last week we looked at the First Servant Song. (see also 42:1–4; 50:4–9; 52:13–53:12) You may begin to realize that they are all prophecies, just as all of Isaiah is a prophecy.
What’s interesting and unique about this Second Servant Song though, 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 from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name.”(v 1) But then it is reported that God said, “You are my servant Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”(v 3) 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’ 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 of us who, of course, identify the servant as the coming Messiah, Jesus the Christ.
Please bear with me, as I refresh your memory, and bring you up to date with a bit of background for this morning’s text. It comes in a time in Israel’s history that is filled with turmoil. Remember for a moment the historic timeline of the nation of Israel. Beginning with 900 years before Christ’s birth, the good and wise King Solomon dies, and the sons can’t decide who will lead in his place. The kingdom becomes divided into two, a church split if you will.
Nine tribes form the Southern Kingdom known as Judah, and the three remaining tribes form the Northern Kingdom known as Israel. They enter a time of great stress and fighting between the two kingdoms. The once great nation of Israel has now been split. This means trouble.
Fast forward a few years, and we see Egypt’s rise to power and they start conquering land. Assyria rises to power and they begin conquering land. Then you have the Babylonian Empire rising in power and guess what they do. Right, they start conquering land. This spells trouble, trouble, and more trouble for God’s chosen people!
Around 700 BC, 200 years after the death of the great King Solomon, the great Northern Kingdom, falls! This just leaves Judah. Then around 600 BC Judah falls.
This, you remember, begins what is known as the Babylonian Exile. Israel and Judah are destroyed and decimated and its entire people are scattered like dust in the wind. Both kingdoms are gone and the people are no longer even together. All hope, it seems, is lost!
That is the setting where this morning’s text lives and breathes. It is given to us by the prophet Isaiah, and he is writing in response to all of this trouble. He speaks to his people: exiled, completely defeated, and destroyed after all this conflict. He writes to his people, and he begins addressing the exiles way back in Chapter 40
And his first words are this: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” (40:1) Comfort, O comfort.
And Isaiah keeps going for 20 more chapters, addressing a people who have been destroyed, a people who have been lost, a people who have been exiled to Babylon. What do you suppose they hope for? They are looking for a savior, a savior to rescue them and deliver them home.
And so, that is what Isaiah gives them. Here, Isaiah gives them hope for the savior they hunger for!
In this season of Epiphany, these words from Isaiah illumine for us as well who Jesus is and why God sent Him to live the life of a human on earth. But I also believe that by being a little 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. 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 all servants as well.
And all of that can only mean that we are servants, too. As hard as it is to believe, our text this morning is about us too, that’s exactly what God wants us to know.
When God spoke these words through Isaiah, it was a calling to all nations, but also a calling to you and me. God called Christ before He was born and even named Him in His mother’s womb. But the Bible tells us that God calls us and claims us before we are born, too. And certainly, God sent Jesus as a light to the nations and the Savior of the entire world, even to the ends of the earth. But what did Jesus tell his followers in the Sermon on the Mount? He said, “You are the light of the world.” (Matt 5:14)
This morning reading, once again, is one of those Biblical passages that is so easy just to “gloss over,” and yet it contains such a great challenge for all of us. When we read this Servant Song, most of us probably think to ourselves, “Yep! That’s Jesus! Savior of the world! Light to the nations! Ain’t He grand!”
But God has so much more in mind, because God has called each of us and claimed us, too. God intends that we, too, will be a light to the nations; reflecting Christ’s own light into the world around us. God wants this for each and every one of us.
There is so much darkness in this world. At times, it seems like things cannot get any worse. We watch helplessly as family members and loved ones slowly wilt away under the agony of terminal illness. We watch the horrors of addiction rip apart families and ruin lives. Or perhaps we have lived through the horrific temptation of addiction ourselves. We struggle in the darkness of mental illness, depression, or anxiety. We set aside careers, ambitions, and sleep so that we can care for our children with life-long illness, or our aging parents. We feel our spirits empty as we watch loved ones shipped off to fight a war we don’t understand. We cringe when the news reports yet another senseless shooting. We worry and wonder and stress nearly every single day as we think, “there must be a better way.”
Indeed, there is a better way. That’s why Jesus came; so that we could know there is a better way. Jesus came so that He could shine light in the darkness of our lives as He shows us the path to the infinitely loving Father. That’s why Jesus is the greatest Servant of all.
And God calls each of us to follow in Christ’s footsteps. God calls our names even when we are in our mother’s wombs. God considers each of us to be a sign of His glory!
The messed up, broken, struggling, stressed-out people are a sign of God’s glory! God wants us to be a light shining in the darkness of this world, even as Christ has been a light shining in the darkness of our lives.
God has a plan for you; God wants even more from you than you can imagine. God wants you to be a light to all nations because you are honored in God’s sight. The Lord called you before your birth. He claimed you while you grew in your mother’s womb. He saw in you glory and honor. And God has sent you to be a light to the nations. Amen.