For those who want a change from the Gospel
Epiphany 2 – Isaiah 49:1-7
As I write, I’m preparing to lead a Vision Weekend for a church in the Netherlands, a shortened version of a course I used to run in my last job. I had the task of constructing the Sunday morning Eucharist around the theme of vision, with congregational activity rather than a sermon, yet adhering quite closely to the expected Common Worship order for Communion. So I found myself writing liturgical texts based around the theme of ‘vision’ (texts which are, of course, reverent and seemly and neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter). In particular the penitential section was interesting: we shall be confessing our lack of vision and our ability only to see what is, rather than what could be. This tension is exactly that which is discussed in our OT reading this week, as the ‘Servant of the Lord’ is addressed by God about both his ministry and his feelings about it.
The Servant (and there is still scholarly disagreement about exactly who he is, whether an individual or the nation of Israel as a whole), in the second of his ‘songs’ is feeling discouraged. He has been given a big vision by God, and he was called long ago and polished up in God’s hands until he was ready to begin his work, work which would display God’s splendour. But those big hopes, it appears, have been dashed, and his wonderful ministry, he feels, hasn’t amounted to very much at all. Retirement was for me, and I suspect for many others, a time to look back and ask some painful questions about how much all our hard work for God has actually achieved. I have worked for 70-odd hours a week for 38 years, but what difference has all that really made to anyone? How is the Church any different just because I have been around? Of course I could point you to a few people who have found faith, and continued to grow in discipleship, through my ministry, and a few students of mine have graduated and become ordained, but is that it? Really? In the same way the Servant here expresses his sense of exhaustion and discouragement at what his life has actually been worth. So how does his Master respond?
In reverse order, God seems to do three things for his Servant. The first is to show empathy. V.7 is God putting into his own words how the Servant is obviously feeling: despised and abhorred. God gets it: ministry is hard, and encouragements few. Jesus was to find that to be true in spades, and Moses could have told him about it too, as could so many of the prophets. There’s no sense of rebuke from God though, no ‘Stop whingeing and get on with it’. He just understands. But he isn’t going to play let’s pretend, and he isn’t going to lower the pass mark to make everything OK after all. In fact he raises the stakes, by giving his Servant a new task. You may feel that the job has been too hard, but I’m telling you it was too small. Merely to attempt to declare my splendour to your own people is far too insignificant a job. I’m giving you a bigger role, not just domestic but international. There is a recurring theme in Isaiah about all the nations coming to see in the end that the Jews had been right, and streaming to learn wisdom from them and from him. Kings and princes will come to acknowledge his ministry (v.7b).
But how is all thin going to happen? Because of the Servant’s calling. How will a worldwide ministry grow from such unpromising beginnings? Because, says God, I have ordained it. When I called you, when I nurtured you and prepared you, I knew what I was doing. Didn’t I form you to be my servant from before your birth? Haven’t I strengthened you along every step of the way? That’s because I have purposed all this to happen, and even though you haven’t seen it all yet, and neither have we, What God says happens, eventually. The tenses are interesting: God has called, called and strengthened, but kings and princes will stand up and bow down, because of the Lord. The Servant’s call is renewed, and the outcomes are certain, if not visible yet.