Isaiah 42:1-8

For the past two falls we have preached from Isaiah and I am delighted to return to this book of the bible. And in particular, it is such a treat to preach from Isaiah 40-66. Let me put it in a bit of perspective.

The first half of Isaiah, 1-39, contains messages of judgement and hope. Isaiah was a prophet in Judah during the reigns of four kings: Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. During these years, the Assyrian army swept down from the north, captured the northern kingdom of Israel, and took the Jews into exile. They also conquered cities in the southern kingdom of Judah, and threatened Jerusalem during the reign of Hezekiah. In the last years of Isaiah’s life, the Babylonian empire in the east began to grow in power and became a future threat to Judah and its capital city, Jerusalem.

This first half of Isaiah ends with successful resistance to the Assyrian assault on Jerusalem and a warning that the Babylonian empire would conquer Jerusalem, not in Isaiah’s lifetime, but in the lifetime of Hezekiah’s descendants.

One hundred years later Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled. Jerusalem was captured and the Babylonians took the elite into exile in Babylon. The prophet Daniel was one of these. Jeremiah was a prophet during this time but stayed in Jerusalem. Psalm 137 was written by Jews living in exile in Babylon.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept 
when we remembered Zion. 
2 There on the poplars 
we hung our harps, 
3 for there our captors asked us for songs, 
our tormentors demanded songs of joy; 
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” 
4 How can we sing the songs of the Lord 
while in a foreign land? 

From despair the psalm moves into anger and a thirst for revenge. Perhaps we will preach from this psalm in one of the coming Sundays.

The second half of Isaiah, 40-66, is set during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, after the Jews have returned from their exile, which raises the question: Who is speaking in these chapters of Isaiah? Isaiah died a hundred years before the exile, so how could he write about the time when the exiles had returned to Jerusalem, two hundred years after his death?

There are two possibilities. One is that Isaiah was somehow transported into the future and given precise knowledge about what would happen before, during, and after the exile. The other is that Isaiah passed on his prophetic words to his disciples. Isaiah wrote in Isaiah 30:8
Go now, write it on a tablet for them,
inscribe it on a scroll,
that for the days to come
it may be an everlasting witness.

His disciples studied his words over the decades and were able to apply his prophetic words to the events after the exile.

In either case, the second half of Isaiah speaks words of hope and encouragement to people who were greatly disturbed by the events of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple and the long exile in Babylon.

In Isaiah 40-47 God is on trial. The Jews in Jerusalem remember the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple and their years in exile in Babylon and ask if the gods of Babylon are more powerful than the God of Israel. It is from this section that Elliot preached last fall when I was in the US and where we will focus over the Sundays of this fall.

So let’s look at God’s defense in the trial. How does God defend himself against the accusations of the Jews who questioned why Jerusalem had been destroyed and why they had been taken into a seventy year exile?

God begins in Isaiah 40 with words that express his tender concern for the people he has chosen.
Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,

Is God weak? Was God powerless against the Babylonians? Not at all, says Isaiah. (Isaiah 40:10-11)
See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power,
and he rules with a mighty arm.
See, his reward is with him,
and his recompense accompanies him.
11 He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
he gently leads those that have young.

God is powerful but also tender in his care for Israel. God is being accused of allowing Israel to suffer cruelly but Isaiah defends his tender love and care toward his chosen people.

As in the book of Job, Isaiah reveals the greatness of God by speaking of his creative energy and power in his creation of the world. (Isaiah 40:12)
Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand,
or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens?
Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket,
or weighed the mountains on the scales
and the hills in a balance?

Is God less powerful than the gods of Babylon? Isaiah begins to contrast idols that are made with human hands and the living God. (Isaiah 40:18-20)
With whom, then, will you compare God?
To what image will you liken him?
19 As for an idol, a metalworker casts it,
and a goldsmith overlays it with gold
and fashions silver chains for it.
20 A person too poor to present such an offering
selects wood that will not rot;
they look for a skilled worker
to set up an idol that will not topple.

These inanimate idols were the gods of the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, and even the Canaanite gods Israel served rather than God.

In contrast to idols God is all powerful and mighty. (Isaiah 40:21-23)
Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood since the earth was founded?
22 He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth,
and its people are like grasshoppers.
He stretches out the heavens like a canopy,
and spreads them out like a tent to live in.
23 He brings princes to naught
and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.

Later in Isaiah he will go on to tell Israel that the exile happened not because God had neglected them or because he was not powerful enough to protect them, but because Israel needed to face judgement to turn them away from their own idolatry. The fall of Jerusalem and the exile happened for their own good. That is the defense of God in this trial where he is being accused of ignoring Israel and not defending them from the Babylonian assault.

But God has not given up on Israel. He will give strength and encouragement to the people he loves. (Isaiah 40:28-31)
Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
29 He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
30 Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
31 but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

God challenges those who reject him by mocking the idols people turned to. (Isaiah 41:21–24)
“Present your case,” says the Lord.
“Set forth your arguments,” says Jacob’s King.
22 “Tell us, you idols,
what is going to happen.
Tell us what the former things were,
so that we may consider them
and know their final outcome.
Or declare to us the things to come,
23 tell us what the future holds,
so we may know that you are gods.
Do something, whether good or bad,
so that we will be dismayed and filled with fear.
24 But you are less than nothing
and your works are utterly worthless;
whoever chooses you is detestable.

When we read scripture, it is so important to know the context of what we are reading. When I understand what is happening in these chapters of Isaiah, that the Jews are accusing God of ignoring them and God is defending himself, what I read makes more sense and it is easier to apply what I read to my life.

This is why a good commentary or at least a good study bible is important for us as we read the bible.

This brings us to the text for this morning. In contrast to worthless, inanimate idols, Isaiah presents the servant. (Isaiah 42:1–4)

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, 
my chosen one in whom I delight; 
I will put my Spirit on him, 
and he will bring justice to the nations. 
2 He will not shout or cry out, 
or raise his voice in the streets. 
3 A bruised reed he will not break, 
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. 
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; 
4 he will not falter or be discouraged 
till he establishes justice on earth. 
In his teaching the islands will put their hope.”

This is the first of four servant songs in Isaiah. What is the identity of the servant Isaiah is talking about? In Isaiah 41:8 God calls Israel his servant. “But you, Israel, my servant,” Is this servant song talking about how Israel will be God’s servant bringing justice to the earth?

Isaiah is not specific about the identity of God’s servant in this song, but when Matthew wrote his gospel, he used this passage to describe Jesus who most perfectly exemplifies the portrayal of the servant in this song.

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, 
my chosen one in whom I delight; 

The servant is supported by God. Upheld by God. Upheld is a strong word meaning ‘to grip fast’. The servant is loved by God, “my chosen one in whom I delight.” Where does this take you? At the baptism of Jesus a voice from heaven said, (Matthew 3:17) “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
The servant is upheld by God, chosen by God, and God delights in his servant.

I will put my Spirit on him, 
and he will bring justice to the nations. 

In the Old Testament the Spirit was the mark of a leader. The Spirit came on Saul. The Spirit came on David. What does Luke say about Jesus at his baptism and what happened afterwards? (Luke 3:21–22)
When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove.

Luke 4:1–14
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness,

Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside.

The Holy Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism. He was full of the Holy Spirit, led by the Spirit into the wilderness, and he returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit.

God will put his Spirit on his servant and then what will he do? He will bring justice to the nations.

What is justice? The Hebrew word translated justice is used in Exodus 26:30 to talk about the plan for the tabernacle God wanted Moses to build in the wilderness. Justice is a blueprint from heaven about how to do something right.

In Isaiah’s servant song the servant will bring justice to the world. He will make things right so that lives and societies will function as they ought to function. A just world, according to Isaiah, is humans living together as God wants them to live together.

Who other than God knows how human beings and human societies can be at their best? Who other than God knows what is best for humanity?

Jesus told us to pray, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We are meant to live a human existence like it will be when we are living in heaven.

But as you look around the world, are we living a heavenly existence?

When we see people living in poverty, living in slums, being discriminated against, being robbed or physically assaulted, we know that this is not the way it is supposed to be. We know that it is not just. When we see some kids living privileged lives while others are scraping the sidewalk for crumbs to eat, we know that is not just. When we see women denied opportunities because of their sex, we know this is not just. When we see people denied opportunities because of their race, we know this is not just. When we see leaders using and abusing people for their own purposes, we know this is wrong.

It is wrong when mentally disturbed people are discarded on the streets living lives worse than stray cats. It is wrong when migrants make a dangerous journey across the Sahara Desert only to have to make another dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea. It is wrong that conditions in their home country are so bad that they make this dangerous journey. It is wrong that children are born into poverty.

What is there about me that made me deserve to be born in a home with plenty of food and parents that did not physically or sexually abuse me? I have slipped through life like going down a greased slide while others have had to claw their way through obstacle after obstacle. None of us chose where to be born. None of us chose who to have as parents. We are born into this world and discover that we do not all have the same opportunities. This is not fair, not just. It is not the way it is supposed to be.

We live in a world that is crying out for justice and a servant who will bring justice to the nations is what we so desperately need.

Two thousand years ago Jesus lived on earth and when Matthew wrote about him, he quoted this passage from Isaiah 42.

Where is the justice the servant is to bring? Are we living in a just world where we live in relationship with each other the way God wants us to live and relate to each other?

Sadly, no. The injustice in the world is overwhelming. Some people shut it out and live in gated communities, ignoring the poverty outside their gates. Some people walk around with glasses that allow them to see only what they want to see. Some people are critical of those who are not able to live like they do, dismissing those who suffer by saying they are lazy or ignorant.

When you visit the leather tannery in Fez, the guide gives out bits of mint to put to your nose so you don’t smell the odor of the tannery. Some people live in an unjust world like this, surrounding themselves with pleasant things so they can avoid what is around them.

The world was unjust before Jesus was born. It was unjust while he lived on earth and it has been unjust ever since. Slavery, oppression, domination, abuse, poverty. It is even painful for me to say these words.

Where is the justice the servant was supposed to bring?

Jesus healed a man with a withered arm in a synagogue on the Sabbath and the Pharisees were highly offended and plotted how they might kill Jesus. (As an aside, this is a remarkably strange reaction to something so wonderful. A man’s hand is healed, actually recreated in front of their eyes, and instead of being delighted that this man now had a restored hand, they were furious. No wonder Jesus called them blind men.)

Jesus healed this man and then healed those who were ill in the crowd that followed him when he left the synagogue. And this is where Matthew quotes this morning’s passage from Isaiah. (Matthew 12:13–21)
[Jesus] warned [the crowd] not to tell others about him. 17 This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:
18 “Here is my servant whom I have chosen,
the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
19 He will not quarrel or cry out;
no one will hear his voice in the streets.
20 A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he has brought justice through to victory.
21 In his name the nations will put their hope.”

Jesus announced at the start of his public ministry that the kingdom of God had come. He sent his disciples out to preach the good news that the kingdom of God had come. The teaching and preaching about the kingdom of God was accompanied by people being healed, the blind seeing, the lame walking, the possessed being delivered from demons. Prostitutes were given a new life. Those who were outcasts were brought into the life of the community. Justice came to these people Jesus encountered.

This is wonderful, but my problem, and perhaps your problem as well, is that we want a strong arm to bring justice. We want oppressors to be brought low. We want abusers to be punished and put in prison.

In US western movies, a new sheriff comes to town and because he can draw his gun faster than the outlaws, he brings order and justice to town. That is what we want. We want justice to come with power and smash down injustice.

Cyrus was king of Persia who defeated the Babylonians and in the first year of his reign allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem. Isaiah describes Cyrus in Isaiah 41:25
“I have stirred up one from the north, and he comes—
one from the rising sun who calls on my name.
He treads on rulers as if they were mortar,
as if he were a potter treading the clay.

Cyrus trampled on people to get what he wanted, but that is not how Jesus brought justice. That is not how Jesus continues to bring justice to an unjust world.

It seems that Isaiah is making a deliberate contrast between Cyrus who ruled with an iron fist, crushing his opponents, and the servant who will be gentle and tender in the way he works to bring justice.
He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
3 A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.

A bruised reed is very fragile. It hangs in the air, connected to the stalk by just a few fibers. As the wind passes, it moves to the left and right and you wonder how soon it will fall to the ground. If you touched it, it would break off.

At the end of our Advent services in the four Sundays before Christmas, someone will blow out the candles on the Advent Wreath. The flame goes out and there is smoke as the wick of the candle still has a glow of light. In just seconds the glow will be extinguished, there will be no more smoke, the wick will have been snuffed out.

A bruised reed he will not break, 
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. 

These are the images Isaiah used to describe the coming Messiah.

A woman who made her living as a prostitute pushed her way into a room where Jesus was being entertained by a Pharisee in her town. Jesus leaned on his left side as he ate with his right hand. His feet were extended over the cushions away from the table. The woman came and began to clean his feet with the tears of her eyes. She wiped his feet with her hair and anointed them with perfume.

The men and women in the room saw what was happening and condemned her. But Jesus said to her (Luke 7:36–50)
“Your sins are forgiven.”
“Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

This woman was a bruised reed, a smouldering wick. If Jesus had shamed her for daring to come to him, a rabbi, she would have broken and been extinguished with no life in her. But he treated her with gentleness and compassion. He saw her fragile condition and gave her life.

A woman had suffered from bleeding for twelve years. Because of this she was considered unclean and was separated from her family and friends. She was an outcast, an untouchable. She heard Jesus was coming and was determined to do what she knew she was forbidden to do. She wanted to touch Jesus and be made well. So as Jesus and the crowd around him approached, she began to make her way through the crowd. All eyes were on Jesus so they did not see her touching this person and that person as she neared Jesus. She came up behind him and touched his cloak and immediately she knew that her bleeding had stopped.

Jesus realized someone had been healed, that power had gone out of him, so he stopped and asked who had touched him. This was a ridiculous question. With all the people in the crowd, he was constantly being touched, but finally the woman came, fell at his feet, and trembling with fear, told Jesus what she had done.

Jesus said to her (Mark 5:34)
“Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”

This was a brave woman, a woman with great faith, and she made herself vulnerable by taking such a bold step. If Jesus had reprimanded her for recklessly endangering all the people in the crowd and for making them ceremoniously unclean, she would have been crushed. But Jesus called this bruised reed, this smouldering wick, “Daughter.” He had compassion on her, she was healed, and he told her, “Go in peace.”

A paralytic had four friends who were determined to get him to Jesus. They carried him on a stretcher and because the room where Jesus was speaking was so crowded, they made a hole in the roof of the house and lowered him down to Jesus.

Jesus did not criticize the men for interrupting him or for tearing a hole in the roof. This man was now lying paralyzed on the floor in front of Jesus. All the eyes of the room were on him. The judgment of the room hung over his head and useless legs. But Jesus looked at him, saw into his heart, had compassion, and said, (Mark 2:5)
“Son, your sins are forgiven.”
“take your mat and go home.”

Do you see the tenderness of Jesus? “Daughter” “Son” There is great affection in the words Jesus spoke to those who were vulnerable and weak.

A widow had one son and then he died. Maybe it was an accident, perhaps a disease, but she lost her only son. She was now a woman with no property, no heir to protect her. She was helpless.

Jesus was walking along with his disciples and the crowd that followed them. It was a very large crowd and as they approached a town called Nain, on the road coming out of Nain, the crowd with Jesus met a funeral procession for this widow’s son. The two crowds met and Jesus looked at the woman and the bier containing her dead son. Jesus looked and he saw what was happening. He understood the woman’s circumstance. Jesus had compassion, and then he acted. (Luke 7:13–15)
When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.”
14 Then he went up and touched the bier they were carrying him on, and the bearers stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” 15 The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.

Jesus did not go directly to the son in the bier. He went first to the widow and told her, “Don’t cry.” He saw her fragile condition: a bruised reed, a smouldering wick, and then he acted.

This is the life and ministry of Jesus. He called out to all the bruised reeds and smouldering wicks and said: (Matthew 11:28–30)
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

This first of four servant songs ends with reason for confident hope.

In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; 
4 he will not falter or be discouraged 
till he establishes justice on earth. 
In his teaching the islands will put their hope.”

Jesus brought justice to the people he encountered in Palestine. He continued to bring justice to the lives of people in Palestine through his disciples after he ascended into heaven. Jesus has continued to bring justice to the lives of people from the nations of the world through his followers.

But what an exhausting work that is. When we open our hearts and minds to the suffering of the world it overwhelms us. In generation after generation Jesus has worked to bring justice, to make things the way they should be, and yet there continues to be so much injustice.

When I think about all the suffering Jesus has endured over the last two thousand years, it crushes me. But Jesus is not crushed. “ He will not falter or be discouraged.” Why?

Jesus is more intimate with the suffering in the world and so he feels the pain more intensely than any of us do. But he is not discouraged. He perseveres in his work to bring people into his kingdom, to bring healing to broken lives, to bring beauty out of ashes. And he does this because the love of the Triune God is more powerful than all the suffering for all of time. He will not falter or be discouraged. He will persevere till he establishes justice on earth. He will never say, “Close enough,” and take a break. He will work until justice prevails on earth.

How far will justice prevail?

“In his teaching the islands will put their hope.” Every continent and every island will see justice. Every tribe and language and people and nation will experience life the way it should be lived.

Jesus worked to bring justice to the lives of those he met. He has been doing that through his sons and daughters ever since.

When we comfort those who mourn, justice has come.
When we think more of others than we do of ourselves, justice is coming.
When we pray with people, when we pray for healing, justice is present.
When we peacefully protest against injustice, justice is coming.
When we care for those who are not able to care for themselves, justice has arrived.
When we love those who are not loveable, justice is being worked out.
When we recognize those who are invisible in society, justice is near.
When we use our money and possessions for the kingdom of God rather than hold on to it for ourselves, justice has arrived.

God is faithful and he will bring justice. He is bringing justice. He is making things right and he will make things right. The whole society may not be right, but Jesus will work in the lives of people, the Spirit will work in people, we will work with Jesus and lives will be made right.

We may not be able to change all of society, but don’t let that discourage you. Keep your heart open to the needs of people in the world. Let the love of God give you compassion for those who suffer in the world. Persevere in seeking justice.

Each life you touch is a life that will experience the justice Jesus brings.

We wait for the day when Jesus will come and justice will rule over all the earth, but until then we work with Jesus, working for justice in the lives of the people we encounter.