Isaiah 49:1-6

There are four servant songs in the second half of Isaiah. We looked at the first of these earlier this fall.

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 a beautiful passage. To a nation crying out for justice, God speaks of his servant who will come to bring justice to the nations. In contrast to Cyrus whose Persian empire conquered the Babylonian empire, this servant will not rule with an iron hand. He will not shout or cry out or raise his voice in the streets. He will not bully people. He will work with gentleness and tenderness. He will persevere until he establishes justice on earth.

This morning we come to the second servant song and now the mission of the servant is expanded. The servant is not coming just to help Israel. The servant is coming as good news to the nations of the world.

The first servant song spoke about the servant. (Isaiah 42:1)
“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.

But in the second servant song the servant speaks for himself. (Isaiah 49:1)
Listen to me, you islands;
hear this, you distant nations:
Before I was born the Lord called me;
from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name.

We see the fulfillment of this when the angel Gabriel came to Mary and said, (Luke 1:28–32)
“Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.

The name of Jesus was spoken even before he was in the womb of Mary.

Verse 2
He made my mouth like a sharpened sword,
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me into a polished arrow
and concealed me in his quiver.

This is not a reference to war. It is about what the servant will say, the words of his mouth. In his commentary, Alec Motyer understands this to be talking about the effectiveness of the words the servant will speak and the accuracy of the words that will reach the people hearing his teaching. The sword cuts to the heart of the matter being discussed. A polished arrow flies more accurately to its target. Jesus spoke to the hearts of people, to their hidden thoughts. His words went straight to the heart of the matter being discussed.

The writer of Hebrews wrote: (Hebrews 4:12)
For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

The gospels record that when Jesus taught, (Matthew 7:28–29)
the crowds were amazed at his teaching, 29 because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.

The words of Jesus continue to be amazing. There is power in his teaching and our lives continue to be affected when we read his words in the gospels.

Verse 3
He said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.”

Here the reference is not to the nation of Israel but to a person. Jacob was given the name Israel when he met God at Bethel. God’s splendor will be displayed in a person.

Verse 4
But I said, “I have labored in vain;
I have spent my strength for nothing at all.
Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand,
and my reward is with my God.”

The servant will labor and be tired and wonder if his work is effective. It is difficult for us to remember that Jesus was a man as well as God in the flesh. His divinity was limited when he was on earth and Jesus struggled with fatigue and discouragement, just as we do.

Remember what happened when Jesus came down from the Mount of Transfiguration? The disciples brought him a boy who suffered from seizures. They had prayed for the boy but he had not been healed. Jesus told them, (Matthew 17:17)
“You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.”

When his disciples asked him why they had not been able to heal the boy he told them they had too little faith. Jesus was exasperated. He had spent almost three years with these disciples and now as he was heading to Jerusalem where he knew he would be crucified, he wondered if they were ready for what was coming.

When Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane the night he was arrested, he asked Peter, James, and John to pray with him. But they fell asleep. Three times he went a distance from them to pray and three times he came back to find them sleeping. He told Peter, (Mark 14:37–38)
“Simon, are you asleep? Couldn’t you keep watch for one hour? 38 Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

They were unable to support him and Jesus felt alone just when he needed them most.

The writer of Hebrews wrote, (Hebrews 4:15)
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.

Jesus knows what it is like to be anxious. Jesus knows what it is like to be discouraged.

Isaiah writes:
But I said, “I have labored in vain;
I have spent my strength for nothing at all.
Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand,
and my reward is with my God.”

There is great wisdom in this and we can learn from the example of Jesus. When things do not go our way, when we are discouraged by the lack of results in the work we do, we submit to God and trust that the hard work we have done will be used by God to accomplish his purposes.

God multiplied five loaves of bread and two fish into more than enough food for five thousand men plus women and children. God multiplies the little we give and turns it into more than enough. God multiplies the work we do for him and does far more with our work than we think possible.

In the time of Covid-19 when so much works against what we are trying to do and we find ourselves limited at every turn, this is helpful wisdom for us.

Verse 5
And now the Lord says—
he who formed me in the womb to be his servant
to bring Jacob back to him
and gather Israel to himself,

“And now the Lord says” – and then the servant lets us know who the Lord is. In verse 6 Isaiah comes back to “he says,” but first he wants us to know who the Lord is that he speaks of.

“The Lord formed me in the womb to be his servant.” For what purpose? To bring Jacob back to him. To gather Israel to himself. These are not two people or nations. They are both talking of the people God chose, the descendants of Abraham. The servant was formed in the womb to be God’s servant for the purpose of bringing Jacob back, gathering Israel to himself. The servant’s mission is to redeem Israel. The understanding was that God was Israel’s God.

(Isaiah 49:3-5)
He said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.”
4 But I said, “I have labored in vain;
I have spent my strength for nothing at all.
Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand,
and my reward is with my God.”

5 And now the Lord says— 
he who formed me in the womb to be his servant 
to bring Jacob back to him 
and gather Israel to himself, 
for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord 
and my God has been my strength— 

The servant has wondered if he has labored in vain and now, by remembering who the Lord is, he is reminded that he is honored in the eyes of the Lord and God has been his strength.

This too is powerful truth for us. This is powerful truth for me. As I was writing the first draft of this sermon on Thursday, I was surprised by how powerfully this affected me. I had read the passage several times and worked my way through the three commentaries I am using, but now, in the process of writing the sermon this spoke to me.

This Covid-19 existence is very difficult for me. I preach Sunday after Sunday to a camera lens. The number of people watching the online service has dwindled. There are some who choose to have their own service rather than join with us in our online service. There are some who watch other online services and I begin to wonder what I am doing. I begin to wonder if it is my limited abilities that are the problem. I am doubting myself.

But I am looking at myself with the wrong eyes. I am and always have been highly critical of myself. In my understanding of Jungian psychology, this is part of my personality. I am more critical of myself than others are of me.

But this passage jars me out of that way of thinking. It makes me ask, “What does God think about what I am doing?” My eyes are not always accurate in what they see. Neither are the eyes of others always accurate in what they see. What counts, what is most accurate and most important is how God sees what I am doing.

The servant says,
for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord
and my God has been my strength—

Jesus struggled with his own frustrations and anxiety that his disciples would not be ready for what was coming. I struggle with my frustrations and anxiety about how Covid-19 is affecting the life of RIC, what I will do when I return to the US next summer, what kind of house we will find to live in, where we will find a church that values the beauty of diversity.

I need to see myself with the eyes of the Lord. We all need to see ourselves with the eyes of the Lord. God is our strength. God is the one who can encourage us. The world may look at us and find us lacking, but it is what God sees that is most important.

Sociologists say that what we think of ourselves is based on what the most important person in our lives thinks about us. When Jesus is the most important person in our lives, then we are in luck because he thinks we are wonderful and he is doing everything he can to prepare us for life in his kingdom. He wants us to spend eternity with him.

Verse 6
he says:
“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
to restore the tribes of Jacob
and bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

The servant has been discouraged, wondering if his hard work was accomplishing anything and God answers by saying, “Open your eyes. I am giving you a much greater task. You think you are to redeem Israel? That’s only one nation. You will redeem Israel but also the nations of the world.”

“It is too small a thing for you,” that is the phrase that caught my attention when I first read this passage. It is too small a thing for you.

How does this relate to Jesus, the fulfillment of this servant song?

In my early years as a follower of Jesus, I assumed that Jesus knew who he was all his life, but the gospels tell us almost nothing about the life of Jesus until he began his public ministry. There is a brief account of Jesus talking with the teachers in the temple court when he was twelve years old. When his parents asked him why he was there he told them, (Luke 2:49)
“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”

Jesus had some sense of who he was at an early age, but his understanding was still limited.

We want to know more about Jesus before he began his public ministry. From the early centuries of the Christian church on, people have been curious about what the life of Jesus was like when he was a boy. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas was written between 150 and 200 AD, more than a hundred years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The text describes the life of Jesus as a child. Jesus made birds from clay and then clapped his hands, bringing them to life. He cursed a boy which made the boy’s body wither into a corpse. He killed another boy with a curse because the boy bumped into him, threw a stone at him, or punched him (depending on the translation). The parents of one of the boys who died came to Mary and Joseph to complain and they were struck blind.

Jesus also raised people from the dead. The two boys he killed were resurrected. The parents were healed of their blindness. A friend who fell from a roof and died was resurrected. A friend who cut his foot with an axe was healed.

These stories are clearly nonsense and were viewed as heretical from the beginning.

As I have matured in my faith and understanding of the gospels, it has become clear to me that while Jesus was fully man and fully God, his divinity was limited. For example: God is omnipresent, present everywhere, but when Jesus was present in Capernaum, he was not present in Jerusalem. He had to make a three day journey over dusty roads to get there.

God is also omniscient, all-knowing, but Jesus was limited in this as well. He had to ask the family and friends of Lazarus where he was buried. Jesus did not know as an adolescent or as a teenager that he was God in the flesh and would be crucified. That would be a cruel and sadistic knowledge to carry all your life.

Jesus did not fully understand who he was until his adult years and even then his understanding was progressive. At his baptism when he heard his father in heaven say to him, (Luke 3:22) “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased,” he went into the wilderness to process this new understanding of who he was. The devil tempted him in the wilderness with the new understanding he had received at his baptism.

Full of the Holy Spirit, Jesus was led by the Spirit to go into the wilderness. Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit and began his public ministry.

I think Jesus understood at this point that he was to bring the good news of the kingdom of God to Israel. Jesus was Jewish and viewed God as the God of Israel. His mission on earth was not yet fully clear to him.

Jesus was always surrounded by crowds and from time to time needed to get away. So he left Israel to go to the region of Tyre and Sidon in Phoenicia, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. (Matthew 15-21-28)
A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”

Jesus ignored her. Jesus did not say a word to her. Finally his disciples urged him,
“Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

Jesus understood his work to be among his fellow Jews, not to Gentiles. To Israel, not the other nations of the world.

The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. 
26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” 
27 “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” 
28 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

Jesus healed her daughter, but he did so reluctantly. He was taking a break from the crowds. That’s why he came to this region, so he would not be bothered. His mission was to redeem Israel, not the world.

When Jesus sent out his disciples he gave them these instructions, (Matthew 10:5–8)
“Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. 6 Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. 7 As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.

Jesus sent them to the towns of Israel and specifically told them not to waste their time by taking the good news of the kingdom to Gentiles or by going into any Samaritan towns.

But still, Jesus was amazed by the faith of the Gentiles and Samaritans he encountered. He was amazed at the faith of the Canaanite woman. “Woman, you have great faith!” There seems to be a transition that took place as Jesus began to understand his mission was to the world, not just to Israel.

When Jesus entered Capernaum, a Roman centurion, a Gentile, came to him asking for help.
(Matthew 8:5–13)
“Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.”
7 Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”
8 The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

Jesus was amazed at the faith of the centurion and he told those who were following him that in the wedding feast in the kingdom of God, people from the nations of the world would be there and some of the people of Israel would not be present.

This is a dramatic turn from the words he spoke to the Canaanite woman and a dramatic turn from what he told his disciples as they set out to preach the kingdom of God to the towns of Israel.

Perhaps Jesus told his disciples to preach the kingdom of God to Jews and not Gentiles or Samaritans because this was part of his strategy. But perhaps Jesus had a gradual, increasing understanding of who he was and what he was to do. His mission expanded with time.

After his baptism, the second significant event for Jesus was the Mount of Transfiguration when he met with Moses and Elijah. Peter, James, and John saw the three of them revealed in their heavenly glory and it was after this that Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem and spoke about being crucified.

What did Jesus, Moses, and Elijah talk about? I think that among the things they talked about, the mission of Jesus to die for the world was one of the topics.

Jesus began thinking he was sent to redeem Israel but God said to him,
“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
to restore the tribes of Jacob
and bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

After Jesus resurrected, his divinity was no longer limited. He could be present anywhere he chose without having to walk dusty roads. He knew completely the plan of God for salvation.

After Jesus ascended to heaven, the Holy Spirit descended on the followers of Jesus and they began to take the gospel of Jesus to the world. Stephen began to articulate the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus had died for the nations, not just Israel. Philip went to Samaria and Peter and John joined him after hearing how the Samaritans were responding to the good news of Jesus.

The mission of the church to reach out to the world became more and more clear. There were Jewish followers of Jesus who were slow to understand this change. They thought that Gentiles had to convert to Judaism and then they could be Jewish followers of Jesus. But Stephen understood the implications of what the death and resurrection of Jesus meant for the whole world, not just Israel. Saul listened to Stephen’s teaching and after he met the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus, he embraced his call to take the good news of Jesus to the Gentile world.

Paul retold the story of his call to ministry many times. He tells his story twice in the book of Acts, in addition to the first telling of his experience on the road to Damascus in Acts 9.

Saul fell to the ground and heard, to his dismay, that he had been persecuting the followers of the exalted, risen Christ. And then he heard words he never forgot. (Acts 26:14–18)
‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me. 17 I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them 18 to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’

Paul never forgot this call.

We have been brought into the family of God. We are God’s beloved sons, God’s beloved daughters. We have been brought into the family of God where we can enjoy the intimacy of our relationship with God and the fellowship of his followers, but as members of his family we also have responsibilities.

We are his representatives to the world. Jesus taught and proclaimed the kingdom of God. Jesus cared for the people he met. He healed them, delivered them from demonic possession, restored honor to those who had been shamed. He loved people.

Jesus ascended into heaven and now we have the responsibility to love people and care for people as Jesus did. We are the voice of Jesus that shares the good news of the kingdom of God. We are the arms that hold and hug people who are grieving, who are wounded.

This is our call.

We study hard so we can graduate from high school or lycee, or secondary school, whatever it is called in your country. Then we may go to work at a trade or go on to university. Eventually we all have a career or a job, including raising a family. We work to do well in our career or job. We want our children to do well. We want to earn more money, receive recognition by being promoted. We want to have a home, money for living expenses, and money for extras like vacations. We want to have money to help our children when they have needs.

These things take up a lot of our time. Our schedules are filled to overflowing with all the demands these things place on us.

These are all important things. It is important for us to do well in school. It is important to do well in our careers. Raising our children is a high calling. These are important matters for us, but I want you to hear this: “It is too small for you.”

It is too small for you. No matter how important your job or career, you are called to something much greater. Jesus came to redeem people from all the nations of the world and we are privileged to be his messengers. We are privileged to bring good news to the people we meet in the world.

You study hard for an exam but I want to tell you the exam is too small for you. What matters most is how you treat the people you study with. What matters most is that you are a witness to Jesus in the way you take your exam. Others may cheat, but you choose not to do that. Why? Because you are representing Jesus to the people who know you.

How you treat people you work with is more important than the work you do. You put a lot of time and energy into your work but you need to hear, “It is too small for you.”

There is a lot of anxiety among Americans because of the election that ends in a couple days. Seventy percent of Americans think that if the candidate they are voting for is not elected, the country will fall apart. I want to say to these Americans, “It is too small for you.”

In the history of the world, Jesus has continued to build his kingdom through good and bad leaders. They die and pass away but the kingdom of God grows in each generation.

There are a lot of good things we are called to do in this world but ultimately, they are all too small for us.

When we are young, we are ambitious and eager to accomplish great things. As we age we become more aware of our mortality. What this means is that it is easier to see what is most important in life when we are older than when we are younger.

When I was thirty, I never thought about my death. Now that I am almost seventy, I think about it much more often. I have always loved 1 John 2:17 “The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.” Or as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message, “The world and all its wanting, wanting, wanting is on the way out—but whoever does what God wants is set for eternity.”

Examine your life. Take a look at your schedule and ask yourself, “Is this too small for me?”

Where is the focus of your life? What are you worried or anxious about? What are your dreams and ambitions? There have been sixty-six generations since Jesus resurrected from the dead. You are not alone in being preoccupied with the concerns of your daily life. Each generation has focused on how to put food on the table, how to provide for a family, how to move through a turbulent world.

Too many people have a very small view of what they think is important. They are preoccupied with a very small world that does not extend beyond themselves, beyond their family.

Jesus calls us into his kingdom and invites us to join with him as he reaches out into the world to rescue all those who are lost. Accept his invitation. Keep caring for your family and friends. Keep working hard at your career, your job, your schooling. But remember that you have a higher calling.

Your world is too small for you.