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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

God's Servant in the 21st Century

            Think of the most important news stories in the world right now.  I don’t mean your favorite stories although the most important could be a good, positive story.  What I am getting is the stories that are significant for humanity.  What issues or stories are the big ones?  Concentrate on the one or two that come to mind.   Think on the first one or two stories that came to mind.
            Now, raise your hand if the story you thought of is negative.  If it would be “bad news,” just raise your hand.
            Some that came to my mind as example of the most significant current events include the following:
-         Race relations in the United States.
-         The ongoing war with Isis in Iraq and Syria.
-         The terrorist murders in France.
-         Climate change.
-         The Republican-controlled congress.
-         Immigration in the United States
-         Same-sex marriage becoming a norm in American culture.

I wonder if anything that came to my mind would be on your list.  It’s too simple to count every story as “bad”.  Some certainly are.  Others are rife with tension because there is the negative element, but also the potential for hope.  These stories and many you have thought of and stories that we can’t see coming that will dominate headlines tomorrow collectively make up the narrative of our time.  This is our day.  When seen collectively, the signs of sin wreaking havoc and destroying human life are all too obvious. 
What word does a follower of Jesus Christ speak into this bad news?  To what action is the body of Christ, His church, called in our day?
We want to live out our faith publically.  We want to live as Jesus’ disciples not only as we carry out our individual lives and our church life, but also as we give a witness to the goodness of God and claim that God’s goodness, seen in Jesus, it a truer story than the bad news we hear.  We want to counter the anxiety, hatred, death, and destruction we see in these stories with a story of the good news of life in Christ.  All people are invited to Him and He seeks the lost and in different ways most of us have times of being lost.
Isaiah, living in Babylon with the Jews who were there as exiles, spoke the good news of God into a situation in which God’s people felt defeated an abandoned.  They thought themselves dead and the promises dating to Moses gone, but Isaiah came along to say God is still all powerful, God is with us, and God will save us. 
Isaiah’s words to the exiles are found in Isaiah 40-55.  Within that block, there are four passages called the servant songs.  Isaiah 42, 49, 50, and then the most well-known 52-53 are passages in which the prophet speaks of a special servant of the Lord, or the prophecy is from the perspective of the Lord’s servant. 
Bible scholars have widely debated who specifically was being discussed in these “servant songs.”  Who is the servant?  There have been many suggestions.  The servant is the prophet himself – Isaiah.  The servant is the nation of Israel, commissioned by God to be a light that shines and allows the world to see God (Is. 49:6).  The the emperor of Persia when Persia overthrew Babylon and allowed many Jews to return to Israel, Cyrus, is specifically named in Isaiah.  Thus, many think he is the servant.  New Testament writers took the prophecies to be signposts pointing to Jesus. 
Isaiah certainly did not know Jesus was coming.  He knew God was doing a new thing, but he expected to see God work in his lifetime and he did.  God has always been a God who saves.  I don’t think Christians are wrong to read the “servant songs” and immediately think of Jesus.  However, I think there other ways of identifying the servant are equally appropriate. 
Donald Gowan of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary writes, “The identity of the servant is not the key issue.  … What God accomplishes through the servant is what is important.”[i]  Another expert, Norman Gottwald, of New York Theological Seminary says, “The most promising question is not who is the servant but what does the servant do?”[ii]  When I was in seminary, we would get caught up in discussions over issues like this, and I have found it extremely encouraging to read these scholars and hear them express more concern about the servant’s action and what it says about God.  Most helpful is the perspective of Paul Hanson of Harvard Divinity School.  He says, “The servant is the description of the human being whom all who love God are challenged to become.”[iii]
Isaiah?  Israel?  Cyrus?  Maybe the servant image pointed to these, but when we consider the world around us, and the problems, and when we realize we are called as Christ-followers to announce the Gospel and the hope it brings to a lost, hurting, dying world, then the servant is a depiction of who we are called to be as God’s witnesses.  And in Jesus, we have a perfect example.
Look at Isaiah 42.  God delights in the servant.  After Jesus was baptized a voice from Heaven said, “You are my Son, the Beloved.  With you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22).  In Isaiah 42 God says, “I will put my spirit upon him.”  Luke 4:1 says Jesus was full of the Spirit and led by the Spirit.  Isaiah 42 repeatedly shows the servant to be an agent of God’s justice (v. 2, 3, 4).  In his first public sermon Jesus declared that the Spirit of the Lord anointed him to bring “good news to the poor, … release to the captives, … recovery of sight to the blind, and … [freedom] to the oppressed” (Luke 4:18).
In Isaiah 49, the servant is the speaker.  “While I was in my mother’s womb, he named me” he says (49:1).  The Angel Gabriel told Mary, “You will bear a son and name him Jesus” (Luke 1:31).   The servant says God made his mouth like a sharp sword.  “He made me a polished arrow” (49:2).  In Revelation, the resurrected Christ is described as having a two-edged sword coming from his mouth (1:16).  In Isaiah, the servant says God is glorified in Him.  In the Gospels, God is glorified in Jesus during the transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36).  Also in John 12, shortly before he is arrested, Jesus declares that his action of sacrificing his own life brings glory to God.  Immediately, a voice from Heaven confirms what Jesus just said.  God is glorified in Jesus and in what Jesus’ act of dying on the cross (John 12:27-28).
If the various Bible scholars are correct and the most important thing to see in Isaiah 42, 49, 50, and 52-53 is what the servant does, then we can see that Jesus does it better than anyone.  He perfectly filled the role of the servant described by Isaiah, and the servant is the key figure in God’s salvation of Israel and in turn the world.
Now recall again the problems we face – racism in our country; war in Syria; terrorism on a global scale; an immigration system that is completely broken and affects millions of people in our country; pollution which leads to climate change.  As Jesus’ disciples, we are called to respond to the bad news of terror, war, and death by sharing the good news of life in Christ.
How do Isaiah’s prophecies and Jesus’ ideal modeling of those visions help us?  Consider what we are.  Paul writes in 1st Corinthians 12, “You are the body of Christ” (v. 27).  He also says, “In the one spirit we were all baptized … and we were all made to drink of the one Spirit” (v.13).  After Jesus rose from death, he breathed the Holy Spirit into his disciples (John 20) and after his ascended, the Holy Spirit filled hundreds of Christ-followers at Pentecost.  Jesus is as present and as active as when he walked the earth but not bodily.  He is present in spirit and in the church, us.  We act as the body of Christ.
What did Professor Hanson say about the “servant songs?”  If we are people who love God, then we strive to live into the role of God’s servant.  Thus we look at the same verses from Isaiah Jesus fulfilled and see if those depictions can continue to be descriptive of the church in the world today.
In Isaiah 42 it says God delights in the servant and in Luke 3, at his baptism, God calls Jesus his beloved.  Isaiah tells us that God puts his spirit upon the servant, and Luke 4:1 says Jesus was full of the Spirit and led by the Spirit.  What about today?  Paul writes in Romans 5, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (5:5).  As the servant is beloved of God and endowed with God’s spirit, so too are when we receive forgiveness and give our lives to Christ. 
Last week we talked about seeing God above the problems of the world, as over everything.  We see God for God is.  This morning, we add to that, our perception of ourselves.  In Christ, we are sons and daughters of God.  When we find ourselves tempted to dwell on problems, our own personal struggles or the evils that threaten people around the globe, a helpful spiritual discipline is to remember that in Christ we are sons and daughters of God.
Isaiah 42 shows that God’s servant works for justice (v. 2, 3, 4), and Luke 4 among many other Gospel passages shows Jesus’ concern for people who suffered injustice.  We are living into the life of God’s servants when we identify the most vulnerable people in society and we work to help them.  Most often, these are those who are victims of injustice.  We see it, name it, and work to counteract injustice.  This will be our theme next week, but here we’ll simply say that the Lord’s servant speaks and works for the justice the Lord demands.  When we act out of compassion to help those in need, we are living into the role of God’s servant. 
Isaiah 49 also showed us some things about the servant including that God knew him before his birth.  And the Angel Gabriel told Mary she would have a son and would call him Jesus.  Does the Lord pay such careful attention to us even before we are born?  Luke 12 and Matthew 6 are both places where Jesus talks about the intimate, detailed care God has for us.  Like the servant, we too are loved. 
Isaiah 49 also tells us that the servant speaks the piercing truth so that his words are like a sword, and we see the same of Jesus throughout the gospels and the sword metaphor used in Revelation 1.  The servant says God made his mouth like a sharp sword.  If we as individual disciples and collectively as the body of Christ want to answer God’s call and live as God’s servant, we have to speak the truth of the word of God.  We don’t need to go out of our way to try to step on the toes of people in our lives.  We don’t need to quote scripture all the time.  But our words must laced with, colored by, and washed in the truths of the Bible.  When they are we end up pointing people to God. 
That’s not always comfortable or easy.  It doesn’t always feel good.  But, speaking truth in all occasion with love and compassion and tact indicates that we are living on God’s terms for God’s purpose.  We have given up our lives to Him that he would use us as His instruments of healing in the world. 
Finally, in Isaiah, the servant says God is glorified in Him.  In the Gospels, God is glorified in Jesus.  When we love, when we show compassion and work for peace and justice, when we welcome all people, and when we realize that because of Christ we are God’s offspring as well as his creation and all this determines how we speak and how we live, then God is glorified in our lives. 
The servant songs become a 21st century word that speaks to the world around us as we see ourselves for who we are in Christ and set our lives so that all that we say, think, and do reveals our complete God-orientation and Holy Spirit dependence.  Now, again, recall the opening question.  What are the stories of today, the big issues?  Which one troubles you most?  It could be a national current like terrorism.  It could be something local.  Maybe what troubles you most is something in your own neighborhood or your own family. 
We are God’s servants – loved, Spirit-equipped, armed with the truth we have in the word, and commission to work for justice, show compassion, and point people to Jesus.  We are going to take a few moments now for silent reflection.  Consider what you find most troubling in the world today.  Ask God how you, as His servant, and how we, His church, are to speak and give his hope and peace and love to the people suffering from that trouble God has put on your heart.  Take a few moments to think and pray about it silence, the problem, and the word of God we, His servants, are to bring to the people who suffer.

After we have this reflection time, we will sing, you will be invited to come for prayer if you would like to come. 


[i] Gowan (1998), Theology of the Prophetic Books: The Death & Resurrection of Israel, Westminster John Knox Press (Louisville), p.159.
[ii] Gottwald (1985), The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction,Fortress Press (Philadelphia), p.497.
[iii] Hanson (1989), Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preachign: Isaiah 40-66, John Knox Press (Louisville), p.44.

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