There are four special texts in the book of Isaiah, called “Servant Songs”: We read one of them today as our first reading, and we'll read another next week. It seems that they were originally addressed to a sort of ideal Israel, picturing God’s whole people as his Servant. But even though the Servant Songs were written centuries before the time of Jesus, they are very important in understanding Jesus, because they are most likely the place in the Bible he looked to understand himself and his mission. When Jesus read and prayed over these texts he found his identity; he used them as a guide.
So what God said to all of Israel, Jesus understood as applying to himself. And in fact much of what we just read eventually gets quoted in the Gospel of Matthew, our Gospel for this year, who says that Jesus fulfills everything it predicted. Since we’re observing today the Baptism of Christ, the day he formally took on his mission from God, I want us to read through this Servant Song closely together and think about it as a statement of what Jesus came to do and what his style is. As with any time we study a text closely, you will get far more out of the process if you actually read along and follow on your insert.
First, God speaks, pointing out the servant. Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; Christ is more than a servant to God, he’s a chosen one, a beloved Child in whom God delights, as we hear in today’s Gospel. I think a lot of us are a little intimidated to think of God delighting in us. But we have a part in that delight, if we are in Christ. God also says here that he will back Jesus up, uphold him, in other words stand behind what Jesus does and what he proclaims. We will see this idea coming back over and over in the passage.
I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.
To use a later term that Isaiah would not have known, as Christians we see the whole Trinity referenced in this verse. God the Father has endowed God the Son with God the Spirit. Peter refers to this fact in our Acts reading today: he says God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. The Spirit has many roles, but in this context the text is highlighting how he gives spiritual power to carry out a call. And who is the call for? It’s for the nations, the world. What Jesus makes happen is not just for a religious group, not just for me personally, but for the benefit of all the world. And it’s about bringing forth justice, making things right. More on that later.
He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street;
Is the way to bring in the Kingdom by making a ruckus and disrupting everybody to draw as much attention to yourself as possible? Not according to Jesus. He doesn’t work that way. He tells the truth, but he tells it in a way that isn’t overbearing; it leaves space for people to respond.
A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
That may be one of my favorite phrases in the whole book of Isaiah. Jesus is someone who tends those who are fragile in faith, rather than judging them for not being committed enough. Jesus is someone who nurtures the least little spark of spiritual life, rather than scolding somebody for not being on fire for God yet. He doesn’t say “that’s not worth my time;” no, he kneels down and encourages the smallest beginnings. This is his style, and it ought to be ours too.
He will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
The call from God that Jesus spoke about endlessly was to bring about the Kingdom. What is the Kingdom? It is the way things are when God is fully in charge. Jesus has launched the Kingdom, so in one sense it’s here, but in another sense it is still being deployed. God is already in charge, but not yet fully in charge. I don’t think anyone would tell me that in a world where God was fully in charge that some people would be unable to afford even a single room to keep them warm while other people enjoyed a 5-bedroom house and two vacation homes, or that cities would have to live in fear of airport shootings or trucks driving into crowds. If God’s Kingdom that Jesus inaugurated were fully manifest, all those thingss would be made right. Now the Kingdom isn’t limited to issues in society: it flows out of heart qualities like mercy and truth. It begins, and is starting to be manifest, everywhere anyone accepts God’s reign. Jesus compares it to a mustard seed. But those in whom the tiny seed is planted are intended to let it grow so that they can actively collaborate with God’s call in Jesus, both inside and outside.
He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth;
We've heard what the call is, and now the text points out how Jesus is persistent in that call. He is not giving up. God’s Kingdom will fully come. Justice will be done. But how do we know that Jesus has these qualities and will do what he says? How can we trust this information? Well, who is our source? Isaiah tells us:
Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it:
So our source for this prophecy has excellent credentials. God invented the universe, wrote the rules and the policy manual for it, and he’s telling us what some of his plans are.
Now God speaks to the servant.
I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
Again this reaffirmation: there is a call from God to Jesus and God is going to back it up. We can count on God to support his mission through the servant. So now God unpacks the mission even a little bit more. What job has he entrusted Jesus with?
I have given you as a covenant to the people, Covenant is the Bible word for an agreement, a promise. Jesus’s job is to embody God’s promises to us, to put them in a place where we can all get access to them. He is that place. If we want to receive God’s promises, to enter into the agreement he is putting before us, we do that in Christ.
I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, The light of Jesus is for everybody, all nations, all races, all eras, all cultures; nobody is excluded from this offer God is making. And the kind of thing Jesus does is bringing light and clarity where once there was darkness and confusion.
To open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. There is probably a spiritual reference here: Jesus gives us spiritual vision and sets us free from spiritual imprisonment. The Bible says that if we get used to habits of sin we are effectively slaves, prisoners -- and that is what sin does; it draws you in by promising superficial, plausible rewards and then it makes you a slave. Jesus offers to break all those bonds and liberate us.
But there is also a literal reference: Jesus does sometimes heal people who can’t see physically. Jesus does get involved in freeing people from prisons, just ask someone like Martin Luther King, or the people who work with Urbana-Champaign Books to Prisoners or Jesus is the Way Prison Ministries in Rantoul. Again, our readings all echo these themes today, so Peter says the same kind of thing in Acts: God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil. Jesus makes everything more like how it would be if God were completely in charge with no competition. He shows and spreads the Kingdom, both for us and through us.
God goes over the credentials for this claim he’s making once more:
I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols.
See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.
God not only points out here that he is unique and supreme, but he also gives some supporting data by referring to fulfilled prophecy. Who else, he asks, has told you ahead of time what was going to happen? This line becomes even more powerful when you realize that it itself was written before some of the things we Christians see this prophecy ultimately pointing to came true. Imagine Matthew going to look up this passage, the day it dawned on him that Isaiah’s text about the Servant might be fulfilled in Christ, and finding finds not only a description of the mission of this Jesus he follows, who lived hundreds of years after Isaiah, but also these words: before these things spring forth, I tell you of them. I mean, what a moment.
As we've seen, this section of Isaiah, along with the other Servant Songs, is one of the key passages laying out God’s mission: what he wants done and how to do it. It gives us a clear image of the Servant, who Christians believe is Jesus Christ. He is chosen, God delights in him, the Spirit is on him, he has a mission to bring about the Kingdom, and God is standing with him in this mission. He acts in love, encouraging the least spark of interest in the things of the Spirit. He does justice, he gives light, he sets free, and the supremely reliable God backs him all the way. Sounds pretty great, doesn’t it?
I said this Servant Song had two meanings, and that is true. There is Israel the community as God’s servant, and there is Jesus as God’s servant. But there is also a third meaning which came about only after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Since we are now the Body of Christ on earth, those words apply to all of us who have been baptized into Jesus and become his disciples. What is true of Jesus is true of his Body, true of us.
God gives us here a clear image of the Servant, and what is true of him is true of us. So let's read it that way: We are chosen, God delights in us, the Spirit is on us, we have a mission to bring about the Kingdom, and God is standing with us in this mission. We act in love, encouraging the least spark of interest in the things of the Spirit. We do justice, we give light, we set free, and the supremely reliable God backs us all the way. Sounds pretty great, doesn’t it?