Sunday, August 29, 2010

Servant of the Lord

Our text this morning is divided into three sections. The first and last sections are a description of God’s servant while the middle section is a song of praise. I will be dealing with those two servant sections this morning. And the way that I’m going to get at them is by answering two questions. The first is this: ‘Who are these two servants?’ And that will be followed by the expected, ‘What does this have to do with you?’

Listen as I read Isaiah 42.

So, who are these guys? Let’s take a look at this first picture. Here, we have a description of someone who has received great blessing and a very high calling. Listen for the blessings. ‘Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him…’ These are not insignificant blessings: being upheld by God, enjoying God’s delight, and receiving the power of the Spirit. But they are not granted in a vacuum. They are given for a purpose. These blessings belong to the servant because of his high calling. Listen to the rest of that sentence. ‘… he will bring forth justice to the nations.’ The servant is to deal with the nations and his goal is all about justice. Don’t think of ‘justice’ merely in terms of something like civil order or social justice. The justice that this servant is concerned with certainly includes such things, but it goes far beyond it. And this becomes clear a little later in our text when the blessings and the high calling are repeated. ‘I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.’ This is about healing and freedom. The ‘justice’ that the servant of God is to work for has to do with breaking the crushing power of sin. His calling is about the Gospel. He is to bring the Gospel to bear on the nations, that is, among the Gentiles.

We now know what this servant is to do, but we still don’t know who is he. What is the identity of our mystery person? Isaiah is talking about Israel. That becomes clear after we make some comparisons. Isaiah uses the language of ‘servant’ and ‘chosen’ here. Does that sound familiar? It matches what he wrote in the previous chapter. ‘But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend…’ And that reference to Abraham at the end is not just a throwaway phrase. It fits. Back in Genesis 12 God said this to Abraham, ‘I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ Abraham was to be the means by which God would bless the families of the earth, that is, the Gentiles. Abraham and his offspring, Israel, were to bring the Gospel to bear on the nations. The servant in the first picture is Israel.

Now, let’s look at the other picture in our text. This is very different from that first description. ‘Who is blind but my servant, or deaf as my messenger whom I send? Who is blind as my dedicated one, or blind as the servant of the LORD? He sees many things, but does not observe them; his ears are open, but he does not hear.’ The picture that we have before us is not very complimentary. It might be understandable if the blindness and deafness were accidental. But they weren’t. They are the results of rebellion. And because of that, certain things follow for this servant. A later verse shows this. ‘Who gave up Jacob to the looter, and Israel to the plunderers? Was it not the LORD, against whom we have sinned, in whose ways they would not walk, and whose law they would not obey?’ The identity of this servant is pretty clear. This is also Israel. And here we see that Israel has sinned and has felt the consequences.

Both of our descriptions are about the people of God. In the first, we see the high calling and necessary blessing that God granted. In the second, we see the failure of the servant to fulfill that calling because of his rebellion. And doesn’t this accurately portray the history of Israel? Consider Mt. Sinai where Israel is blessed to be God’s treasured possession among all the peoples. And at the same time God calls them to be a kingdom of priests, that is, mediators between God and the nations. Great blessing is matched to high calling. And yet, not long after, there is failure. After the report of the twelve spies, the people of God rebel. They refuse to pursue God’s plan. It might be a little understandable if this happened only once, but this is a major theme in the history of the Church of the Old Testament. Israel’s high calling with great blessing is renewed time and again, only to be followed, time and again, by rebellion. But all is not lost. God’s plan is not thwarted. There is always a remnant, a few faithful among the rebellious.

Let’s go back, again, to Isaiah chapter 6. How is Israel cursed? ‘And he said, “Go, and say to this people: ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”’ Sounds like our second servant picture, no? But how does Isaiah 6 end? ‘And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, whose stump remains when it is felled. The holy seed is its stump.’ Though, like a diseased tree, Israel is chopped down and burned, there is still a little life in the stump, the ‘holy seed’. There is a remnant that is faithful to God. There are still those, like Isaiah, who are striving to fulfill the high calling even though surrounded by faithless rebellion.

We know who those two pictures are about. Now we’re ready to talk about Jesus. When He arrives on the scene no one is pursuing the high calling of establishing justice in the nations. The leaders of the Church of the day were caught up in the pursuit of power and prestige. Because of the failure of those leaders, the common people have no clue. They were like sheep without a shepherd. And even that little band of twelve didn’t get it. Their eyes were also blinded so that at the key moment it was clear that they did not understand. At the key moment, Jesus was left alone, a remnant of one. And so, as that faithful remnant, Jesus pursues that high calling. We know all of this because of Matthew. He quotes from that first picture in our text and applies it to Jesus. He is the Servant of the LORD who has come to establish the Gospel not just in Israel but also in the nations. Jesus is the faithful servant of the LORD. We have an answer to our first question. Jesus fulfills the calling of Israel.

Now, we’re ready to deal with my second question: ‘What does this have to do with you?’ Let’s start with the big picture. The first thing to acknowledge is that Jesus has not completed the task given to Him. The Gospel has not yet been established in all of the nations. So, He is still at work. It’s just that now He works through His Church. Isn’t that one of the lessons of the book of Acts? Luke tells us that while his first book, his Gospel, is about all that Jesus began to do and to teach, his second book, Acts, is about what Jesus is continuing to do and to teach. He starts in Jewish Jerusalem and extends His work to Gentile Rome and beyond. That’s the book of Acts. Jesus takes the Gospel to the nations, and He does that through His Church. The Church in the days of the Apostles had the same high calling that the Church of Isaiah’s day had, the calling described in that first picture: to establish the Gospel in the nations. Likewise, the Church of our own day has that same calling. We are also to fulfill the calling of that first picture. And just like the history of the Church before Jesus, the history of the Church since His coming has had its share of failure. The second picture applies to the Church of today also. But there has always been a remnant. And progress is being made. Success is assured. One day the Gospel will be established in all the nations.

Now, let me get more specific. What does this have to do with you, the people of Faith Reformed? I’ve told you before that the reason that you exist is to make Jesus look good. Remember, that’s my translation of the familiar church words, ‘Do all to the glory of God’. Make Jesus look good. That defines your life, every aspect of it. That defines our life together as a Church. We exist to make Jesus look good. Today, I want to tweak that. Making Jesus look good is not an end in itself. Doing that has consequences. The Spirit takes individuals and churches that make Jesus look good, and He uses them to spread the Gospel to the nations. As you, Jesus’ Church, make Jesus look good, the Gospel spreads to the nations.

What I’ve just said is open to so much misunderstanding. So, let me explain it a bit. I want to tell you what that does not mean. It does not mean that you all have to quit your jobs, sell your homes and then do something dramatic to spread the Gospel. I put it that way because we live in a society that looks for the dramatic. In our culture, slow, gradual change is ignored. It’s never noticed and never held up as an example. When I get junk mail about how to see my church grow, there are these testimonials of other pastors who have applied this new method and have seen their churches grow from 25 people to some outlandish number and all in just a few months. I never seem to read testimonials from pastors of small churches that do nothing dramatic, are being faithful, see growth in maturity but stay small churches. And this sort of thing is not limited to churches. We are taught to look for the dramatic. We are taught to want the big splash. Anything less isn’t quite worthy. But that’s not how Jesus thinks. Pursuing the high calling of seeing the Gospel spread does not mean that you need to do something dramatic. We don’t look for the big splash. Jesus may do something big and dramatic. When He does, we’ll praise Him for it. But that’s not how He normally works in His Church.

How do I know this? I know it because I’ve read the letters of the New Testament. Here is basic instruction for the Church. Where in those letters is the clarion call for some dramatic act? Where does Paul call Christians to pursue the big splash? You won’t find it. In his letters Paul explains truths of the Gospel, and then applies those truths to garden-variety Christians leading un-dramatic lives. So, he writes things like, ‘Husbands, love your wives.’ That’s not some big-time event designed to grip the attention of thousands of pagans so they might be converted. No, it’s a quiet application of Gospel truth. But as a result of such quiet applications, the Gospel has spread to the nations and is changing the world. It’s not about making a big splash.

Let me pull this together. Here’s what I want you to take home with you. It comes in two parts. Here’s the first part. You are called to be the means by which Jesus will fulfill that first picture in our text. You are called to be the tool that Jesus uses to establish the Gospel in all the nations. This is a basic element of being a disciple of Jesus, of being a Church. Here’s the second part. You will not accomplish that by aiming at the dramatic. If you adopt that kind of thinking you will become discouraged and quit. You are, instead, to lead lives of very un dramatic obedience. You are to work at making Jesus look good in the normal routine of your life. Jesus will use that kind of living to spread the Gospel.

So, who is the servant of the Lord that Isaiah has been talking about? In one very important and obvious sense, it’s Jesus. But in another, equally important sense, it has always been, and it will always be the people of God, the Church. You are the servant of the Lord.

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