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Good News In Troubling Times: Jesus – A Light For The Nations, Isaiah 49:1-13

Jesus: A Light For The Nations
Isaiah 49:1-13

In a short devotional for Christmas, writer Paul Williams reflects on why he still remembers one particular Christmas pageant from 1981. It all starts with his son, who had strep throat. He writes:

“The dull eyes tipped me off before he could open his mouth. Jonathan had strep throat. It seemed the children in our family picked up strep two or three times a year, and someone always had it during the holidays.

Jonathan had been excited about the nursery school Christmas play for a couple of weeks. He would be Joseph. Mary would be played by a Jewish girl from down the block. Yes, her parents had given permission for her to be in the Christmas pageant.
With neck glands swollen and his voice a nasally whine, Jonathan begged to go to the festivities. Against our better judgment, we acquiesced. Bundling our son in his warmest coat, we drove the five short miles to the Central Islip Church of Christ. By the time all the parents had squeezed into the small auditorium, Jonathan was as white as the pillowcase he was wearing as a head covering. He looked fragile and diminutive.

Cathy and I sat on the front row. Jonathan came down the aisle hand in hand with Mary, and the two sat down on the second step below the manger, recently retrieved from its usual home in the boiler room. Jonathan was looking paler still, all the light out of his big blue eyes. He looked at us and managed a weak smile.

As soon as the play was over we hauled Jonathan off to the doctor’s office. Since our family doctor was a friend, we sneaked in and out in no time. Filled with penicillin, our son was feeling better the next morning. I do not remember much about the rest of that Christmas season, though I am sure it was utterly delightful, as all Christmas celebrations are.
I have often pondered why that is my only remembrance of that Christmas, in December of 1981. Of all the memories of all our family Christmas experiences, what makes that one event stand out?

I know the reason.

Christmas is truly about frail vulnerability, freely chosen. With heart in throat God watched his infant Son cry and squirm in the cold manger, where there was no penicillin.

I know how I felt watching my son with his head resting in those small hands, wanting to be brave, but weak and unsteady. I can only imagine what my heavenly Father thought, seeing his infant Son in the hands of a frightened young girl.

What words come to mind when you hear the word “Christmas?” When I say the word, I think of words like family, gifts given and received, lights and trees and garland, hot cocoa and Christmas cookies, and my collection of Fontanini nativity pieces that will be up in the sanctuary before next Sunday’s service. And of course Christmas music. But there’s one word that I’ll bet doesn’t come to mind when you think about Christmas: vulnerability. That’s what Christmas really is, though, when you think about it. It’s a celebration of vulnerability. The vulnerability of God. I don’t think there’s anything more vulnerable than an infant right after birth.

And yet, that was God’s chosen path for entering our world, for becoming like us – the path of birth. And not birth to experienced parents either. Parents who had a child or two, and a birth or two, under their belts. No, he came into this world as an infant and landed in the laps of rookie parents. And he came at a time when birth wasn’t a guarantee. It wasn’t at all uncommon for women to lose their lives giving birth. If something went wrong … and how often does something go wrong during pregnancy and delivery? There were no doctors specializing in pregnancy and delivery. No maternity wards. No operating rooms and caesarean sections if something went wrong.

As a couple, Becky and I had 6 pregnancies. One ended in miscarriage. One ended in Corin’s death shortly after birth to a known birth defect. And five led to children who came home with us, all by c-section. Without that surgical intervention, both Aubrey and Becky would have died during delivery, and that would have been the end of it. And then Zeke died as a child. And that’s with all of our modern interventions and safety precautions. God entered the world in Jesus at a time when none of that was available. Talk about vulnerable.

But there was a lot inside that vulnerable little baby boy crying in Mary’s arms and peeing on her. Turn with me to Isaiah 49:1-4.

The people of God had a problem. They were in captivity. By now, the Assyrian Empire had fallen and Babylon was now the big dog in the Middle East. They, the people of God, were a conquered people, displaced from the land God had given them, living in captivity in Babylon. For centuries their identity had centered on being the children of Abraham and the children of God’s promises. They were his special possession, intended to be a model for the world of what life in God’s kingdom, in relationship with him, was like.

They were supposed to be the means by which the world came to know God, and they couldn’t find their own way to God. They were constantly unfaithful to God, turning their backs on him and going their own way. They had, time and time again, broken their end of their covenant with God. Which meant that God, by rights, was released from his side of the covenant. Nothing in the situation required God to continue to be faithful to them. And it appeared that he wasn’t. They were a defeated people living in Babylon, not the Promised Land. Jerusalem was a shambles and the great Temple of Solomon was destroyed. But even then, as God disciplined his people, he was reaching out to them, seeking relationship with them, communicating with them through his prophets. Isaiah was one of those prophets.

The early chapters of Isaiah focus on God dealing with what his people thought was their big problem – their captivity in Babylon. The language centers around their unfaithfulness and exile and God raising up Cyrus, ruler of Persia, to allow them to return to the Promised Land. But there’s a really subtle shift in Isaiah. The language is still about the people being in captivity, in exile, but there’s no further mention of Babylon or Persia or Cyrus. The focus shifts to a servant of God’s who would suffer for the people. A child. A suffering servant who came as a child. You see, not only were the people captives in Babylon. They were also captives to sin. And no matter how hard they fought against that captor, sin, they couldn’t win. There was no victory. God would deal with their displacement from the land through Cyrus. But it would take another, Jesus, to deal with their – and our – captivity to sin.

But God deals with both problems … their oppression and humiliation and disgrace at the hands of others – the things they were dealing with in this sinful world, AND the sin problem that made this a sinful world and led to their tendency to chase power and pleasure and thus oppress others, and then wind up oppressed themselves. One way of looking at the way the church, the people of God in the world, is divided is to see us as falling into one of two camps – those who focus on relieving suffering in this world, and those who focus on bringing people to Christ, leading them to be saved by grace, forgiven of sin, through faith in Christ. Truth is, God is focused on both. It isn’t an either-or situation. Sin destroys our relationship with God, and leads us away from God, and in the process our relationships with other people are damaged.

In our pursuit of power and pleasure, we place others beneath us. We oppress. In Jesus, God restores the oppressed. He healed the sick, cast demons out, and spent time with people no one else would touch. AND he deals with the sin that separates us from him. God doesn’t deal with one or the other. He faces, and deals with, both. And we, as his people in the world, are to do the same. We feed the hungry, house the homeless, befriend the lonely, heal the sick, AND we share the good news of Jesus. There is no dichotomy between word and deed. God wants us to focus on both. And he does it through Jesus, Isaiah’s suffering servant who would come as a child.

He came into this world in vulnerability, as a baby, and his weapon would be his mouth – the Word of God. The Gospel of John calls him, literally, the Word of God. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1, 14).

Vulnerable, yes, but not helpless. Look at the imagery Isaiah uses to describe him. His mouth is a sharpened sword. Does that sound familiar? Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” And he is a polished arrow.

God didn’t march into this world with the armies of heaven, weapons blazing, to destroy. No, the Eternal Father sent the Eternal Son as a secret agent, entering the world not as a king, but as a helpless baby. But the baby itself was the weapon. Why the emphasis on the weapons being hidden? A sword that is sheathed and an arrow protected in the quiver maintains its sharp edge, protected from corrosive elements. The picture is of a weapon ready for use at the right time. Jesus, during his public ministry, often told people not to tell when he healed or delivered them. Why? Because the time was not yet right for God’s full plan to be revealed. But Jesus was God’s perfectly suited weapon for the defeat of sin, and thus the defeat of our human tendency to oppress and abuse and neglect others because we’re too focused on ourselves.

And his job? Look at V. 3. His job was to BE Israel, FOR Israel. They couldn’t do it themselves, so he would do it for them. He didn’t come with armies to destroy, as Assyria and Babylon did. He came to restore. To destroy sin and restore our relationship with him. He brought redemption. And there we see it … the heart of God. A heart of compassion. Not an angry God who wants to destroy us, but a loving God who hurts with and for us, who seeks to restore a relationship with us, who pursues a relationship with us. God wants you. To love you. To be loved by you. He needed to destroy the power of sin without destroying anything, or anyone, else. And so he came not with armies but as an infant, crying in the arms of his mother. He took our vulnerability and weakness upon himself.

And, in the eyes of this world, he didn’t really do all that much. Look at Vv. 4-7. He came to a poor, insignificant family, and was raised in a town no one respected. Remember the words of Nathaniel, his disciple, before he followed Jesus. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn. 1:46). What he did was, in the eyes of the world, worthless. His public ministry lasted a total of 3 years. He was barely a blip on the radar screen of human history.

And though he attracted the attention and adoration of the masses for a while, by the end, he hung alone on the cross, executed as a criminal, one of his best friends denying three times that he even knew him. How long, really, did the crowds adore him? If his whole ministry lasted three years … it took time to build a following, and then he lost it. For how long was he really popular? A year, maybe slightly more, at most. He knows firsthand that feeling of futility you get when your best efforts fall flat. When it feels like you lose no matter what you do. When you feel like all of the cards are stacked against you. He experienced futility in its fullness. He saw it from his own eyes as he hung on the cross, dying, alone. The one God sent to save.

And yet, he would BE God’s salvation, not just for Israel, but for the whole world. For everyone. Look at V. 6. Literally, the verse reads “I have appointed you … to BE my salvation to the ends of the earth.” Not the bringer of salvation, but salvation itself. He is God’s salvation embodied. And yes, there will be a time, when the wisdom and compassion of God’s plan is recognized and celebrated. Look at V. 7. From futility in our eyes, to a cosmic victory. Jesus went from the throne of heaven to the gutters of earth, but he would return to the throne victorious.

You see, his job was, and is, to bring us fully to God. That was the mission God gave him. Look at Vv. 8-13. He brings us out of the desolation and imprisonment and darkness of this world, and he leads us fully to God. Across deserts and over mountains, he never leaves us. No matter what our situation is like in life … whether we have more than enough or not enough, whether we know success or failure, whether our hearts are filled, in the moment, with joy or despair, celebration or pain, he is there with us. Providing for us. Protecting us. And he is gathering a people from every point on the compass. A people made up of all people. He is a light, not just for the people of Israel, but for the nations of the world. From him God’s saving light would shine in the darkness in ways that Israel herself never could bring about. In our failure and weakness, his greatness and goodness comes shining through. All the peoples of the earth will join together in praising him. Not every person, but people from all over the world, in all times.

Our job is not to hang on a cross and defeat sin as he did. That is something he did once for all. But we ARE called to take up our own cross and follow him. If he was called to be a servant, s are we. St. Paul in Philippians 2 tells us, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus …” (Ph. 2:3-5). Literally translated, it reads “Have the same mind among yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus.”

As we follow Jesus, the suffering servant, we too become servants. Not just pastors and missionaries. This applies to all of God’s people. Whether you install electronics or sell appliances, whether you’re a teacher or a doctor, whether you’re a student or a retiree, whether you’re rich or poor, as a follower of Jesus, you are called to be a servant. To view your situation as a little corner of the world in which the light of Jesus can shine through you into the darkness. So here is my challenge to you: This Christmas season, get in the habit of praying this prayer, every day, as you head to work or school or wherever you’re going that day, “Lord Jesus, you served, and you call me to serve. Let your light shine through me, through my words and my actions, as I go about my day.”
One pastor tells this story of an interaction he had with someone after a Bible study at church one Wednesday evening.

“Pastor, could I talk to you for a minute?”

Her voice was low; she wasn’t sure of herself. She looked to be in her early 20s, a girl I’d never seen at our church before.

It was my first year as senior pastor at Full Gospel Tabernacle in downtown Fresno, California. I was greeting people after the Wednesday night Bible study.

“What can I do for you?”

“Would you please talk with my husband? He moved out from our home and into an apartment with two women. I don’t know what to do.”

“Is he a Christian?”

“He’s the one who led me to a relationship with Christ.”

“I’ll be glad to talk with him. How can I get in touch with him?”

“That’s the problem. I can’t reach him. If he wants to talk, he calls me.”

There was little I could do. I asked her to have him call me if he talked with her again.

I remember the look of despair in her eyes as she walked away.

Friday was my day off. I got up early. We were landscaping our front yard, and I wanted it finished. By late morning the end was in sight. It was hot. I was muddy, aching, and thoroughly tired of the whole project. To add to my woes, I ran out of ornamental plants. I drove to the store for more.

The first store had the right kind, but the price had gone up. A store a mile down the road had them, and the price was right. I loaded my cart and headed to the checkout.

As I waited in line, I glanced at the cashier’s nametag. It looked familiar.

As he began to ring up the plants, I motioned to his nametag.

“Is that your name?” (Dumb question, but I wanted to be sure.)

He looked at me blankly, going on full “village idiot” alert. “Yes.”
“”Are you married to ________?” and I named the woman who had talked with me on Wednesday night.

He looked wary. “Yes?”

I drew myself up to my full 6 feet 5 inches – unshaven, messy, sweaty, and muddy. I gave him my happiest smile.

“God has sent me here to talk to you about your marriage.”

Some 300,000 people lived in the Fresno area then. Out of all of them, the first person I had talked to – other than family and staff – since Wednesday night was this husband.

In a lifetime of seeking to be led by the Lord, that is the most powerful example I have experienced. I had heard many stories of people led by the Spirit to go to unusual places or to say unusual things. I always wondered what that would be like. At times I’ve really needed guidance and have prayed earnestly for it. God has helped me. But my unerring, no-wasted-step trip to that husband remains my most remarkable example. Not only was I not trying to be led, I wasn’t conscious of God’s leading. I just wanted the yard finished.

The compassion of God. A God who pursues, not just you, but the people he brings across your path every day. A light to all the peoples of the earth. Let us pray.