Isaiah 49:1-7, John 1:29-42a
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus. Amen. Dear friends in Christ:
Today’s sermon is the second in a two-part series titled “God’s Servant.” The series comes from the assigned Old Testament readings from this past Sunday and today. Both are texts from Isaiah known as “suffering servant songs.”
Last week we read the song from Isaiah 42, noting its prophecy of a servant chosen and gifted. We noted how this prophecy was fulfilled in the person of Jesus, as seen by the quoting of this prophecy at his baptism.
This week we read the song from Isaiah 49. Here we see a servant who is chosen and called. The text connects well with our Gospel reading, where we heard John’s account of Jesus calling his first disciples.
As I explained in some detail last Sunday, these songs of Isaiah describe a servant that God promises to use for his purposes. Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of these prophecies. His suffering and service align perfectly with that described by the prophet.
However, we must also remember that the servant mentioned in Isaiah is initially the nation of Israel. Notice the verse today which reads: “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
Remembering this reminds us that God uses people, too, for his purposes. Our task today, then, is to learn more about Jesus as God’s servant, and to think about how we, the followers of Jesus, can also best be God’s servants.
We begin by noting, as we did last week, that Jesus is chosen by God. Our Isaiah 49 text says this specifically at its conclusion—quoting God saying to the servant “the Lord…has chosen you.” There’s other language of this text which also speaks to the idea of being chosen. Specifically, when we hear God tell his servant that he has “formed” him, “from the womb.” God’s servant doesn’t decide on his own to take on the servant role. No one in the womb can do that. Rather, he is chosen for it. We recall that God chose Israel when its forefather, Abraham, was just a “wandering Aramean.” And God chose Jesus from the very beginning, sending him into the world when the time was right.
In our Gospel reading, the message of the servant being chosen is also communicated. It’s done so through the use of the word “Messiah.” The Messiah is God’s Anointed One—the One he has chosen to save his people. Remember how Israel had chosen Saul as its king, but God sent the prophet Samuel to anoint the king he wanted—young David, who would grow up to be Israel’s great king.
When a disciple of John named Andrew heard his teacher talk about Jesus, and when he met Jesus himself and interacted with him, Andrew told his brother “we have found the Messiah.” Andrew had become convinced that Jesus was the one chosen by God—the one prophesied in the scriptures.
Jesus is God’s chosen servant. He was formed in the womb. He’s the Messiah.
We also note that Jesus is God’s called servant.
Earlier this week, I visited one of our members who can’t make it here regularly, and when I read this section of Isaiah to her she said, “Pastor, Isaiah is difficult. I don’t always understand what’s going on.” I told her I agreed… and that one of the reasons for its difficulty is that the speaker is often changing. A section may start out with the prophet speaking, but soon it’s God who’s speaking, or Israel, or someone who may take multiple roles—like the servant. Sometimes there are even parenthetical phrases in which speakers are switched.
Today’s text begins with the servant speaking. One of the first things the servant says is “The Lord called me.” He was called “from the womb” – the same place in which he was formed.
God’s servant is called. As we noted last week, this calling is one of honor. Today’s text records the servant saying: “for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord.”
That being said, this would not be an easy calling. The calling – as God explains – was to be a “light for the nations.” That’s a big task!
Israel had enough trouble keeping itself faithful. How would it be a light for the nations? God would use the servant to come—the one chosen, gifted and called. Notice what he says about all this in our text: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
The Lord’s Servant has a very high calling indeed! And although the calling will be difficult, it will be accomplished. “Kings shall see and arise; princes too, and they shall prostrate themselves,” says the Lord.
But note, too, that this will involve suffering. The servant will also be one “deeply despised, abhorred by the nation.” Notice that “nation” is singular. The servant’s own nation will despise him.
In the New Testament, the suffering of this servant is explained in great detail. He will suffer a betrayal by one of his own. He will suffer an arrest and unfair trials. He will suffer the hatred of the crowds as they call for his death. He will suffer from whip, lash and beatings. He will die an excruciating death on the cross.
And yet, he will endure this suffering to become a light to the nations.
Our Gospel reading today, describing an early scene in the servant’s life, already points ahead to this suffering, and in fact explains it. John the Baptist knows what lies ahead. That’s why he calls our servant Jesus: “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” John no doubt knew what Isaiah had said in his fourth servant song: this servant will be led as lamb to the slaughter; and by his stripes we will be healed.
Jesus is God’s servant—chosen and called.
But as we mentioned last week, Jesus is not God’s only servant. We who are chosen and called by him are servants too.
Last Sunday we noted how we were chosen in our baptism, where God said to us – as he did to Jesus – “you are my child, in whom I delight.”
Today we note that we are chosen to be a disciple of Jesus. Our Gospel reading is about the invitation from Jesus to be his disciple. “Come and you will see,” is the text’s way of communicating this invitation. It doesn’t use the word choose or call. But we recall that John later records Jesus saying to his disciples: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you (John 15:16).
We normally think of a disciple being called. Some have specific callings in the church, but all followers of Jesus are called to faith. We see this double usage in our second reading today, where Paul notes that he is “called by the will of God to be an apostle,” and the church is those who are “called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of the Lord.”
The ideas of being chosen and called are similar. But there is a distinction too. A person may be chosen for the team, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will hear the call from the coach to play. I had a couple of occasions in my life to learn that distinction. Perhaps you have too. I suppose you could say I had a call to sit on the bench and wait in case I was needed. But I certainly didn’t feel very called or chosen at that point.
God has chosen us to be his disciples. And he has called us to service as well. We are in the game!
God has called us to serve in our vocations. We serve in our jobs. We serve as members of a family. We serve at our church. We serve in our community. We serve as a citizen of our country.
Part of our service will be to suffer. This means enduring with faith the natural suffering that results from living in a world under the curse of death. Many of us know about this suffering all too well.
But even more, our call to suffer involves enduring the insults, slights and frustrations that come from being a follower of Christ. When we are known as a Christ-follower, we will sometimes be looked down upon. And we will sometimes be passed by. We will sometimes be like that servant in Isaiah—one “deeply despised, abhorred by the nation.”
And when we hang in there with our faith, we will still sometimes wonder whether our good efforts are worthwhile. The suffering servant of our text also cried out, “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.”
But note that the servant then remembers his faith. He knows he is called as a servant, and that God is with him, so with his next words he says: “yet surely my right is with the Lord, and my recompense with my God.” He trusts that God will take care of him.
One of the unpopular stands of our faith these days, which often results in suffering for those who profess it, is the belief that life begins in the womb. When we hear today that God’s servant was called and formed from the womb, it should be a reminder to us that life already at that stage is precious and holy. This week, thousands of people will come to our city and march for the sanctity of life. We pray for them, and perhaps join them. At the very least, we recall that if God already has plans for his people while they are yet in the womb, “who are we to change those plans?”
We have been called to suffer for the faith and… one last point… to bring our brother to Jesus.
Andrew came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah—the chosen one of God—the one who brings salvation. And Andrew didn’t keep this faith to himself, but he told his brother. He went and found Simon. More than this, he didn’t just tell him, but he brought him to Jesus.
Pastor Lehrer is going to be teaching a five-week Bible Class, starting next Sunday, on the topic of evangelism. We will be considering some of the latest thoughts from our church on the topic and thinking hard about work in this area. So, I won’t say much about the topic now, other than to simply note that bringing others to Jesus is a part of our calling. “Go and make disciples of all nations,” said our Lord Jesus. We are a part of his plan… expressed to us already in the prophecies of Isaiah… to bring light to the nations. Jesus is the perfect light. We bring people to him.
Since I’m not saying much about evangelism today, let me point out one more lesson from our Gospel reading. Perhaps you, like me, thought that some of the wording in this text seemed a little odd. Why the repetition of John’s observation that the Spirit remained on Jesus? And why did the disciples ask where Jesus was staying? And why are we told that they both saw where he was staying and stayed with him?
I believe there is an answer to these questions. These seemingly extraneous details of the text all serve to establish one word—a word that John uses much more often than any other NT writer—and a word he will use extensively in his Gospel to tell us about Jesus and our relationship with him. The word, in the Greek, is menei – and here it is translated as both remain and stay. The Spirit remains on Jesus. And because the Spirit remains on him, those who remain with him – or stay with him, as our translation had it – have the Spirit too. And the Spirit will remain with them.
As the Gospel of John progresses, the word will often be translated as “abide.” We think of John 15, where Jesus says: Abide in me, and I in you. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit.”
Jesus is God’s servant. He was chosen, gifted and called to serve God’s people – which he has done by saving us from our sin. He now abides with us through the Spirit. And this makes all the difference as we serve and as we suffer, for we do so as those chosen, gifted and called as well.
May God assure you, again today, of his loving presence with you. And may he bless you in your service.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.