Grace to you and peace in God, who has called us to be a light to the nations. Amen.
Today we find ourselves listening for how God is speaking to us in the words of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah is a beautiful book. It’s also a complex book, a confusing book, and perhaps a perplexing book. It’s also a book that became very influential for the early church. In fact, many early Christian writers called Isaiah “the fifth gospel,” because of all the ways the Isaiah reminded them of the life of Jesus.
For us modern people, though, reading from the prophetic books can feel really confusing. But I think there are three questions that can be really helpful when reading a book like Isaiah. Here they are:
Question 1: What might the prophet be trying to say to the people of Israel? Prophets always wrote in a certain period of time. They were speaking to the people of Israel about specific things that they were going through at that point in their history. So it can be helpful to ask, “What was going on when this prophet was writing? And does that help us understand what the prophet was trying to say?”
Question 2: How might the words of the prophet be pointing us to Jesus Christ? All of the prophets were writing before Jesus was born. But many early Christians read the prophets, and saw ways in which their words were mirrored in the life and the teachings of Jesus. So we can often ask, “Does this passage remind us of Jesus in some way?”
Question 3: What might this passage be saying to us today? The prophet Isaiah probably had no idea that there would be a bunch of Lutherans in Winnipeg living in 2022 who would just happen to open up his book on a snowy Sunday in December. He wasn’t writing to us. And yet, we believe that somehow, God’s Spirit is moving whenever we read Scripture, and that God often has things to say to us, even though these very ancient words.
So let’s start with the first question. “What might the prophet be trying to say to the people of Israel?” Well, at this point in Israel’s history, many of the Jewish people were living in exile in Babylon. The city of Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonian army, and many of the people living there were captured and taken to Babylon. So the people of Israel are living in a foreign land. They are surrounded by foreign gods. Every aspect of their lives is controlled by a foreign king. They long to return home. They long to be free. They were waiting for God to do something.
And so, Isaiah speaks to these people, living in exile in a foreign land: “You are my servants! You are my people! I have chosen you, and in you my soul delights! I have given you as a light to the nations; I have called you to share the light of my love with those around you. I am the LORD, and I am doing a new thing.”
Imagine living in exile, and hearing these words. Hearing that God delights in you. Hearing that God has chosen you, that God has not forgotten you. Hearing that God has a purpose for you, even in the midst of this foreign land. Isaiah was writing to encourage the people of Israel not to lose hope: that God was at work, and God would bring them home.
Now the second question: “How might these words be pointing us to Jesus Christ?” Listen to the first verse again: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold; my chosen, in whom my soul delights.” Now picture the scene at the River Jordan. Jesus is being baptized by John the Baptist. As he comes up from the waters, the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove, and God says to him, “You are my beloved Son: with you I am well pleased.”
Perhaps these words of Isaiah remind us of how God called Jesus to be the Messiah. How God called Jesus to be a servant: to bring salvation to the world not through might or power, but by living the life of a servant. Furthermore, in Isaiah, God says, “I have given you as a light to the nations.” And in John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.” So perhaps God’s Spirit is still speaking to the Church through these words, and pointing the way to Jesus Christ.
Now the third question: “What might this passage be saying to us today?” Well, perhaps this passage could be saying all sorts of things to us today. Even though it was written thousands of years ago, to people who were living in a very different world, God’s Spirit is still speaking through the ancient words of Scripture.
One of the things that I think of when I hear these words from Isaiah is baptism. Perhaps it’s because we just had a baptism at Abundant Life last week, and those words are fresh in my mind. But when I hear this passage, especially that first verse: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights,” I am reminded of God’s promise to each one of us in baptism: “You are my beloved child. I have chosen you. I have claimed you. I have called you. My soul delights in you.”
I picture God saying this to each one of us: “Here is my servant, name, in whom my soul delights. Here is my servant, name, in whom my soul delights…” (etc.)
And when I hear “I have put my spirit upon you,” I think of the prayer we pray at baptism: “Sustain this child with the gift of your Holy Spirit: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence.”
And when I hear, “I have given you as a light to the nations,” I think of how we present a candle to the one baptized, and we say, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”
So today, we have heard words spoken first to the people of Israel in the midst of their exile: words of promise, words of hope. But these words also point us to the person that we call Messiah: Jesus Christ. And they also speak to us today, and remind us of God’s promise for us as well.
May these words sustain you and encourage you in whatever you face today:
You are my beloved servant.
My soul delights in you.
I have put my Spirit upon you.
I have called you to be a light to the nations.