With the recent assassination of Qassem Soleimani and the inevitable response, there’s tension everywhere. If it escalates then you imagine that there will be violence and destruction and death, not just in the Middle East but possibly anywhere in the world. Let’s pray that wise heads prevail and that war is avoided.
What must it feel like?
In relation to war it’s often said that history is written by the victors. But what must it feel like to be defeated in war? Ashamed, frightened, disorientated, demoralized, physically hurt, mentally traumatized, angry at those who promised that you would be victorious, relieved the fighting is over, struggling to survive, cold, hungry…?? (1)
What if it’s more than defeat? What if your family home is totally destroyed and your enemy then forces you to walk many hundreds of miles into a different country, leaving the place of your birth far behind you?
In Isaiah, this was the situation the children of Israel found themselves in – though for them it was even worse. Remember that God had taken them out of Egypt, made them a sacred promise and brought them to the land of Canaan. They became a nation there. In Jerusalem they built a temple in which to worship their God. They experienced victories and defeats, they strayed from their faith but were always called back by the prophets. (2)
But then the Babylonians came. They not only defeated Israel but they razed that temple to the ground and much of Jerusalem with it. The children of Israel were marched in chains to Babylon and into bondage. Everything they knew was torn down, annihilated. So, in the Bible, against the norm, we get to hear history written by the vanquished.
Does God still exist?
And the cry from the children of Israel was: “where is God?” How had he allowed this to happen? If they could no longer worship in God’s temple and live in the land that God had promised, then were they still God’s chosen people? Was God still there? Did he still exist? They were scared & they were homeless & they were thinking that God had abandoned them.
Into this crisis of identity and faith, Isaiah gives them the word of God. And it’s a word meant to completely change their frame of reference. It tells them that God is not just the god of Israel – but actually he’s the god of Babylon too. Much more than that – he’s the god of everything else as well. He’s the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out, who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people and life to those who walk on it.
A larger purpose
This God will bring a spirit-filled servant, who will liberate and bring justice. But not as an all-conquering victor. He’ll do it meekly, quietly. He will not shout or cry out or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.
And he’ll bring that justice in all the earth. Justice everywhere to everyone. Not just to Israel but to their enemies too and beyond them to the far reaches.
In the second part of the passage (verses 6-9), God also says that his purpose is for Israel to be a light to the nations. They are called to righteousness not just for themselves but for all the people on earth. Isaiah is telling the people in exile that God hasn’t abandoned them – but is at work amongst them, restoring them to be a blessing to everyone else. To open eyes that are blind and to free people who are held captive.
So, God is still God and God’s chosen people are still chosen. But now they have a larger purpose beyond themselves, which stretches to the edges of the world. A place where God declares new things which spring forth. A vision full of promise and a future. A vision which we inherit.
The servant as an individual
And today, in the first Sunday after Epiphany, we celebrate Jesus baptism. In the Gospels, it’s Jesus who is described as a light to the nations and the spirit of God descending on him. The Gospels echoing Isaiah. The Gospel’s are identifying Jesus as both the servant in Isaiah and giving him the same purpose given to Israel. To bring justice and good news to the poor, release for captives and sight to the blind (3). Jesus, the servant of God for the whole world.
But Isaiah himself is ambiguous about the identity of the servant. He refers to him in different passages (4) and together they’re called the ‘Servant Songs’. And we shouldn’t just see these songs as prophecies about Jesus and forget the other ways of reading this or we risk missing what the passage might be saying to us.
Sometimes Isaiah seems to be talking about the servant as a contemporary individual rather than someone in the future. Some scholars think the servant is Isaiah himself, others that it’s Hezekiah (son of Ahaz) and others that it’s the Persian ruler Cyrus who is referred to elsewhere in Isaiah (5).
Afterall, it’s Cyrus who defeats the Babylonians. It’s Cyrus who sets the children of Israel free and helps fund the rebuilding of the temple. A pagan king used by God to redeem his chosen people, Israel. The nations bringing justice to Israel rather than the other way around. A pill that the people in exile must have found hard to swallow. But we now need to learn from this too. Isaiah shows us that God uses people of all faiths – and none – to achieve his purposes. We don’t have a monopoly on God.
The servant as ‘community’
Of course, as we’ve seen, through a Christian lens that servant is reckoned to be Jesus. As we read earlier, his commissioning at his baptism to his vocation as Messiah is the dawning of a new era of salvation. Epiphany is the start of our calendar year and each year it’s a reminder of the new creation that Isaiah goes on to celebrate later in the chapter.
But sometimes Isaiah seems to be thinking of the servant as a community not as an individual. In Isaiah 49 he explicitly names Israel as the servant. Israel was to be a blessing to the whole world. This is why many Jewish commentators will identify the whole Jewish nation as being the suffering servant.
So, there is a multiplicity of meanings here. The servant described as a contemporary individual, as a future Messiah & as a community.
Wade in the water
And there’s more than one meaning to our passage in Matthew as well. On the one hand, Matthew is describing the baptism of Jesus, the one in whom God is well pleased. At the time, baptism was normally for Gentiles wishing to convert to Judaism. John extending baptism to include Jewish people and their leaders signified that everyone was in need of repentance. And when Jesus ‘wade in the water’ he associated himself with that, even if he personally didn’t need to. So, we are asked to identify ourselves in this story too. We too need to repent. We too need to be baptised into faith, into community, as the daughters and sons of God. And you know, God is well pleased with us too.
Perhaps we all would have more confidence if we truly believed that? And it brings its own set of responsibilities and implications. Individually we can each be servants. Called to bring good news, sight to the blind and freedom for captives. And we need to take that calling seriously. But we can be God’s servants as a community too. Here, as a church at Four Lanes End, as people of faith, Isaiah tells us that we should all be working together to bring justice.
New creation and fresh visions
So, to return to where we began, we may not all individually know the horrors of war, and God save us from that in the future, though a few here may have lived through conflict. But some here will know refugees or asylum seekers who have fled their own countries in fear and sought sanctuary here. Many of us will have had lives turned upside down by personal loss, of our old certainties gone through changing circumstances. Of being disorientated and demoralized, frightened or angry at broken promises. Perhaps it’s just a feeling that life is unfair and that we somehow feel let down. Isaiah speaks directly into all of this. He speaks of new creation and fresh visions.
Like Cyrus helping Israel, our help may come from the most unusual quarter. Just as with the story of the Samaritan, we need to be aware enough and humble enough to recognise when someone we hadn’t expected is trying to help us – and to accept that help.
But as individuals and as a community, we too are called to learn and grow from the difficult situations that we find ourselves in. Like the children of Israel, we’re each called to bring light and freedom and justice to others – not just to those close at hand but to those at the ends of the earth. Amen
‘Wade in the water’ was delivered by Ian Banks at Four Lanes End Cogregational Church on 12th January 2020. It’s based on Isaiah 42:1-9 and Matthew 3:13-17. And yes ‘Wade in the water‘ was one of the songs sung too! For more by Ian please go to the archive.
- Adapted from https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1938
- Luke 4: 18-19
- Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12
- Isaiah 45:1, 48:14.