Week of January 23
Rev. Teresa Edwards
Lesson scripture: Isaiah 49:1-6
Go into any restaurant. Sit down. The waitress greets you with these words: “Hi, my name is Teresa and I will be your server. What can I get for you today?” We expect good service and frequently don’t return if the service is poor, even if the food is good. Service makes or breaks the experience. In the church setting, the believer serves at God’s table. Do we pray daily, “Lord, I will be your servant, what can I do for you today?” God expects the covenant people then and the church now to serve faithfully. In the second servant song, Isaiah asks the people to revisit their role as servant to God’s world.
Listening to the call again
The opening words of Isaiah 49:1-6 get our attention. “Listen to me,” the servant cries out. This second Servant Song feels and reads differently from Isaiah’s previous prophecies. Who are we listening to in this confusing text? The servant, who could be identified as an individual or Israel, speaks to the people about the here and now, not the future. He demands that the people remember they are called by God. Everyone needs to open their ears and eyes to the sovereign God. All the earth needs to hear the message that they must share. Listening is the first step.
Once the people begin to listen, they realize this suffering servant speaks an important word. Furthermore, his qualifications back it up. “First, God gave to him the gift of penetrating speech. Second, God shaped his entire being as a delicate, yet sturdy being able to travel distances with ease and to hit a distant target. The servant was a gifted speaker and a man equal to the demands of a worldwide audience.” (Duerling (editor), “The New International Lesson Annual”) Confident that he is chosen and gifted by God, he urges the covenant people to hear once more that they are the chosen people. “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” (Isaiah 49:3) In remembering and reclaiming this essential truth, the people begin to wipe away the dust of exile and discern their true identity as God’s servant.
Sometimes the church, and we as members of it, lose our way. Then someone comes and reminds us who we really are, who we are called to be. In the well-known movie, “The Lion King,” young Simba shirks his responsibility in taking his father’s place as leader of their pride out of guilt, fear and ignorance. The young lion runs away to live a life of freedom and fun with his friends in the forest. All the animals suffer, almost to the point of death, because of Simba’s rash decision. One night, in a dream, his father comes to him in the stars of the night sky and speaks a powerful word: “Remember Who You Are!” Simba returns home and assumes his rightful role as leader of their pride.
Everyone needs someone to help them find their way back to themselves. The suffering servant we know in Jesus Christ comes to call us back again and again. When we wander away from God’s path and plan, let us listen out for the voice of one who can show us the way back to ourselves.
Labored in vain
While in exile, the reminder of failure came easily to the people, with just a glance out the window. Instead of a view of the Promised Land and the Temple, Babylon looked back. Their sin, disobedience and lack of faith marked the landscape. God’s people tried to be faithful again and again but fell away into sin. Surely they knew how it felt to labor in vain and end up in failure.
In the voice of the servant, Isaiah cries out: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” (Isaiah 49:4) Thankfully, the servant does not leave them in the depth of despair. “Yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with God … for I am honored in the sight of the Lord, and my God has become my strength.” (Isaiah 49:4a, 5b)
With these words hanging in the air, God’s people must make a choice: to turn away or to trust. The same choice is ours. All of us can say with honesty: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” (Isaiah 49:4) What we offer often falls exceedingly short. Sometimes those to whom we offer it refuse our gift and us as well.
Once in a very difficult season in ministry, I felt that I did labor in vain. Every day as I drove to work I passed a house cleaning business. Each morning I thought: “Lord, let me go to work there instead,” even though I hate to clean house! Yet in that challenging time, my trust in Christ grew as I held on tight to my call and His promise. That call and promise proved more powerful than my experience of failure. Now the ministry I share is richer because of that experience. My ministry grew because God gave me the strength to trust instead of turn away.
Light to the nations
Listening to our call and learning to trust in the face of failure lead us to where God wants us to serve. “I will give you as a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”(Isaiah 49:6) The servant calls us to do as he does, to light the world up with God’s saving love.
Darkness overwhelms our world. Yet Jesus’ light is stronger than our darkness. It is His light that we must carry in our hearts. That light is a gift for all so our witness makes a world of difference. As a child I remember singing a song you know by heart as well. It is a song of light in a dark world, a light that only I can carry and shine. “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine … Everywhere I go, I’m gonna let it shine … All through the night, I’m gonna let it shine … let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.” (UMH, page 585)
Sing on friends, sing on …
Rev. Teresa Edwards is the associate pastor at Forest Hills UMC in Macon. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.