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(Sunday between January 14 and January 20)
Isaiah 49:1-7

Last week we read the first of the four main ‘servant’ passages from Deutero-Isaiah (Isa 42:1-9) in the celebration of the Baptism of Jesus. The call of the anonymous servant in Isaiah reminded us of the ‘calling’ of Jesus into his ministry. As we move through these servant passages on to the fourth song, Isa 52:13-53:12, we can see why the Church recognised in the suffering of the servant a forerunner of the suffering of Jesus. Today, we read the second of the servant passages, Isa 49:1-7.

The four servant passages (Isa 42:1-9; 49:1-7; 50:4-9a and 52:13-53:12) form a sequence but changes take place as we progress through them. Isa 42:1-9 was in the third person, i.e. it gave another person’s view of the servant. In today’s passage we hear the servant’s own voice. That is also the case in Isa 50:4-9a. In Isaiah 49 the servant speaks about his calling from God. He has a sense of being called from before he was born. In this the servant is like Jeremiah (cf. Jer 1:5). This is not to suggest that Jeremiah is the servant, but more likely it gives the servant’s words ‘prophetic authority’. The servant describes himself as a weapon in God’s hands – a sharp sword and a polished arrow (v. 2). We sense that a ‘battle’ is taking place here, but a different kind of battle where words and servants are the things by which God overcomes adversaries.

The servant addresses the coastlands far off. The message of the servant is for those who live in such remote places, possibly exiles from Jerusalem and Judah, but it is couched in geographic terms. It ends with another geographic reference as the Lord, who speaks from v. 5 on, gives his servant as a ‘light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’ (v. 6; cf. 42:6) There is a hint at a wider purpose here than just redeeming exiled Judeans from distant places.

The details of the servant’s task are not easy to fathom. The servant in Isa 42.1-9 and at the start of today’s passage is clearly an individual, presumably one of the exiles from Jerusalem. However, in v. 3 the servant is identified with Israel. Moreover, in v. 6 we are told that it is too light a task that the servant should just bring Israel back to the Lord, but he is to be a light to the nations so that the Lord’s salvation not only reaches the exiles in far off places but the nations themselves. The sharp sword or polished arrow that is the servant himself will pierce to the heart of strange places, of seemingly impregnable social and political structures, of closed military outposts, of faiths and customs steeped in tradition. But this ‘sword’ and ‘arrow’ consist not just of this servant’s (prophetic) word. Isa 42:1-9 told us that the way of this servant was also one of compassion, gentleness and quietness as he brings justice to the nations (Isa 42:1-3).

The writer of the passage seems to be speaking on a number of levels. They probably envisage some individual who is this servant and who through their witness helps the exiles of Jerusalem and Judah, here called by the old more inclusive name of Israel, to understand what has happened to them and what God is doing through their experience. But that is not the end of the matter for God is acting to speak to a much wider audience through them.

We have only read the first two of the four servant poems. We do not yet know how this will all be achieved but we have a hint already of what is in store for the servant. In vv. 4-5 the servant considers his task in vain and his strength has seemingly been spent on nothing. Clearly the servant has experienced some hard times but he holds on to the knowledge that his cause and his reward is with the Lord. Through the Lord’s response in vv. 6ff there is some redress of this feeling of uselessness, especially as the servant recalls he has been called from the womb (cf. v. 1) and that the Lord himself has become the servant’s strength. It seems that some level of suffering, struggle, abuse, sense of futility, or even rejection is/will be part of this servant’s lot. It will only be as we get to the last song (52:13-53:12) that we will see the full extent of this.

The last verse in today’s reading (v. 7) is likely a separate oracle which has been linked to the earlier verses. It provides a further word of divine affirmation for the servant in his task. However, in calling God the redeemer of Israel we have a glimpse of the wider implications of the servant’s task. The astonishment of kings and princes and their obeisance before the Lord will be the result of this servant’s (indeed Israel’s) work (cf. Isa 52:13 in the fourth poem). This brief oracle affirms that through this servant’s work there will be a reversal of Israel’s experience, indeed of earthly ways, power and structures. The servant’s role is nothing less than an undoing of all that controls and keeps individual lives captive and seeks to destroy the life-giving ways of God.

In this time of Epiphany we get a glimpse into the work and ministry of Jesus, which will become the focus in the Gospel readings in the second half of the year. It is most appropriate that we consider these passages on the suffering servant during Epiphany before we turn our thoughts to Lent and prepare for Easter. They provide an introduction to a life that had great importance for ancient Israel and for Israel’s understanding of God’s ways with them and God’s purpose for all peoples. That is also what we see in Jesus and it is little wonder that the early Church saw in these servant stories a clue to how to understand what God was doing through Jesus. These servant passages are also set for reading in Holy Week when we think particularly of the suffering and death of Jesus. As we read the first two passages in this season, having just celebrated the birth of Jesus, we are reminded of the ‘full’ story which will only be revealed liturgically over the coming months. We rejoice at the task God called Jesus to and to which he calls his followers, but we also recognise the full cost of pursuing that task, both for God in Jesus and for God’s people.

Psalm 40

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