Our Year with the Bible has brought us to Isaiah, the longest of Scripture’s prophetic works. About 1/3 of the Bible is associated with prophets: men and women who speak God’s word to kings and queens. The prophets imagine the world as God would have it be and remind political leaders their responsibility to practice justice and peace. Many scholars believe that Isaiah contains the words of several different prophets, spanning the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BC (BCE) through the Exile (587-583) and after. The first 39 chapters are centered around the collapse of the Northern kingdom and the threat to Jerusalem caused by the Assyrian empire. Chapters 40-55 are told by a people who is in Babylon, exiled from Jerusalem. The people watched Babylon destroy their city and God’s Temple. They are far from home and do not know if they’ll ever return home. They are stuck, weak and powerless, wondering where God is.
What’s striking about these words from Isaiah 42 is that they are delivered to a people who are in exile. The Israelites are oppressed yet they are called God’s servant. They cannot go home yet God calls them to bring forth justice. The people’s faith and culture have suffered a deep blow when Jerusalem fell yet God promises them God’s spirit. The people hearing these words for the first time would have identified themselves as the servant. As God’s chosen people, God is their king and they are God’s servant. These verses affirm their relationship to God even though they saw God’s Temple fall. Even in Babylon, God is with God’s people and God’s people have a job to do.
So what is that job? God is calling people to reorder “social life and social power so that the weak (widow and orphans) may live a life of dignity, security, and well-being.” (Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66, Westminister 1998, 42). The people of Israel are vulnerable. Babylon has power over them, breaking weak reeds and dimming candle wicks because that’s how power over others works. But God is taking God’s broken people and telling them to “reorder social relations for the sake of the vulnerable.” The community is no longer purposeless and isolated. They are called to be a servant for justice in the world.
As Christians, we see Jesus in Isaiah 42:1-4. When the disciples of John the Baptist asks Jesus who he is, Jesus points to the blind gaining sight, the sick being cured, and the prisoners being sent free (see Luke 4 where Jesus quotes Isaiah 61 but it is similar to Isaiah 42). Christ’s mission to reconcile the world through love, sacrifice, and mercy rather than brute force or war, is our call too. The servant isn’t reduced to one person or one identity. All of God’s people are called to be God’s servant even if they feel powerless, weak, and find themselves far from home.
Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 8/07/2016.