************ Sermon on Isaiah 49:1-7 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on March 8, 2015
"The Discouraged Servant"
At one time or another most of us have been depressed, down in the dumps, discouraged. Life becomes a real chore when that happens. You find yourself sleeping all the time and unable to get up. You have no appetite for food. Even the simplest job looks overwhelming to you. Friends and family worry about you. Everyone sort of tiptoes around you. Perhaps you have been there. Maybe you have lived for a while behind closed doors. Many good people have.
There was a young lawyer who descended into the valley of despair. Things were going so poorly for him that his friends thought it best to keep all knives and razors away from him for fear of a suicide attempt. In fact, during this time he wrote in his memoirs, "I am now the most miserable man living. Whether I shall ever be better, I cannot tell. I fear I shall not."The name of the young lawyer with these desperate feelings of utter hopelessness might surprise you. His name was Abraham Lincoln.
In this season of Lent, on this Lord's Supper Sunday, we continue our study of the Servant songs of Isaiah. Last week, we looked at the Compassionate Servant. This week, we look at the Discouraged Servant.
I A Cry of Discouragement
A In our text we hear a great cry of discouragement from the prophet Isaiah. Listen to what he says:
(Is 49:4) "I have labored to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing."
Why does Isaiah talk this way? Why is he so depressed and discouraged? Isaiah has witnessed the Assyrian captivity of Israel, Judah's brother to the North. He has preached and prophesied and warned Judah and Jerusalem that the same will happen to her unless she repents. Yet, in spite of all his preaching, the moral and religious climate of Judah and Jerusalem continues to slide downhill. In spite of all the warnings he has given, Isaiah sees that his people are on a slippery slope to death and destruction, punishment and exile. Like Elijah, he believes he is the only one left who serves the Lord. To Isaiah, at least, it seems that his ministry is in vain, bears no fruit, and has no purpose because no one listens.
B I mentioned last week that the real identity of the Servant is the Lord Jesus Christ. So the passage in front of us is not so much about Isaiah as it is about Jesus, the true Servant of God. It is from the mouth of Jesus that we are to hear the words of our text:
(Is 49:4) "I have labored to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing."Jesus, the Servant of God, sounds discouraged.
Why would Jesus, the eternal and glorious Son of God, talk this way? He talks this way in His state of humiliation. Don't forget, as a man He was weak and tempted in every way, just as we are, yet was without sin. In the Garden of Gethsemane, for instance, He struggled to do the will of God and He suffered the deep anguish of grief, trembling, and fear. He complained more than once that the animals and birds, unlike Him, at least had a place to lay their head. He was rejected and despised not just by the leaders of the people but even by His own family. And consider His friends: Peter denied Him, Judas betrayed Him, and the rest forsook Him and fled for their lives. As for the crowds, they preferred the murderer Barabbas to Jesus. Also, don't forget how Jesus ended His life -- on the cross, cursed and forsaken not just by man but especially by God.
Isaiah's second Servant song, then, points forward to the utter humiliation of our Lord not only upon the cross but also earlier. Is it little wonder, then, that the Servant makes the statement of our text?!
(Is 49:4) "I have labored to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing."
II Called, Named, Formed by God
A As the Lord's Servant struggles with discouragement He needs to remind Himself that He has been called and chosen of God. Isaiah says,
(Is 49:1,5) Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations: Before I was born the LORD called me; from my birth he has made mention of my name ... (5) the LORD ... formed me in the womb ...
Isaiah is first of all speaking of himself. He reminds us that he is no accident of nature. God has called him into being. It is God Who has given him his form and substance. From birth, and even before, God has known him and has had a plan for his life. The plan of God was not an ad hoc thing, something done on the spur of the moment. God's plan is not something new or constantly changing. Like God Himself, God's plan is eternal. Knowing this, Isaiah realizes that there is meaning and purpose to his life.
B As I mentioned before, this passage is more about Jesus the Servant of the Lord than about Isaiah. So, listen with Jesus in mind:
(Is 49:1,5) Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations: Before I was born the LORD called me; from my birth he has made mention of my name ... (5) the LORD ... formed me in the womb ...We all know that Jesus was called and known by God from the beginning. It is Jesus Who was formed by God in Mary's womb. It is Jesus for Whom God has an eternal plan. In the midst of His disappointment and discouragement, the Servant is reminded that there is meaning and purpose to His life and ministry.
III An Instrument of God
A There is also a second thing that God's servants have to keep in mind as they struggle with discouragement -- that they are an instrument in the hands of God. Isaiah says,
(Is 49:2) He made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver. It may be the man Isaiah who is doing the preaching and teaching and warning, but he does so as an instrument of God. From his mouth people hear the voice of God Himself. He functions as God's representative, God's ambassador. Therefore, when people reject him it is God Himself they are rejecting. Isaiah doesn't have to worry about being a success or a failure. All that the Lord asks of him is to be faithful in the work he has been called to do. I came across a poem this past week that speaks to this:
People may be unreasonable, illogical and self-centered. Love them anyway. Isaiah is to continue in his ministry because as God's servant he is doing the Lord's work. He is the Lord's instrument. As long as he does this work, it makes no difference what the world of men thinks or says.
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Do good anyway.
If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway.
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.
The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
The biggest people with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest people with the smallest ideas. Think big anyway.
People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs. Fight for some underdogs anyway.
What you spent years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway.
Give the world the best you have and you'll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you've got anyway!
As an instrument in God's hands Isaiah has the most wonderful and greatest job on earth -- to be a light of glory for Israel and a light of revelation for the Gentiles (vs 6; cf Lk 2:32). It is his job to proclaim the Gospel which is to one the smell of death and to another the fragrance of life (2 Cor 2:14-16) to the end that God may be praised and honored and glorified (vs 3b).
As an instrument in the hands of God success or failure is up to God and not to Isaiah. As Isaiah puts it,
(Is 49:4b) Yet what is due me is in the LORD's hand, and my reward is with my God.Knowing this, Isaiah can give it all over to God. There is no need to be discouraged when Isaiah realizes that his ministry is totally in God's hands.
B Again, as I said before, this passage is more about Jesus the Servant of God than about Isaiah. It is He Who is God's chosen instrument. It is He Who is a light of glory for Israel and a light of revelation for the Gentiles (Lk 2:32). It is He Who is a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, but to those whom God has called He is both the power and the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:23-24). It is He Who is despised and abhorred by the nations (Is 49:7). It is He Who fulfills the promise of God to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to make them a blessing to all the earth. In the midst of His disappointment and discouragement, He is reminded that He must do what God has called Him to do: redeem the lost, save the sinner, rescue the fallen, restore the tribes of Jacob, be a light to the Gentiles, and bring God's salvation to the ends of the earth.
C There is one big difference between Isaiah and Jesus, however. Jesus succeeds in His mission while Isaiah, like Israel, fails. Go to the book of Acts. What do you see? You see the work of Jesus to redeem the lost, save the sinner, and rescue the fallen. Through the church, the light of Christ is brought to Jerusalem, then Judea and Samaria, and from there to the ends of the earth.
Notice how I put it: Jesus does this work through the church. In other words, we are part of Jesus' mission. As Paul puts it:
(Acts 13:47) For this is what the Lord has commanded us: "I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth." We are God's ambassadors and God appeals to the world through us. We can have programs and committees and Mission Emphasis, but when it comes down to it God's people must proclaim the Good News of the cross and the grave, the manger and the stable.
In telling us about the Servant, Isaiah is painting a picture, a portrait, of the Messiah. In popular Jewish thought the Messiah is rough and tough, a warrior Who defeats all His enemies by military and political action. But Isaiah is painting another picture. Last week we learned about the Compassionate Servant. This week we learn about the Discouraged Servant. In stroke after stroke Isaiah is leading us to see the Suffering Servant of chapter 53. This Servant saves by way of the cross and the grave.
Congregation, on this Lord's Supper Sunday and in this season of Lent, look to Jesus. See Him as the Servant of the Lord. See Him as the Servant Who saves by way of suffering and death and resurrection and life.
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