Isaiah 49:1-6: Will you come and follow me?

ISAIAH 49.1-6: WILL YOU COME AND FOLLOW ME? A Bible study prepared by Paul Beasley-Murray to supplement Comfortable Words – A Call to Restoration: Reflections on Isaiah 40-55 (BRF 2021) by Steven Croft.

Introduction

This is the second of one of the four-called ‘servant’ songs –  the others are 42.1-4; 50.4-7; and 52.13-53.12. As Steven Croft in his study guide Comfortable Words: A Call to Restoration rightly stated: “There are many layers of meaning here” (57). Viewed this side of the cross and resurrection, Christians have understandably interpreted the passage of Jesus. However, in the first place they were words spoken to God’s people in exile in Babylon. The question with which scholars wrestle is whether the servant in question is the unknown prophet, or whether the servant personifies the nation of Israel. And, of course, there is the question of how we interpret this passage today:  I believe that there is not just a message here for the church as a whole, but also for each one of us as individuals. For in one way or another God calls each one of us to follow in the steps of his Son Jesus, the Servant par excellence.

A personal perspective

I want to do something which I rarely do – in the first instance I want to interpret this passage of myself, and only then see how it might apply to us all. Forgive me if this appears a little egocentric, but as you will discover, it is a passage which has resonated with me.

Called to serve:

49.1b: “The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me”. Commentators drew a parallel with the experience of Jeremiah. For in Jer 1.4 God says to Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations”. This has also been my experience. Let me quote to you from This is My Story:

Just as there is no stereotyped conversion experience, so too there is no fixed pattern of call….. In my own case, brought up within a Christian home, there was never a time when I did not believe that God had called me to be a minister. I wish I could say that it was otherwise. I wish I could not have been so open to the charge of following in steps of my father. But the fact is that like Isaiah’s Servant of the Lord (Isa 49:1), Jeremiah the prophet (Jer 1:5) and Paul the apostle (Gal 1:15), I have been conscious of God’s hand upon my life from the very beginning of days. True, as a teenager at one stage I sought to make a half-hearted struggle against it, but I quickly gave up. If there was one text which summed up my call to ministry, it was some words of Jeremiah: “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name’, then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jer 20:9). For me ministry was not one option among many – I felt I had never had any other choice – God had laid his hand upon me and there was no escape. God had called me to ministry – and in particular that God had called me to preach.

This sense of call has sustained me and acted as a sheet-anchor, when difficulties have come my way. In the words of the Apostle Paul: “An obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I preach not the Gospel” (1 Cor 9:16). Or, in the words of Martin Luther: “Here I stand, I can do no other”. My security was not to be found in the fact that the church had to give me nine months’ notice if it wished to dismiss of me, but in the fact that God had laid his hand on me and called me to be his minister. 

Equipped to preach:

49.2: “He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, and in his quiver he hid me away”. GNB: “He made my words as sharp as a sword”. Here the prophet is reflecting upon his calling to speak God’s word. In this connection I am reminded that Paul in his description of the armour of God describes “the word of God” as “the sword of the Spirit”. Similarly in Hebs 4.12 we read: “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart”.  Through the preached word God speaks into our hearts – sometimes a word of love and comfort, sometimes a word of judgment and of challenge.

Like Jeremiah I believe God called me to be a preacher: but he not only called me, he equipped me to be a preacher. From birth he gifted me with an ability to stand up before others and speak of the difference that Jesus makes to living and to dying. True, it took a while to develop – indeed, my mother told me that I was very slow to speak. But in due course God , as it were, took me out of his quiver – and ever since the age of 16 I have been a preacher.

‘God will have the last word’ (The Message):

Serving God as a Christian minister is not an easy calling. Sometimes you really wonder what you have achieved. As I wrote in Pastors under Pressure:

Baptisms and church attendance apart, it is almost impossible for pastors to measure what God has achieved through their ministry. For most of the time they have little, if any, knowledge of what has been wrought in other people’s lives. The grace of God apart, there is little to fall back upon in their darker moods: ‘Has all my sermonising been in vain? Have they truly understood what I have been trying to say? If they did, then what is their commitment so seemingly superficial? What have I achieved through my visiting? Have I simply been passing the time of day, or have I spoken to someone’s heart?’ Questions like these arise, and this side of the Jordan there are no easy answers. All of this seems to contrast with the world of business where the profit/loss balance is seen so clearly.

For this reason the words of the prophet in 49.4 strongly resonate: “I said, ‘I have laboured in vain. I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward is with God”. GNB: “I said, ‘I have worked, but how hopeless it is! I have used my strength, but have accomplished nothing’. Yet I can trust the Lord to defend my cause; he will reward me for what I do.”

Alec Motyer (The Prophecy of Isaiah 327) commented: “As the called Servant (1-2) he has been faithful in labouring and spending himself, now it is for the Lord to bring what fruit he will out of it all. Resting faith in the answer to despondency.” Paul Hanson (Isaiah 40-66, 129) wrote:

God’s task of saving the world is invested not in superhumans but in normal, faltering flesh and blood, a comforting thought for faithful but fallible servants of all epoch.

God’s salvation is universal in scope

Ultimately what counts is not building a bigger and better church, but reaching out to those who have never darkened the door of a church and have no idea what God has done for them in Jesus.

49.6: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Isaiah and to restore the survivors of Israel, I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth”.

In this regard let me a story told by a Dutch theologian, J.C. Hoekendijk, of a one-time prisoner of war from Russia who gave his impressions of the church as he found it on returning to freedom:

There is a preacher talking from behind the pulpit. We don’t understand him. A glass cover has been put over the pulpit. This smothers all the sound. Around the pulpit our contemporaries are standing. They too talk, and they call. But on the outside this is not understood. The glass cover smothers all sound. Thus we still see each other talk, but we don’t understand each other anymore.

Hoekendijk commented that it was not ordinary glass that separates people on the inside from those on the outside, but distorting glass! The people outside receive the strangest images of what is going on inside the church.

Sadly things have gone from bad to worse. The glass covering the church is now triple-glazed and even more distorting. What a challenge we have!. As a young man I was a missionary in Africa: but ironically today the people of Africa know more of the Gospel than then people of Britain. We are now a mission field. We will never win our nation to Christ if our focus is on Sunday worship. Somehow we have to smash the glass case covering the church, and engage with people in all their pain and lostness.

Group reflection:

How does this ‘servant song’ speak to you? What resonates with you?

Steven Croft’s insights

 In my copy of the book I marked three statements:

  1. “The comfortable words I want to explore today unfold a mystery at the centre of the universe: that almighty God, maker of heaven and earth, calls women and men into a relationship of love and entrusts us with a purpose for our lives and a mission to God’s world (55)
  2. “A very important part of being a Christian is the work of discovering God’s purpose for our lives, our vocation… The pandemic has given all of us the opportunity to press the reset button on our lives and to reconsider those deep questions of vocation.” (58, 59)
  3. “God’s call to the servant comes even before the servant is born… God’s call comes to those who are very young. As we read these words today, our thoughts, prayers and imagination should be drawn to God’s call to children and young people today…. One of the most demanding areas of our life to reset and rebuild will be our ministry to children,, young people and families.” (60)

Group work

A recent report on children’s work stated: “40% of practising Christians said that they ‘came to faith’ before the age of 5” (Talking to Toddlers). When did you first come to faith?

How can we make ministry to children, young people and families more of a priority in the life of the Cathedral?

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