Isaiah 49

Sermon Date: 
16 Jan 2011
Bible Base: 
Isaiah 49

David Jeans

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Yesterday, besides being my birthday, I was teaching at the Yorkshire Ministry Course which is a sort of regional vicar school – it’s where Hilda and Keith both trained. This is the third year in which I have been asked to teach a couple of days on preaching.
Whenever I do that I encourage them to look for new things in the passage they are preaching on. But the passage I get them to prepare is the one from Isaiah that we have just read. It’s a passage on which I have preached at several times and in several places. I have preached on it here before as well. (I had even originally planned that one of the other preachers should be preaching today!) So what should I do – use what I have done before or look for something new?  
Well, I don’t think that I can get away from the challenging meaning of this passage for the church in the twentieth century. And some things that have happened this week have made me realise that it is still right to look at that challenge again.
The first was last Sunday when we looked at the baptism of Jesus, which was the launch pad of his public ministry. After years of preparation, years of getting to know his Father through prayer and through his study of the scriptures, he was led by the Spirit and by his grasp of the scriptures to go to the Jordan to be baptised by John. That launched his ministry as King, as servant, as sacrifice for the sins of the world. He heard the voice of God and off he went.
Then at house groups this week, those of us looking at last week’s gospel passage saw how immediately after his baptism Jesus was driven by the Spirit to the wilderness where he was tempted about the direction and methods of his mission. I do think the church gets Lent so wrong. We use it for spiritual navel gazing, to examine our walk with God. Jesus used his 40 days in the wilderness to work through his mission. Maybe we should do the same this Lent.
Secondly, on a visit this week I offered to pray. The person declined the offer saying I’m not religious – as though being religious were a qualification for speaking to God. Some of you will have heard me speak about a time during my chaplaincy at SWFC when I was introduced to a new member of the coaching staff as ‘this is David; he’s our vicar, but it’s all right he’s not too religious!”. The good news of the amazing God we see in Jesus Christ is not just good news for the religious – in fact in Jesus’ day it was the religious who were his main opponents.
Thirdly, I was on the phone to my sister this week, and she asked me ‘how is church going?’ And I um’d and ah’d a bit and felt a bit flat about it, and then I said ‘well, it’s all right, we had more people at our Christmas services than last year’, and then I thought and said ‘but I want to see so many more people coming to know God’.
Last week we were thinking about on your marks, get set, go. Perhaps this week is about where we should go.  
So back to Isaiah 49. Its about the servant – who is probably the prophet, but also the people of God. And there is also a prophecy of Jesus in this passage. But for our purposes it may be about us.
The servant is a bit flat – actually he’s more than flat, he’s quite depressed. Yes I’ve been called by God (v1); yes I’ve been equipped by God (v 2) to show the world who God is. But look at v 4 – I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing at all.
As a church we know what we want to see – people coming to know God – but not that much seems to be happening.
Now that’s partly because these are difficult times for the gospel, and this is a difficult place for the gospel. Bishop Steven has written about our need to reject what he calls the ‘failure narrative’ for the church. We have not failed, we live in challenging times. Some wonderful things are happening – and I would include our children and young people’s work in that.
But it’s not easy to reach adults – we can offer things, but not many come. Perhaps because they think ‘I’m not religious’.
We should not buy into the failure narrative. We should not give up. We should be in the place where the servant is in verse 4b, which is the turning point of this passage.
Yet what? Yet I will turn over a new leaf and try harder? Yet I will go somewhere else where more things are happening? Yet I will plod on as before?
Yet what is due to me is in the Lord’s hand, and my reward is with my God.
God has called us, God has equipped us, God will bring about God’s purposes. But perhaps we need to listen anew  to those purposes.
And this is what happens in verses 5 and 6. First of all he hears a reminder of who he is. And so do we. For we are the body of Christ, we are the children of our heavenly Father, we are the heirs of Abraham through whom God wants to bless the whole world, we are those filled with the Spirit of God.
To do what? To make the religious feel better? To put on church well?
I just love verse 7. It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob. It is too small a thing to reach the religious, to do church well, to get attendances on Sunday increasing.
I will make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
God is not just interested in the religious. His salvation is not just for the religious. He is not just good news for the religious.
Look at Jesus’ own ministry. In our Gospel reading he calls fishermen – working men. He calls Nathanael who didn’t think much of Nazareth. Later in his ministry he blesses the crowd at a wedding who have run out of wine, he talks to a Samaritan woman who was on her sixth bloke and not even married to him. He gives sight to a blind beggar, he has a meal with the tax collector Zacchaeus. He heals a woman with a medical condition which would have kept her out of the synagogue. The common complaint by the religious was that he ate with sinners (which probably meant those who didn’t go to the synagogue.
Earlier this week someone asked me what it meant when we say in the Creed ‘we believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic church’. The word ‘catholic’ means for everybody. It means we should be a Bassetts church – ready to take all sorts. And we follow a Bassetts God – loving and seeking all sorts of people, and not just religious ones.
What about you? Are you not religious? Great, that’s just who Jesus wants in his kingdom! What about your neighbours? Not worth talking to them about God, they are not religious????
One of my favourite books is ‘Christianity Rediscovered’ by Vincent Donovan. Donovan was a Roman Catholic priest on the mission field in the Masai area of Tanzania. He worked on a mission station, and the Masai people came for medicine and education but did not make much progress with regard to religion.
So Donovan decided to do two things. He decided to go out from the mission station to the Masai villages and to talk to them about God. So when he was asked why he had come he said’ to talk about God’. ‘Who would not want to talk about God? If that is why you came to our country, why has it taken you so long?’. Donovan found a response when he met them on their own territory. He also found a response when he learned to talk about God in their language rather than in the church’s language. He was prepared to go to the ends of the earth in his thinking and in his talking.
The challenge of Isaiah 49 to us is what it has always been. It is to go to where people are – the pub, the shops, the school, the leisure centre, the fishing pond, the football ground, your place of work. It is to be brave enough to speak about God – and flexible enough to talk about God in their language not in the church’s language. Which means listening as much as speaking.
That is, I believe, the direction of our mission. I’m not sure how to do it. We will need to wait upon God and seek his face about it. In terms of the school, I think our time of prayer at the school should be about this as much as it is about praying for the school itself. Listen to God – and if he gives you ideas, share them!
That’s daunting stuff. But remember how the passage ends ...This will happen because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.