A fortnight ago the world said goodbye to Andrew Sachs, the actor who famously played Manuel in the comedy Fawlty Towers. You may remember that Manuel was the rather hapless Spanish servant of Basil Fawlty. He was a waiter from Barcelona with a rather weak grasp of the English language - his most frequent phrases were “Si!”, “Que?” and “I know nothing!” He often received a clip round the ear from Basil for his hopeless attempts to serve the hotel’s guests.
Fortunately, in today’s Bible passage we meet a rather more impressive servant than poor Manuel. Because Isaiah chapter 49 brings us face to face with God’s special servant - a servant who puts every other servant in the shade. A servant who will “bring salvation to the ends of the earth.”
As we look at our six short verses this morning, I want us to notice three things about this Servant Saviour. Three things that distinguish him from Manuel - and every other servant in human history:
- Firstly, God’s Servant has a unique identity;
- Second, this Servant will suffer rejection;
- And thirdly, God’s Servant will be vindicated.
What’s more, I want you to be persuaded that only one person perfectly fits Isaiah’s description of the Servant Saviour. Only the life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus fulfils the person profile provided in Isaiah 49. I want us to be reassured that only Jesus offers the salvation promised in our passage today.
But before we get to grips with this passage, let’s pray: Lord Jesus, Servant of God and Son of God, help us to see you in Isaiah 49 today, and to truly listen to your voice. Amen.
- God’s Servant will be unique (v.1-3)
Can you guess what interviewer Jeremy Paxman, politician Ken Clarke, footballer Ian Wright, actress Maggie Smith and comedienne Miranda Hart have all got in common? The answer is that they have all published their autobiography in time for Christmas. Their books are available just in time to make it into your Christmas stocking. Their publishers are not silly, they know its the right time of year to maximise sales!
Today’s Bible passage is also an autobiography, an autobiography by God’s special servant. But what’s remarkable about this autobiography is when it was written. Autobiographies are usually written by celebrities at the end of their career - but this one was written 700 years in advance!
You see, the words we read in Isaiah 49 today are words that Isaiah was inspired to write down before God’s Servant himself actually arrived on earth. They are prophetic words from the Servant that were sent to Isaiah ahead of time, like we might receive a phone call or a text message from a friend. They give us advance warning they’re on their way, so we can be ready to receive them.
And the first thing we learn about God’s coming servant is that he is unique. He is quite unlike any other human being who has ever walked the face of the earth.
For a start, this special Servant has a unique authority. “Listen to me” he says in verse 1. “Listen to me you islands, hear this, you distant nations.” Here is someone who demands the world’s attention. Someone who speaks and expects to be listened to. The only character in the Bible who demands such unqualified obedience is God himself. No one else makes such a staggering claim. Even Old Testament prophets justified their words by saying “Thus says the Lord” – they didn’t claim to speak on their own authority.
But when he came, Jesus was different. The Gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) tell us that people were amazed when they heard Jesus speak, because he spoke with authority, not like their rabbis or other religious teachers. Jesus didn’t qualify his words by saying “thus says the Lord”, or “its only my opinion, take it or leave it”. Instead he said, “truly, truly I say to you” and expected full obedience. He said every wise person should build their life on his words, like a wise man builds his house on a rock. You see Jesus was, and is, the Servant who speaks in verse 1 today. He alone speaks with full unqualified, divine authority, and we should build our life and faith on his words today.
Verse 2 of our passage also tells us a little more about the Servant’s words. Like “a sharpened sword” they are totally effective. And like “a polished arrow”, they have amazing accuracy. Throughout the past 2,000 years, people have had their lives transformed by the powerful words of Jesus. Words that perfectly diagnose the human condition, give sure guidance in life, and provide a certain hope for all who trust in them. “Listen to me” says the Servant – and so we should!
As well as having a unique authority, the Servant also tells us in verses 1 and 3 that he has a unique origin. Listen again to what he says: “Before I was born the LORD called me. Before my birth he has made mention of my name. He said to me “You are my servant, in whom I will display my splendour”.
It seems this Servant was known by God before he was born. It seems this servant’s job description was settled before his human body was conceived. Indeed, verse 3 even suggests that the LORD spoke to his servant before his earthly life began, telling him what his mission in the world would entail.
Now you don’t need to be a Bible-buff to know that only Jesus fits the Servant’s self-description. Only God the Son enjoyed a relationship with his Father before he was born here below. Only God’s Son was sent into the world with a specific task to perform. Only Christ could write his autobiography seven centuries before his conception in Mary’s womb.
Its all beautifully summed up in the famous phrases of John chapter 1 - sentences which will be read at the climax of our Carol Service this evening: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.”
Lastly, in verse 3 the Servant tells us he has a unique mission. A mission to “display God’s splendour”. Through his words and deeds, the Servant’s role will be to reveal God’s goodness and glory to the world. The servant would personally take on his shoulders the job description that had previously been given to the whole nation of Israel. The job of revealing the character of God to the world. A job the nation had failed to complete, due to its disobedience, rebellion and sin. Verse 3 says this solitary God-given Servant would succeed where generations of fellow Jews had failed.
Once again, I hope its clear that when Christ came he did indeed fulfil this unique job description. His twelve closest friends saw no sin in him. The apostle Paul wrote that the glory of God shone from Jesus’ face. Even Christ’s enemies had to admit he was innocent of any crime. And Jesus himself testified that to see him was to see the Father.
Hopefully you can remember back to four weeks ago, when we began this sermon series in Isaiah. Hopefully you can remember that Isaiah was granted a glorious vision of God’s glory when he was worshipping in the Temple one day. We might wish we had the same experience, but in reality we are in an even better position. You see, Isaiah’s vision of God was partial and short-lived. But now that Jesus has come we have a vision of God that is perfect, permanent, and always accessible. Whenever we look at the life of Jesus in the Bible, whenever we reflect on his words and deeds, we are given a unique view of God in all his glory.
- God’s Servant will suffer rejection (v.4)
How do you feel as 2016 draws to a close? How has your career progressed over the past twelve months? How successful have your efforts been to be a good parent or grandparent? Are you pleased with what you have achieved at work, at home, at church or in our community? If you feel satisfied, elated and even rather chuffed with what you’ve achieved, that’s great. But many of us will have also had our frustrations and discouragements this year too, no doubt. Many of us will be able to point to some things that haven’t gone as planned, as well as we would have hoped. Circumstances and situations that have gone against us. We’ve probably all encountered people whose attitudes and actions have been deeply disappointing or frustrating for us. We’ve probably all had times in 2016 when our motives have been mistrusted or misunderstood.
If that’s been your experience, then don’t despair. Because God’s Servant, the Lord Jesus, faced frustration and opposition in his life too. He shares his feelings with us in verse 4 today, doesn’t he? Because he says: “I have laboured to no purpose, I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing.” Jesus must have felt those feelings when his disciples deserted him. When those who should have trusted him turned against him. When the religious authorities attacked him rather than recognising him as their Messiah. And, above all, when the Romans condemned him to crucifixion.
Yet throughout all this, the Servant tells us in verse 4 that he keeps trusting in God. He says: “What is due to me is in the LORD’s hand, and my reward is with my God.” What a great testimony of faith that is! Something we should all try to imitate when we go through tough times ourselves.
You see, Jesus, the suffering Servant entrusted himself to his Father. He trusted that God would be at work for good through his suffering and death, that his Father would achieve his good purposes through his Son despite the opposition of sinful men and women. In today’s passage the Servant tells us he takes satisfaction from the thought that he is serving God. He seeks his reward from God, rather than running after the popularity and praise of men.
So whatever 2016 has involved for us - and whatever 2017 may hold in store - follow the example of Jesus, the suffering Servant. Trust that God has good plans for you, trust that your life is in his hand. And live to please him, to do what is right in his sight, whatever other people may think of you.
- God’s Servant will be vindicated (v.5-6)
Wonderfully, in verse 6 today we see that the Servant’s faith in God is vindicated. Because God the Father addresses his Servant – his Son – with these words: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
As we look how the life of Jesus - God’s perfect servant - panned out, we can see how gloriously those words came true. This side of the Cross, we can see that Jesus’ suffering was necessary to take away the sins of the world. We can see that it was necessary to open the possibility of forgiveness for all who follow him. And this side of the Cross, we also know that Jesus didn’t stay dead, did he? We know that he was restored to life again on the first Easter Day. The resurrection was the great vindication of Jesus’ life and ministry, an event that led to the birth of the Church, and the spread of the Gospel message. A message of salvation that over the last 2000 years has travelled well beyond the borders of Israel – to Gentiles as well as Jews (even as far as Gidea Park!), just as God said it would.
So as I finish this morning, I hope you can see three reasons why Christmas is worth celebrating. When Jesus walked on earth, God’s long-promised Servant Saviour had arrived:
- A servant with unique authority – so we should hang on his every word.
- A servant who would suffer for our sins – so we should turn to him for forgiveness.
- And a servant who was restored to life by God – so let’s tell the world!
Let me pray: Lord Jesus, our Servant King, thank you for the authority of your words and thank you for suffering for our salvation. Help us to celebrate your birth and share your Gospel this Christmas. Amen.