ESV Isaiah 49:1 Listen to me, O coastlands, and give attention, you peoples from afar. The LORD called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name. 2 He made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow; in his quiver he hid me away. 3 And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” 4 But I said, “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my right is with the LORD, and my recompense with my God.” 5 And now the LORD says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him– for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD, and my God has become my strength– 6 he says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” 7 Thus says the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation, the servant of rulers: “Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves; because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”
Listen to me. Give attention, you peoples. Sounds like someone is talking to us here. Someone is trying to get our attention and tell us something. It is an urgent plea; a fervent cry. What he has to say is imperative. It is a matter of life and death.
But who is calling out to us? Who is he who says, “listen to me”? It is Jesus Christ himself. His is the voice calling to you today. His is the voice who called out through the prophet Isaiah 700 years before he was conceived of the virgin. His is the voice calling out to you today through the prophet Isaiah. “Listen to me, O coastlands and give attention, you peoples.” His is the voice that speaks to us, his people, each and every time the Scriptures are read. It is the voice of Jesus talking to you personally each time you open a Bible and read what he is telling you. Jesus is not silent today, but is present, speaking, crying out to you, calling you to salvation and life in his Word and Sacraments.
Who is this Jesus who calls out to us today? The one whom the Lord called from the womb; from the body of his mother. The baby in the womb of his mother had already been called by God to be his servant. Still in the womb he had already been named by God, and his name was “Salvation.” While still in the womb of his mother, when he entered into the house of Elizabeth, the still unborn John the Baptist leapt for joy at his mere presence.
On a side note, all of this speaks of human life in the womb. Before birth God calls his servants, gives them their name, gives them life, a body and a soul. They are living human beings, already under the care and providence of God who has chosen them since before the creation of the world to be his people.
God has made His mouth like a sharp sword. His words penetrate into the soul. They pierce us to the core. They accuse us with the law and expose us for who we really are as sinners and they condemn us to death.
But they are also words that give life and cleanse our soul from sin, raising us from the dead to newness of life. This is our speaker who cries, “Listen to me, for the words of my mouth are like a sharp sword.” They hold the power of life and death for you.
He was God’s servant. God made him Israel in whom he would be glorified. He was formed from the womb to be God’s servant and to bring Jacob back to him; that Israel might be gathered to him. But for this he would suffer. He labored and toiled in suffering. In sorrow and grief he lived and walked. Death hung over him like a cloud from his birth when the king slaughtered the innocents. He was despised and rejected. Men shook their heads at him in disbelief. He was abhorred by the nations, and rejected by his own brothers and sisters. He came to rescue Jacob and gather Israel, but hearing they did not hear, and seeing they did not see. They closed their eyes and ears to him and utterly rejected him. A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. He bore the sin and guilt of all humanity on his shoulders. He was a man burdened by the people he came to save. Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I shall give you rest. He takes our burdens from us and bears them himself. That is a big burden for a single man to carry. And he was led to a cross. Abandoned even by his Father.
But there he was, hanging on a cross. It looked like failure. To the human eye his mission had failed. So he cried out to his Father, “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” The eyes of men do not behold the work of God. All the eyes could see was failure and death. The Servant had labored and spent all his strength but for nothing. Despised and rejected by the very people he came to save. Abhorred and hated by the very ones he loved. Betrayed by those he trusted. Denied by his closest friends. Abandoned by his disciples. Forsaken by his Father on the cross. And in his human nature what else could he have said “I have labored in vain.” Made to be a light for the nations. Sent to bring salvation to the end of the earth. Now all there was of him was a dead body being placed in a dark, cold tomb. Yes, even Jesus in his humanity could see only rejection and failure. Even he asks out loud in our text: have I labored in vain?
So too are we. Grandiose plans we make. Dreams of success and fortune. We work hard to achieve our goals. But so often they slip away. Our dreams turn to smoke, our work to dust. We wind up in failure and disappointment. Just when we reach the golden years of retirement meant to be relaxation and pleasure, we find ourselves getting old, our bodies starting to deteriorate. Our limbs stop working, our hearing fades, our vision dims, and our memory forgets. The things we dreamed of doing in this life now fading away. Our children don’t follow the paths we have set before them, or obeyed our teaching. Our best laid plans fail. Our hopes flee. And we cry out to the Lord, “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing.”
And so also we are tempted to see the church. Small, elderly, finances fading away. Have we failed? Have we labored in vain? Have we spent our strength for nothing? We want to see success. We want to be liked. We want to be respected. We want to be praised and receive glory for all the work we do, all the things we have accomplished, all the progress we have made. We want something to show for our toil. But we mostly see nothing. We become discouraged. We doubt ourselves. We doubt God. We doubt the power of God’s word to accomplish what he says. We might look to other means to accomplish our goals. We are tempted to invent our own methods or trust in our own ideas, intelligence, or creativity to achieve success. We adopt the methods of the world, strategies of business, or principles of psychology. We are tempted to seek success, be popular, liked and we turn into false prophets who try to satisfy the itching ears of people. Trying to please everyone just to be popular instead of proclaiming the pure word of God, the Law and the Gospel. As God says, “The time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” (II Timothy 4:3). Seeking teachers who will teach and do what we want instead of what God ordains, causes one to fall away from faith in Christ and puts us on the path to eternal damnation.
However, being in Christ means we will suffer as Jesus suffered. We will have our crosses to bear. We cry with Jesus, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing.” But he was different from us. He said, “Yet surely my right is with the Lord, and my recompense with my God.” When he didn’t see the results he wanted, he trusted in God. He trusted in God’s promises. He trusted the power of God’s word. He trusted that God was accomplishing his will even though the eye could not see it. He did not try to please the people, rather to obey God. He did not seek popularity and even was put to death by the people, but he persisted on the path of obedience to God in spite of the unpopularity he suffered. He had faith that did not doubt his God. He had confidence in his Father, even when he cried out, “Father, why have you forsaken me?” He still trusted. He still put his faith in the Father. He persisted. He did not become discouraged. And because he did not give up, he accomplished salvation for each and every one of us. Jesus did not give up and quit. He did not compromise his mission. He did not change his strategy or message. He persisted all the way to the cross in order that on the day of judgment, you might be found guiltless. Through suffering and sorrow he paid for your sin. Through rejection and hatred he kept going in order to sustain you to the end. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world; all in order that he might sustain you to the end so that when you are judged by God at the final judgment, you shall be found guiltless.
And his Father said, “I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Suffering rejection, despised, abhorred by the nations, he trusted the promise, “You will become a light for the salvation of the world.” This he said to the redeemer of Israel, the Holy One, the one deeply despised and abhorred. “You will be the light of salvation for all peoples.”
So without doubting his Father, he chose disciples. Andrew, and then Philip. Jesus chose disciples to go and bring others to him. Andrew went immediately to bring his brother Peter to Jesus. Philip went to find Nathanael and said, “Come and see the Messiah.” He told Peter and John, “You shall become fishers of men.” He sends his disciples to the end of the earth that salvation might come to all nations. “Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
He calls you and me. Go make disciples. You are the light of the world to bring salvation to all nations. When we are discouraged and think we are a failure; when we cry out “I have labored in vain,” do not give up, but trust the Father. Trust the power of the Gospel which does accomplish what it is sent to do. Trust and persist to the end, for you are the light of the world. Go, bring others to see and hear Jesus calling, that salvation might reach to the end of the earth. Amen.