Sermon Ideas For Isaiah 42:1-9 Part 1
"Remove from the Christian religion its ability to shock, and Christianity is altogether destroyed." So goes the famous quote from Soren Kierkegaard. Those theologians who have felt its force and accepted its challenge have typically turned to paradox in order to ensure that religious truths produce the effect that Kierkegaard had in mind. Neo-orthodoxy, for instance, has been charged with committing itself to the proposition that only those doctrines which are incompatible on the surface—that is, paradoxical—can be true. These thinkers, like Kierkegaard before them, were contending with a tame and sensible version of Christianity, one which reinforced society's values instead of challenging them. In the case of Karl Barth, the shocking truths of the gospel were supposed to offend—and in his handling did offend—the bourgeois liberalism of his cultured German professors.
All those who side with Kierkegaard agree: The problem is that the church in every generation has had no shortage of voices advocating a watered-down gospel with no distinctive flavor, or a rounded gospel with no sharp edges. The Good News then becomes like lukewarm oatmeal, with nothing to chew on, and no one really sure what they are swallowing.
It is worth asking if there are any other options. If paradox and oatmeal are our only choices, most of us would choose the former. But there is an alternative. Following Alfred North Whitehead we can note that the purpose of ultimate truths is to hold together, not incompatible contradictions, but vivid contrasts. On Whiteheadian grounds we can say that the true enemies of the gospel are not those who water it down as much as those who leave half of it out. The true friends of the gospel are not those who want to make it as shocking as possible, but those who leave out "neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation" (Rom 8:38-39). It is vivid juxtapositions, not impossible conundrums, which characterize religious truth.
We see this in Acts 10:34-38, where the particularity of God's choice is placed over against the universality of his intent. The word was "sent to Israel, but even so, God shows no partiality" (36, 34). We recognize it in the third chapter of Matthew as well. Jesus humbles himself and identifies himself with us in submitting to John's baptism, but immediately the Father exalts and embraces him with the Spirit (Mt 3:13-17). Truth is comprised of surprising polarities.
Turning to Isaiah 42, our text is a harmony of contrasts, beginning with the particularity universality contrast mentioned above. The passage reveals God's selectivity of means in bold relief with God's inclusivity of ends. In verse 1, we meet the chosen one/people, whom God identifies as "my servant." We're understating the case to say that this servant receives God's special concern. God upholds, chooses, and delights in him. He receives God's Spirit with the purpose of establishing God's justice (42:1).
The unique significance of the chosen one/people is underscored in what follows. In verses 2-4, his work is depicted as behind the scenes or outside of the spotlight. Without making a commotion, or calling attention to himself, "he will faithfully bring forth justice" (42:3). In verses 5-7, the "he will" becomes "you have," but the particularity pole remains. This is not a task given to all. God is not revealing a law for everyone but an assignment for the servant.
Even so, God is not playing favorites. The exclusive focus on the servant is complimented by an inclusivity which apparently knows no bounds. God's goodness will flow to "the people" (42:6), to "the nations" (42:1, 6), and to "the earth" (42:4). The end result is that out in this wide arena, the eyes of the blind will be opened, and prisoners will be released from darkness (42:7).
There are other dazzling juxtapositions in this passage as well. There is the remarkable polarity between God's transcendence and the servant's humility. The former is implicit throughout our passage and certainly explicit in verses 8-9. God's name is unique, as is the glory and the praise that is due God (42:8). The chosen one/people, on the other hand, speak with a quiet voice and draw near with a gentle touch (42:2-3).
God's role as Redeemer stands out in bold relief against God's status as Creator. Verse 5 presents the latter, verse 9 the former. As glorious as God's work of creation has been, it merely sets the stage for what is to come: "Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them" (42:9).
One last vivid contrast: God's sovereignty and human responsibility. God is clearly taking the initiative in this prophecy. Even so, we leave out half of its significance if we neglect our part in the drama. We are there as those who hear of God's intent. Thus we have the obligation to heed what we hear. We are a part of the prophecy as the blind prisoners. Thus we have the obligation to look forward to God's redeeming work. Finally, we are there as chosen people, entrusted with carrying God's sovereign work through to its conclusion.