Servant People Of God
Isaiah 49:1-7 is the second of the servant songs." Unlike the first song (Isaiah 42:1-4) where God speaks, in this song the Servant speaks. The speaking is primarily about the calling to be servant.
To focus upon a theology of vocation is to look at a characteristic theme of the season of Epiphany. Calling is always to mission, i.e., to be God's faithful servant for the sake of others. The objective of the call to mission remains constant. Humanly speaking, the objective is the "coastlands", literally the outer limits of creation (Isaiah 49:1), and the function of calling is still to be a light to the nations" (Isaiah 49:6b). For the Christian, "light", as in the Isaiah passage, is interpreted christologically. To be the "light to the nations" is not to bring intellectual enlightenment or intellectual stimulation and enrichment, though these are not wrong as such. When John the Baptist (John 1:30,31,34) contrasts himself and claims pre-eminence for Jesus, the author of the gospel is building on the earlier contrast between light and darkness (John 1:5) and the true light which enlightens (John 1:8). This light is none other than Jesus Christ. Mission is still defined christologically, i.e., by God's epiphany in Jesus Christ.
The theological perspective remains constant between the preceding Sunday's lections and the present ones. The theological difference is one of nuance. Where earlier the emphasis had been on baptism as commissioning to mission, in Isaiah 49:1-7 the emphasis is upon the call to mission.
Initially we may be bothered by language such as "The Lord called me from me from the womb" (Isaiah 49:1b). Many people claim difficulty with anything hinting of the doctrines of predestination or election or in this case a fore-calling. Upon closer examination the notion of being called before we have the power of actual choice may not be so ladden with theological difficulties. After all, this is the very logic of grace -- God seeks us before we ever seek God. In fact, our finding God is always within the context of our having been found by God. As highly conceptually abstract as process metaphysics and theology can be, that theological position actually holds that all actual entities have prior subjective aims. The world is not left in randomness, but there are divine purposes that give structure and order to the world. To place the matter in popular idiom, how many people testify that they "feel it in their bones" that they were intended to fulfill a certain vocation!
Paul's experience is a good illustration (I Corinthians 1:1-9). Experientially Paul writes of his call somewhat like an artist with brush-strokes: "called" ... "by the will of God" ... "of Christ Jesus." This is the substance of the divine calling --- God's will concretely expressed in Jesus Christ. Paul is writing to a very troubled and troubling church. In three strokes he lays before the Corinthians the foundation of their calling to be the church in Corinth. One way to give rhetorical emphasis to one's communication is repetition. Repetition can be deployed by a parallelism or by contrast. In this instance Paul uses contrast. The call of Paul was to be an apostle, but this did not place him outside the body of the church. Like the Corinthians he was also called to be "saints together." Saintliness has unfortunately acquired "a better than thou" connotation today. The New Testament meaning of "saint" applies to all Christians and means that the saint is one who is different, which is to say, different from the world in order to be redemptively for the world. To such saintliness, we all are called. Paul in addressing the Corinthians changes the order from his autobiographical statement. This is done for emphasis. To the saints in Corinth the message is the same but in reversed order. "of God"... "in Christ Jesus" ... "called." Either formulation says the same thing. To be called to God's mission presupposes that one is called by God to be engaged in the missional agenda incarnated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Very frequently to be called to particular responsibility is not an exhilarating but a depressing experience. Depression is the state of the servant (Isaiah 49:4). "1 have spent my strength for nothing and vanity." Many of the prophets, beginning with Moses and supremely exemplified by Jeremiah, have known the depths of despondency rooted in their calling. Such despondency does not evoke from God a lessening of the intensity and scope of the calling, but strangely an enlargement of the call. The servant is not only to restore the tribes of Jacob and Israel -that is too light a thing (Isaiah 49:6), but the servant is to be a "Ii-ht to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth" (Isaiah 49:6b). From the particularity of God's call, the servant is to witness "to the end of the earth." This again brings us to the theme of universality so characteristic of the season of Epiphany.
What does this say to the contemporary church? We may have our mission statements in order and our missional priorities carefully arranged. Yet the church frequently finds itself stagnating in its own self-preoccupation. Rather than being in mission "to the end of the earth", we have introverted mission to ourselves. A certain despondency clings over the church. The God whom we know in Jesus Christ will not compromise the call. Because Jesus Christ was the Servant-Messiah, we who are baptized into Christ are called to be God's Servant People. Contrary to our normal expectations, a recovery on the part of the church of its.identity as God's Servant People can change our despondency into hope. Whenever a church regains its self-identity as the Servant People of God, it finds itself in myriad ways on the way "to the end of the earth."