I sometimes wonder whether God recycles. That might sound weird, but people treat recycling like it’s a religious activity—as if you could earn brownie points from God by making sure your plastic bottle ends up in the blue trash can instead of the black one. Now I know that God doesn’t drink from plastic bottles or use newspapers, but he does have a partiality for recycling, or at least reusing.
January 19, 2014, Second Sunday in Ordinary Time. First Reading: Isaiah 49:3, 5-6
In this Sunday’s Old Testament reading from Isaiah 49:3, 5-6, we find the Lord at it again. He is not inaugurating a brand new plan of salvation. Rather, he is sending out his servant on a mission of restoration. He wants to raise up and restore his people, to save them from their own disobedience, rather than to discard anyone. In fact, he wants the restoration of his people just to be the first phase in his salvation going to the ends of the earth.
Israel the Servant
This passage falls in the second “servant song” in Isaiah. Last week had an excerpt from the first of the servant songs, which are Isaiah 42:1-7; 49:1-13; 50:4-9; 52:13–53:12. The identity of the suffering servant in Isaiah is a little confusing. Here in 49:3, for example, the servant is called “Israel” but he is being sent by God to restore “Israel.” What’s going on? Well, it seems that the servant is being identified as a kind of “ideal Israel,” one who is really living out God’s covenantal calling on his people. The Lord is calling this servant, who embodies Israel in an ideal fashion, to restore his people to the land, to set up a new covenant (v. 8) and to call them back to covenant fidelity. In v. 6, this servant is supposed to bring back the people of Israel (or Jacob—remember that the nation’s namesake patriarch has two names), but where from? Well, the people have been exiled from the Holy Land for infidelity and the prophet is forecasting what their redemption will look like. Part of the redemption they long for is a restoration of the Land.
An Exchange of Glory
Before we get to the New Testament fulfillment of this passage, I want to point to three important themes in this passage. First, the Lord is glorified in his servant (v. 3) and makes his servant glorious (v. 5). This back-and-forth relationship of glory is an awesome way of depicting our relationship with God. He calls us to himself and is glorified in our service to him and to the least of the brethren. But on the other hand, he glorifies us and endows us with his strength to perform that service in the first place. It is a beautiful relationship of mutual love, service, and significance. Glory, after all, has to do with the “weight” or importance of a person. When we serve Him, the Lord increases the “weight” of glory upon us and we recognize the awesome “weight” of his glorious existence. The further we come into the light, the more deeply we are enlightened.
Proclamation and Servanthood
Second, the servant of the Lord has a mission of restoration and proclamation. The servant actually starts off the chapter with a resounding call, “Hear me, coastlands,/ listen, distant peoples.” His role is to re-gather the people of Israel, bring them back to the land, restore them to covenant fidelity. But also, he is called to be a “light to the nations/Gentiles” (v. 6), to release prisoners (v. 9) and to proclaim God’s comforting compassion (v. 13). This suffering servant has a big job!
Third, and perhaps most beautifully, if we understand this passage as fulfilled in Christ, then we recognize our own identity as “servants of the Servant.” We get to participate in his mission of restoration and proclamation, not for our own self-advancement, but for the sake of his glory. By acting as servants of the Servant we acknowledge our subservient role and embrace our own identity in him. It is very easy for us to get obsessed with our own success, but the heart of a servant does not focus on that. Instead, our role is to please the true Servant and his Father.
Re-Gathering Israel to Proclaim Light to the Gentiles
Ok, so how does Isaiah 49 find fulfillment in the life of Jesus and the New Testament? The Lord sends his Son, Jesus as a Jew, a member of his own people. He lives a life of purity and covenantal fidelity. His perfect obedience to the Father shows that Jesus himself is the “ideal Israel” that Isaiah forecasts. Jesus re-gathers Israel around himself—the 12 apostles mirror the 12 tribes—and prepares the people for a “new exodus.” This time, his people won’t merely be escaping from the foreign powers of Egypt or Babylon, but from the dominance of sin and death. Jesus is the one who comes to establish a new covenant (v. 8) and to restore the fortunes of God’s people (v.6). And beyond a mission of restoration, Jesus launches the proclamation of salvation to the Gentiles, to the ends of the earth (v. 6). In fact, the only quotation of this passage in the New Testament comes in Acts 13:47, where St. Paul cites Isaiah 49:6 to explain that he, as a Jew, is called to be “a light to the nations” by proclaiming the gospel of Christ to the Gentiles.
Jesus calls himself the “light of the world” (John 8:12, 9:5) and he calls his followers to be the same (Matt 5:14). As servants of the suffering servant, we too can join in Jesus’ mission of restoration and proclamation.
So does God recycle? Well, sort of. He certainly is concerned about fulfilling his promises to his people, restoring a relationship that has been damaged. He is the God of second chances, the God of repentance and mercy, the God who can bring good out of evil. Our hope rests in the fact that he sent his Son to open the way of salvation and extend his plan of mercy to the ends of the earth.