Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! Amen. Today is Sanctity of Life weekend, in which we remember and treasure God’s precious gift of life from womb to tomb. Quite appropriately, our Old Testament lesson speaks to the sanctity of life: “The LORD called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name” (Isa. 49:1b, ESV).Today’s Old Testament lesson is the second of four poems from Isaiah that we call the Servant Songs. In last week’s Old Testament lesson (Isaiah 42:1-9) we heard the first Servant Song, in which the LORD God, Yahweh, called the nation of Israel to be his servant people, “a light for the nations,” shining the light of God’s Word and ways (v. 6). However, Israel failed in its servant role, becoming obsessed with its own specialness as the Chosen People and neglecting to love their neighbors.
So Yahweh decided to raise up one particular son of Israel to be his Servant. This Servant would not retreat from his calling but would do the job faithfully and perfectly. He would be Israel’s Messiah and the Savior of the world. We know him as the Lord Jesus Christ. In Isaiah 49 we hear the words of Jesus the Messiah, Yahweh’s Servant, through the prophecy of Isaiah. Even though Isaiah wrote his prophecy nearly 800 years before the birth of Jesus, we would do well to regard this second Servant Song as part of the “red letter words” of the Bible. For even though they come to us through Isaiah’s pen, they are straight from the mouth of Jesus!
“Listen to me, O coastlands,” Christ calls out, “and give attention, you peoples from afar” (Isa. 49:1a). Jesus calls every nation and tribe, language and race, as a witness of his words. His saving message is first for Israel, but not just for Israel. Jesus comes for all who have ears to hear and hearts to believe.
Jesus continues: “The LORD called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name” (Isa. 49:1b). Even before Jesus was born, God had a special plan and purpose for Jesus’ life. Even before Jesus was conceived, the angel Gabriel told Mary that her baby’s name was supposed to be Jesus (Luke 1:31). Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Yeshua (or Joshua), which means “Yahweh saves.” “For he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). Before his birth, God already knew that Jesus would be the Savior of the world! This idea is echoed later in verse 5, where Jesus declares that God “formed me from the womb to be his servant” (Isa. 49:5).
Jesus was a remarkable person, both fully God and fully human. However, we must not overlook the fact that Jesus was also a person like us—just without sin (Heb. 4:15). From Scripture passages like this (and others), we know that God regards all human life as sacred from womb to tomb. He has a plan and purpose for every single person on this planet, including you and me, our elderly neighbors, the terminally ill, and especially the unborn babies growing in their mothers’ wombs. Despite the teaching of evolution, no human life is the result of accident or chance.
The Bible says we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14). God knew what our life would be like even before we existed (Ps. 139:16). Jesus is not the only person God knows and loves even before birth. Amazingly, God knew Jeremiah before he formed him in the womb (Jer. 1:5). Paul was set apart to be an apostle by God’s grace before he was born (Gal. 1:15). And every believer in Christ has been called according to God’s purpose—even before the creation of the universe (Eph. 1:4; Rom. 8:28).
How casually and callously we in America disregard the value of life and toss aside people whose value we cannot quantify in dollars or Gross National Product! We abort the unborn if we consider them an inconvenience. We petition for the so-called “right to die” so that we can get rid of our elders and the terminally ill when we no longer wish to care for them. How unlike the Lord we are in our care for human life.
But not Yahweh’s Servant! Because of his great love for all people, Jesus’ mouth cut like “a sharp sword” (Isa. 49:2), piercing the thoughts and meditations of people’s hearts and minds. God made him like “a polished arrow” to hit people’s hearts right on target.
But not everything Jesus said was what people wanted to hear. His message of sin fell on the deaf ears of hypocrites and the unrepentant. His message of forgiveness was ridiculed as foolishness by the “holier-than-thou” do-gooders of his day, who had no room for love in their hearts for downtrodden sinners. They even challenged his authority to forgive sins, reasoning that only God can do that (Matt. 9:6).
Well could Jesus relate to the words of Isaiah, who moaned, “Who has believed our message?” (Isa. 53:1, NIV). The rhetorical answer, of course, was no one—or at least not many. No wonder, then, that even Jesus sometimes felt useless. “I have labored in vain,” he says in verse 4. “I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.”
Christ’s calling was no easy task. In fact, it was the hardest job in the history of the world! Jesus’ Word was not always welcome. Maligned by his enemies and misunderstood by his disciples, he was ultimately rejected for the message he spoke. The second Servant Song calls Jesus “one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation” (Isa. 49:7). As the Servant Songs continue in Isaiah 50, 52, and 53, so will the intensity of rejection and persecution. In a prophecy of Jesus’ kangaroo trail and scourging, he says, “I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting” (Isa. 50:6). In the fourth and final Servant Song, the so-called Song of the Suffering Servant (Isa. 52:13-53:12), Isaiah would speak of Christ: “his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance” (Isa. 52:14). “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3). “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted” (Isa. 53:4). He was “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter” (Isa. 53:7), and yet he spoke not a single word in his own defense.
Christ was condemned to die on the cross because of his claims to be Israel’s Messiah, the Son of God, the King of the Jews, and the Savior of the World. To the Jews, Jesus’ message was blasphemy. To the Romans, it was sedition and rebellion. So Jesus paid the ultimate price for preaching God’s Word. He became an Innocent killed by sinners like us. “But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the [punishment] that brought us peace; and with his stripes we are healed” (Isa. 53:5). Jesus took the punishment and guilt, blame and shame, for our sins so that we wouldn’t have to. He died in the cross in our place so that we could be saved from sin, death, and hell.
Yet even though the Jews, the Romans—and we ourselves—repeatedly reject Christ and deny Jesus’ Word, God did not abandon him. The second Servant Song assures us that Jesus was “glorified” (v. 3) and “honored” (v. 5) in God’s sight. Ultimately, the very people who rejected Jesus would bow down before him “because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen [him]” (Isa. 49:7).
As Jesus declared previously, even from birth, he was called be God’s chosen Servant. Which is why Yahweh said, “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…” (Isa. 49:6a). In other words, “I have an even bigger job for you than to be Israel’s Messiah.” Yahweh continues: “I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa. 49:6b). God chose Jesus to be the Savior of the whole world! God loves every person he made, and he wants everyone to hear the Good News and be saved.
We often worry about God’s plan and purpose for our lives, especially if we are at a vocational crossroads. When you’re trying to figure out your college major, planning for retirement, or suddenly find yourself searching for a new job, it is easy to become discouraged and wonder what God is doing. If you are depressed, you may even wonder if your life has any meaning or purpose. Yet God promises that you are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28). He knows the plans he has for you, even if you do not, and his plan is always a good one (Jer. 29:11). As Luther writes in the Small Catechism, God’s will is a “good and gracious will” (SC, 3rd Petition of the Lord’s Prayer). Remember: the will of God will never take you where the grace of God cannot keep you.
Just as Jesus was called from the womb to be a light to the nations, so also you were called from conception to be God’s child and reflect the light of his love to the world. God’s #1 purpose for your life is that you believe in Jesus and be saved. “For this is the will of my Father,” Jesus says, “that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:40). In other words, God’s top priority for your life is that you hear and believe the message of the Servant’s Song!
Yet God also has more in store for your life. Otherwise, as Luther says, as soon as you came to faith, he would kill you and take you home to heaven right away. “But He permits us to live here that we may bring others to faith, just as He brought us” (Luther’s Works, vol. 30, p. 11). We call Jesus the Light of the World. But then he turns right around and says the same thing about his Church, his disciples. “You are the light of the world,” Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:14). You and I, all of us here at Epiphany, and the entire Church in heaven and on earth are the light of the world. “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). Just as Yahweh appointed his Servant Jesus to be the Light to the nations, so also he calls us to shine the light of his love into the lives of the people around us. As we pray, work, and serve our neighbors for God’s glory, and as we tell them the story of our Savior’s life, death, and resurrection, we shine God’s light.
By the end of Isaiah’s prophecy, God’s people Israel are once again called his servants (Isa. 65:9, 13). The very people who failed in their calling are forgiven and reinstated by God’s grace because of the work of the Suffering Servant, Jesus Christ. We too are God’s servants, his children, his light in the darkness of this dark, dark world. In a culture of death, in a world full of hopelessness where life seems to have no purpose, we bring God’s light, his love, and his life, through the message of Jesus. That is our calling. That is our purpose. With Jesus, we are God’s servants from womb to tomb—and beyond the grave! In the name of the Father and of the Son and of T the Holy Spirit. Amen.