Monday, January 17, 2011

Sermon on Isaiah 49:1-7, for Life Sunday, "Formed from the Womb"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. In the reading from Isaiah 49, the speaker calls us to attention: “Listen to me, O coastlands, and give attention, you peoples from afar.” Are you listening? Who is it that is speaking? Read the text before you in your bulletin. The speaker says “The Lord has called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name.” And the Lord God said: “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” So what is the identity of this speaker, who calls for our attention, says that God called Him from the womb, and God gave Him a name while He was still in the body of His mother?

Of course it’s Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Jesus Christ is the servant of God who would bring glory to God, and who was chosen from long before His birth to be God’s servant. And He was named Jesus and titled Immanuel, God with us, from before His birth. Only when this was written, this was some 7 centuries before Jesus’ birth, in the time of Isaiah! So it should be astonishing to us that these words of prophecy were describing events that were so far off through the voice of One not yet born! When you look at these prophecies, and others throughout Isaiah, you find remarkable descriptions of Jesus’ life and ministry, and taken as a whole, they are a powerful witness to the Divine Inspiration of these words—that God Himself breathed these words out to be written by the prophet.

So this Bible passage, this prophecy, is the eternal Son of God, Christ, talking about how He was called, what His purpose in life would be, the struggle He would face, and its final outcome. Here is a perfect place to stop and point out that this is a marvelous affirmation of life, already from conception and development in the womb. God chose and formed His Son from the womb, to be His servant. “He formed me from the womb to be his servant.” Already within the womb He had a name, a purpose, and a calling by God. A living person. A human being, miraculously and wondrously being knitted together by God in Mary’s womb. A staff member at our school remarked to me after my daughter’s birth, “How could anyone ever witness the birth of a child and not believe in God?”

Witnessing the birth of my first child, I can’t help but agree. Even before birth, whether we’ve named them or not, our children have unique identities. They’re living human beings, miraculously and wondrously knitted together by God in their mother’s womb. God has a plan for them, even if we do not know it or see it yet. Unborn children can already in the womb hear sounds and interact with us. They respond after birth to the familiar sound of their mother or father’s voice, or music they heard in the womb. John the Baptist leaped inside the womb of Elizabeth when he heard the voice of Mary, who was pregnant with Jesus. The Bible tells us that John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb! Unborn children are capable of faith; as living humans they are spiritual vessels that can contain the Holy Spirit. God has left us testimony throughout the Bible that children born and unborn alike are specially created by Him, and are the recipients also of His grace, and able to trust in Him.

Sadly, this high view of life is not shared by many in our world today. In fact, even from ancient times, Christians stood apart from the rest of the world in their opposition to abortion and infanticide. One pro-life speaker has remarked that “If wombs had windows, there would never be abortion.” Whether we are speaking of the unborn Jesus, or John the Baptist, or your child or my child when they were unborn in the womb—they were not blobs of tissue, they were not a growth or any sort of sub-human thing. They were always and from their conception a genetically unique and special human being. Not just potentially unique, but already unique and distinct from either parent, but joined to and dependent on them. It is our obligation to protect the dignity and value of human life, even at its earliest and most vulnerable stages.

Another threat to those vulnerable human lives comes cloaked in the garb of technology and medical research. Embryonic stem cell research has been a heated debate in recent years. The thought seems to be that if we can simply “harvest” human life early enough, we can get it before it’s recognizably or independently human. But the veneer of technology cannot hide the fact that we’re offering our unborn future generations to become involuntary research subjects, to satisfy our own search for medical cures and life. No matter how noble and high-sounding the supposed goals, or even the possible cures that could be discovered, does the end justify the means? Does the “good” of curing paralysis outweigh the evil of sacrificing unborn life on the altar of medical knowledge? NO!! Their lives are not worthless, and there is no stage in life at which we are not human and deserving of full dignity. God states it clearly in the Bible that all human life is to be guarded against bloodshed for this reason: God made us in His image (Gen. 9:6). We can never think to do evil so that good may result (Rom. 3:8). Rather we must overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:21). So this prophecy of Jesus, describing His life and calling from the womb is already a marvelous affirmation of human life from the mother’s womb.

Looking further at this ancient prophecy, what did the Son of God say about His life and purpose? In verse 4 He laments, “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.” Here it sounds like Christ was discouraged and defeated about His life. It sounds as though He feared that His work was futile and that He had wasted His efforts.

What can explain these troubled prophetic words of Christ? Those words seem like something we would say when we feel frustrated or defeated by events in life. But of course Jesus encountered much in His life that would’ve discouraged or defeated anyone of us. While He was called by God to rescue His people of Israel, His own people didn’t receive Him (John 1:11). You know the rejection and opposition that He faced through His ministry. Isaiah 49:7 says that He would be “deeply despised, abhorred by the nation, the servant of rulers,” or in another translation, the “slave of tyrants”. This is a fitting description of His death on the cross, when those He came to save mocked at Him and spit on Him, decrying Him for blasphemy, claiming to be the Son of God. Deeply despised and a slave of tyrants. Rulers who had no regard for justice, but chose instead to crucify an innocent man to appease a wild mob.

But while those words may seem despairing, and reflect the same human fear that Jesus experienced in the temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane, they do not end in despair or fear. Rather He says, “Yet surely my right is with the Lord, and my recompense with my God.” Although Christ was attacked by doubt, yet His faith was strengthened and remained immovable. He realized that while it appeared His work was failing and unsuccessful, the cause of His great work was the Lord God’s, and the success of His work lay in God’s Almighty hands. What remarkable words of faith! Every earthly indication was that Jesus’ ministry and work was falling apart—He was losing disciples, the religious leaders were becoming increasingly intolerant of Him, and finally from among His closest disciples one betrayed Him and another denied Him. From there the outlook became even more despairing as He was convicted without a fair trial and sentenced to death. But in the midst of all this, Christ had hope, and knew that the work was not His own, but that His cause lay with God the Father.

He said, “My recompense is with God.” Recompense means to be compensated in return for sufferings or losses that you’ve experienced. To be repaid for your losses or damages. So how would Christ, who suffered so painfully and lost His own life be re-compensated? The passage tells us that it is because He is honored in the eyes of the Lord, and God had decreed greater things for Him. In deeply beautiful words, God speaks to Christ, saying “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.” It’s as though God is saying to Christ, “I’ve called you to a great and important job, to deliver my chosen people Israel. But this is far below your potential and your ability. You would be underused to only do that. I have a much grander plan—that you will also deliver all the nations. You will be a shining light to bring salvation to all the ends of the earth. This will be fitting of our honor and glory.”

God wasn’t content to just have Jesus do the little thing of saving a remnant from Israel. Part of Jesus’ recompense or reward was that His glory would stretch far beyond those He came first to save, the Jews. It would reach far beyond to the ends of the earth. But finally in verse 7 of the reading, God fully gives answer to Christ, about His fear that His work was in vain. God the Father speaks: “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.’” Christ’s recompense and reward for His suffering and death, would be that God the Father would fully vindicate Him from all the lies and injustices He experienced at the cross.

When Jesus rose from the dead, it was God’s glorious proclamation of Christ Jesus’ innocence; that He was in fact the Son of God. Those who had called Jesus a blasphemer were speechless. Those who had turned from Him in fear found new reason to believe. But even now there are still those who reject and oppose Him. But in the final conclusion, when the world has reached its end and Christ is ruling from His heavenly throne at the side of the Father, every king, prince and ruler, every citizen, subject, and freeman will acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. All will finally see that it is truly at the cost of Christ’s death and resurrection that we have the gift of salvation and the forgiveness of sins. God the Father had prepared and formed Christ from the womb for all this great and glorious work of salvation.

One final point to make about this prophecy. God calls Him “My servant Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” Here we see that Christ is the nation of Israel reduced down to one faithful and obedient man. One man Jesus Christ, who was a true and faithful Israelite, obeyed every one of God’s commands in the place of all the disobedient. Despite His rejection and the seeming futility of His work, He died on the cross and rose from the dead to God’s glory. He is the true and faithful servant that God equipped from before His birth to bring salvation to the end of the earth. To Him we bow down in reverent worship and give all honor and praise—Jesus Christ. Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
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1. Who is the main speaker in the passage, Isaiah 49:1-7? How was He called by God and named before birth? Is. 7:14; 9:1-7; Luke 1:31; 2:21.
2. How does the Eternal Son of God, Christ, reflect on His purpose and ministry in this prophecy? How is this passage an affirmation of life from within the womb? How else does Scripture affirm the life of the unborn? Psalm 139:13-16; Ps. 71:5-6; 22:9-10. How do these verses show that unborn infants can trust in God, and are already spiritual beings? Cf. Luke 1:15; 1:41-44. Why is all human life valuable? Gen. 9:6
3. How can we work to protect the innocent and vulnerable in society, especially those children who are unborn? Why must we never do evil so that good may result? Why doesn’t the end justify the means? Romans 3:8; 12:21. How can we work to overcome evil with good?
4. Why did Christ seem discouraged and almost defeated? What opposition did He encounter? John 1:11; 6:41-71; continue reading the following chapters of John 7 & 8 for further examples of His rejection.
5. What was Christ’s hope in the midst of the doubt and discouragement of His ministry? What was His recompense? Who would guarantee the final success of His work?
6. How did God have even greater things in mind for Jesus than merely the promised redemption of Israel? How will all finally see and glorify Jesus for His salvation? How is Christ the nation of Israel reduced down to one man? How is He the one faithful Israelite, and what did God prepare Him from before birth to do? Hosea 11:1; Matt. 2:15

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