Isaiah 49:1-6 (NRSVCE)
Listen to me, O coastlands,
pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The Lord called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me away.
And he said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
But I said, “I have labored in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the Lord,
and my reward with my God.”
And now the Lord says,
who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honored in the sight of the Lord,
and my God has become my strength--
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
Isaiah describes how God appoints His servants. He prepares them even while they are still in the womb, ordaining them for the service they will live out. God provides them with everything they will need to fulfill their calling. He gave to Isaiah a sharp tongue, and made him like a polished arrow that is true to its target. But He also keeps His servants hidden, and protected, until the proper time. I can’t help but recall Jesus here, repeatedly telling his disciples to not tell anyone about the wonders they saw while traveling with him because his time had not yet come. Over and over again, Jesus would perform miracles, but he would ask that nobody tell until his time had come. When his miracles finally were made known, when he started to earn a reputation, the leaders saw him immediately for what he was: a threat to their power and authority. They hated him, and sought to kill him. His time had come, and all was revealed in his crucifixion and resurrection.
But notice the second half of this passage, Isaiah returns to the “light to the nations” language we saw yesterday, but in a different context. This time, he addresses head on the plight of the Jews in exile. They are scattered to the winds, scraping by in foreign lands. Surely God has abandoned them! Surely they have failed due to their sin, and so will never see Israel restored again! But Isaiah provides reassurance to an exiled Israel. God chose me before I was born and made me into the prophet I am, and now God calls Israel. The language of the womb and birth here is not incidental. Isaiah is talking about a rebirth of Israel. Israel did sin, yes. And Israel was conquered by the Babylonians and scattered, yes. But God calls them back, from all corners of the world. He gathers the widespread tribes back to Himself, back into one People of God, into one Israel. This is a message of hope to a people in exile.
But more than hope, it is a call to service. The scattered people are like dim lights flickering in the night. God doesn’t call them all together merely to save the light that is left. God calls them all together to once again to strengthen that light, so that they might become His shining beacon. They will be a light to the nations, a light that propagates God’s plan of salvation. Israel, and by extension all of us, are here with a purpose. We are not only focused on our own walk of faith and our own salvation. We are here to fulfill our calling to evangelize the world, to bring God’s Light which has been given to us and shine it in every corner and nook and cranny. Like Isaiah, and like the people in exile, we are called to service. It’s our duty to answer that call.