A Light for the Nations

[ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jonathan Slywka and his wife Sarah excitedly await the arrival of their new little one – a precious gift from God. Jonathan spends his time riding his bike, exploring God’s Story, and reminding the people of Glen Elm “whose” and “who” they are.]

So, how is it true that Jesus is “the missing piece in the puzzle…that makes all the other pieces fit together”? Could it really be true that “every story in the Bible whispers his name”? I finished my last entry by posing these questions, and extending the invitation to place ourselves alongside the first Christians, who came to realize that their scriptures had been laced with tantalizing hints as to the identity of the child whom Mary laid in that manger. One example of this are the beautiful and haunting “servant songs” of Isaiah.

There are four such “songs”: Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-13; 50:4-9; and 52:13-53:12. These occur within the context of God’s prophetic word, spoken through Isaiah. Much of what God has to say pertains to (gulp!) judgement; he is determined to do something about the injustice, unrighteousness, and idolatry of the nations, and of his own people Israel. It becomes increasingly clear that Israel will be punished with exile – by having the touchstones of their identity (e.g. their land, the Temple, and David’s royal line) wrenched from their grasp as they are carried away by a foreign power. What a terrible fate for God’s chosen people! But, alongside judgement, we also hear the word of God’s indefatigable mercy: he will again show compassion to his people, speaking comfort and the promise of restoration to their land and to abundant life in the presence of God.

It is in the midst of this prophetic word that the mysterious “Servant of the Lord” steps into the frame. It is impossible to pin down precisely who is being addressed in these passages. Sometimes it seems that God may be addressing the whole nation of Israel, who are familiar with having the title of “servant” conferred upon them (see Isaiah 41:8-9 and 44:1-2 as just two examples). But other times there is no question that the “Servant” is a personal figure – one who somehow stands in place of the many. Who is this One? Who represents the whole nation of Israel, embodying its mission as God’s holy and priestly people?

Let us focus our view on a portion of the second servant song, to discover something of the identity and task of this One. As this passage begins, it is the voice of the Servant himself that we hear.

Isaiah 49:  And now the Lord says—
he who formed me in the womb to be his servant
to bring Jacob back to him
and gather Israel to himself,
for I am honoured in the eyes of the Lord
and my God has been my strength—
he says:
“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
to restore the tribes of Jacob
and bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
    that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

light-to-all-nations-720x340Jesus Christ is the light that has dawned on our darkness. This is what those who witnessed the life of Jesus of Nazareth came to understand about him: he was, and is, the One who fulfills this prophetic word, spoken through Isaiah.

Remember old Simeon in the Temple? He foresaw that this child would be “a light of revelation to the Gentiles”. Jesus himself, whose self-understanding would have been shaped by Israel’s scriptures, and not least the prophesy of Isaiah (think of the time he stood up to read in the synagogue in Nazareth), seems to have identified with Isaiah’s “Servant”. Thus, he would suffer, and, when lifted up from the earth, would draw all people to himself (John 12:32). Remarkably, Jesus also included his disciples in the task of carrying the light – His light – of salvation to the world: “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). Embracing this as his personal mission, Paul could even quote Isaiah’s prophesy in interpreting his own God-appointed task of carrying the Gospel of Christ to the Gentiles (Acts 13:47). And, reflecting upon the nature of Christ at the beginning of his Gospel account, John would identify Jesus as the “true light of all mankind”.

This One, this “Servant of the Lord”, is to be “a light for the Gentiles” – A Light for the Nations. Not only will the remnant of God’s chosen people be gathered out of exile, but all nations (among whom you and I are also included) will be welcomed in to God’s salvation. This is good news!

Today, as we place ourselves around the manger, let us give thanks for this One, who is Himself the “true light” that has shone on our darkness, drawing us in to God’s salvation.

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