Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Change of Plans

In Isaiah 49:1-7, we hear God's chosen servant experience a crisis of vocation: "The Lord called me before I was born...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." Whoever it is whom God has chosen and called to a lifetime of work--be it a particular person or the entire nation of Israel--that figure has reached a moment when the work has proven utterly fruitless. From before the servant was born, God has called him to have a sword-like mouth and an arrow-like identity. He was to speak clearly and sharply and divisively. He was to proclaim the sharpness of God's word with deadly precision. But the result has been empty. He has nothing to show for it.

Still, though, the servant has faith and hope--perhaps not in his own ability but in God's ability despite the servant's own failures: "...yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God." The prophet-figure knows that he has been faithful, offering his life to God and putting his trust in God. The servant's crisis, therefore, is not endless or bottomless. It is just a good old-fashioned recognition of failure. But the prophet is willing to look beyond it and search for God on the other side of that failure.

In that openness, the servant discovers a change in plan: "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...'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.'" In other words, if your intended audience did not respond to your message, perhaps it's because you're not thinking big enough. Like a product launch that didn't take off because the target market wasn't big enough, the servant is told by God to expand his ministry beyond the original plan.

Be clear that this is not a proclamation that Jacob and Israel will be left behind. In the very next sentence, God is identified as "the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One." This isn't God pivoting from one audience to another. It is a recognition that the real fruit of this prophet's ministry can only be realized when the power of God's salvation is carried through the covenant people of Israel to the ends of the earth. Then, "kings shall see and stand up; princes, and they will prostrate themselves." And why will the peoples and nations of the earth take notice? "Because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you."

God's work of salvation--the making right and just and good for all time of all things--is always bigger than we expect. In fact, God's universal saving work is so big that to attempt to limit it is to misunderstand it. "It is too small a thing...," the Lord declares to the servant. If those who are working on God's behalf cannot see beyond the task in front of them, if they cannot recognize that their ministry is part of something bigger and not only an end in itself, then the ministry cannot be fruitful.

What an important reminder for today's church! The work in front of us is critical. It is our family, our congregation, our program, our ministry. It is our community and those we interact with on a regular basis. All of that is good and right, but it is forever part of something much, much bigger. If the work of growing the reign of God and making disciples for Jesus in your setting is a struggle, maybe it's because that work has lost touch with God's universal work. Maybe God has a change of plans in store for you and your work. It is too small a thing that the work of the gospel be limited in any way. People are hungry for something bigger than another place to spend a few hours on a Sunday morning. They want their own personal, tangible participation to contribute to the wider work of the world's transformation. It may start small, but it is too small a thing for it to stop there.

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