Servant people

“Bernard of Chartres used to say that we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than them, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.”

John of Salisbury wrote this in the middle of the 12th century about his teacher, Bernard.[1] Some seventy years later, the huge south rose window was installed in the cathedral of Chartres, and below it five tall, slender lancet windows [picture] showing the four evangelists and the Virgin Mary carrying the infant Christ.Each evangelist is portrayed as sitting on the shoulders of a major prophet, Luke on the shoulders of Jeremiah, Matthew on the shoulders of Isaiah, John on Ezekiel, and Mark on Daniel. We don’t know if this rare depiction was perhaps commissioned in part to honor Bernard as a teacher and chancellor of the cathedral school, but it certainly illustrates memorably the close connection between the apostles and the Old Testament witnesses who before them had spoken and written of God’s will and ways.

From early times, the prophet Isaiah stood out as particularly large among the giants. Jerome, who lived from 342 to 420 and was one of the most influential figures in the history of the Bible, wrote of Isaiah, “he should be called an evangelist rather than a prophet because he describes all the mysteries of Christ and the Church so clearly that you would think he is composing a history of what has already happened rather than prophesying about what is to come.” Others didn’t hesitate to call Isaiah, with holy enthusiasm and gratitude, the “Fifth Gospel.”[2]

Sadly, the enthusiasms that led Christians to read and interpret Isaiah weren’t always holy, and his words were often used in hurtful, violent ways, particularly against Jews. Perhaps we can learn to read as servants rather than masters, so we don’t create interpretations that only serve us and our desire to lord it over each other. Perhaps we can learn to read as disciples of Jesus, that is with the attitude of servants who receive scripture with gratitude and in community with others.

Last Sunday, at the Baptism of the Lord, we heard a passage from Isaiah where God says, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”[3] We heard the beautiful words and their many echoes in Jesus’ beautiful, faithful life. Today we heard another passage from Isaiah that speaks of God’s servant, with its own echoes of last week’s reading. I want to encourage us to hear the words not like masters who are eager to determine who the servant is and what the servant’s work might do for us; I invite you to hear them as fellow-servants who want to learn how our own calling is related to that of the servant of whom Isaiah speaks.

The Lord said, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”[4] Israel is named as God’s servant, but then we read, “the Lord formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him.”[5] The servant is both Israel and an individual with a mission to Israel. How can this be? How can the servant be both God’s people Israel, the tribes of Jacob, the children whom Moses led, and an individual whom the Lord called before he was born, whom he named while he was in his mother’s womb, whom he sent to bring Israel back to Zion? How can this be? Perhaps our insistence that the servant can only be one or the other is too rigid, too stiff for Isaiah’s proclamation.

Walter Brueggemann is one of the giants on whose shoulders I sit when I read the scriptures. He turned to music when he was looking for  a way to describe the book of Isaiah as a whole, and he compared it to “a great fugue, always advancing to fresh statements, at the same time continually returning to pick up and restate themes already sounded.”[6] The overarching theme of the book is the destiny of Jerusalem, that old and troubled city in which according to Isaiah all the purposes of God and all the claims of Israel are concentrated. Over the centuries, the city was pummeled in turn by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Persians, but the book of Isaiah asserts that in all the ups and downs of geopolitical change throughout history the will and purposes of the Lord God of Israel are at work. The pivot point of the book is in the unwritten, inaudible silence between the end of chapter 39 and the beginning of chapter 40. In the text, there’s only a period and a new line, but in the city’s history the gap represents two centuries, encompassing the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the deportation of the population into exile. 39 chapters, with insistent warning, move toward that destruction and deportation, and then chapter 40 famously begins with words that point to a way out, a way home, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

The great themes of the fugue are exile and homecoming, the judgment of God upon Jerusalem and the deliverance of God for a new Jerusalem. The theme of judgment is massive and pervasive in chapters 1-39. The city has failed to practice justice, its people, its leaders have failed to embody neighborliness to all in the community. But there are also other themes woven into the great fugue. At the beginning, just after a forceful condemnation, there is an invitation to repent, “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doing from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”[7] Reorder your life for neighborliness while you can – a possibility the city didn’t embrace. The other and more defining theme, however, follows the steady beat of God’s faithfulness beyond judgment. The final word to the city is not destruction but restoration and redemption, righteousness and peace, which the Holy One of Israel will create. [8] After the judgment, new life.

Chapters 40-55 sing of God’s resolve to love, save, and deliver Israel. “Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God,” the prophet tells a people frightened and intimidated by Babylonian power.[9] “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine,” the prophet tells the exiles, encouraging them to claim their identity as God’s beloved community, to be God’s servant people in the world, to participate in establishing God’s purposes, to faithfully be and do what Jerusalem in chapters 1-39 refused and failed to be and do:[10] to be servant people who reach to the socially rejected and the poor so that they may be fully at home in the city; to be servant people whose witness and work shine to the end of the earth.

The servant prophet who tells of his commissioning in today’s passage from Isaiah is just one individual, but he is not a replacement of Israel as God’s servant. He has been called and anointed by God to be a servant among the exiled, discouraged, perhaps forgetful servant people to embody their own calling among them, to unsettle, encourage, and remind them that they don’t belong in Babylon but in Jerusalem.

That’s not just ancient history. When God’s servant people become too comfortable in our cities far from Zion, in our disconnected neighborhoods with little neighborliness left in them, far from the beloved community we are, we actually are as God’s chosen ones, God calls and anoints servant prophets who embody among us our own calling, our own true identity. (Quite a lovely move by the Spirit to give us Isaiah to hear on the Sunday after the Baptism of the Lord and just before the day when we honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was such a faithful servant prophet and disciple.)

I want to go back to today’s passage one more time.

The Lord 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.”

What servant of God hasn’t, in words laden with exhaustion and defeat, lamented that her work was in vain, that he spent his strength for nothing, that all their labor barely made a dent? The servant who speaks in Isaiah has a good word for us.

I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely, yet surely my cause is with the Lord.” Justice, compassion, neighborliness, and reconciliation are not the exhausting causes of over-scheduled servants who have so many other things to do. No, they are expressions of God’s will and purpose and work that point us in the direction of the wholeness and peace we all long for. As servants of God, we’re not pursuing a pile of causes or checking off endless to-do-lists, with barely five-and-a-half hours of sleep at night. No, we trust that our life and work are with the Lord, and that in the company of Jesus our feet are on the road to Zion, to the city where all are at home. We don’t hurry, we don’t worry, we rest in the movement of God, grateful for giants on whose shoulders we get to ride.


[1] Metalogicon, 1159 C.E.

[2] John F. A. Sawyer, The Fifth Gospel. Isaiah in the History of Christianity (Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 1

[3] Isaiah 42:1

[4] Isaiah 49:3

[5] Isaiah 49:5

[6] Walter Brueggemann, A Story of Loss and Hope (Sojourners Nov-Dec 1998)

[7] Isaiah 1:16-17

[8] Isaiah 1:26-27; 2:1-4

[9] Isaiah 41:10

[10] Isaiah 43:1; 42:1-4