Sermon: Called from Birth
Key Sermon Text: Isaiah 49:1-7
For these nine weeks between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, we are looking at Nine Calls of the Christian: Nine foundational things that God says are normative in the life of every believer. Last week we said that these things are not optional. They are building-blocks of our walk with God that we absolutely cannot do without and still call ourselves Christian. We defined two words we will be using throughout this series that we need to be able to work with.
We said that a Call is defined as something which, once picked up by the believer, becomes part of his or her nature as a Christian, and cannot be laid aside without doing great damage to your basic relationship with God. And we used the example of the Call to Justice to explain that. How awesome, that God would begin our understanding of Call with the Call to Justice. How important it is that we exercise justice in our lives and execute justice in the World. This is more than mere civility. It is one of the roots of all godliness, and we who call ourselves God’s Servants must live lives of justice.
The other word we defined was a commission: the task God gives us to do at any particular time for the advancement of his Kingdom and for his glory. Through course of the life of any believer, there are various commissions we pick up at various times: being part of a church body and living in covenant with one another; Taking on specific ministry tasks; involving ourselves in para-church ministries. These are all commission assignments. Our salvation doesn’t depend on the commissions we take up, but they are a source of great joy, as God uses them and us to his purposes.
Now, if you are with me, look at Isaiah 49. This is a great portrayal of our Call at the most basic level. For the Christian, what God is going to share with us here is stuff at the cellular level. This is something that is built into our being as believers, perhaps more essentially than anything else we’re going to talk about in these nine weeks, because it has to do with our identity.
Isaiah 49, beginning at verse 1. God has laid these seven verses out very neatly for us. It begins with a Declaration in verse 1; an Expectation in verse 2; a Disputation in verses 3 and 4; Reclamation in verse 5; Exportation in verse 6; and an Implication in verse seven.
Listen to me, O coastlands, and give attention, you peoples from afar. The Lord called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name.
Something you won’t be able to see until we get to the end of the passage, but which we need to mention right here at the outset, is that Isaiah has already accepted and is living out the Call he is going to tell us about. We know this because he begins with a declaration. This is Isaiah preaching what we already know is true of him.
Isaiah was a preaching prophet. He spoke and wrote to the Southern Kingdom of Judah during the reigns of four kings, Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. He probably began his ministry in around 740 BC, and tradition holds that he was martyred at the beginning of the reign of Manasseh, around 686 BC.
There is a very famous moment in Isaiah’s life that comes in chapter 6 of the book that bears his name. We usually hear this termed the Call of Isaiah:
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.”
(Isaiah 6:1-8 ESV)
This is such a huge moment in Isaiah’s life that I think most of us who have heard it over the years assume it to be the beginning of his ministry. That’s why the language we’re using in this series is so important. As huge as this moment is, and many point to it and say, “See, here is where Isaiah became saved,” as huge as this moment is, it is not anywhere near the beginning for Isaiah.
If this were a salvation moment for him, Isaiah would not have been around to write the first five chapters and all the content there. This is a culmination of everything Isaiah had experienced up to this point, for sure. But this moment represents more than anything else Isaiah receiving a specific commission from God. Before God is through with this ecstatic experience of Isaiah meeting God in his very Throne Room, God is going to give Isaiah his marching orders and tell him exactly how and how for how long he is to preach to Israel.
But before that, Isaiah begins his life with God with a realization. If you have your Bible, look at Isaiah 1:2, “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the LORD has spoken: “Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master's crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” Here’s what Isaiah realized: God is his father. “Children I have reared and brought up.” And all Israel, the other children in the family, are dumber than rocks.
If there is a salvation moment portrayed for us in Isaiah, it is this realization. When he says in Chapter 1, verse 18, “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool,” there is no blinding realization; no Awesome Throne; no angelic beings. Isaiah’s conversion comes in the deep silence of his heart, and it comes through the pain and frustration he feels when he looks at the state of the other believers around him. Isaiah’s conversion – the new birth – begins, wound up deeply in his identity as a Jew, as one of God’s chosen. But his conversion comes to fruit in the realization of his even more basic identity as one who is born with God as his father.
So the declaration Isaiah begins chapter 49 with is an old one that was settled years ago, from the point of view of his ongoing ministry. “Listen to me you coastlands!” Isaiah is speaking to the whole of Israel here, and not just to the southern kingdom of Judah. “Give attention, you peoples from afar.” In fact, Isaiah sees his declaration going beyond Israel. In some ways there isn’t any need for Isaiah to go further than this. He has established the fact that God called him from birth, and he has told us that his commission is to preach that message to all Israel and beyond.
But God wants us to see the mechanics of what has gone on for Isaiah. So even though the declaration has all the information in germ form, he brings us into the dialog between God and Isaiah and lets us learn from it. The dialog begins with an expectation. Verse two says, “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.”
Remember how sadly Isaiah began the book? Remember what he said about his brothers and sisters in Israel? He knows what they don’t: that they were Called from the Womb with an expectation that every Jew recited over and over throughout their life. You’ll find it in Deuteronomy 6: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
This is the expectation that God has for each of his children. “You SHALL love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and might.” This is not just for a special class of believers, and this is not just true for those in the prime of life. This is who we are, from the beginning of our relationship with God. And God expects those who trust him as Lord and as Savior to have his Word built into their life. These words, he says, SHALL be on your heart. All of you. Each of you. You SHALL teach them to your children. All of you. Each of you. You shall talk of them when you lie down and when you rise. The Words of God are to be your primary concern. Write them on your hand. Hang them on some goofy contraption that keeps them dangling in front of your eyes like a rear-view mirror if you have to. But make God’s words the number one occupation of your life.
If we do that, then when we open our mouth, the words will be like a sharp sword. When we step out of the shade of his hand into the bright light of culture, the glare of the light of God’s presence in us will be as blinding as if the Sun’s rays were reflecting off a piece of burnished bronze. That is God’s expectation of you and me.
I hear what you’re thinking. “That’s all very well and good and it sounds spiritual. But I live in the real world. I don’t know anyone who lives like that. People would think I’m weird. Besides, I have way too many other things to worry about. If I did what you’re suggesting, I wouldn’t get everything else done.”
Well, you’re in good company. That’s exactly what Isaiah said when he argued this one out with God. The disputation between God and Isaiah, between God and any believer, starts when God reveals our identity to us, because we don’t like what he has to say. Look at verse 3. “And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” God is calling us names, and I don’t know about where you come from, but in New Hampshire, these are fighting words.
“You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” Notice that he doesn’t say, “I’d like you to be my servant.” He says, “you ARE my servant.” In the New Testament letter Paul writes to the church at Philippi, he says that when Christ came to earth he “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” Your most basic identity, God says, if you are a human being, is to be a servant. And all your aspirations, all your goals, all your dreams and hopes for your future are, by nature, going to find their deepest fulfillment when you realize that.
He says, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” Not only does he call us servants, he goes on to call us losers. The name Israel means, “God prevails.” You may remember the story of Jacob wrestling with God. Jacob wrestled with God all night and would not let him go until he blessed him. In the morning God changed Jacob’s name from Jacob, which mean “One who takes what belongs to another,” to Israel – “God prevails,” or the way we might say it today, “God wins.” And so the key way in which we can glorify God is be recognizing that we are servants and losers.
Isaiah counters. I can’t believe he is even putting up an argument. But here it is in verse 4. His answer to God in the disputation is, “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.” He’s saying, “Now see here, God, I’ve worked hard for you all my life, and now I have a right to expect something in return. Where’s my payoff?”
How many of us believed that about our ministry? I put all this time into working for you. Look at all the years I put into this church, God. Where’s the payoff? Aren’t I supposed to get something back for all I put in? Or what about those of us who poured our life-blood into our children and now find that one or more of them isn’t living for Christ. God, I sacrificed for my children. I read your Word to them, and took them to Sunday school and VBS, paid to have them go to Christian summer camp, and I really modeled the life of a believer before them. What went wrong, God? Where’s my payoff? Or what about those of us who made ministry a career and look back and wonder how come more of the people we gave our lives for haven’t endured with Christ. God, where’s my compensation?
God’s answer is a hard one, and that’s why we don’t like it. The disputation ends with a reminder of God’s purposes, and so it is easy to miss the fact that God does give Isaiah an answer – even though God’s whiny child doesn’t deserve an answer in the midst of his impudence. Look at verse 5 and you’ll see embedded there God’s answer to the question, “Where’s my compensation?”
And now the Lord says, he who formed me from 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 eyes of the Lord, and my God has become my strength—
The answer is, “he formed me from the womb… and God has become my strength.” Whenever we look to something else to fulfill us, whether it is our ministry, our church, our children, our career, our health, or something else, we have missed the mark and created an idol for ourselves. God himself is our compensation, not for doing something for him, but simply in himself. He is the compensation because he was what we lost when our first parents sinned. Ever since that day there has been a debt incurred in each human heart that can be paid only one way. There is not enough ministry, or community, or children, or career, or health in the universe to pay for the loss that was set against us when we walked away from him. And we are fools as huge as dumb oxen to think that any of these things can begin to pay what we owe.
If we will stop arguing with God; stop telling him how disappointed we are that we haven’t been adequately compensated; stop believing he owes us, he can finally get us free to be what he wanted in the first place: servants and signs. We’ve already seen how being a servant is bred into us, but now God lays out the two ways in which our lives – just by the very nature of them – are to be signs. Again, this is bred into us. This is part of our DNA as believers.
First, we are Called to bring Jacob back to God and gather Israel back to him. Look around you. Most of you have been part of this church for years, and I don’t mean to be indelicate in any way, but apart from people who simply have gone home to be with the Lord… where is everyone? Don’t mistake what I’m saying here. I don’t mean where are the warm bodies that wandered through here at one time or another. I mean the people who counted themselves a part of this little corner of Jacob, of Israel.
I think I told you that whenever I meet with my mentor Bob he always asks me the same question. He starts every conversation with, “How’s your soul?” He wants to know – really know – what the relative health of my soul is before God. Do you know where the people are who were once a part of this BODY? Could you still call them up on the phone or stop over with a plate of brownies and ask them, “how’s your soul?” And what answer would they give you? I’m not saying they should be still sitting in these particular pews. But it is a terrible loss to the Kingdom of God when someone who once called themselves a committed believer has wandered off and is trying to go it alone. Do you care how they’re doing? If you’re a Servant and a Sign, you should.
This calling back of Jacob, of Israel, this Reclamation is deep in the heart of all who love Christ, all who call God Father. In 1 Corinthians 12, when Paul talks about the Body of Christ he says, “God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” And in Philippians 2 he says, “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” And he doesn’t limit that just because they don’t attend my church.
And if Reclamation is part of our DNA, then so is Exportation. In verse 6 he says, “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.”
I grew up as a Christian in a culture that taught that Evangelism was just that, an ISM. It was something you went out and did on Tuesday evening at the dorm on campus. Or your church went “canvassing” the neighborhoods nearby. That isn’t shedding light. That’s taking up a commission for sure. But being “light for the nations is so much greater than that. “Doing” evangelism is like setting of the flash on a camera. It lights the room for a very brief moment and generally leaves a negative image in the mind of the observer. Preaching is like setting off a flare. The light it gives is very uneven; it tends to be used mainly to herald danger; it doesn’t last very long, and when it is over there’s nothing to do with it but throw it away. Not that either of those lights aren’t useful. But lightening in such a way that the light reaches to the ends of the earth requires something neither of those has: constancy.
In the late 1800s, one of Thomas Edison’s engineers was strongly advocating a system of direct current as Edison and others contemplated how to electrify whole towns and even cities. The problem with DC, Edison observed, was that it couldn’t be sustained over longer transmission wires. The further you got from the source, the lower the available voltage was. According to his calculations, if the US were to adopt Direct Current, there would have to be a power station in any direction every two miles. But alternating current, AC, doesn’t work like that. It is sustainable and repeatable over great distances. And so, with AC, power can be generated from a source and delivered at the same level to homes a long way off. The kind of light God uses to shed a light that reaches to the ends of the earth is constant, repeatable, sustainable light that is plugged into a source that never stops delivering. In order to be that kind of light, we have to go out and export the light. We cannot restrict ourselves to the little power stations we’ve planted every two miles or so all over the country and expect everyone to come to us and plug in their light.
Finally, there’s an implication to all this. God never minces words. If you call yourself the Servant of the Lord, and if you make it your life’s business to declare his Word to the Coastlands; if you will quit disputing with God that God owes you anything for doing this and recognize that you are a Servant and a Sign; if you will take up the Call to Reclaim those in the church who have lost their way and to export your faith to the ends of the earth, there are two things of which you can be assured. Look at verse 7.
Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation, the servant of rulers:
The first thing God guarantees you is that the church will hate you for it. Did you hear that? The church, the vast majority of those who call themselves believers; who show up every Sunday like clockwork, for whatever their reasons may be, will hate you if you genuinely begin to live as a Servant and a Sign. They’ll be threatened and jealous. And when you don’t get rewarded by God the way they think the system works, they’ll point to you like Job’s three friends, look at your miserable condition, and say, “See? You must have done something wrong to be where you are.”
The second thing God guarantees you is that if you are faithful to be what he has called you to be, a Servant and a Sign, KINGS will prostrate themselves before the Lord because of you. In God’s mercy, you will most likely never see it yourself, because the effect on you, a Servant, of discovering that something you did had caused a ruler to come to Christ and honor God, would be an overwhelming temptation to pride, but God guarantees it to you. “Kings,” he says, “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.”
Can you be satisfied with being a Servant and a Sign? The Kingdom God is building is a place where faithfulness is an end in itself and the reward at the end of the day is his presence with you. Is that enough for you? If it is, then here are your marching orders: the lost sheep of Israel are only a phone call or a personal visit away. Call them back to the Lord. And then get up and get out of this little repeating station and export the light. You already have all the power you need to reach the end of the earth.