August 25, 2002

Isaiah 49:1-6

Can you remember a time when you could hardly sit still because you wanted to tell someone something, but you couldn’t? Maybe you had heard a bit of exciting news that wasn’t public information yet—a friend was getting married or so and so was expecting a baby—and you wanted to let everyone know. You realized, however, that it really wasn’t your place to do that, so you bit your lip and held it in.

Or think for a moment about a conversation you might have had with friends around your kitchen table. Some comment during the evening triggered memories of a related story, and you could hardly wait to chime in. As you began to tell the story, your spouse interrupted, took over, and finished the story for you. Do you remember what you felt like? Why were you so annoyed? Because there is something exciting about telling a special story or declaring news.

Frances Davidson, one of the pioneers of Brethren in Christ World Missions, certainly felt that excitement, and so did a certain servant of the Lord here in Isaiah 49:1-6. Throughout much of Isaiah 40-55, Israel herself is called “the servant of the Lord,” and she has been assigned the task of witnessing for God in the world. In a few passages, however, including this one in chapter 49, an unnamed individual steps to the podium and speaks as the Lord’s servant. He clearly identifies with the people of Israel—he even bears the name of the group in verse 3—but he also carries out a particular responsibility among them (v. 5). In spite of various unanswered questions—we simply cannot be sure, for example, who this servant was—what we have here is an extremely moving poem.

One senses, from the start, the servant’s exuberance. “Listen to me, O Coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away!” he announces with considerable enthusiasm. “Everyone, from New York to Tokyo, come hear what I have to say.” Our servant is not lacking in purpose and direction—he has a message to share, and he solicits the entire world’s attention. He is confident—“the Lord called me before I was born,…” He is prepared—“He made my mouth like a sharp sword,…” And he is aware of God’s care and protection—“…in the shadow of his hand he hid me.” So passionate is this servant about his assignment that even his past failures and wasted opportunities—you know how they can haunt us sometimes, don’t you?—lose their control over him.

But what is this servant so excited about? He reminds us in verse 5 of his initial calling, and that would seem to be a large enough task in and of itself—to bring the people of Israel back to God. After all, the surrounding chapters of Isaiah depict the people of Israel in rather desperate straights. They are a community in exile, banished from their homeland several years before. And, given the many exhortations to “comfort” and “encourage” them, we rightfully assume that at least some of these people are exhausted, fearful, and discouraged, while others are downright rebellious. “Blind and deaf” are the words of preference for the prophet in 42:19, and elsewhere he describes them as stubborn and obstinate (48:3-5). It would appear, then, that the servant here in Isaiah 49:1-6 has his work cut out for him. The needs among his own people are considerable, to say the least.

Much the same can be said, of course, about virtually every congregation in today’s world, including our own. There is certainly no shortage of needs among us—no shortage of pain and conflict, no shortage of wounds and scars, no shortage of loneliness and disappointments, no shortage of stubbornness and sin. We have plenty of such needs—plenty of people to train, plenty of relationships to restore, plenty of offenses to confess and forgive. And we are right in giving such internal needs their fair amount of attention, even as the servant does here in Isaiah.

But importantly and perhaps surprisingly, the servant’s call does not end with his ministry among his fellow Israelites, nor does his excitement here stem primarily from this internal work. Instead, the poem reaches a climax of sorts in verse 6, where the servant’s box is stretched to new limits. “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,” he is divinely informed. “Your task of regathering and rejuvenating Israel, as important as it surely is, is just the beginning!” God responds. “Don’t stop there.”

What, then, has our unnamed servant so excited? These words: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” My sense is, believe it or not, that our servant is nearly beside himself here because he has been given the go ahead to tell the story to a huge audience. He can let out some of what he thought were God’s secrets. Have you ever noticed your children arguing among themselves about who gets to break the news—assuming it is good news!—or tell the joke when mom and dad arrive? “Come on Billy,” we reason. “Your sister is a lot younger than you. Let her tell it.” Like us would-be story-tellers annoyed by interrupting spouses, so our children fight for the privilege of declaring the news. “Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away!” the servant shouts. “I have news for you. Good news that I can hardly wait to tell you.”

And it is news that these people outside of the servant’s immediate community so much need to hear. They worship other gods, after all, gods who are hopelessly inept and powerless. Their idols are no more than fashioned clay or metal and carved wood. What can one possibly expect them to do? “Assemble yourselves and come together,” the prophets announces to the nations of the world just a few chapters earlier (45:20):
…draw near, you survivors of the nations!
They have no knowledge—those who carry about their wooden idols,
and keep on praying to a god that cannot save.
Declare and present your case; let them
take counsel together!
Who told this long ago?
Who declared it of old?
Was it not I, the Lord?
There is no other god besides me…
The servant brings alarming news. He wants to tell the nations about a God who, rather than being fashioned by human hands, actually created them. He wants to tell them about a God who, rather than disregarding sinful people, actually longs to save them. And he wants to tell everyone alive about a god who, rather than being weak and impotent, actually is God. “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth!” the prophet announced, “for I am God, and there is no other” (Isa. 45:22). It is good news, and the servant can hardly wait to share it. What about you?

The servant here in Isaiah 49:1-6 is excited about a message that he has been entrusted with, a message of great importance to the nations of the world. Frances Davidson shared that same excitement. What a remarkable woman she was, one who can serve as a great inspiration for all of us this morning. In so many ways, she models the substance and spirit of Isaiah 49:1-6.

Davidson, for one thing, demonstrated a similar excitement and confidence concerning her call. So often today we think in terms of finding a job or securing employment, and we tend to separate our so-called occupations and careers from our faith. Davidson thought so differently. For her, all of life was an opportunity to share her story, regardless of where she was or what she was doing. On various occasions, she even gave up more lucrative possibilities in order to follow the Lord’s leading. One can only begin to imagine what a woman of her competence and training might have done with her life, but she unswervingly announced—“The Lord called me!” Both in making her initial decision to go into missions as well as in determining precisely what that meant for her throughout the years, Davidson demonstrated a marked determination to give her life back to God. For her, the crucial question was not so much “What is the best job I can find?” but “What does God want me to do with my life?” What an important lesson that is for all of us to learn.

Davidson, furthermore, sensed a call that included her own community, both the Christian Community in general as well as the Brethren in Christ Church in particular. She taught at church affiliated colleges, including Messiah, and she consistently sought to work within the parameters of our denomination. She served under the auspices of the newly established Foreign Missions Board, and she spared no energy in teaching our people to increasingly reach out beyond themselves. During her occasional visits back to the states, she often traveled from church to church, encouraging and teaching her listeners to “step out of the box” and follow God in new ways. That box, by the way, was relatively small back then, and her dedication and devotion to the church brought her both respect and heartache.

But what drove Frances Davidson more than anything else in her life was the vision of Isaiah 49:6. Soon after reading an appeal in the Evangelical Visitor, Davidson resigned her position on the faculty at McPherson College and committed her life to sharing the Gospel of Christ with “the nations.” As she wrote some years later:
…the Lord came to me, as it were, in the midst of the class work, in the midst of other plans for the future, and swept away my books, reserving only the Bible. In reality He showed me Christ lifted up for a lost world. He filled me with an unutterable love for every soul who had not heard of Him, and with a passionate longing to go to the worst part of the earth, away from civilization, away from other mission bodies and spend the rest of my life in telling the story of the Cross.
At great personal sacrifice, Davidson went to places where no missionaries had ever gone, and she demonstrated a remarkable tenacity and even stubbornness when facing seemingly insurmountable odds.

On one occasion, after sharing the Gospel with new African listeners, Davidson sought to establish a new school in a particular area. Unfortunately, the local headman, clearly opposed to missionaries, refused to give her permission. Morris Sider, in his book entitled Nine Portraits, describes what happened next:
As Sister Davidson left the village she dramati- cally shook the dust off her feet in literal bibli- cal fashion. The headman observed her action and called her back to learn what she was do- ing. She quoted to him Christ’s words in Mat- thew 10. The headman was so impressed that he reversed his decision and allowed her to open a school.
She was, like this unnamed servant, eager to announce to the world the good news of God’s salvation.

Do you remember what you felt like when you wanted to tell someone something, but you couldn’t? Do you remember how annoyed you became when you started to tell a story, only to have somebody else interrupt? This morning, both Frances Davidson and the servant of Isaiah 49 want to free us to tell the most wonderful story of all. Davidson, a hero of the Christian Faith, modeled the evangelistic life. She wanted people everywhere to experience the Lord’s salvation. “They are so often in my thoughts and prayers,” she wrote in her diary with reference to the African children and young people she lived among for so many years. “How gladly would I lay down my life for them if that would draw them still nearer to the Savior.” Go ahead and tell it. Around the world. To your neighbor next door. “Turn to me,” the Lord declares, “and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other.”