The short passage of Scripture below this essay is from the prophet called "Second Isaiah." The book of Isaiah was written at two, perhaps three, different periods of Israelite history. Second Isaiah wrote during one of the very worst times in the history of Israel.
He wrote from Babylon, while in exile. Jerusalem lay in ruins. The nation had been dragged on its knees into captivity, Isaiah but one of thousands who endured the humiliating march to Babylon in chains.
The text above is the second of four poems, called "Servant Songs," written by this prophet. In the midst of total despair this prophet cries forth a new song; a song not about rebellion or a call for restoration of kingly glory. Rather it is a song of deliverance by the hand of God through the work of a Suffering Servant.
Given the broken nation, the humiliating despair, the depressing knowledge of being captive in a strange land it came as a plea for hope. Almost no one would listen to him, let alone act upon what he had to say. His message was laughable. Yet, in time, what he prophesied came true.
This short message is both strange and beautiful. And it begins in absolute audacity, for he addresses not just his fellow exiles, but the entire world: "Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away!"
And then he lays out his credentials, certainly useless in the present circumstances. But lay them out he does. He tells of his call, his vocation. God called him when he was in his mother's womb, before he was born. God even gave him his name; gave him his identity. But for decades God did not tell him what he must do.
God did give him his only weapon: his voice, his tongue - sharp, like a "sword;" made him like a "polished arrow." And God protected him, hid him "in the shadow of his hand...." God did this until the appropriate time, until now. Now, in full adulthood, God told him what he must do. God gave Isaiah his commission.
He must have often wondered to what task he was called. He must have tried many tasks; tried to discern the nature of his call; tried to figure out what exactly he was to do with this life which God had long ago claimed.
God said to this exiled prophet, "You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified." Think about that. God tells Isaiah that he is "Israel." He is the servant who will speak to and for all of the people of the nation. Does this not strike us as ridiculous? This single, exiled, prophet, this nothing will be the vehicle through whom God will be glorified. It is crazy on the face of it.
So it should be of no surprise to us that the prophet tells us that he replied to God not in happy gratitude that at last he knew what his commission was to be, but that he, Isaiah, was unequal to the task. God, it seems, had the wrong man after all.
Isaiah tells us why he felt that way. "But I said, 'I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.'"
Surely we can identify with that. God had called the prophet from before his birth; and yet, until now, had given him no commission. God had given him nothing with which to oppose the tyranny of the Babylonian oppression but words. Yes, he had a silver tongue, but it up to now it had done him no good in his counsel to the leaders of the nation.
Up to now his tongue had, by his own admission, been used to assuage his own vanity, his pride; to improve his position among the powerful, and to gain for himself stature and admiration by those below him in position and in power.
And so Isaiah was ashamed. And he felt deep in his gut that he was unworthy of the commission. He felt that he was worthless. And if he accepted this commission he believed that he would only let God down, even as he felt that he had done up to now.
This I can identify with. This I think that many of us can identify with. In my case it feels like deja vu when I read this passage. I have "been there, done that." I have often felt exactly that way.
There was not a time from the age of 15 that I did not know that God had called me to be his servant. He called me then, and again at age 18, and at 23, and again at 38. Yet I did not heed the call. Rather, I ran. I ran from the call.
I was gifted with words. And I used them well, often to my own advantage, and often to feed my vanity. At the time I told myself I was doing it for others, as a public servant. I was not then even aware that I was vain, proud, and selfish. After all, if I worked 70 hours a week for the public it only made sense that I would be given increasing responsibility and increasing exposure to, with praise from, the bigger players in the public policy field. It only seemed right.
By any worldly standard I was a success. I spent seven years in the Executive Office of the President, rising quickly through the ranks. I headed the Federal energy and minerals program at the age of 29; was Deputy Director of the Ford Foundation's signature Energy Policy Project, and was the Director of two divisions within the General Accounting Office, rising to the highest rank possible in the Civil Service by age 35. I was Vice President of a Fortune 500 company; and CEO of a division of that company before the age of 40.
And I woke up one morning and thought, as Isaiah did, that it had all been for vanity. And that I had failed. I felt that I had failed myself, but most of all, that I had failed God.
How about you? This text doesn't just relate to me. This text is not only about prophets and people who at the age of 50 head off to seminary like I did. It is about anyone who reaches out beyond the possibility of doing something just for themselves and doing it as a way to answer a call to service.
It is about all those who have tried to make a difference and yet felt that, in the end, it has all been in vain, who question their motives and their need for approval.
People like these:
--- If you have ever tried to teach a class so well that you were sure that the kids would get the point, and that the parents would be proud of the children's, and your, efforts, and yet the children were indifferent and the parents seemed not to care.
--- If you have ever tried to reach out with help and with your presence at a time of deep crisis in someone's life and they neither seemed to understand nor appreciate what you were doing, and your assistance seemed so futile.
--- If you have ever been enthused about a project or an idea that you just knew would be well received by your bosses, and yet when you presented it you were told that it was considered not worth the effort, or that the company just did not have the time to spend on it, nor the interest in it to make it happen.
--- If you have ever tried to live your working life by the rules, being fair and living up to high moral standards, only to watch others who lie and cheat and dissemble, and who cozy up to the boss, get the promotions and the bonuses.
--- If you have ever tried to raise your children by the virtues of personal integrity and honesty, only to have them ignore your wisdom and turn to their peers for their support and approval, unable to find even the smallest redeeming value in your years of loving care as they grew up.
--- If any of those and countless other seeming failures resonate with you --- then you, with the prophet, have at sometime cried out, "I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity."
No. This text is not just for prophets and pastors. It is for anyone who has tried to do something noble and good only to feel that the effort has been wasted. It is for anyone who ever has felt that something that they tried would have succeeded if only they had not been so vain, so self righteous, so pridefilled, that they must be the source of the problem.
And the odd thing is that it matters not whether our self-incriminating analysis is true. Likely there is some truth that cuts both ways. Yes, we tried to help others, to serve. And, yes, we were often proud of what we were trying to do, and maybe even just a bit too needful of praise, hoping that someone would recognize that we were making a difference and care enough to say so.
The problem is that God will not listen long to our lamentations about our failures, failures of either character or content. God will not judge us by the standards we set for ourselves to be judged by. And God will surely ignore the standards of success that society assures us are the measure of our real worth.
When God does that, takes us as we are and offers us a new chance, a future that we can move into, without condemnation for past actions or words or mistakes, we will find that grace hard to believe. And we will find that grace hard to accept because we believe that such grace cannot possibly apply to us.
We do this because we too are judging ourselves by the same immediate results that society says we must seek. We too want results. And we want them right now. The sooner the better.
But usually results don't come instantly.
A teacher may never see the results of her efforts with a group of children. That is unless, if she lives that long, one may drop by to see her after a 20th anniversary reunion and say, "I just wanted to thank you, Miss Jones, for helping open my eyes to a whole new world when I was in your class my senior year."
And your constant care in the last months of your dying friend may never yield visible results, unless, if you are lucky and the friend's child is sensitive, he may write to you, perhaps a year later, "Millie, I just think that you should know that Mom told me how important your constant companionship was to her when you were there for her all those times in the months before she died."
Pastors, teachers, spouses, parents, friends, workers, care givers and managers had better be in love with something far more significant than immediate, visible results.
The call, the vocation, the ministry, of care and outreach to others has such lofty goals, the work of God in the sweep of human history is so mysterious and veiled, and the plans of God for us and for this world are so grand, that all we really know is that the harvest of many of the most important seeds we sow cannot occur until years, perhaps even generations, after we have so carefully sown those seeds.
Beyond that we must have faith; faith in God and faith in our efforts to care and to give of ourselves to others.
And so we must hold fast, and say with Isaiah. who said immediately after his lament, "yet surely my cause is with the LORD, and my reward with my God."
And in the marvelous, mysterious wisdom of God we will find that all of our judgments of ourselves, and of others; judgments of performance and results, of winners and losers, are but a human miscalculation of what God values most.
We value and judge by "success." But God judges by "faithfulness."
Isaiah quickly learned this truth, for he immediately says that God has cut through all the hesitation, ignored the supposed "failures" of the past and told Isaiah "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."
This commission is mind boggling. It reverses every value that Isaiah had assumed was God's measure of Isaiah's worth. In an instant, in a few very directed words, God shows how little he cares about Isaiah's past failures, real and imagined. For here God treats Isaiah as a man of incomparable worth -- and shows it by giving him an even greater commission.
And so it is with us, my friends. With all our judging of ourselves, with our second guessing, with our listening to the praise and the insults of friends and managers, parents and children, God is prepared to look into a future without so much as a murmur about what we did or did not do in the past.
Only God can decide the success or failure of the things we do when we seek to live a life of love and service to others. It does no good to try to usurp God's authority in this matter. God alone will judge.
God calls us to faithful service, not to culturally defined success. So, if we would live our lives in answer to the call to reach out to others, then we must often be satisfied with knowing that we have made a faithful effort in the vineyards.
In this lifetime we may never know for sure just how "successful" we have been. But the Scriptures tell us, unequivocally, that God's definition of success has little to do with worldly rewards and everything to do with loving kindness.
We each must decide which kind of "success" we seek and whether or not our own self critical eyes will lead us away from or toward the faithful service that God counts as success.
Isaiah 49:1 Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother's womb he named me.
2 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.
3 And he said to me, "You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified."
4 But I said, "I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause is with the LORD, and my reward with my God."
5 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, for I am honored in the sight of the LORD, and my God has become my strength--
6 he says, "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."