ISAIAH 49:1-7

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.”

7 Thus says the Lord,
    the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
    the slave of rulers,
“Kings shall see and stand up,
    princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
    the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

The theme of vocation refers to the experience of being called to a purpose that transcends the daily round of wish-and-worry. The Bible’s metaphor of choice for exploring this idea of vocation is that of a servant. If it began as a somewhat exclusive reference for the exceptional man or woman who stepped out heroically on faith and risked everything in obedience to God’s will, eventually this metaphor of the servant of God came to be applied to a community, an entire nation, and even by extension to the whole species of humankind.

In the ideas of vocation and servant we have the issue of the call and submission to the call, the summons from God and the response of commitment. Of course this leaves open the possibility that the call may not be returned, that the voice might fall on deaf ears and the vocation never engaged.

Remembering that Second Isaiah is writing from within the situation of exile where he is trying to help his people see their tragedy in a new light, the prophet’s  first-person description of God’s servant is remarkable for its bold and far-reaching lines. “The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.”

If Isaiah is hoping to effect a radical shift in the self-concept of his people, he is certainly well on his way in declaring that God had this very moment in mind before this generation was even born. In other words, the fall of Jerusalem and the deportation of Jews to the foreign land of Babylonia were events now in the process of being redeemed.

                                                                                                

In addition to re-grounding the concept of vocation in the primordial intention of God (“before I was born”), Second Isaiah throws open the boundaries of space as well. Whereas earlier traditions had remained preoccupied with the welfare and destiny of God’s chosen people, the author reframed this status of privilege into a purpose of universal scope.

“It is too light a thing,” says God concerning the special vocation of the generation of exiles, that the New Being coming to birth in them should be for the sake of Israel alone. The beneficiaries of this redemptive work would now become all nations of the earth.

This achievement in reframing eventually would provide the foundations for the renewal movement of Christianity in the first century CE. The two key insights of Second Isaiah to energize that renewal would be (1) that God’s grace and calling are given prior to, and are therefore essentially independent of, an individual’s moral effort; and (2) that God’s purpose for the individual is to reach out and share with the whole world this gift and its core message of hope, forgiveness, and peace.

It should not surprise us, then, that Jesus took so much of his inspiration and evangelistic vision from the writings of Isaiah.

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