Laboring in Vain
Scripture - Isaiah 49:1-7
No one knows for sure who this ‘servant’ was. Isaiah had a way of getting so wrapped up in what God was giving him to say that he all but lost track of who he was. Like an actor who loves the play he is in so much that he can recite every part of it, Isaiah jumps from part to part. Sometimes when he says I he is speaking for himself. Sometimes he is speaking for God. And more than once, he speaks for an unidentified servant of God, someone who was chosen by God & who suffered for it.
Those of us who know Jesus think it sounds for all the world like him – a man of sorrows & acquainted with grief – but Isaiah also calls him Israel, without telling us whether he means one person or the whole nation. Whoever it is, when we come upon the servant in the 49th chapter of Isaiah, he is in deep despair. Nothing is working out for him. Everything he touches breaks. He knows that God has called him from his mother’s womb; he knows that he is God’s child, but that only intensifies his grief because he is convinced, he has wasted his gifts. God has made his mouth like a sharp sword, but his words do not seem to be able to cut through anything. God has made him like a sharpened arrow, but he cannot seem to hit the target, much less the mark. I have wearied myself in vain, he says, I have used up my strength for nothing.
In the end, it does not matter whether we can name the person Isaiah points us to, because the person already has a name. God’s Servant, it says, & that is enough. This is God’s Chosen One, & whether the words are capitalized or not, they speak to all of us who are God’s servants in this world. Whether we like it or not, every one of us is a full-fledged deputy of God’s kingdom. Some of us are better at it than others & some of us do more harm than good, but none of us is excused. The moment we were baptized as Christ’s own forever, we were set apart as God’s servants in this world, & the very fact that we are still hanging around means that we have not resigned yet.
Whether we go to church because we believe or because we want to believe, we know that God has the power to change our lives & that people expect us to be different somehow – kinder & more generous, wiser & more honest. All of you with fish stickers on your cars know what I mean. No more pulling in front of people or parking in spaces reserved for the handicapped. No more tailgating or coasting through stop signs. You must let the other person go first, & you had better wash your car while you are at it, because you do not want people thinking Christians are slobs!
You get the idea. You are God’s people, & God’s people are called to be extraordinary: extra thoughtful, extra friendly, & extra involved. So you are. You do & do & do. You volunteer, you join, you serve, you listen, & you give. You leave home early in the morning & come home late at night. You take on other people’s problems, you put them first, & you invite them into your home. They try to take your coat & you give them your shirt as well.
You burn your candle at both ends, discovering that the reward for a job well done is not less work but more work, none of which stays done. You begin to wonder whether it is God you are serving or only your own ego. You snap at someone who does not deserve it & your bitterness surprises you. You start getting tired earlier & earlier in the day until finally one morning you cannot get out of bed at all. I have wearied myself in vain, you say to the ceiling. I have used up my strength for nothing.
I suspect that Isaiah’s servant was feeling something like that when he confessed his own failure to God. Expecting to be fired or at least retired & replaced by someone more adept for the task, he tells God that he has accomplished nothing, is nothing, & deserves nothing, but God does not accept his resignation. God – whose ideas of success & failure have never coincided with our own – has a better idea. I will appoint you as light to the nations, God says, so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.
Now that is divine logic for you. Fail at a large task & you are given a larger one. Produce hardly a spark in your own small corner of the world & you are promoted to light the entire planet. It is either a case of divine irony or else God knows something we servants do not know, namely, that our success does not depend on those who are chosen but on the One who chooses them, the Holy One of Israel, in whose hand the sharp sword cannot fail to dazzle, in whose bow the sharpened arrow cannot fail to find its mark.
The only way we can truly fail, apparently, is to remove ourselves from those hands, to let our own poor judgment make us quit our relationship with the Chooser, disqualifying ourselves from God’s service on the grounds that our efforts are not good enough, our skills are not fine enough, & our scores are simply not high enough. Who do we think we are?
When our own ideas of success go bankrupt, when our own notions of servanthood are exhausted, only then is there room for God to give us a new vision of ourselves. For Isaiah’s servant, that vision was one of light – of epiphany – of being set on fire as God’s beacon in the world. He had thought it was enough for him to do his duty, to do the particular tasks God had set before him, tasks at which he labored & labored until he had no strength left. He came to the end of his rope. He admitted defeat, & that is when God had some room to negotiate.
“Stop doing a job,” God said. “Start being a light. Stop doing your duty. Start being my child. Stop worrying about whether or not you have done a good job. Start leaving that up to me. You can’t see things the way I can. You just let your light shine & let me take care of the rest. I chose you & I’ve got good taste. I made you & I can be trusted.”
That is not an authorized translation, of course, but what if? What if the real test of our success as God’s servants is not what we do but how we do it? What if the real measure of our extraordinariness as Christians is not our thoughtfulness or our friendliness or our busyness but our spark? What if the real sign of our witness to the light is not how much we accomplish but our own lightness, our own reflection of the bright God who has chosen us & lit us up & sent us into the world like candles into a dark room?
This is just an idea, but if there is anything to it then there is no such thing as laboring in vain. How would we know? Can a flame see its own light? Who asked our opinion? Who put us in charge? The Holy One of Israel has chosen us, has called us from our mother’s womb & named our names, giving us mouths like sharp swords & making us sharpened arrows. It is not up to us to decide whether we have succeeded or failed. It is not up to us to decide if we have labored in vain.
To spend our strength on that is to spend it on nothing & vanity, while the call of God pulls so much more strenuously at our hearts, calling us to serve, certainly, but calling us first & last to stay as close as we know how to the One who has chosen us, to stay as close to the Light – Jesus – as we can, so that our witness is not a matter of performing tasks or playing roles or meeting expectations but of remaining in white hot relationship with the One who is able to make epiphanies out of all our days.
It is just an idea, of course, but if there is anything to it then it is too light a thing, all you servants of God, that you should spend your strength doing your duty when what you have been called to do is to ignite, enflame, combust, burn, & shine with the glory of the God who has chosen you, & who has given you to the world, bright lights to the very ends of the earth.