A sermon drawn from Isaiah 49:1-7
So – what does it mean to be “a light to the nations”?
When I was a little girl, in Vacation Bible School, one summer in particular – the one I mainly remember because every day we played tether ball in the playground of the church – we learned a song “We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations,” – others here probably know that song too.
The story we had to tell to the nations, of course, was the story of Jesus, and the nations were places far, far away, like Africa and Asia. We already knew that song “Jesus loves the little children,” another song everyone here probably knows, too. And “the little children” lived in those nations far far away. So that year in VBS we had pictures of the globe on the walls, and we learned stories about Paul travelling across the ocean to start churches, and then about people in our own times who had become missionaries, and we spent time thinking about what it would be like to love Jesus so much that we would go far, far away to tell people about him.
I’m not suggesting our Vacation Bible School teachers were wrong about that, either. But … it does remind us that when we hear the words “the nations,” we are likely to think of some place we would need a passport to travel to. Places where people do not speak our language or use our money or eat macaroni and cheese. Distant lands.
And we probably need to challenge that idea. We probably need to challenge that idea, for a couple of reasons. First, because when this text was new, it almost certainly would not have meant that, to the people who first heard it. Second, because now that the text is extremely old, challenging that idea, and recovering some of what it meant at first, might help us understand better how to think about what it means for us – that is, in our own lives.
Because we think that when the text was brand new, “the nations” would really have been “the neighbors.”
We think that the text would have been new towards the end of the time of the Babylonian exile. At the beginning of that exile, the ancient Judeans, the Jews, had had their land conquered by the Babylonian empire, and had been deported, relocated to places in that empire – to the big city of Babylon, and to other cities and regions in the empire, which was big. And then, after about 50 years, maybe a few years after this text is composed, the Persians conquer the Babylonians, and give the Judeans permission to go back to Judea – that’s when we think this prophet is writing.
The Persians have their own big cities, Susa and Ecbatana, and we know from other parts of the Bible that Jewish people ended up in those, too. That empire stretched at one point clear to what we think of as Turkey, and as far east as the border of China, and included part of North Africa and Egypt – it was BIG and diverse. It was the empire Alexander the Great conquered when he conquered “the world” a couple of hundred years later.
In other words, when this text was new, “the nations” would have been nearby, living all around the Jews. They would have been the imperial conquerors; but also all the other people from other places who had been, like the Jews, deported to Babylonia to keep them pacified. And all the people who traveled through those cities on a regular basis, doing business. “The nations” were all around them all the time – not distant at all. The word “nations” in Hebrew in effect means something like “the other peoples,” whoever are not the Israelites, not the Jews.
The servant who was meant to be a light to those nations would have been the nation of Israel itself. The faithful members of the nation of Israel, at the very least. The ones who had been continuing to offer up a sacrifice of prayer and praise to God even after they’d lost the temple in Jerusalem, and even after they’d lost the city of Jerusalem itself. That city was supposed to have been the center of their national integrity, surrounded by sturdy city walls that marked the boundary between the people of God, with their holy way of living, and others.
That was how it was supposed to have been. But as we read in the earlier chapters of Isaiah, it didn’t look much like that before the exile. The city of Jerusalem was not known for its justice and righteousness, for its care for the poor and the widow and the orphan and the least, for its single-minded devotion to the God of Israel … according to the prophets, the breakdown of Israel’s faithfulness was why the exile happened in the first place!
Anyway, the faithful Israel seems to be the servant in the text. Maybe represented by the prophet, who is speaking to the nation of Israel and calling the people of Israel, of Jacob, back to the God of steadfast love and faithfulness. Either way, exiled people or beleaguered prophet, the servant has not had an easy time of it, and has not obviously been very effective.
And then here, in our verses, God says, no, my message is even bigger than the people of Israel, it’s as big as “the nations,” as big as the empire you’re right in the middle of. It’s for … the neighbors, from next door all the way to the edges of the empire, the islands in the Nile, the islands in the Mediterranean Sea … that word “coastlands” can also mean “islands,” and we know there were islands in those places. So “the nations” here would have included distant lands, but as part of the empire that is also right where the servant is.
And what it would have meant to be a “light” to those nations, when this text was new, seems to have meant something like: show those people what this God, the Holy One of Israel, the creator of the universe, the steadfastly faithful one, is really like. Yes, this is a God whose lessons are sometimes painful – because remember, we’re in the context of the Babylonian exile, and that was not the best time Israel had ever had – but who raises up and restores and redeems. When the nations – the people all around – see that, they’ll be amazed, they’ll be in awe.
They’ll see how you-all return to Jerusalem, and how you-all renew that way of life, and how now you-all really will live like the people of God, because of everything you’ve learned from this experience in Babylonia, you’ll be a living example of God’s shalom, and that will be awe-inspiring. People will see that, and they’ll know how great God must be.
And, because of that, we think they’ll also be drawn to this God, this God who is really God, unlike the idols the nations around Israel were busy worshipping in those days.
Because this “light” that the people are supposed to be is – well, “light” is a fairly common word, but the prophet here is not talking about “a lamp” or “a candle,” the prophet is using the word “light,” like the light of creation itself, the light that is how the work of God begins and that illuminates all the work of God.
And it is also like the light in the book of Exodus that lights up the neighborhood where the Hebrews are living, in the land of Goshen, when the Egyptians are struggling through the plague of darkness. That’s quite the striking image: that the Egyptians are in the dark, and they can see, off in the distance, in the Hebrew neighborhood, light – to see by, to live by, even just to do ordinary things.
In fact, we know – this is in the Bible – that at that time, the time of the Exodus, some of the neighbors were drawn to leave Egypt along with the Hebrews, when Pharaoh finally did “let God’s people go.” And we suppose that those people were moved to join the Hebrews by what they had seen of the power, and also the goodness, of the God of Israel in that light …
So the “light” the prophet is talking about shows up in the Bible when God is doing serious creative work – making the universe, liberating Israel from Egypt, getting ready to do something big – almost the way we hear the director say “Lights! Camera! Action” – the very beginning of even bigger things.
Now, this text was already very old by the time of Jesus. 500 years old, at least. And the earliest Christians, who were all Jewish themselves, as was Jesus, would have grown up with it, we think, the way we have grown up with our Bible verses. They would have learned that the light to the nations was supposed to be Israel, the people of God.
But in the light of Jesus’ life, and ministry, and death, and resurrection, we know Christians right away began seeing all kinds of new things in those ancient texts. In fact, we know that these words of Isaiah, about the servant of the Holy One, and the light to the nations, were among the first places they saw new meanings. We know that, when early Christians read them, they thought right away, “Oh, that sounds like Jesus. Jesus, the Christ. Jesus, the light of the world. Jesus, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Jesus, Christ, the salvation of God.” Of course they would have seen that, knowing what knew about Jesus.
So Christians, reading the Bible with the eyes and ears of faith, have been hearing Isaiah’s words as a ringing description of Jesus Christ for millennia, literally.
And because of that, Christians have also often thought of the people of Christ, the body of Christ, the Church, as sharing that mission of being “a light to the nations.” At least, of sharing the mission of bringing Christ’s light, the light of the gospel, to “the nations.”
Because Christians have thought – and we would go along with this, no doubt – that we ought to be a brilliant example of God’s goodness and grace; that our lives ought to reflect God’s love; and that lives that reflect God’s love and Christ’s grace will get noticed, the way the Egyptians noticed the light glowing over the land of Goshen in Exodus, or the way the nations were supposed to have noticed the restoration of Jerusalem as a remarkable example of God’s surprising redemption.
And once again, “the nations” turned out to be the neighbors.
Because in the early days of Christianity, Christians do seem to have drawn the attention of the neighbors. Christians were very out of step with the world around them, for a number of reasons.
The ancient world was a “might makes right” kind of world, from what we can tell from the historians; people had contempt for the poor and for “losers,” there was no ethos of charity – unless a benefactor could use it to buy themselves some supporters in a city election, that is, unless they could get something out of it for themselves.
Christians, on the other hand, understood that every single person mattered, to God, and ought to matter to them. Poverty, illness, old age, weren’t conditions to be ashamed of. Christians treated people differently.
And then, when Christians got in trouble for being weird in this and other ways, Christians also changed people’s understanding of heroism, what it meant to be a hero. Because for Christians, anyone, even slaves, even women, could be heroic: could be loyal to Christ, could stand up to the kind of persecution that took place over the next couple of centuries.
Christians and their ideas literally, genuinely, changed the world. Not by travelling to distant lands, but by living with integrity and courage and kindness and compassion right where they were. The nations who were their neighbors came to be … Christian nations.
Later, though, when those Christian nationals did go off to far distant lands and meet the people in those remote places – remote to the Christians, that is, not to the people who were already there – they didn’t always do their best work. Unfortunately, I think we need to be aware of this part of history, too. Christians didn’t always bring the light of peace and justice and love to “the nations,” “the other people.” Those episodes have cast some long shadows over the history of the nations – ours and others – and may have done more to dim the light of Christ than to make it shine more brightly.
So, we can learn something about what this text means for us, from that whole long history of what “a light to the nations” has meant.
And maybe the biggest lesson from that history is that “the nations” who really need this light have always been nearby. They were the neighbors then, when they were the diverse peoples of the Babylonian empire, or the Jews and Gentiles of the early Christian centuries. And they’re the neighbors these days, too, from what we can tell. They’re the warring “tribes” we encounter on Facebook and Twitter and on the interstate and in the aisles of the grocery store.
Because these days, there are a lot of people who don’t have the first idea what it means to belong to a people, to be part of a people, who rely on God, who know and study God’s lessons, whose values are shaped by those lessons, and who support one another in living lives that are faithful to and that embody those values.
These days, in the United States, there are more and more people who have no religion at all. Every time a new poll or a new edition of the General Social Survey comes out, the percentage of the population that lists “none” as their religion is a little higher. The nation of people who think of themselves as outside the circle of the people of God is all around us.
Of course that doesn’t mean they’re outside the circle of God’s love! We know that. But plenty of people don’t know that – haven’t yet seen the light of God’s love, or felt its warmth.
[N.B. And if you want your heart to break, just try listening to what that sounds like.]
These days, right where we live, our neighbors are the nations.
Christ is the light of the world, now as always. We know that. Whatever light we have in our own lives comes from Christ. We know that, too.
The challenge for us is to let Christ’s light shine, brightly, in us and through us, so that the nations around us, wherever we live, even in [small town southern Indiana], see it and are drawn closer to it.
Images: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Church of Jesus Light for All Nations,” Aleppo (cropped), Kevorkmail at English Wikipedia, Kevorkmail at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons