Old Testament: Isaiah 42:14-21 (Lent 4: Series A)
God identifies the savior as bearing the same problem all people have. But rather than bearing the problem because He Himself was a sinner, it is better to say He bore the problem with sinners, so He might bring them to salvation.
Our Old Testament text is near the beginning of a series of progressive arguments which present God’s plan of salvation for the whole world. The whole line of reasoning is between chapters 40-54.
It begins with the contention that Yahweh is the Creator (40:12-31), and master of the events that happen in the life of humanity (41:1-42:13). Then comes a clear presentation of Yahweh as Israel’s Redeemer (42:14-44:23), who will use a foreigner like Cyrus to restore Zion (49:1-54:17). You can see from the progression of the discussion that our text (42:14-21) is uniquely situated towards a Gospel proclamation. Yahweh Himself states He is Israel’s redeemer. Through the coming, ultimate (telescoping from Cyrus to Christ) “servant,” the Lord will “cry out like a woman in labor” (verse 14). Earlier in chapter 42 (verses 1-9) the “servant” does the work of God to save. But in verse 24, we see Jacob (God’s people) was ineffective at serving Him. Therefore, they are unable to save themselves and need God to intervene through the Suffering Servant. This is why verses 14-15 describe the trouble God’s people were in as so destructive. Verse 16 reveals the Gospel turn in our text and moves us from destruction, as a part of God’s righteous judgement, to life and salvation in Him. God Himself will lead them! You can always tell it is Gospel when God is doing the verbs of salvation in the text. Left alone, they are incapable of doing anything but dying because they are blind, deaf, and alone. But God Himself will lead them all the way to salvation. God did not leave them nor forsake them, and He will make “darkness into light” (verse 16) and the “rough ways smooth” in His merciful salvation. Earlier in our reading He destroys, and later in our reading He saves. It is perfect Law and Gospel tension for our preaching.
But there is something strange about this “servant” who the Lord sends to save. In verse 19, it says curiously: “Who is blind but my servant, or deaf as my messenger whom I send? Who is blind as my dedicated one, or blind as the servant of the Lord?” So, what is strange is this servant is “righteous” (verse 21), while Jacob is not, and yet the Lord considers or rather counts this “righteous one” as blind and deaf like Jacob is. God identifies the savior as bearing the same problem all people have. But rather than bearing the problem because He Himself was a sinner, it is better to say He bore the problem with sinners (His leading them), so He might bring them to salvation. It is much like 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” Because He bore their problem, only He (the suffering servant from Isaiah) can say, “Hear, you deaf, and look, you blind, that you may see!” Only the “servant” can make the deaf hear and the blind see and be saved. He does this because He knows, “A way they do not know, in paths they have not known” (verse 16).
This savior not only knows the way but, in fact, Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) and “no one comes to the Father, but by” Him (John 14:6). But the way you must follow Him is perilous. You must follow Him down into death because only He knows the way from the pit of the grave to eternal life. He knows the way through death to life by means of His own death and His own resurrection. Follow Jesus into the grave and He will raise you to life again in His resurrection. You might be worried and anxious saying, “What if I let go of Him while I’m following Him? Will I be lost in death if I let go?” The answer is: No! He is holding-on to you as you pass from death to life! He is holding-on to you through the waters of your baptism.
This savior not only knows the way but, in fact, Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life” and “no one comes to the Father, but by” Him.
Listen to the Apostle Paul in Romans 6:3-4:
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried, therefore, with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
Jesus leads us safely from death to life by being forsaken by God, in our stead, on the cross and being counted there among sinners. In His death, He experienced the darkness Isaiah foretells. It is a literal darkness on Good Friday where the sun’s light “failed” (Luke 23:45). But three days later, the darkness turned to light (Isaiah 42:16) and those lost in blindness were saved. The light and life restored could be seen because Yahweh had redeemed us all on account of Jesus Christ alone.
A sermon structure which might assist in the preachablity of this text would be the dynamic structure called the Proverbial Structure. I say this because the irony is not lost on me that in this reading you have “the blind leading the blind.” This phrase is a common idiom and proverb in our world today. It denotes a lack of wisdom and a perilous journey. It reminds me of the time in Luke 6:39 where Jesus says rather proverbially, “Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit?” The obvious answer is in the negative. If the blind lead the blind, they will all fall into the pit. That just makes sense. But there is a way you can turn that parable using the Proverbial Structure to actually answer this rhetorical question in a surprisingly different and Gospel centered way.
“The Proverbial Structure works with the prevalence of proverbs in contemporary discourse (like advertising slogans, sound bites, and others) and seeks to use that experience for the purpose of proclaiming the divine wisdom tradition. In this structure, the sermon develops a single proverb for the hearers by using it as a refrain throughout the sermon. Often this proverb arises out of the text itself (an example here is Isaiah has the blind leading the blind to salvation and Jesus asks the very question, “Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit?”) The sermon consists of offering the hearers various life situations in which this proverb is reflected upon. In each case, the hearer needs wisdom to discern the application of the proverb and the sermon offers that contemplative wisdom which discerns how the proverb applies.”
At one point in the sermon, using Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting as a visual, The Blind Leading the Blind (1568), you can show the literal peril of the blind leading the blind away from the Church and falling into a pit. The haunting image of the hollow eyes of the blind man staring at you can cause the hearer to reflect on the hollowness of sin and its danger as you see the helpless blind leader falling into a pit. Then the sermon can turn the proverb on its head as you relate this proverb to the proclamation of the Gospel by using John Singer Sargent’s painting, entitled Gassed, where you powerfully have the blind being led from the pit of trench warfare on a path leading to healing and life. The Gospel application is when your hearer is led to see Jesus, who took our blindness and sin for us. He took “away,” or rather, “a way” that brought us from “no” with God to “yes” by means of His death and resurrection. Listen to the words of Psalm 103:1-4:
“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy.”
Jesus, who was counted with the sinners (the blind), went into the pit of our grave and led us (the blind in sin) from the pit of our grave to eternal life by His resurrection. When you preach it this way, you take the proverb and turn it from an obvious “no” to a wonderful “yes” in Jesus! Can the blind lead the blind? No! Unless it is Jesus who is taking you away from the pit into the way of salvation and life in Him. “By moving from biblical stories to contemporary situations and punctuating each situation with a statement of and reflection upon the proverb, the preacher forms hearers who enter the world remembering the proverb and seeing situations wherein it guides their daily life with godly wisdom.”
Craft of Preaching-Check out our previous articles on Isaiah 42:14-21.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Isaiah 42:14-21.
Lectionary Podcast- Rev. Blake Matzowka Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Exodus 17:1–7.