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What Child Is This?

What Child Is This?

Preached by Ben Bechtel

This Advent season our church has been teaching through passages from the book of Isaiah that sing with hope. We have paired each text with a Christmas hymn which shares similar themes with that particular passage. Today we will be looking at the hymn “What Child Is This?”. The hymn begins with these two lines: What child is this who, laid to rest/on Mary’s lap is sleeping? Although most babies come into the world in the same way, there was something peculiar about this particular baby. The events that surrounded his birth would have us ask the question this morning, “what child is this?” Who is this child we sing of so often during the Christmas season? Isaiah 42 provides an answer to this question, an answer which ought to make all of our hearts sing for joy. Read Isaiah 42:1-12:

Scripture Reading

42 Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
    my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
    he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
    or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
    and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
    he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be discouraged[a]
    till he has established justice in the earth;
    and the coastlands wait for his law.

Thus says God, the Lord,
    who created the heavens and stretched them out,
    who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people on it
    and spirit to those who walk in it:
“I am the Lord; I have called you[b] in righteousness;
    I will take you by the hand and keep you;
I will give you as a covenant for the people,
    a light for the nations,
    to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
    from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the Lord; that is my name;
    my glory I give to no other,
    nor my praise to carved idols.
Behold, the former things have come to pass,
    and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth
    I tell you of them.”

10 Sing to the Lord a new song,
    his praise from the end of the earth,
you who go down to the sea, and all that fills it,
    the coastlands and their inhabitants.
11 Let the desert and its cities lift up their voice,
    the villages that Kedar inhabits;
let the habitants of Sela sing for joy,
    let them shout from the top of the mountains.
12 Let them give glory to the Lord,
    and declare his praise in the coastlands.

1. What Child Is This? (vv. 1-7)

Isaiah 42 is a unique passage in the book of Isaiah. Isaiah 42:1-9 forms the first of the so-called “Servant Songs” in the book of Isaiah. These four passages in the second half of Isaiah sketch a vision for the people of Israel of a figure who would one day come and bring justice to the world, as it says numerous times in our text this morning. In the Old Testament, justice was not a concept limited to legal matters as it is today. Rather, it referred to the state of the world as it ought to be, as God intended it to be. The Servant’s mission of justice was a mission to bring the salvation of God to the world in the broadest sense possible: total healing, total restoration, total redemption, total justice.[1]

  The Servant is cast as the king who would bring justice and salvation to his people and to the whole world. This song expressed the longing of Israel for a future leader who would make everything right. And it expresses our longing as well. (FCF) We all, like the people of Israel, long for a king who can restore our lives and the world to the way things ought to be. The portrait of this Servant-King in Isaiah 42 is two-sided: the king is presented as both humble and powerful, meek and majestic.

a. A Meek Messiah (vv. 2-3b)

Let’s look at verse 1 together:

42 Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
    my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
    he will bring forth justice to the nations.

This picture of God’s Servant-King looks much like we would expect. He is anointed, empowered, and beloved by God. He has been appointed to bring God’s saving justice to the ends of the earth. Let’s read on in verses 2-3b:

He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
    or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
    and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;

This language should feel odd to you. This is not typical language to describe a king.

            This past Thanksgiving, Whitley and I were visiting my in-laws in North Georgia. Much to my delight, after dinner we discovered several home videos of Whitley from when she was in 1st and 2nd grade. One of these videos documented Christmas at her grandparents with Whitley, her brother, and two cousins. As her dad is trying to film the four of them riding their brand-new scooters, Whitley pops on the camera every 30 seconds or so and yells, “Hi, I’m Whitley Thompson! Peace!” It was amazing. But this is exactly what kids do. They want to be announced and recognized, to be treated like they are important. In the grand scheme of things though, they’re not. If the president and little 6 year-old Whitley walk into a room, it is right and fitting in some sense for the president to announce his presence but not for Whitley to yell out, “Hi, I’m Whitley Thompson!”

            This Servant is the anointed and beloved of God who is coming with God’s message and plan of salvation for all peoples. If there’s one who is worthy to be recognized it is him! However, this king does not cry out and announce his arrival to his people. He comes quietly and humbly.

            The picture in verse 3 is also interesting to note. The Servant will not come chopping down trees half-dead or dousing fires about to go out. Rather, he comes gently to those who are hurting. To those who are the most fragile, the Servant comes to heal not to destroy. This is not typical of a king. The kings of this world come without a care for the oppressed and downtrodden of our world. But God has compassion on smoldering wicks and bruised reeds and that is good news for our world and for us.

There are those in our world and in our nation who are physically oppressed and hurting. There are those who are isolated and lonely. We are all broken reeds. During this holiday season you may feel this acutely. Maybe you are feeling the monetary strain of wanting to buy presents for your children, or the loss of a loved one, or the weight of another Christmas spent apart from a family member with whom your relationship is strained. We all need a king who knows and understands our deep pain. I am so thankful that God has compassion on bruised reeds and smoldering wicks.

But, we don’t just need someone who can weep with us, we need someone with the power to save us. We also need a majestic Messiah.

b. A Majestic Messiah (vv. 1, 3c-7)

That is precisely the Messiah presented for us in this passage. The glory and power of the Messiah shines forth in verses 1 and 3c-4:

42 Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
    my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
    he will bring forth justice to the nations…   

 he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be discouraged[a]
    till he has established justice in the earth;
    and the coastlands wait for his law.

            Notice in verse 4 how the Servant is directly contrasted with the broken and bruised people he has come to save. This contrast is even more clearly seen in the Hebrew text. How many of you, if you’re using your own ESV Bible have a footnote over the word “discouraged” in verse 4? What does it say? It says “bruised” is another possible translation for that word. This is because the adjectives “bruised” and “faintly burning” used to describe the people the Servant comes to save in verse 3 are the exact same words used in verse 4 in Hebrew to describe what the Servant is not.

His people may be faint and bruised but the Messiah is strong and mighty. To use the language picked up in verses 6-7, he is a piercingly bright light to the nations even as they dwell in deep darkness. Nothing will stop this bulldozer of grace and justice from tearing up the present evil age and constructing his kingdom.

And this is precisely the kind of Messiah we need! We need a king who can actually enact salvation for his people. The kings of this world make promises of salvation, promises of change that will benefit all the people of a nation only to run into political barriers or have their power taken by another leader. We need a king who will faithfully establish God’s salvation in our lives and in the whole world.

And as you have probably seen coming brothers and sisters, Jesus is that King. That baby, born 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem, is the King that all human hearts long for. Jesus is the meek Messiah. He did not come shouting in the streets declaring his arrival but was born as a baby to a woman in a feeding trough in a small town. The King came as a vulnerable infant. Instead of shouting in the streets he comes crying in a manger. This is rightly why the song asks, why lies he in such mean estate/where ox and ass are feeding? Jesus’ earthly ministry was characterized by his compassion for those who were hurting, just like you and me. He goes to the sick, the poor, the outcast, and th sinner and proclaims to them good news. He identified with our human experience and understood firsthand the tragedy and evil of a fallen world.

Yet even in this, Jesus was also a majestic Messiah. Even as he was held in the arms of his mother he was holding the stars in place. At Jesus’ baptism, God’s Spirit descends upon him, empowering him for ministry and the voice of the Father declares that he is his beloved Son (Matt. 3:17). Jesus not only sympathizes with the sick or demon possessed or the sinful but in his power he heals them and casts out demons and forgives sins. He not only sees and cares for our need: he has the power to save us from it.

It is in his death and resurrection that the meekness and majesty of Jesus culminate. As he is spit upon, mocked, and beaten Jesus did not cry out or lift up his voice. Jesus humbled himself on the cross, enduring the punishment of death for human evil. Jesus becomes a bruised and broken reed for us. Nails, spear shall pierce him through/the cross he bore for me, for you. But Jesus then rises from the dead in power and ascends to rule over the universe at the right hand of his Father. And in his reign he is working his saving justice for all kinds of people from all the corners of the globe. We need a King who is majestic and meek, exalted and humble, God and man. We need Jesus to be king!

This is good Christmas news church! Jesus comes to us who are broken, identifies with us and knows our experience in a messed-up world, and has compassion on us. He comes for weak and worn out and sinful people like us! And not only that, he has the power to save us, as he accomplished salvation in his life, death, and resurrection. When we trust in him, we become the delight of God and are empowered by God’s Spirit just as Jesus is. Good news! Let’s trust this King! Let’s follow this King! Stop trusting in the kings and things of this world to set the world and your life right. They will disappoint! Recognize your weakness and need and run to the compassionate and powerful King. What child is this? This is Christ the King!

2. Bring Him Praise! (vv. 8-12)

In the remaining portion of the sermon I would like to show us two ways in which we ought to respond to this good news of Jesus’ saving justice. Both of these responses are present in verses 8-12, so let’s look there:

I am the Lord; that is my name;
    my glory I give to no other,
    nor my praise to carved idols.
Behold, the former things have come to pass,
    and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth
    I tell you of them.”

10 Sing to the Lord a new song,
    his praise from the end of the earth,
you who go down to the sea, and all that fills it,
    the coastlands and their inhabitants.
11 Let the desert and its cities lift up their voice,
    the villages that Kedar inhabits;
let the habitants of Sela sing for joy,
    let them shout from the top of the mountains.
12 Let them give glory to the Lord,
    and declare his praise in the coastlands.

This whole text really, but especially verses 8-9, are best understood against the backdrop of the last 9 verses of chapter 41. There God taunts the idols that his people are worshipping and in so doing taunts and chides his own people for trusting in them. Specifically, God taunts the idols for not being able to know the future or determine its outcomes.

            But the God of Israel does. And this promise of a Savior who would come and bring about justice is now fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He is that Savior who is bringing about justice. What follows directly after this in the text? A command to sing to the Lord. Worship is the only response that makes sense when staring into the face of the King of the universe who has taken on flesh for us. This isn’t a neat and tidy, lip-service kind of singing that we may do at church on Sunday morning. This is a raucous choir of nations! And this is the type of singing that will resound throughout eternity when our God comes again to complete his work of justice.

Just like God’s people responded with singing when he led them out of Egypt in the exodus so now let us whom the Messiah has led out of sin and darkness erupt in praise! Praise is the response of a heart of faith. Friends, how is your praise? Do you truly sing for joy? Let’s think about us corporately as a church for a second. When we gather, do we sing in such a way that people think we have received the best news possible? Do we sing as those who have experienced resurrection and new life? Do people mistake our singing in church for a crazy, Sunday morning party? Our response must be fitting to the nature of the news we receive. Church, may we be a people who sings for joy! Even tomorrow night as we gather for Christmas Eve let us sing those Christmas hymns with deep joy rooted in the work of our God for us.

This song of praise does not just stop with us. It is not simply confined to the walls of the church. Our song of joy in God ought to spill out to all the nations. The line from the movie Elf rings true here: “the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.” That is the whole point of this text in Isaiah. God’s work in his servant was a work not just for Israel but for the nations. That is why this passage continually talks about the good news reaching to the coastlands. The coastlands were considered the farthest edges of the earth, the farthest one could possibly go (and here some of you were excited that this text was talking about the beach). The Servant’s work and message of salvation was to reach all nations, and this work continues with us. The people of the Servant take part in his mission by proclaiming his salvation to the ends of the earth.

Church, this Christmas let the message of the gospel spill out of you everywhere. May you be so filled up with joy at what Jesus has done for you that this song spills out into your families and neighborhoods. Out of joy, invite people to the Christmas Eve service. Out of joy, have an awkward, maybe hard conversation about the gospel with a family member this Christmas. Out of joy, be one who goes to the nations with the gospel! That is not something too far from those of us in this room. This Christmas I pray that we would be people who are so caught up with King Jesus’ gospel of salvation that we sing loud so that the whole world might hear of the joy to be found in Jesus’ kingdom. Haste, haste to bring him laud/the babe, the son of Mary.

 

[1] John Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40-66, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 110.

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