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Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
It is the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, the season of the year in which we focus on Jesus revealing Himself as God Incarnate, the Savior of all mankind. It is also Sanctity of Life Sunday. So, it is fitting that our Old Testament lesson, Isaiah 49, is serving double duty today. Let’s focus especially on verses 5 and 6:
And now the Lord says, He who formed Me from 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 eyes of the Lord, and My God has become My strength—He says: “It is too light a thing that You should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make You as a light for the nations, that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
Do you see the connection? This Servant will “bring the preserved of Israel” and will be “a light for the nations,” that is, the Gentiles. That’s Epiphany! And He will be called and formed “from the womb.” That’s sanctity of human life from the womb to the tomb. Which brings to my mind two important questions: Who is this Servant that God formed from the womb? And why does it matter that He did call and form Him from the womb?
Over the centuries, a great deal of debate has raged over the identity of this Servant. If we look carefully, we will see that He will identify Himself clearly.
The Lord called Me from the womb, from the body of My mother He named My name. 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. And He said to Me, “You are My Servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified” (Isaiah 49:2-4).
Some suggest this Servant is Cyrus. God chose him before his birth, and through His prophet, God even mentioned him by name. God does say that Cyrus is His anointed, but the other identifying marks do not fit the Persian king. In verse 3, the Servant is called Israel. Cyrus could never be called Israel for he was not of Israel but only used by the Lord. The importance of Cyrus can be documented in ancient history and in what he did for Israel, but he did not bring salvation for all to the ends of the earth. We must look for someone else.
How about a prophet sent from God? God said of Jeremiah who appeared after the time of Isaiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). But no single prophet could be called Israel. How could any prophet restore the tribes of Jacob and bring salvation to the ends of the earth? A prophet might announce such blessings, but he could not accomplish them himself.
Some have suggested that the Servant is the nation of Israel. Certainly, the nation was described as the Lord’s servant (Isaiah 42:19). But Israel was anything but a good example as a servant. The nation turned away from the Lord and despised His servants, the prophets. Israel itself needed rescue and help. In addition, the Servant mentioned here is a single person. He has a mouth, and God calls Him from His mother’s womb. No, we must look for someone else.
Who else but the Messiah fits the description here? God chose Him before birth. From the beginning, God’s plan for the deliverance of the world involved the coming of one person. God told Adam and Eve this person would be the Seed of a woman. Throughout the long history of the Old Testament, God promised the coming of such a deliverer. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all anticipated the coming of that one deliverer. God promised David that such a deliverer would come from his family. Isaiah identified Him as a child, born of a virgin. All the prophets pointed to the coming of that one Great Servant who would deliver His people.
Only Jesus fits that description. God set Him apart long before His birth. Jesus, the eternal Son of God, is born in time of a woman. The words of Jesus are often like a sharp sword cutting away pretense and unbelief, exposing sin, then applying the healing balm of God’s grace for sinners. Jesus is the reason God had chosen His people Israel. He is the true Israel, who will bring glory to God and who stands in dramatic contrast to the historical Israel as the obedient Son.
Jesus is born in Bethlehem to “save His people from their sins.” He will also be “a light for the Gentiles.” Through this Servant, Jesus, God provides deliverance for all humanity. And it will all begin from the womb.
Why from a womb? If you were God and wanted to restore your people, if you were God and wanted to bring salvation to the “end of the earth,” if you were God and wanted to defeat sin, death, and Satan, if you were God and wanted to be glorified in all of this, why enter the world from a womb? Why not arrive on a white horse wielding a flashing sword accompanied by legions of angels and blazing chariots? Why from a womb?
The Word of God before us today provides answers to this question. God will teach us that the Messiah will be called from the womb to identify with and to bring salvation for all humanity.
Why from a womb? First, it took a womb to properly equip the Messiah for the task of bringing salvation to the “end of the earth.” In the prophecy that is our text, Jesus Himself speaks to us. He tells us that the Father, “formed Me from the womb to be His Servant.” God formed His mouth “like a sharp sword” and made Him like a “polished arrow.” The Servant’s task required a human body.
If Jesus, God’s Servant, was to be “wounded for our transgressions” (Isaiah 53:5), then He needed a back to feel the scourge, hands and feet to receive the nails, and a side to be pierced by the spear. If He was to pour out “His soul to death” (53:12), He needed a human soul. He needed lungs to stop breathing, a heart to stop beating, and a brain to stop functioning. If He was to be “an offering for sin” (53:10), He needed blood to shed.
Being formed in a womb made these things possible. After His miraculous conception by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus grew and developed in His mother’s womb just like every human being. His heart began beating at around twenty-four days. Blood flowed in His veins at thirty days. He produced brain waves at forty-three days. About this same time His lungs were nearly developed. By seven weeks He had little feet and little hands complete with fingerprints. By eight weeks He, like all of us, was a small-scale baby one-and-an-eighth inches long and weighing one-thirtieth of an ounce.
In order to be a “light for the nations” and to bring salvation to the “end of the earth,” the Servant Jesus must suffer and die. In order to suffer and die, Jesus had to become a human being. The writer to the Hebrews put it this way, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death He might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Hebrews 2:14-15). It took a womb to do that.
It also took a womb to be the beginning point for the task of bringing salvation to a fallen world. Jesus says, “The Lord called Me from the womb, from the body of My mother He named My name.” The path of salvation that would lead to the “end of the earth” had to begin in a womb. He who would be the “light for the nations” had to begin His life in the darkness of His mother’s body.
The womb was an absolutely necessary place to begin. Here’s why: Jesus’ ancestor, David writes: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). Since our humanity begins at the moment of conception, our sinfulness begins at the moment of conception. Because our sinfulness begins at the moment of conception, our Savior from sin had to begin His sinless life from the moment of conception. To be our Savior, Jesus took our place, not only on a cross and in a tomb, but also in a womb. It was necessary for our salvation that the Servant Jesus be called “from the womb.”
It does seem strange though, doesn’t it? Instead of coming to save us with legions of angels and blazing chariots, our God came hiding in a womb! We see this “hiding” language in our text. Jesus would have a mouth “like a sharp sword” but “in the shadow of His hand He hid Me.” Jesus would be like a “polished arrow” but “in His quiver He hid Me away.” Sometimes God accomplishes His will visibly and powerfully, but other times God accomplishes His will by hiding. That is how He accomplished our salvation.
Jesus did not come on clouds in blazing glory. He hid in a womb. Jesus did not come as a king but hid as a servant. Jesus did not come to live in a palace but hid as someone who had no place to lay His head. Jesus did not come as a judge to condemn but hid as a teacher of truth in whom there is no condemnation. Jesus did not come to defeat earthly enemies by leading an army. He came to defeat Satan and sin and death by hiding on a cross. It was in all this that God was glorified.
Still, it does seem strange that God would choose to accomplish His will by hiding. It seems like such a difficult way filled with humiliation and pain and suffering. The Servant Himself questions the way of hiding. We hear Him in our text, “I have labored in vain; I have spent My strength for nothing and vanity.” We hear Him in Gethsemane, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death … My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me” (Matthew 26:38-39). But we also hear Him in our text: “yet surely My right is with the Lord, and My recompense with My God” and in Gethsemane “nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will” (Matthew 16:39). The way of hiding isn’t easy. But when it is God’s way, then it is the right way, the necessary way.
Why from a womb? It took a womb to equip the Messiah with the human body He would need to suffer and die and rise again for the salvation of the world. It took a womb as a necessary starting point to bring salvation to the world.
That leads us to our final point and our main point. It took a womb for the Messiah to identify with and bring salvation for all humanity. This is the message of Epiphany. Jesus did not come just for a certain ethnic group or for people with a certain skin color or for people with a certain mental capacity. He came to be light for all the nations. He came to bring salvation to the “end of the earth.” In today’s Gospel, John points to Jesus and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
As an embryo developing in His mother’s womb, Jesus identifies with humanity at the point which is the very essence of “sameness.” Although individual characteristics are there genetically from the moment of conception, outwardly we are all the same. You cannot look at an early embryo and discern whether it is male or female, black or white or red or brown. You cannot look at an early embryo and know his or her intelligence or athletic ability. You cannot look at an early embryo and tell whether he or she will be a person with a particular disease or disability. As embryos, we all looked the same!
And guess what? Jesus looked exactly the same! Jesus looked just like all of you. Jesus looked just like people from Africa or the Near East or the Far East. Jesus looked just like people from Mexico or Guam or Russia. Jesus looked just like people in care centers and group homes and mental hospitals. As embryos in a womb, all humanity looks the same. Jesus came as an embryo in a womb to identify with all humanity and to bring salvation for all humanity. That’s the message of Epiphany. That’s the message of Christ’s Church all year long.
How remiss we would be as Christ’s Church if we were to exclude certain people from the message of salvation. Thank God we belong to a church body that never says, “We’re not sending missionaries to that country. You know how those people are.” We never say, “We’re not going to start a church in that part of town. Those people will never listen any way.” No, we belong to a church body that understands “those people” are people for whom Jesus died and rose again. We belong to a church body that boldly proclaims the message of salvation cross-culturally, to all nations wherever and whenever God gives opportunity.
However, we do live in a country that still openly discriminates against a certain people group. This discrimination is so entrenched and so widespread that it can even deceptively draw God’s people into its bigotry. We live in a country that says people not yet born are not really people and have no rights including the right to life. After forty-five years of this prejudice, many in the Church have forgotten the humanity of the unborn and, without even thinking about it, exclude them from the message of salvation.
But Jesus did not exclude them! He became one of them. Every embryo in a womb is an embryo for whom Jesus entered a womb as an embryo. Every embryo in a womb is part of humanity for which Jesus suffered, died, and rose again. Every embryo in a womb not only has the right to life but is someone for whom Jesus paid to have eternal life. God formed Jesus in the womb and God called Jesus from the womb so He could bring salvation to all humanity.
That is the message of Epiphany! This is the message that can change the course of this country when it comes to the value of human life. This message gives value to those not yet born and about to enter this life. This message gives value to those who are frail and about to leave this life. It gives value to the young woman in a crisis pregnancy for it speaks of God’s forgiveness and love and strength. It assures her she is not alone and enables her to make a choice that is best for her and her baby. This message speaks compassionately and gives value to those who have made an abortion choice and are now dealing with its guilt and regret. This message speaks to them as it does to us all, for we all have sinned. It says, “You are precious in His sight! Jesus entered a womb, lived, suffered, died, and rose again for you. He made things right with God for you. God, in Jesus, forgives your sins regardless of number or magnitude. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.