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Christ Before Bethlehem

Christ The Servant

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | December 25, 2005

Selected highlights from this sermon

There are many misunderstandings about Jesus—especially at Christmas. In order to avoid mistakes or misunderstandings about who He is, we have to search and study all of the Scriptures.

In Isaiah, we see Jesus the Servant. He didn’t come clamoring for political ambition. He is our model of sacrificial servanthood, because we are called to be servants. We’re not asked to do anything that He has not already experienced.  

I maintain that we will always misunderstand Jesus. We’ll always misunderstand Him unless we allow the whole Bible to define who He is. I was reminded of that watching television about ten days ago when there was a discussion of the Christmas wars, which I’m going to be speaking about near the end of this message. And somebody said, “Well, the last I read my Bible, Jesus said, “Love one another.” And the argument and the conclusion was therefore that He was into tolerance, and we should not proclaim anything as truth because love trumps truth. That’s what one person said. Is that what Jesus meant when He said, “Love one another?”

I also know somebody who said, “Well, you know Jesus was a revolutionary and He was drawing on that. And Jesus was a revolutionary, looked at in one way, and He was drawing on that to justify his own view of a revolutionary lifestyle. Jesus is used for all kinds of things today. People find in Jesus what they want to find, but until the whole Bible speaks to the issue of who Jesus is, our view is always distorted.

And then we come to Christmas. “He is the one in the manger,” someone says, “who shows us the love of God.” Well, yes, that’s true, but what are you implying? What are the implications of that? Where does it lead? All that becomes important. And at no time does it become as important as it does at Christmastime.

What about the Christmas spirit? Could I speak to that for a moment? On Thursday my wife and I went shopping. A scratch beneath the Christmas spirit just a little bit and this is done during the Christmas season in parking malls – you’ve scratched beneath the Christmas spirit – and you don’t find a whole lot of love and cheer and consider others better than yourself when you are looking for a parking spot, do you? You have honking horns and angry stares at one another.

As I was parking and then went into the store with wall-to- wall people (It wasn’t Walmart but it was wall-to-wall people), I wondered what in the world does this really have to do with Jesus Christ’s birth? Where did we get off track? What’s the connection between Jesus here and what’s happening there? I’m not sure exactly what the connection is, and I think that most people have long since lost that connection.

But back to the question of who Jesus is, we’ve been studying the book of Isaiah in the last two messages and we mentioned that Christ is predicted 700 years before He appears on the scene. He is predicted first of all as the Son. “For unto you a child is born and a son is given.”

We’ve learned that Christ is a king. “For the Law shall go forth from Zion and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” Today we are going to look at Christ as the servant and then next time, Christ as the deliverer to complete the picture.

Who is Jesus as the servant? There are some very famous servant passages in the book of Isaiah that we’re going to be looking at in just a moment. But when you realize that a servant, first of all, is somebody who gives up his own right to please himself, and he sets aside his own desires to obey his master, isn’t that what a servant does?

You think of Jesus who was so high. Never before has anyone been so high, and then He was willing to stoop so low. As the Scripture says, He was willing to take on Himself the form of a servant. A servant is somebody who gives up all rights. What was Jesus saying when He was born in Bethlehem? Was He saying anything? According to the book of Hebrews He was saying this: “Lo, in the volume of the book it is written I delight to do Thy will, oh God.” Jesus said, “My own desires, that which would please Me, have been all set aside because now I am committed to My Father.” And a servant gives up all independent right to his life and making his own decisions. And Jesus did that at Bethlehem.

A servant also has the responsibility to report to his master, to keep his master informed, and Jesus gave that ultimate report on the cross when He said, “It is finished.” What He meant by ‘it is finished’ is, “Master, I’ve done it all. Do you remember that plan We had before I stepped out of eternity into time at Bethlehem? It is all completed. In terrifying detail I have finished it.” It’s a servant reporting to his master.

There’s something else about a servant, and that is that he evaluates his success according to whether or not his master is pleased. And Jesus said, “The Father has not left Me alone for I do always those things that please Him.” I don’t know about you, but kingship comes easier to me than servanthood, and Jesus models for us what servanthood is all about.

With that introduction I’d like us to look at three quick descriptions, three descriptions that we’re going to handle quite quickly, of Jesus in the book of Isaiah as the servant of God.

First of all, in Isaiah 42:1 you’ll notice it says, “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.” Verses 2, 3 and 4, “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 till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law.”

Jesus serves gently, confidently. This is a picture of Jesus, meek and mild. I love the imagery, which is quoted in Matthew 12 as having been fulfilled when Jesus was here on earth. The text says there in verse 2, “He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice.” He’s not boisterous. He’s not a politician, and if you are here today and you are a politician, we love you very, very much, and we understand the kind of pressure that you are under. But Jesus didn’t run like a political campaign. He was not the kind of person who got into people’s face about things. Most assuredly He did not do that to promote Himself. He was not boisterous. He wasn’t loud. He was gentle. In fact, that’s what the text means when it says, “a bruised reed he will not break.” Do you know what a reed is? It’s like a grass blade that’s hollow, and we’ve all seen it broken, and it just hangs there. Jesus doesn’t come along and just rip it apart. And in the Scriptures a reed is often spoken about as a weak person, somebody who maybe is undependable. A bruised reed he does not break. Jesus does not come to crush people under the weight of His power.

And then it says, “A smoldering wick he will not put out.” Have you ever had the experience of lighting a wick, or seeing a wick burn and then blowing it out? You’ll notice that oftentimes there’s that one little spark that remains. Jesus doesn’t come along and snuff it out. If anything, he’ll encourage the wick to burn. This is Jesus meek and mild.

As a matter of fact, Charles Wesley once wrote a hymn using those words. And there was a pastor who was doing visitation in London, and he found a 10-year old boy hiding in squalor, and the boy was bruised and beaten and his face was ashen. And the pastor asked him, “Tell me your story,” and the boy said that his dad had beaten him because he refused to steal. His dad told him to steal and the boy wouldn’t because the boy had attended Sunday school and discovered that stealing was sin, so he didn’t do it. He said, “Pastor, don’t tell my father that I am here.” But before he left the boy said, “May I sing you a song?” And he sang Charles Wesley’s song in his own way.

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild
Look upon a little child;
Pity my simplicity,
Suffer me to come to Thee.

The last part of the second stanza says:

Give me, dearest God, a place
In the kingdom of Thy grace.

That’s Jesus meek and mild. A few moments ago we had the children up here on the platform. The Bible says that when Jesus was sitting down, children came to Him, and He held them and He blessed them. That’s Jesus meek and mild. That’s not all that there is to Jesus, but that is authentically Jesus. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus! Mild Jesus!

So He serves gently, but He also serves very effectively, and for this we go to a second portrait in Isaiah 49, so if your Bibles are open you can follow along. Here Jesus is also spoken of as the servant. Now some people read this and they say, well, the servant is Israel because it says in verse 3, “And he said to me, ‘You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’” So they say Israel is the servant. Well, Israel was supposed to do much of what Jesus came to do. Israel was to speak the Word. Israel was to be a light to the nations. It didn’t turn out that way so it becomes very clear in the text that God leaves off speaking about the nation of Israel, and now speaks about the Redeemer, about the Messiah.

You’ll notice that it says in verse 5 that Israel is distinguished from this servant. “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.” Now we have a servant who is going to gather Israel. Israel is not the servant that is going to do the gathering, but rather be gathered.

And he says, “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.”

And we’ll skip to the middle of verse 7 where it says, “Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves; because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

So what Jesus here is predicted as doing is bringing back again the nation of Israel. You’ll notice that in the text. I’m not going to stress that because if you were here last time you know that that was part of what we spoke about - that Jesus, as the King, is going to re-gather Israel. And He is going to rule from Jerusalem, and He is going to be the One who will bring the nation back, and they will recognize Him to be the Messiah.

But in addition to that you notice that Jesus is to be the light of the world. You’ll notice the “light to the nations.” And when Jesus arrives on this planet, what does He say? He says, “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” The great difference between a Christian and a non-Christian has to do with the degree of light. There’s a lot of darkness out there in the world. And I love that verse in Proverbs because it is so descriptive when it says that the wicked walk and they stumble in darkness but they don’t know what it is that they are stumbling over, but they keep stumbling.

Yesterday afternoon I read a great description of stupidity. Stupidity is doing the same thing today that you did yesterday, and yet expecting a different result. I think that’s pretty good, don’t you? Have you seen people like that, just stumbling, doing the same thing over and over again, and you say, “Can’t you see that it’s not working?” But they walk in darkness and they think that they are seeing. That’s the deception.

Jesus is the light of the world, and when we come before Him, He reveals who we are. Our own self is exposed in all of its great need, but He also reveals God to us. And it says the light of the glory of God is revealed in Jesus Christ, but the god of this world blinds people lest that light be seen. We’re in a tremendous conflict when we present the Gospel because there are many people out there, as Jesus put it, that love the darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil. Light is a terrifying thing if you have something to hide. But God shines His light, reveals it, and then provides an answer for it.

So Jesus not only speaks gently as we noticed in chapter 42. Jesus also rules very effectively, and He brings justice to the nation Israel, and eventually to the Gentiles, and sheds light in a world that is filled with darkness.

There’s a third portrait and that is in Isaiah 52. Now keep in mind that chapter divisions are not inspired. Did you know that? The problem was that they had long scrolls, sometimes 20 or 30 feet long. Certainly Isaiah would be that long, and they had no way to note exactly where a specific passage was and so somebody went through and made chapter divisions. It’s been said facetiously that in the New Testament those divisions were made by someone riding on a chariot, and whenever the horse stopped, he put a little mark and then picked up from there the next time. That’s unfair because most chapter divisions are in a good place, but this one is not in a good place because the last three verses of chapter 52 should fit in with chapter 53. Someday I am going to preach on this, but actually there are five stanzas, and the first is the last three verses of Isaiah 52, and then the others are in chapter 53. There are four of them are in chapter 53, making a total of five, and so the chapter divisions should have actually begun three verses earlier. Isaiah – of course the great prophesy of chapter 53.

But notice what is says about the servant in verse 13. “Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.” It’s a picture actually of Jesus Christ in His going to heaven in His ascension, and in His position at the right hand of God, the Father. But now notice the descent. Notice the jarring contrast between Him being high and exalted and what He endured when He was here on earth. Verse 14: “As many were astonished at you — his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind.” That’s a description of the crucifixion. Jesus marred! One translation says very accurately – disfigured more than any other man. Just look at Him for a moment with His beard plucked out. Look at Him for a moment with a crown of thorns, the lacerations along His back, and the weakness because of the loss of blood, carrying His cross. See Him there in His weakness and in His apparent defeat, and see how mangled His body was when they nailed Him to that cross. He was severely disfigured, but He was the servant of God.

You’ll notice I read in verse 13, “Behold (Take note! Don’t let this escape you. That’s what the behold means.), my servant shall act wisely.” In obedience to God this is what He endured. In chapter 53, it tells us that in detail, does it not?

So it says in verse 15, “So shall he sprinkle many nations;
kings shall shut their mouths because of him.” Now some translations say that He shall startle many nations. You say, “Well, why do some translations say startle and then others say sprinkle? The reason is because in the ancient Hebrew oftentimes the vowels of the words were missing so you had these consonants and then you had to figure out what the vowels would be. And some of those words therefore could have a different set of vowels and therefore have a different meaning. Either way it’s a powerful passage.

“He shall startle many nations.” Yes, many nations shall be startled because of Him. They many wonder who He is, and when He returns, they shall indeed be startled, but I think that the better translation is sprinkled. He shall sprinkle many nations.

We are reminded of Leviticus 14. It says that the blood was sprinkled on the houses to cleanse the houses. In chapter 16 the blood is sprinkled in the Holy of Holies and the holy place. And then you get to Ezekiel 36, and this is what it says: “I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and you will be careful to obey all of my rules.”

God says, “I’m going to do that for the nation – sprinkle clean water on you.” What is the symbolism here? The cleansing of the nations! And when you get to Hebrews 9, it says that our consciences can be cleansed and can be sprinkled. Figuratively speaking, remember you can’t take steel wool to your conscience and cleanse it, but God can cleanse the conscience. God can purify your memories. He can break the power of the past. He even breaks the power of cancelled sin, and sets the prisoner free. He is able to do that. He does set us free.

This past week some of us saw the movie Narnia. Right now while I am preaching I have in my mind a picture of Edmund sitting with a ball and chain around his foot, eating Turkish Delight. I thought, “What a picture of the human race!” Enjoying these things but in bondage and in prison! Wow! And Jesus comes along and says, “I can cleanse you.”

Those of you who come today with an evil conscience, you are plagued even during this sermon with what happened this past week and maybe even last night. God comes and cleanses you as you confess your sin and expose all that is in your heart into His presence. And so no wonder the text says here in Isaiah 52 that kings are going to come and they are going to bow down and their mouths are going to be shut because in the presence of the Lord God they will realize that they are in the presence of someone who is greater than they are. That’s the statement of this sermon, and what He is able to do in the lives of people.

How do we boil all this down and relate it to Christmas wars? First of all, I think that we learn from this very quick snapshot of Jesus as servant in the book of Isaiah that Jesus does not ask us to do anything that He Himself has not done. He’s a servant. And we also are servants of God. We don’t fit into His class, but we are servants. What do servants do? Servants are pointers. They always point to their master. They don’t draw attention to themselves. Jesus continually said, “The works that I do, the Father that dwells in Me, He does the works.” And even the Holy Spirit comes now and He, in turn, speaks of Jesus. There’s a sense in which the Spirit also is a servant, and the Son is the servant. You and I always have to point beyond ourselves. We have to point to Him.

I’m reminded of the person who said to another, “You know, you pointed to the moon but all that I saw was your finger.” And it’s possible for us to try to get people to Jesus, and all that they see is who we are, and they don’t see whom He is. And if that’s what happens, we have failed as servants. Servants are also givers, aren’t they?

I see Jesus in the Upper Room, and I see Him there as the disciples come in, and their feet are dusty, and it was the role of the servant to wash the feet of the guests. And Jesus begins to wash the feet of His disciples. You see, to Jesus it didn’t matter whether He was washing the feet of disciples or whether He was preaching the Sermon on the Mount. That was not the big issue. The issue was “Am I doing what the Father wants me to do, and am I pleasing to the Father?” The content of the action didn’t matter. It’s the Father that mattered, and so Jesus was a giver.

Another characteristic of servants is that they always have to be forgivers. “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” That’s what servants do. And by the way, what did the servant get for serving others? He got crucified. If you are here today and you see yourself as a servant, I hope that you are. Have you ever been crucified? Have you ever been misunderstood? Have you ever given your best to somebody and you have said, “I’ve done all that I possibly can; my motives were pure and now look at what happened? I am being vilified and I am being crucified.” Jesus would come today and put His arm around you and say, “I’ve been there. I’ve done that. I know all about it.” Jesus said, “I am a servant. You be one too.” Let’s leave here today looking for someone whom we can serve other than ourselves.

The second lesson is that His mission gives meaning to the manger. See, in an ultimate act of servanthood, He gave Himself for us so that we could be exalted, so that we could eventually rule with Him. And the whole message of Jesus was that He came to save His people from their sins. And this leads us to the business of Christmas wars.

I’m going to say a few things with which some of you maybe take exception or you disagree. That’s fine. I’m going to ask more questions, and I’ll let you answer the questions. In this whole business of Christmas wars I think we have to ask ourselves this question. What kind of Christmas are we as evangelical Christians defending anyway? I see on television when some of our friends are on TV. And somebody says, “Yeah, but why should everybody be saying Merry Christmas because we belong to a different religion, or we’re atheists?” And the answer is, “Well, Christmas is actually a secular holiday so everybody should be able to participate.” What I’m saying to myself is, “Oh, I see. What we’re doing is we are making Christmas safe for pagans, aren’t we?” Isn’t that what we’re doing? I can see here that you folks don’t know where this is going. You’re a little nervous. That’s all right. I’m not nervous.

There was a Supreme Court Justice, I read this week, who said that a Christmas crèche is perfectly legitimate as long as it has some plastic reindeer. I’m serious. If it has some “plastic” reindeer (I don’t know what would happen if they had real reindeer) that shows that it’s basically secular. So I need to ask the question and let you answer it. Is this kind of a Christmas really worth defending? The question should be asked.

The second question we have to ask is this: Have we won the battle, as some people are claiming, just because stores are forced to put Merry Christmas in their windows? What have we really won? Has any soul been saved? Has anybody’s mind been changed about the value of Christmas now that, in some stores, the checkout counter people are actually saying Merry Christmas? I mean, have we won a whole lot by that?

I’m going to be even more specific. We don’t have a service this evening, so I’m going to relax this afternoon and I’m going to keep going. Should we really expect Target to promote Christianity for us by telling everyone Merry Christmas? I’m only asking the questions. I’m letting you answer them.

There is a war against Christmas. There’s no doubt about that, and I recognize its seriousness. One of the first things Hitler did was do away with Christmas and he changed it into Winter Solstice, and Easter was Spring Break. So there is a war against Christmas. There’s no doubt about it but I do have to ask myself the question, “Have we properly identified the enemy in all of this?” Is it the left that would like to see all references to Christmas stamped out in the public sphere, or is it the commercialism that all of us seem to embrace and nobody seems to be troubled by the fact that we have parking lots filled with people, and we have stores filled with people, buying all kinds of things, whose minds and whose hearts are far away from Jesus. Does that trouble us, or is that okay?

Well, I’m going to think about this a little more, but I have more questions to ask you. Could it be that we as Christians should think through what a real Christian Christmas should look like? There’s a thought. What if, instead of giving our money to Walmart, what if we actually gave it to the poor? Now that’s a thought. What if we as Christians began to realize that the real authentic Jesus is not being represented in our secular Christmas? He does not happily share the same stage with plastic reindeer because our Christ is quite different from that. Our Christ is a servant who serves gently and confidently. He’s also a King who rules effectively, and He’s a Savior who reigns eternally. (applause) Now there’s a Christ whose Christmas we can defend.

As we read the Bible, and even in this brief study that we’ve done today on Isaiah, we are reminded that Jesus is so unlike the world’s view of Him. There’s almost no parallel because there’s this tremendous disconnect between His mission and the manger. People zero in on the manger. If they know anything about Christmas they know that Jesus was born. But they have no clue, for the most part, about what He did or why He came. And it’s up to us to make the connection, to help them to see the dots, to know that when we are in the presence of Jesus, we are in the presence of the King of kings and Lord of lords, and we need to help this culture understand that that’s what Christmas is all about. (applause)

We have someone to proclaim who has changed us, who has forgiven us, who has sprinkled our hearts from an evil conscience. And the Christ of contemporary Christmas can’t do that.

Let’s pray.

Our Father we want to thank You today that Jesus is the servant. We grieve today, Lord, that so many people who are celebrating Christmas really do not understand Him or why He came. They don’t understand that He came to cleanse His people from their sins. Even some listening to this message today may have heard for the first time that Jesus is actually able to get down into the human heart and do what no psychiatrist or no teaching or no self-help book can ever do. We pray that many will reach out to Him and say, “Jesus, I want to receive You as the light. I walk in the light. I expose myself to You in all honesty, inviting You to be my sin-bearer and the One who comes to cleanse me.”

Would you talk to Jesus now if Jesus has talked to you? Let’s have a moment of silent prayer.

Father, we pray that You will help us to exalt Your Son at Christmas. Help us to understand that in this Book we have a revelation of One that will cause the kings of the earth to shut their mouths, the One before whom every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that He is Lord to the glory of God, the Father. And we ask today that we shall love Him, represent Him, speak of Him, and serve Him all the days of our lives. We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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