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The Good News of Christian Leadership – Labor in Vain?

August 30, 2020 • Life for Leaders

Scripture – Isaiah 49:3-4 (NRSV)

(The LORD) said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” But I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause is with the LORD, and my reward with my God.”

Focus

Jesus lamented in fulfilling his vocation. Consequently, the good news begins by discovering that Jesus is quite at home in the company of those who are discouraged, despondent, and even despairing. Jesus understands, in a way that I hadn’t imagined possible, those who struggle with chaos, futility, and a sense of purposelessness.

Devotion

Who is Isaiah talking about? Since the book of Isaiah was written the identity of the servant has been a bit of a mystery. Many times, in Isaiah, the servant appears to be the whole people of Israel. On the other hand, in this second “servant song” (Isaiah 49:1-7), the servant seems to be a particular person who is instrumental in restoring “the survivors of Israel” (49:6). The Church, from its very beginnings, has identified Jesus with Isaiah’s servant. The conversation between Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch about the fourth servant song (Isaiah 52:13-53:12), on which we will reflect next month, is just one example (you can read it in Acts 8:32-35).

Picture: St Peter in Prison by Rembrandt van Rijn (1631)

Picture: St Peter in Prison by Rembrandt van Rijn (1631)

It’s not surprising that the Church came to see Jesus as the servant of the LORD. Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension fit hand-in-glove with the vocation of Isaiah’s servant. Given we believe that Jesus is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, what is surprising is the remarkable candor with which it pictures Jesus wresting with the sense of failure in his work. Being optimistic by disposition, I tend to focus on the upbeat aspects of Jesus’ earthly ministry. I don’t often think of Jesus being discouraged, much less despondent, perhaps even despairing, in his work.

That’s why the three key words in today’s text are such a surprise. Jesus, the servant of the LORD, voices a deep lament about his vocation and work: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity” (emphasis added). (As a side note, I have often wondered what Jesus prayed about in the many instances during his ministry where he withdrew to pray. Perhaps this gives us an idea of some of the content of his prayers.) These are strong words that are made even stronger by their cumulative effect. The middle word, “nothing” (“tohu” in Hebrew), is particularly telling. It is the same word used in Genesis 1 to describe the state of nothingness or “chaos” that preceded God’s creation. Instead of Jesus’ work contributing to a “new creation,” what appears before him is an “old chaos.”

How is any of this good news? In the first place, we are reminded that Jesus fully enters our human vulnerability. It’s quite easy for me, if only subconsciously, to assume that Jesus is “above” my experience of discouragement and failure. I find it hard to imagine Jesus really struggling with his vocation, at least before Gethsemane. This text helps me understand how much Jesus really understands our situation.

Particularly now; we live in a time where we are all wrestling with our own descent into chaos. Some young families are struggling with caring for children who are in virtual school, while trying to do their own work from home. Other young families don’t even have that option – they face no-win choices between their lives, their livelihood, and the care of their children. Others of us are (or were) in roles of institutional leadership. Some have found a lifetime of work ended, sometimes unceremoniously. Those who remain in leadership grapple with long-held assumptions and strategies that no longer work. Those of us who are older are being confronted by age and a vulnerability that we previously ignored or denied. While the variations are endless, we each face our own prospects of a life “labored in vain, for nothing and vanity.”

Paradoxically, amid the chaos, the good news begins with lament. As our text suggests, Jesus lamented in fulfilling his vocation. Consequently, the good news begins by discovering that Jesus is quite at home in the company of those who are discouraged, despondent, and even despairing. Jesus understands, in a way that I hadn’t imagined possible, those who struggle with chaos, futility, and a sense of purposelessness.

But the good news doesn’t end there. Lament is not the final word for our vocation. “Yet surely my cause is with the LORD, and my reward with my God.” In the tradition of the Psalms, lament is followed by an expression of trust in God’s goodness. This too is the pattern of our discipleship. And, for those of us (like me) who struggle with being able to trust, Jesus’ resolute commitment to trust is available to us by his Spirit.

Strangely, our experience of chaos, futility and purposelessness is the very ground in which the seeds for God’s new creation are sown. “[What] is sown in dishonor … is raised in glory. [What] is sown in weakness … is raised in power” (1 Corinthians 15:43, NRSV). The promise of resurrection is a reminder that, in God’s faithfulness, nothing good will be lost.

Reflect

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, where do you feel your greatest discouragement?

Act

Take time alone or with a trusted friend and talk honestly with God about your experience of discouragement. Try to be as honest as you can with God about how you feel. Don’t defend either your feelings, or God’s action or inaction.

Pray

Lord Jesus Christ,

We find ourselves in a season of consuming chaos and upheaval. Good plans must be discarded. Important work is disrupted and uncertain. Our very lives are at risk. Much of what we have depended on seems on the verge of being swept away. With Isaiah’s servant, we lament that in vain have been our lives, and for vanity and nothing we have labored.

Yet you are our hope and our confidence. We cast our cares upon you because we know you care for us. Bring life where there is now only the shadow of death. Bring hope where there is now only the gloom of despair. Bring light where there is now only the darkness of night.

We ask in your name. Amen.


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Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the High Calling archive, hosted by the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Best of Daily Reflections: When Work Seems Useless


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