I have labored in vain, for nothing and vanity

He 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.”              Isaiah 49:3-4  [1-6]

The author, A.J. Cronin, once told this story about himself:

. When I was halfway through writing my first book a sudden desolation struck me like an avalanche.  I asked myself: “Why am I wearing myself out with this toil for which I am so preposterously ill-equipped?  What is the use of it?”
. I threw down my pen.  I saw finally that I was a presumptuous lunatic, that all I had written, all that I could ever write was wasted effort, sheer futility.  I decided to abandon the whole thing. Abruptly, furiously, I bundled up the manuscript, went out and threw it in the ash can.
.  I went for a walk in the drizzling rain.  Halfway down the loch shore I came upon old Angus, the farmer, patiently and laboriously ditching a patch of the bogged and peaty heath which made up the bulk of his hard-won little croft.
. When I told him what I had just done and why, his weathered face slowly changed, his keen blue eyes scanned me with disappointment and a queer contempt.  His words when he spoke were cryptic.
.  “No doubt you’re the one that’s right, doctor, and I’m the one that’s wrong…” He seemed to look right to the bottom of me.  “My father ditched this bog all his days and never made a pasture.  I’ve dug it all my days and I’ve never made a pasture.  But pasture or no pasture,” he placed his foot dourly on the spade, “I canna help but dig.  For my father knew and I know that if you only dig enough a pasture can be made here.”
. Suddenly my trivial dilemma became magnified, transmuted, until it stood as a touchstone of all human conduct.  It became the timeless problem of mortality – the comfortable retreat, or the arduous advance without prospect of reward.

“I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.”

That sounds familiar.  Sometimes something like that has circled around in my mind and the odd time has been found on my lips.  I’ve heard others say the same kind of thing as well.  Possibly it was in regard to church work.  Maybe it was in regard to the family, perhaps in the way that one has been taken for granted or not listened to.  Maybe as one considers his effectiveness at his job.  Possibly it has come as one surveys her life and what really has she accomplished over her lifetime.

Discouragement and disillusionment are certainly no strangers to us.  It is surprising, though, that these words are found on the lips of the prophesied Jesus.  We know that Jesus experienced frustration, for instance, as He wept over the city of Jerusalem, wishing to gather them under His salvation as a hen gathers her chicks, and they would not.  We know that He spoke out in anger against the hard-hearted and hard-spirited Pharisees, who obeyed the letter of the Law, but did not reflect the attitude and heart of the God Who stood behind the Law.

But one does not think of Jesus as being so discouraged as saying, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.”  That seems a little worrisome, when GOD (the Son) says that.

What is so distressing is that discouragement is the flip-side of hopelessness.  When a person has no hope, that is when he becomes dejected and disheartened.  We can become hopeless when, like AJ Cronin had, we become caught up in the immediate conditions and, since we have no idea of what the future will hold, we wonder if anything will ever turn out the way we so heartfelt-ly hope it should.

We can understand how this can be Satan’s doing, as he robs us of confidence, as he gets us to impatiently concentrate on immediate success, and then as we are faced with the mortal, fragile power of our merely human hands, mocks us at our inability to have any effect in this world.  As Satan showed already in the Garden of Eden, he is out to make mankind suffer and die, and what more classic way than to steal our hope and rob us of usefulness!

But one would have thought that Jesus was immune to that!  Shouldn’t Jesus certainly have had the perspective of knowing the future enough and that, even knowing that some will never follow him, would still know the millions who would find in Him the salvation of their eternity – that He of all persons should never be without hope – unless of course, He DID know the future and it WAS going to be THAT bad!  That’s why it gets a little worrisome when the prophet has these words coming out of Christ’s mouth.
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However, consider that the whole emphasis of the Advent through Epiphany season is how Jesus had put aside His God-powers with the expressed purpose of being a true man, through which He would open the way to the Father for us all.  His earthly humility then would mean His knowledge of the future was as limited as any human’s would be, that is, only as much as the Father revealed to Him.

So although He knew a lot more than we would ever know, still, how much did He have to face life only one day at a time just like every one of us must?  As Jesus wept over Jerusalem and gave vent to His frustration about the Jews – could it be that He actually did experience that degree of discouragement?  The words from Isaiah tell us that this temptation was there and pressed hard on his heels – disappointment was very real to Jesus as it is to you and me.

I am grateful for these words.  I’m grateful to hear these words come from the Messiah, from Jesus.  I’m grateful to know that God won’t come sailing out of heaven with a big club to pound me on the head should these kinds of thoughts cross my mind.  I’m grateful to know that if Jesus can say the kinds of things that I feel, then He really does understand what it is like to be human like us.

But there is a difference between Him and us which surfaces all too often.  Too often we will wallow in self-pity when we get discouraged.  Too often we will enjoy in a sadistic way the misery and the emptiness of the disillusionment.  Think of all the excuses and complaints and disparaging remarks which we make about ourselves, even within this last week.  We hurt, but we don’t want to give it up too soon.  In fact, we sort of want to make everybody pay for the way we feel.

But Jesus didn’t descend into that kind of discouragement.  His disillusionment would never reach that point of hopelessness and lack of confidence in His Father.  Even on the cross crying out in forsakenness, He still confidently handed His Spirit over to His Father.  In fact, the Father’s response was to renew in Jesus the grand picture of his immeasurable value in saving the world.  It wasn’t that Jesus didn’t know of the earthwide extent of His saving work, but in Isaiah’s prophesy, He was simply refocused to the plan from the beginning, reminding Him that His cause lay with the Eternal Almighty God of the Universe, and that His reward lay not in the accomplishments of today or tomorrow, but in the heart and mind of God and His plan of love.

That is the message which Jesus brings to us today, especially in Holy Communion.  His very presence reminds us that we are not alone and that we are never without hope.  This season of the reality of Jesus come into the flesh, and come not just for the Jew but also for you and me, is geared to make us realize where the heart and mind of the Almighty God is.  Last week’s Baptism of Jesus holds before each of us the certainty that in our Baptism God has deliberately made us also His beloved children, adopting us, thereby declaring that He can never turn His back on us – this gives us a powerful weapon against discouragement.

One of the dangers that we constantly encounter is that in the background, we feel that we must earn God’s respect and good favor, and so we look at our immediate accomplishments – or lack of them – and try to gauge how successful they were, and whether or not our approval rating ought to go up – or, tragically, go down – accordingly.

But that’s not the relationship that God has with us.  The evidence of Jesus on this earth is that God is not holding a tally sheet, but rather He comes to share, and to give, and to “be with us” – Immanuel.  That is His joy, His purpose, His delight.  His love is toward us personally, not toward our brownie points.

Yes, there is work to be done in us.  We are called upon to lay aside, to repent of, our lack of trust in the heart and Word of God; to rediscover the promises which He has in store for us, the depth of His hand in our lives, despite appearances and Satan’s fog in what we think are discouragements.  But we do not stand alone.  He is with us.  Our failures, our discouragement and frustrations have become His, because of our oneness with Him in His Body and Blood.  Through St Paul He tells us that nothing done in His will and Name is ever in vain [I Corinthians 15:58] – consider also again today’s lesson from the prophet Isaiah.

Today, as in the Gospel [John 1:29-41], like the disciples did, we also have come to spend time with “the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world” – what an experience during this time to see Him in action, as He lifts our heads and floods us with His grace, mercy, steadfast love, faithfulness, and forgiveness spilling outward to those around us.  As the two disciples determined to follow Jesus, we also resolve that Jesus should lead us, develop us, and make us become the expression of His character and salvation on this earth.

What a comfort it is to know that Jesus is no longer in the emptied state in which He was when He walked this earth.  Again we deal with the Creator God of the universe!  As weak and frail as our efforts may seem, as discouraging and resisted as our endeavors may encounter, there is a power which runs throughout everything that we do – the power of Him Who rules the universe is right here in our lives, in our church, in our world.

What a weapon we have for hopelessness!  What a joy we have which combats discouragement!  What a confidence we have against disillusionment!  Jesus is truly “with us” – “with us” in understanding our feelings as humans, but especially “with us” as Him Who rules the universe – right now.  Come before the Lord here at His table, and see again the reality of His being “with us” – Immanuel!

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