It's impossible to understand today's first reading without restoring verse 4 to the passage. Though convinced he's Yahweh's prophet, Deutero-Isaiah is just as convinced he's failed in the mission Yahweh's given him to accomplish. "I thought," the prophet reflects, "I had toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength." In other words, "I never did what you expected me to do."
Yet, for some divine reason, Yahweh's not worried about the prophet's failure. In spite of his people not listening to his oracles, Deutero-Isaiah is certain, "... my reward is with Yahweh, my recompense is with my God." In an environment of striving for success, God's reaction to our failures is unique. Disciples of God simply have to get used to employing a different value system when it comes to their discipleship.
In some sense, this unnamed prophet can't figure out why, after he failed at bringing Jacob back to Yahweh or gathering Israel to God, he still realizes "I am made glorious in the sight of Yahweh and my God is now my strength." Yahweh's glory has been shown by Deutero-Isaiah's failures, not by his successes. Not only that, but the prophet receives an even broader mission: "It is too little, Yahweh says, "for you to be my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and restore the survivors of Israel, I will make you a light to the nations (Gentiles), that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth." The prophet's lack of success opens new horizons for him.
Between now and the first week of March - except for the feast of the Presentation - our second readings will be from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, a letter he probably composed after he'd come to the conclusion he'd lost control over that particular community. Though today's short passage contains one of his "normal" greetings to a church he had founded, over the next month and a half we're going to see just how "unholy" many in that community had become. No doubt Paul was tempted to conclude he'd wasted his time in evangelizing them. Yet, this unique letter, written from the viewpoint of failure, has become a classic guide for understanding Christian communities and the Spirit working in them.
Scripture scholars constantly warn us to distinguish the historical John the Baptizer from the gospel John the Baptizer. We Christians automatically look at this wilderness prophet as Jesus' precursor: the person who plows the field ahead of Jesus' planting. That's the image our four evangelists have created in order to somehow relate John's ministry to Jesus' ministry. He proclaims the "Lamb of God" in our midst, and testifies, "A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me." John dies a happy man because he's made Jesus known.
But that's not how the historical John would have judged his God-given mission. As an Essene - a member of the Dead Sea scrolls community - John, like Jesus, insisted on repentance. But the reason the Baptizer was so anxious to have people change their value systems was to prepare the way for Yahweh's appearance on earth, an appearance which he hoped would right the wrongs his community had suffered a century before at the hands of the Jerusalem authority structure.
Obviously things didn't turn out the way John anticipated. His preaching didn't usher in Yahweh's arrival; it simply hastened his own death. He probably looked at his martyrdom as a sign he'd failed in the task Yahweh gave him.
When we fail in carrying out what we conceive to be God's plans for us, it's important to remember the failures of Deutero-Isaiah, Paul, and John the Baptist. They couldn't have been more successful.