I am writing this as an evacuee from the Valley Fire. This is a draft, so forgive the typos that I’m sure will be here…I’ll get to them later. I will share this with Galilee Lutheran Church on the third Sunday of October, so would appreciate any feedback you might give. It’s been a long week. At friends in Santa Rosa, CA. My husband and I were fortunate. Both of our houses survived but we have lived through not knowing for most of a week and the stress of getting into a car and running from the fire (we actually had an hour an a half to pack…much more time than others). My heart grieves for the number of friends and students who lost everything.
There are few sacred texts that have caused more debate than today’s reading from Isaiah. Who is this suffering servant? Most Christians would claim it is Jesus, but Jews would definitely not. What was the author’s intent when he wrote these beautiful words 2,500 years ago? Did he gaze at the ziggarats, temples to the Babylonian gods and goddesses, as he was sitting on a terrace in Babylon at wondering if his people would survive? Would they keep their cultural heritage intact in the midst of the lures of a sophisticated foreign country? Would their children be influenced and forsake their religion by the culture of the enemy that destroyed their kingdom and imprisoned them for the last fifty or sixty years?
It is said that it was the Babylonian exile that ushered a tribal monotheistic faith into true Judaism, a religion ready to claim its place in the pantheon of the great World Religions. In the midst of losing everything, the Jewish people had to define who they were. It is this period that a great deal of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, was written, the synagogues evolved as there was no temple at which to worship, and the Rabbinical tradition began.
There are at least two writers of the book of Isaiah, possibly three. “Second Isaiah” wrote this passage toward the end of the exile, and he certainly lent vision, a sense of mystery, and exquisite imagistic language that was a part of ripening of Judaism. So, as Isaiah sat with his scroll and his stylus was he having visions of Jesus who would live 1,500 years in the future, or did he envision an archetypal pattern for salvation that is a part of all humanity interpreted by him to help his people understand the challenges and hardship they have faced?
We know that as early as the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch asking Philip’s help to discern this passage, say sixty to eighty years after Jesus’ ascension, early Christians were viewing the Suffering Servant as Christ. Philip asks him, “Do you know what you are reading?” and the eunuch says, “How can I unless someone explains?” And so Philip uses the scripture to explain the Good News.
Gerhard Sauter, a German theologian, has written that “Faith does not work like a pair of glasses, however that allows us to decode the text; glasses can be taken on and off. Faith, on the other hand, is constitutive, like the retina, which makes sight possible in the first place.”
Father Leo, Saint John’s beloved priest who passed away last January, would caution us about dualistic thinking. He often said any situation did not lie within the polarities of either/or but rested in the wholeness of both/also. What I think we Christians can be certain of is that the idea of the suffering servant, and all the connotations the image holds, was known to Jesus and the implications of this affected the choices he made in his life.
I used the word “he” for Second Isaiah. Many theologians think the author of Hebrews might have been the Deaconess Priscilla that Paul mentions in his letters on five different occasions. The Greek used in this letter, one of the last parts of the Bible written probably fifty years after Jesus’ time on Earth, is the most nuanced of all New Testament writing. The author was evidently educated and had a sophisticated understanding of Judaism, as well as a profound understanding of the difficulties of living a human life. She, or he, wrote at a time where Christianity was being called into question. Her audience, the small Christian/Jewish church in Jerusalem was about to face a time of trial and persecution, and the dilemma they faced was how to hold onto their convictions, perhaps similar in scope to the Hebrews in Babylon who were convinced they would never see their home again. Some people in the congregation were abandoning their faith.
In the Greco-Roman world of Jesus’ time, there was no expectation that God could hold empathy for humankind or that humans could understand God. The author of Hebrews believed that even God’s understanding of humanity could not be complete until God manifested as human and experiencing that there are profound costs to empathy. The author refers to the rituals of the High Priests of the Old Testament as an earthly reflection of Greater Reality. Old sacrifices foreshadow the New Sacrifice to end all suffering in the great scope of time.
Jesus is portrayed as the great single High Priest, appointed like the High Priests of old, as “Son of God” through his resurrection, but also God’s son from the beginning of time. The high priests of the Old Testament belonged to the people, representing their relationship to God. Jesus took our humanity to the ultimate point, suffering, crying for help, going through pain and feeling deserted, and dying. He was broken by affliction, but through this perfected by God and resurrected. The main theme of Hebrews is not the necessity of being morally perfect, but how to face suffering, just what the first readers of this epistle were about to do, to not despair and lose their trust that they had been and would always be loved, and that they were themselves a part of this Divine Love.
In Mark, the disciples are clueless as to the cost of discipleship. They are deep into their own temporal egos as they wonder, “What’s does our encounter with this remarkable man have in it for us?”
They have no idea that Jesus had come to earth to profess the exact opposite of worldly values and how becoming servants who will suffer is the true form of discipleship.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lutheran theologian and martyr, who returned to Nazi Germany from the United States because he felt he had to experience its destruction to be a part of its rebirth, wrote that “God allows himself to be edged out both world and on to the Cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which [God] can be with us and help us.”
Perhaps his words are a gift, allowing us a basis to continue our belief in the word we live in today. For a great part of the Western world, religion, and Christianity in particular, is becoming less and less relevant, along with the demise of special privileges for being Christian, or for being white, or for being male, or for being American.
Bonhoeffer felt as the world secularizes, it actually is growing up. And God allows this by allowing us to live without God, allowing us to grow up, allowing us to experience the messiness that the process of maturation must take. God is not a problem solver or a fullfiller of needs. It is not God’s job to keep us safe or to assuage us of our fears. What then distinguishes Christian from non-Christians? It is this: “that men [and women] are challenged to participate in the suffering of God at the hands of a godless world.”
Luther laid the groundwork for this. The meaning of the word God, for Christians, is defined by who Jesus was and the life he led. Jesus was crucified, thus God was crucified. God must be encountered in the Cross. When we think about God and pray to God, we do not need profound theological thoughts, but to focus on that humiliated man on the cross. There is no other God “worth the bother.”
I discovered there is a Lutheran hymn which lyrics profess: “Oh, great distress! God himself lies dead. On the cross he died, and by doing this, he has won for us the realm of heaven.”
As I am writing this, I am exhausted as an evacuee from the Valley Fire, and as I sit here in the kitchen of friends in Santa Rosa, not knowing when I can return home, I’m listening to a program about the disaster that Syria has become. As an evacuee, I have watched the fence being built by Hungary to keep out the hundreds of thousands of refugees trying to flee with their families to safety in Europe and Europe reeling with the implications and complications of this exodus. I am sitting here reflecting that as trying as the last week has been, my fate reflects the fact I was born with the privilege of geography.
I try to reconcile my good fortune. People are saying that it is a miracle that my house on Loch Lomond Road survived when all other structures in the area my house burned. And I say to this: I don’t believe that God saved my house. I don’t believe in a Deus Ex Machina God, one that pulls the strings of our lives. The miracle, in my limited perception. is in God’s patience as our perceptions and compassion mature slowly through tragedy and through love, opening ourselves to the invitation of Jesus to open ourselves to a broken world.
Shortly after second Isaiah wrote of the suffering service, the Hebrew people were delivered back to their homeland by the least expected source, Cyrus the Great of Persia, who conquered the Babylonian empire. The Israelites had to reconcile themselves with their joy of returning home with the fact that God worked through a Gentile to liberate them. The early Christian church’s chances of surviving seemed bleak indeed during the time the Epistile to the Hebrews were written. We need to reconcile the seemingly unending summer of fire, the loss of homes and life, with God’s grace. Both Bonhoeffer and Luther would say that God wants us to be engaged with the world as we realize our utter dependence on Christ. Though God is not a wish fullfiller, “there is no moment of life that Jesus’ word does not have something to say to us.”
Though it may be impossible to detect God in the external world, where to we find them? I’d like to end with this quote from Bonhoeffer: When the Holy Scriptures are brought to life in a church, the Holy Spirit comes down from the eternal throne, into our hearts, while the busy world outside sees nothing and knows nothing about it—that God could actually be found here.
21st Sunday After Pentecost
Isaiah 53: 4-12
Psalm 11 9-16