After he has suffered he will see the light and be satisfied.
I posted a first draft of this sermon a month ago. I gave the sermon today at Galilee Lutheran Church, Kelseyville, CA.
There are few sacred texts which 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 not. What was the author’s intent when he wrote these beautiful words 2,500 years ago? Did he gaze at the ziggarats, the temples to the Babylonian gods and goddesses, as he sat on a terrace in Babylon wondering if his people would survive? Would the Israelites keep their cultural heritage intact in the midst of the lures of their conquerers, so sophisticated and urban? Would their children be influenced and forsake their religion for the culture of the enemy that had 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, synagogues evolved as places of worship because there was no longer a temple, 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 his vision, his sense of mystery, and his exquisite imagistic language was a part of this ripening of Judaism. So as Isaiah sat with his scroll and his stylus, did he have visions of Jesus who would live 500 years in the future? Or did he envision an archetypal pattern for salvation that is a part of all humanity interpreted by Isaiah to help his people understand the challenges, hardship, and questions people are still asking. Why do we suffer? Why did God allow this tragedy to happen? Where is God in our lives?
We know that as early as the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch in the book of Acts, early Christians were viewing the Suffering Servant as Christ. The Eunuch asks for Philip’s help to discern this same passage from Isaiah. Philip asks him, “Do you know what you are reading?” The eunuch responds, “How can I unless someone explains?” And so Philip uses the scripture to explain the Good News.
Gerhard Sauter, a German theologian, wrote, “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 in the polarities of either/or but rested in the wholeness of both/also.
Does this passage reveal God’s plan of salvation through Jesus? I think the only certainty we Christians have is that the idea of the suffering servant, and all the connotations the image holds, was known to Jesus, and the implications of this passage 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 who Paul mentions in his letters on five different occasions. The style of Greek used in Hebrews, one of the last books of the Bible written fifty or sixty 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. People in the congregation were abandoning their faith in Christ.
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 experienced in body 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 foreshadowed 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, experiencing pain, 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 is a manifesto about how to face suffering, just what the first readers of this epistle were about to do. It encouraged them 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 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 from the 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 he 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 him. God is 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 our fears. What then distinguishes Christians 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 wrote this, I was exhausted, an evacuee from the Valley Fire, and as I sat in the kitchen of friends in Santa Rosa, not knowing when I could return home, I listened to a program about the disaster that Syria has become and the flood of refugees entering Europe. I watched the fence being built by Hungary to keep out the hundreds of thousands of people trying to flee with their families to safety, and the rest of Europe reeling with the complications of this exodus. I found myself reflecting that as trying as the last week had been, my fate reflects the fact I was born with the privilege of geography.
I still am trying to reconcile my good fortune, that of being born where I was, and my own personal luck with the fire. People have told me that it is a miracle my house survived when other structures around it burned. I say to this: I don’t believe that God saved my house. I don’t believe in Deus Ex Machina, a God 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 to the invitation of Jesus to open ourselves to a broken world.
Shortly after second Isaiah wrote of the suffering servant, 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 a Gentile had liberated them.
The early Christian church’s chances of surviving seemed bleak indeed during the time the Epistle to the Hebrews were written. Persecution did come. It was unlikely that this tiny heretical sect who professed love in a time that brutality was lauded would survive. Yet, here we are, gathered together on this beautiful fall morning 2,000 years later and half a world away.
The south county has gone through a type of apocalypse. I live in Cobb and each day I drive to work to Middletown through the ruins of homes and the burned trees. There are nude hillsides that may collapse with winter rains and the smell of ash still rises when the wind picks up. I have many friends and students who have lost everything. Trauma has affected all of our psyches and spirits. Yet, none of knows what might rise from these ashes.
I was in Yellowstone a year or so after the massive fires there and found grassy fields, wildflowers carpeting the park, and beautiful vistas of the mountains. But more than our beautiful mountain recovering, who knows what is in store for our own resurrections as we process this disaster? Where is God leading us? What seed is there whose fruit we cannot imagine? Can we 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 granter of wishes, “there is no moment of life that Jesus’ word does not have something to say to us. 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.
Isaiah 53: 4-12
Psalm 11 9-16
Alethea Eason is a licensed lay preacher at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Lakeport, CA