March 24, 2013

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Philippians 2:5-11

“Choosing Servanthood”

Today is the Sunday with two names. It is Palm Sunday, as we remember Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey. And it is Passion Sunday, as we anticipate what will happen to Jesus when he arrives in Jerusalem – his final meal with his disciples, his agonizing prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, his betrayal and arrest, his trial and torture, and his terrible execution on a Roman cross.

The lectionary provides us with two sets of scripture readings for today, inviting the preacher to choose how to focus the service, and I have chosen the Gospel reading from the liturgy of the Palms, and the other readings from the liturgy of the Passion. The Gospel reading that I’m skipping today is the long account of what happens to Jesus in Jerusalem. We’ll come back to it, of course, on Thursday evening when we gather at Calvin-Goforth for the Maundy Thursday service, and on Friday morning when we gather here to mark Good Friday.

But this morning, instead of simply recounting the story of Jesus’ passion, a story that most of us know quite well, I’d like to focus on the other readings that are set for Passion Sunday, and spend some time thinking theologically about Jesus’ suffering and death.

From the prophet 2nd Isaiah, Dineke read to us about the Suffering Servant. In these few short verses, Isaiah talks about the challenging vocation that he is called to. He says that God has given him “the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.” Every morning, the prophet hears God speaking to him, teaching him, and every day the prophet shares what he is hearing, what he is learning from God.

The implied temptation for Isaiah is to remain silent. He has heard something from God, but he could just keep it to himself. After all, the messages God send him tend to get him in trouble when he shares them. Like other prophets before him, Isaiah risks his life every time he claims to “proclaim the Word of the Lord.” But as he explains in verse 5, “The Lord God has opened [his] ear, and [he] was not rebellious, [he] did not turn backward.”

Unlike the disciples of Jesus who began Holy Week with shouts of praise, and then quickly shut their mouths and ran away when things started to get dangerous for Jesus and for them, 2nd Isaiah demonstrates steadfast faithfulness in the face of adversity. He writes: “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.”

Writing to the People of Israel near the end of the long and difficult exile in Babylon, Isaiah is demonstrating and teaching from his own experience what it means to hold on and remain faithful to God. The exiles are weary and tired of their long suffering in Babylon. Isaiah is probably weary as well, but he’s holding on, and he hopes that the People can hold on a little longer also.

What gives him hope and help in the midst of trouble and persecution is the knowledge that God is with him. He proclaims, “The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced.” And God’s presence empowers him to remain steadfast in the face of his enemies. “I have set my face like flint,” Isaiah says with determination, “and I know that I shall not be put to shame.”

As Christians today, when we read in Isaiah about the Suffering Servant, we find a pretty good description of our Lord Jesus, especially during the last week of his life on earth. Much like the prophets before him, Jesus had a special vocation, a special calling from God. Jesus listened for God’s voice, and God spoke to him and led him through his life and ministry.

There were many times along the way when Jesus might have hesitated to do or to say the things that God was leading him to do and say. The risks were significant, especially when powerful leaders began to oppose him. But Jesus was not rebellious. He didn’t turn backward, but kept moving steadily towards Jerusalem and the completion of his mission, no matter what opposition he was going to encounter.

Michael Williams, in a pastoral reflection on this text, notices something else that Jesus and Isaiah’s Suffering Servant have in common. It’s the fact that they have a vocation of servanthood. He points out that servanthood and servitude are not the same thing: “Servanthood is an offering of service to others as a result of a choice made by the one providing the service. Servitude is service of others that is enforced by either custom or coercion.”

Neither the Suffering Servant nor Jesus becomes a slave to his enemies. These men are not disgraced or put to shame by adversaries that conquer them. Instead, they willingly become servants. They freely choose to act for the benefit of others, even for the benefit of the enemies themselves.

In a poetic section of Paul’s letter to the Philippians (a piece that may have been an early Christian hymn) there is a similar description of Jesus’ willing choice to become a servant: “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”

But Paul doesn’t just quote the hymn in order to provide some theological insight about Jesus. And I am not preaching this sermon only for the sake of reflecting on Isaiah’s Suffering Servant and the servanthood of Christ. Because Paul introduces his description of Jesus with a very important line. He writes, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus… when he humbled himself and lived as a servant… when he listened for God’s leading and followed no matter the cost… when he kept on loving humanity even though we were abandoning, rejecting, and betraying him… when he placed his trust in God to help him through the most challenging days of his life.

Let the same mind, the same attitude, the same way of thinking be in us that was in Christ Jesus. We should be humble. We should choose to live as servants of God and servants of one another. We should be determined in our purpose and not allow ourselves to be redirected by the lures of wealth or comfort or security. We should be careful not to follow the path of Jesus’ earliest disciples through Holy Week, but we should strive to follow Jesus himself all the way to the cross.

As you make the journey through Holy Week, I invite you to take the journey slowly with Jesus, resisting the temptation to look ahead to Sunday morning and the resurrection victory. And along the way, I invite you to consider how you, as an individual, and we, as a church, are called to a life of servanthood. In what ways are we called to humble ourselves, and to live for others, and to love without counting the cost or measuring the appreciation and thanks that we may or may not receive.

Like Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, who proclaimed that with God’s help he would never be disgraced, and like Jesus, who from the cross confidently prayed, “Father, into your hands I commend my Spirit,” may we know that we are never alone. God is our help and our strength and our hope as we choose today and tomorrow to follow the way of Jesus. Thanks be to God.