March 28, 2021

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

“Suffering Servants”

As we begin this final week of Lent and continue our spiritual journey with Jesus on his way to the cross, we reflect on biblical texts about the difficulties and suffering that come with choosing to follow Jesus all the way.

Just as I have focused on the Old Testament texts over the last five weeks, I will do so again today. We have been following the theme of God’s covenant love for God’s people, paying attention to the ways that God reached out to humanity again and again: promising faithfulness, forgiving our failings, guiding us in good living, and inviting us back into relationship with God.

The context of today’s prophetic text is similar to last week. It comes from around 550-530 BCE, and the people of Israel continue to be in exile in Babylon. (They were there for a long time!) The prophet known as 2nd Isaiah is diligently trying to get a message from God across to them.

In the previous chapter, the people in exile have complained that God has forsaken them and forgotten them. There they are, struggling in a foreign land with little sign of any chance of return to their homeland. Generations have gone by, and still they are there.

As chapter fifty opens, the prophet is refuting the allegation that God is to blame for the people’s situation. God has not put them away intentionally, like someone breaking their promises or changing their mind about the covenant relationship. It is the people’s continual sin and wrongdoing that has put them there, not God’s decision or God’s inability to take action and bring them home.

Then, in the verses set for today, we hear the voice of God’s servant. This passage is the third of four “Servant Songs” in 2nd Isaiah in which the “Suffering Servant” demonstrates faithfulness to God, endures persecution and violence, but is ultimately victorious because God is with him.

The question that arises in studying this passage is often, “Who is this suffering servant?” And after plenty of reading, reflecting, and talking with others, I’ve settled on the conclusion that, at least when it was first written, the Servant was the prophet himself.

The prophet explains that God has opened his ears so that he can listen well and learn God’s wisdom and will. And God has given him a well-instructed tongue so that he can speak, passing along what he has learned to others, sustaining the weary ones with an encouraging word.

This is the calling of the prophet – to be a student, listening and learning carefully from God, and to be a teacher, imparting the messages of God to God’s people. Unfortunately, the response of the people to the prophet’s words is not positive.

Though his words have the intention of sustaining the weary, lifting them up, and restoring them to relationship with the God who loves them, they respond with anger, violence, and abuse. I suppose they hear only the hard parts of his message – that they have sinned and must change their ways.

The Servant of God is subjected to insults and spitting. He is beaten and humiliated. But he does not give up his mission. He sets his face like flint, summoning all the determination he can muster to stand up to his adversaries – not striking back against them physically, but not admitting defeat either.

The prophet firmly believes that he is not alone in this struggle. Twice he claims, “The Lord God helps me” so that he will not be disgraced or put to shame. Even if in this moment, it looks like he is being beaten, he trusts that God will be victorious in the end, and God’s Servant will be vindicated.

In a pastoral reflection on this passage, Richard Floyd explains that “The Servant practices soft power. He teaches instead of commands. He sustains the weary instead of crushing the wicked. He listens instead of pontificates. Instead of hiding from suffering borne of obedience, and instead of striking back, he offers his back and his cheek. He hopes, he trusts, he waits… Christians have seen Jesus in this portrait – perhaps Jesus likewise saw himself. Jesus surely walked this alternative way…”

Think about the way that Jesus listened and learned from God – receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit to guide him, spending time in prayer with God every day.

Think about the way that Jesus taught the people about God’s love and call – sustaining the weary with his words, lifting up the lowly, welcoming the outcasts, and healing the sick.

But Jesus’ message also made people angry and fearful. It challenged them to change their ways, and to upset their hierarchies and systems of power. Like the prophets before him, Jesus was rejected, beaten, and ultimately killed. But even with the knowledge of what was coming, Jesus set his face like flint and did not turn away from the suffering that he would endure.

He was able to do this because he trusted God. He trusted that God was with him, that God would help him, and that ultimately, God would not let the enemies triumph over him.

When Bible readers ask, “Who is the Suffering Servant that we hear about in Isaiah?” some will answer that he is the Prophet Isaiah himself. Others will answer that he is Jesus of Nazareth, arriving 500 years later to fulfill what the prophet predicted.

But Floyd comments that “There have been other servants, people who have sustained the weary and endured the persecutions of the powerful in obedience to God. And wherever you find one of these servants, the world changes.

“A soft-spoken man named Mohandas Gandhi overthrows the British Empire in India without firing a shot. A prisoner named Nelson Mandela is set free and overturns the powers of apartheid in South Africa. An unassuming woman named Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, and a system of segregation begins to collapse. A black Baptist preacher named Martin Luther King Jr. dreams of a day when his children will have the freedoms and opportunities promised to every child, and his inspiration and courage change hearts and laws in the United States.”

Like the prophet and like Jesus, these servants “saw a world no one else could see; they saw the world God intended to be. That hopeful vision empowered them to endure struggles and failures, to be emptied and poured out, so that they might be a light to the nations, so that God’s salvation might reach the end of the earth.”

“Jesus, Gandhi, Mandela, Parks, King – these faithful ones can be as intimidating as they are inspiring. But we too have been called to make ourselves available, to allow ourselves to be used, to be God’s response to a broken and suffering world, a response not of destructive power but of suffering love.”

So, rather than asking today, “Who is the Suffering Servant?” maybe we can ask ourselves, “Should I be the servant?” or “How can I be the servant?” Or perhaps, “How can we, together as the church, be the servant that God has called us to be in this time and place?”

I think that will involve a lot of listening. What is God teaching us through the Scriptures, through the inspiration of the Spirit, and through the shared reflection of the community?

And I think it will call us to speak up and share what we are learning – being the ones who are determined to sustain the weary among us and around us with our words. Like the prophet and like Jesus, we must answer the call to tell of God’s amazing love, to welcome those who have been excluded, to advocate for those who are downtrodden, and to show compassion for those who are wandering or struggling.

Our witness too will not please everyone. There will always be push-back when systems of power and privilege are being questioned and toppled. And, in as much as we ourselves are the beneficiaries of those systems and structures, there will be parts of our own hearts that resist the difficult consequences of turning everything upside down in order to make a new world of justice and peace for all God’s children.

Serving as Moderator over the past couple of years has made me more and more aware of the reality that every time the church speaks out for justice, for inclusion, or for any change that challenges the status quo and threatens the power structures of the church itself or of the world, there is a backlash.

When we speak about justice for Indigenous people, others ask why they can’t just get over the past and move on with their lives. When we speak about anti-Black or anti-Asian racism, some people question whether it is actually an issue. When we draw attention to the need to take urgent action to protect the environment, folks challenge climate science and call it fear-mongering.

When we advocate for respect and welcome for all people including members of the LGBTQI community in the church, there is a flurry of homophobic letters and complaints that the church is stuck on this issue and needs to focus on other things. This is just a fraction of the violence and abuse suffered by the Servant of God whom we seek to follow with our lives of faithfulness and courage.

We are Christians, followers of the Way of Jesus, and we are called to set our faces like flint and to head for Jerusalem with determination and trust. The Apostle Paul encourages us today to “Let the same mind be in [us] that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God… emptied himself, taking the form of a slave… humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.

 “Therefore God also highly exalted him… so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend… and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God.”