The Suffering Servant

The following sermons were offered on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of Holy Week 2019 based on the readings from Isaiah that focused on the Suffering Servant.


Holy Monday: “Here is my Servant.”

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” (Isaiah 42:1)

In our Holy Week liturgies over these next three days, and then again on Good Friday, we will be presented with the figure of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah. “Here is my servant,” says the Lord. Who will do what? Establish justice in the earth.

God’s Word is here addressed to Israel in exile. Both Judah and Jerusalem have been sacked by the Babylonian Empire and many Israelites have been led captive to Babylon. That exterior desolation and darkness is intensified by an interior desolation and darkness: Are we still God’s people? Has he forsaken us? Is God still God? Babylon has triumphed, after all.

It is important to note that the Scriptures take seriously this very real sense of Godforsakenness. Parents bury their children, loved one’s fall sick, the world burns.[1] Naturally, this raises questions: Where is God? Does he still care for us? Is God still God? It can be tempting for people of faith to gloss over or deny the darkness of the world but the Scriptures do not do this. Rather, they presuppose the darkness. Faith does not preclude suffering. No one escapes, not even Israel.

It is to this world—not some ideal world but this actual bent-out-of-shape and dark world—that God presents his Servant: chosen, endowed with the spirit, humble, and compassionate.

The Church has understood this Servant to be Jesus Christ, whom Mary anointed with costly nard in John’s gospel. Jesus Christ, God’s well beloved Son, whom the Spirit anointed at his baptism, who suffers with and for Israel, and the Church, and you and I, and the whole wide world.

He is God’s agent of justice. He serves God faithfully by judging the world, by straightening out what is bent, by setting things right, by weeding the garden and burning up what does not belong so that God’s good creation might come more fully alive.

“He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street.” That is to say, God’s servant is not a showman, he is not interested in celebrity or in drawing attention to himself but in his loving obedience glorifies the Father who is in heaven. Jesus Christ comes only to serve.

Over the next week we’ll be hearing a lot more about this servant but tonight let us end on this note: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” Words cannot adequately express the gentleness with which Jesus brings God’s justice to earth. He does not bring forth justice by might or force, but by patiently, quietly, and lovingly taking the weight of the world’s suffering and sin on himself. He does not steamroll those who are weak, but comes alongside them as the light that shines on the tragic history of both Israel and the world, who brings sight and liberation to all those who sit in darkness. And he never tires, but perseveres until the work is done.

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” (Isaiah 42:1)


Holy Tuesday: “To the end of the earth.”

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)

Last night we were introduced to the figure of the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah. A word of promise, a prophetic word spoken to Israel. A divided Israel. A conquered Israel. An Israel that had been taken captive by Babylon and was now living in exile. The destruction of their temple and city forever etched in their minds. To this people God presented his Servant: chosen, endowed with the Spirit, humble, and compassionate, who would establish justice and bring Israel home.

That promise is reaffirmed in the second of four Servant Songs in Isaiah that we heard this evening. Indeed, the Servant was chosen even before he was born, “to bring Jacob back” to the Lord, “and that Israel might be gathered to him.”

But then the Lord speaks to his Servant and the scope of his mission is significantly broadened: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel.” In other words, “I have a bigger mission for you than simply restoring Israel and bringing them home.” What is that bigger mission? “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

From the very beginning God has the salvation of the whole world in view. The attentive reader of Scripture knows this. God choses one for the sake of blessing all. God chose Abraham so that through him all the families of the earth would be blessed. God chose Israel so that through them all nations would know God’s justice. And now, here, Isaiah is saying to Israel: God does not want to just bring you back and restore you to the place you once knew but he wants to expand your borders to include everyone: “that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

That’s the gospel. That Jesus is drawing all people to himself (John 12:32). Jesus is drawing you to himself. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been a Christian, Jesus wants to draw you deeper every day. And not just for your own good but for the good of those who do not yet trust Christ. Your family member, your friend, your neighbour, your colleague. Jesus is drawing each one to himself.

These last 24-hours the destruction of Notre-Dame has been etched in our minds and will be for some time. That beautiful Cathedral built to the glory of God, crafted by human hands over centuries, brought to her knees. As the news quickly reached to the ends of the earth we grieved, and rightly so.

Very quickly there were promises to rebuild. And so we should. But know this, God isn’t merely interested in rebuilding the tragic ruins of our history. That would be too light a thing. God, now as always, is doing something new, looking to the ends of the earth having promised to bring salvation to all by his Servant.

Let us pray then, that even while the government and Catholic Church in France restore that glorious Cathedral that Jesus Christ would restore and renew faith in the hearts of not only the French but in the hearts of all.

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”


Holy Wednesday: “He who vindicates me is near.”

“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.” (Isaiah 50:6)

On Monday and Tuesday of Holy Week we have been presented with the figure of the Suffering Servant in the book of Isaiah. The Servant of the Lord is a figure who represents God’s steadfast faithfulness and kindness to Israel and his promise to bring them home from exile.

But we have also seen how this Servant is not just sent to Israel. It would be too small a thing for God’s Servant simply to restore one nation. Rather, God sends his Servant to the end of the earth that all families and nations and people might know his salvation. The Servant is a light to the nations, illuminating all those who sit in darkness with the divine light.

In our reading from Isaiah this evening, the third of Isaiah’s Servant Songs, this theme is continued in a darker though more confident tone. The Servant, we are reminded is a prophet, one who has received the Word of God so that he might reveal it to others. Unlike Israel themselves, the Servant is not rebellious, he does not turn back from the way that the Lord has set before him. Thus, the Servant is faithful where Israel was not, he does what Israel was called but ultimately failed to do.

Yet, when God presents his Servant to Israel and to the nations for their salvation he is not received. In fact, he is opposed, reviled, and rejected. Even still the Servant does not shrink away but stands firm against all of the insults hurled at him by others: “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.”

Holy Week does not tell the story of our acceptance of Jesus Christ. Rather, it tells the story of our sinful rejection of him unto death, even death on a Cross. We like to think that if God came to us we would accept him. But Holy Week interrupts this narrative with the truth: God came to us and we crucified him.

And the rejection of God by the world isn’t just limited to Holy Week. As one theologian explains: “What once happened in history…nonetheless makes visible what has been happening in the entire human tragedy, from beginning to end: God is “struck” and contemptuously “spat upon” as he humbles himself to the uttermost for us, as he takes our rubbish upon himself.”[2] God does not embrace us because we embraced him. God embraces us because we cannot embrace him, because we refuse to embrace him, because we exclude and condemn and crucify him. Nevertheless he loves. Nevertheless he comes. Nevertheless he serves.

“The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near.” Despite all appearances to the contrary the Servant knows that his mission is not in vain (cf. Is 49:4). He has been chosen by God and endowed with the Spirit for this very purpose. Therefore, the Lord will vindicate his Servant, his rejection will be his victory to the glory of God, and no one who stands against him will prosper.


Endnotes.
[1] Words that were written before the news about Notre-Damn broke but which are particularly heavy this week.
[2] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Light of the World, 62.

2 thoughts on “The Suffering Servant

Leave a Reply to stjohnsandstpauls Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s