YEAR C: PALM/PASSION SUNDAY
In this passage if we identify the speaker with the prophet, we can sense something of the prophet’s pathos: anointed as a teacher by God, he is given a word of hope ‘to sustain the weary’ people who are dispirited. But rather than accept his word gladly, the people have spurned him and insulted him.
The passage suits the readings for Passion Sunday, being the third song of the Suffering Servant. It comes as part of the second book of Isaiah, Isaiah 40-55, which sounds the note of hope to a people who have languished in exile in Babylonia for over 40 years. We heard the last of the passages attributed to this Second Isaiah three weeks ago, namely Isaiah 55. The servant songs within Second Isaiah have traditionally been appropriated in Christian theology to refer to Christ as the ‘suffering servant’. The original speaker is not clearly identified. Some commentators see the suffering servant as referring to the people of Israel collectively (cf. Isa 49:3), others to the prophet himself or another person whose suffering was in some sense redemptive for his people.
Verse 4 speaks of the gift of ‘the tongue of a teacher’ or alternatively, of ‘those who are taught,’ linking the gift of teaching with the facility to listen and be, in turn, taught by God. In the first servant song (Isa 42:1-4) the teaching role of the servant was also mentioned (v. 4). The goal of the teaching in Isa 50:4 is ‘to sustain the weary with a word,’ as part of Isaiah’s wider message of hope to the exiles. The speaker describes God as ‘wakening his ear,’ to receive God’s word, which is in turn passed on to the people. It is not in the end his message, it is a word entrusted to him by God. Elsewhere the second book of Isaiah speaks about the eternal nature of the word of God (Isa 40:8) and the effectiveness of that word (55:10-11).
In verse 5, the servant describes being obedient to what God had for him to say; he accepted the prophetic word and the attendant burden of the people’s contrastingly disobedient response. In a sense, the servant turns the other cheek, giving his back ‘to those who struck’ him, his ‘cheeks to those who pulled out the beard,’ and not hiding his ‘face from insult and spitting.’ The resonance for Christian listeners in the context of Holy Week will be compelling, with striking parallels in the long reading set for Passion Sunday in Luke 22 and 23.
In verse 7, the tone shifts to one of strength bordering on belligerence. The servant speaks with great trust and confidence both in God’s presence and protection, but also in his own vindication by God. Despite the response of the people, he will not in the end be put to shame. Alluding to an ultimate high court, he asserts that God will find for him in the end. Therefore, he says, ‘I have set my face like flint,’ hardening himself to the criticism and persecution of the people. He will continue to give the message entrusted to him, regardless of the lack of reception from God’s people. He clings here with a tenacity to his calling, preaching the message entrusted to him whether in or out of season. We can compare this to the initial call of the prophet Isaiah in the first book of Isaiah (Isaiah 1-39). There the prophet was charged to speak to a people who would not hear or see, comprehend or understand (Isa 6:9-12).
In verse 8b, the language becomes more combative, couched in the form of bold rhetorical questions that dare his accusers to come forward. ‘Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me.’ His boldness is predicated on the assumption of God’s very near presence. In taking on the servant, his adversaries would necessarily be challenging God himself as well, for the servant understands himself to be profoundly God’s servant.
In verse 9 he makes this connection clear: ‘It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?’ In this, he is questioning the authority of any earthly ruler, people, or jurisdiction. God’s servant will be judged by God alone; God will vindicate him for his faithfulness. By contrast, all earthly authority is ultimately fleeting, ‘All of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up.’ Their finery will be in the end only rags, while God’s word of hope given by the servant will be established forever.
For the Christian preacher, there are also fruitful connections that can be made between the Isaiah reading and the epistle reading for the day, the hymn to Christ’s humility in Philippians 2:5-11. In that reading, like this one, there is a suffering servant who was obedient in giving himself for others, but who will in the end be given a glorious vindication.
To include the Isaiah reading in a sermon for today is to underscore the deep soundings of the Hebrew Bible that enrich our understanding of the One who came triumphant and acclaimed, but also despised and rejected. His mixed reception by the very ones to whom he offered a word of hope finds a depth of pathos in the ancient echo of all who were sent as God’s prophets, killed by the very hands God sought to embrace. It is a message that beckons us on into Holy Week, to walk the Via Dolorosa with the one who would offer us a word to the weary, if only we have ears to hear.
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 (Palm Sunday) or Psalm 31:9-16 (Passion Sunday)
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