Good Friday, 14 April 2006
Isaiah 52:13-53:12 [NRSV Text from BibleWorks]
In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
On Palm Sunday we heard an earlier servant song from Isaiah in which the servant expressed his trust in the Lord God even in the midst of exile and abusive ridicule (50:4-9). The servant, whether as prophet or as servant people of God, faithfully proclaimed the Word of God both to the trusting and to the rebellious. At the conclusion of the reading, the servant has held to unqualified trust in the Lord God’s vindication. [A copy of my Palm Sunday sermon is available in the “This Week’s Message” archives on the parish website www.stmatthewsch.org]
In today’s reading, the servant’s great trust in God seems to have been, at best, a cause for disappointment and, at worst, misplaced confidence. What kind of God is it that rewards the servant’s trust with allowing him to suffer and die? Is it, as Woody Allen said in his send-up of Russian literature Love and Death, that God is not so much unfeeling in His disregard for human suffering as it is that He’s an underachiever?
Before going down that road, we should pause to ask what difference it would make if this suffering servant were the prophet himself or referring to the servant people of God, Israel in exile? If, as R.N. Whybray suggests, the servant is the prophet himself, it could be that he has been imprisoned and tortured by Babylonian authorities for prophesying the restoration of Jerusalem – a restoration that is unwelcomed by many of the quite comfortable exiles, a restoration that would have to come at the Chaldeans’ expense (see The New Century Bible Commentary: Isaiah 40-66). If, as other commentators suggest, the servant is Israel in exile, it could be that the language of death is a metaphoric reference to Israel’s exile like Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones (ch. 37).
Regardless of whom the prophet means in this fourth poem of the suffering servant, Isaiah introduces a new theological concept here – the notion that the servant can be a guilt offering for the sins of the whole people of God. While Leviticus 5 offers the scapegoat as a bearer of the nation of Israel’s sins, Isaiah puts forward for the first time that one human (or a few humans) could carry the sins of the whole nation.
What sins? Obviously the sins being carried by the suffering servant are the centuries of disobedience by God’s people that have precipitated this Babylonian exile. The Chaldeans are simply God’s instrument for punishing rebellious Judah just as the Assyrians were His means for punishing the rebellious northern kingdom of Israel. According to the theology of Deuteronomy which so captured the hearts and minds of biblical writers during the exile, Israel has lost God’s gift of the Promised Land because she has not kept God’s Sinai covenant.
As I said on Palm Sunday, location has everything to do with how or if a text is heard. Pious Jews within a worshiping community hear this passage in a dramatically different way than pious Christians gathered for worship. For pious Jews the Hebrew Bible is a gift from the God that has chosen them from among all the nations of the earth to be His servant people. It is the holy record of His revelation to and His covenant with Israel. For pious Christians the Holy Spirit is the true author of Scripture and the Church is His creation. For pious Christians the Old Testament reaches its climax and its dramatic fulfillment (filled full of new meaning) in God’s Son Jesus, who suffers and dies to extend God’s mercy both to Jews and Gentiles.
It is no wonder, then, that first-century Jews like Peter, James, John, and Paul of Tarsus could, after experiencing the presence of the risen Jesus and, then, in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, begin to hear and see Isaiah’s suffering servant poems filled full of new meaning in light of the Son of God’s suffering and death. Indeed this passage so captures the notion of one man suffering and dying for the sins of many that whatever original word was meant for the Babylonian exiles has long since been eclipsed for Christians by its powerful description of God in Christ reconciling the whole world unto Himself.
Having delved into just a few of the possible readings of the Isaiah text, I want to return to a question I left hanging. Is the suffering servant’s great trust in God unjustified? Is the suffering and death of the servant – whether metaphoric in its original meaning or not – is the suffering and death of the servant a horrible tragedy?
Again location is determinative. An old friend, who was rather angry with me at the time, once rejected 2,000 years of Christian faith with the childish question: “How could the death of one man have any meaning for all the people in the world?”
When you are the center of the universe, at least in your own mind, what good can another person’s suffering and death mean for you? I suppose from the most selfish of all perspectives the death of another person might well mean that there’s at least one less person in the great Darwinian struggle to survive – another one bites the dust. But to the person that really does believe that we are all alone in the universe and that she or he has the power to assign all meaning to every event or idea in human history, then, certainly, the notion of one person’s suffering and death as being somehow saving seems ludicrous.
Again, location determines how we hear, which leads me to one of the most misunderstood phrases in Christian theology. It states: “There is no salvation outside the Church Catholic.” Certainly that phrase has been used as a kind of weapon or dire warning of the consequences of not being in the Church. But at its most basic meaning it rather patently states the obvious. If you are not in the Church, you cannot conceive that the death of Jesus of Nazareth is salvific. Indeed outside the Church the best that can be imagined is that the death of Jesus of Nazareth is a profound symbol of altruistic love.
But when the preaching of the story of the death and resurrection of God’s Son Jesus for the entire world begins to work its way into your consciousness – and that normally happens within the Church – the Holy Spirit calls you out of the center of the universe and into the community of believers. Indeed the Holy Spirit uses both the written and spoken Word to create faith that Jesus is not only God’s Son but also that His suffering and death is for you. This leads the adolescent or adult that has never been baptized to ask to be baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection and in so doing to become a member of the body of Christ.
Because Christians have come to know from the previous generations of Christians that the Holy Spirit is indeed the true author of Scripture and the Creator of the Church, just as the first century Jews experienced the presence of the risen Jesus, we can indeed now no longer read this Isaiah text without the gift of the Holy Spirit’s insight. This text beautifully describes the suffering and death of God’s Son Jesus. Furthermore we cannot read today the Passion of St. John (chs. 18-19) without Spirit-filled seeing and hearing that the Son of God’s death is not a tragedy.
The anxious residents of Jerusalem and their Roman masters might well have meant His death to be the silencing of a troublemaking preacher. But they were not the center of the universe as we are not the center. And whatever they might have intended by the death of Jesus, the Lord God had other plans. Even as they dispatched by execution this threat to their status quo, they accomplished exactly what God intended all along. The death of His Son in human flesh would be not only for their sins but for the sins of the whole world – Isaiah’s novel insight under the power and pressure of the Holy Spirit! Viewed from the actual center of the universe, the heart of God, the Lord Jesus’ death was God’s victory over sin, death, and evil!
Location is determinative. Within the Church today the Lord Jesus is the Victor! We believe, teach, and confess that the death of God’s Son Jesus is salvific for the whole world – surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. Accordingly, when we say that there is no salvation outside the Church Catholic, we are not wickedly celebrating that we are the saved few who will be enjoying heaven while the rest of the world goes to hell. Rather, we believe, teach, and confess that there is room for the whole world in the heart of God and in His Church where salvation is given freely to all that are baptized into the death and resurrection of God’s Son Jesus. Knowing that God’s great love is for all the world, we can be rather hopeful as we pray today for all those that do not yet know the Lord Jesus and those that do not yet know that His death is for the sins of the entire world.
Someone has said the ground is level at the foot of the cross. There Jews and Gentiles alike stand side by side staring in wonder at the mystery of it all. God in human flesh is enthroned on a cursed tree accomplishing what we could never accomplish – reconciliation with the God from whom we have all gone astray. Dying in our place, dying for us – He is the Victor. And His death for us opens the door to Paradise forever.
In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
©Samuel D. Zumwalt
[An mp3 version of this sermon will be available on Good Friday afternoon at www.stmatthewsch.org]