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Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion, 03/29/2015

Sermon on Isaiah 50:4-9a, by Samuel D. Zumwalt


The Lord God has given me
    the tongue of those who are taught,
that I may know how to sustain with a word
    him who is weary.
Morning by morning he awakens;
    he awakens my ear
    to hear as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear,
    and I was not rebellious;
    I turned not backward.
I gave my back to those who strike,
    and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard;
I hid not my face
    from disgrace and spitting.

But the Lord God helps me;
    therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like a flint,
    and I know that I shall not be put to shame.
    He who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
    Let us stand up together.
Who is my adversary?
    Let him come near to me.
Behold, the Lord God helps me;
    who will declare me guilty?
Behold, all of them will wear out like a garment;
    the moth will eat them up.



Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen

Palm Sunday is the gateway to Holy Week, the one week set aside each year to contemplate the mystery of God’s suffering in human flesh for us and for our salvation. God is not like us, in that He has no beginning and no ending, and yet, in the height and depth of what it means to love, He enters into His own creatures’ struggle against the unholy trinity of sin, death, and Satan. Our God doesn’t stand aloof saying, “I hate to see you suffer.” Our God doesn’t say with a kind of clinical detachment, “You are suffering because you are merely mortal.” Our God doesn’t say as a sort of righteous verdict, “I wish you had not brought this suffering upon yourself by being disobedient.” No, the one true God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) takes on our nature and our lot by becoming human in the Virgin Mary’s womb. Let’s think clearly and self-critically about our own participation in our culture’s refusal to listen and learn from Him.

Morning by morning he awakens; he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught” (50:4b).

The Suffering Servant appears in four songs in Isaiah 40-55. Here in v. 4, the Servant listens to the Lord God (Adonai YHWH). From the moment He wakes, the Servant is taught by the Lord God.

Let’s stop to think about that. Seminary professor George Hoyer often taught his students to place a cross on the wall opposite their pillows, so that the first thing each morning the students’ first thought and first word would be: “God.” George would say, “God comma vocative,” calling upon the Most High God in prayer. Calling upon God was the very thing Brother Lawrence’s little spiritual classic proposed: Practicing the Presence of God.

What is your first thought and your first word each morning? Is it “God” but as scatological speech, as in complaint or rebellion? Or is it something more mundane, “Coffee?” or”Food?” Or something else that’s pleasurable? In other words, do you listen only to yourself?

God’s Servant listens. He is taught by His Father, who is the center. And it is this very reality that most critiques our culture in this present age in which “I” or “we” are the center. No, God is the center. He is the first and the last, the A and the Z. God’s Servant listens, which is what obedience is all about: to listen to the Father and to do what He says. Is that you? Is that me? Of course not!


...that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary” (50: 4a).

A few years ago, the phrase “compassion fatigue” was popular. The sense was, “I have been empathetic enough, caring enough, generous enough, and so I can declare ‘mission accomplished.’ I have demonstrated that I know how to be compassionate. Enough is enough.” Of course, this kind of thinking was indeed only more narcissism but with a slightly kinder face.

Those who suffer keep on suffering long after having been featured on the 60 Minutes

CBS news hour. Long after having been the latest celebrated cause, long after having Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame on television, the suffering keep on suffering as others look away. To what?

In our day, far too many Christians suffer at the hands of Muslim or Hindu extremists or at the hand of secular regimes such as North Korea and China. Increasingly one hears of local governments and even judges in the United States and other western countries who want to control what Christians believe, say, or do – as if freedom of religion had to be limited by anyone, anywhere who takes offense at any Christian belief (for instance, demanding that Christians must go against their beliefs if they offer some kind of services for weddings or that military chaplains may not teach the traditional Christian faith).

The very notion that in America the Christian faith must be kept purely private (kept within one’s own head) is no different than the insistence of Muslim majorities in places around the world that Christians may not wear or display crosses or share their faith with anyone. The letters to the seven churches in Revelation addressed this very situation in the first century AD. Christians who are faithful will suffer at the hands of pagan authorities! Is the future on earth for most Christians a matter of back to the past

That people suffer at the hands of others is nothing new. Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl suffered at the hands of Nazis in the concentration camps where his wife and parents died. Frankl, who wrote most movingly about this in his famous book Man’s Search for Meaning, discovered that “...even within the narrow boundaries of the concentration camps he found only two races of people to exist: decent and unprincipled ones. These were to be found in all classes, ethnicities, and groups” (wikipedia.com) In other words, even those who were prisoners could be as selfish and heartless with fellow prisoners, within the context of being prisoners, as those who oppressed them.

Those who suffer grow weary of pain. Those who suffer ask, wearily and unceasingly, the unanswerable why. Those who wearily ask “how long” can grow embittered by the waiting. But the Suffering Servant can speak a word to the weary precisely because He suffers, too! Will you listen?

But the Lord God helps me...therefore I have set my face like a flint...” (50:7).

Our culture runs from suffering as if it were not one of the seasons about which Koheleth wrote in Ecclesiastes 3. Grand, high-sounding reasons are given for murdering children in utero, for abandoning one’s family or for refusing to make a commitment to only one person of the opposite sex, for avoiding contact with those whose dementia or slow demise is unsettling, for the availability of recreational drugs, for hastening the deaths of anyone whose “quality of life” we deem low, and for assisted suicide or the “right” to kill one’s loved ones or oneself, of even for justifying murder.

Our culture creates such pain for so many girls and women because it parades only young and impossibly skinny and beautiful young women as the epitome of what everyone should be. Plastic surgery is available to enlarge or shrink whichever body parts are deemed less than perfect. This leads to men and women in their 60s, 70s, and 80s with frozen facial and other features. Some cultures once valued wisdom and age. The larcenous so-called gift of the Baby Boomers is this misbegotten notion one can stay forever young in a body not built for eternity.

If our culture doesn’t cosmetize death behind theatrical make-up, pink and blue lights, and green plastic grass thrown over the graveside mound of dirt, it hurries to hide death by cremating before anyone can view the dead body and then transforms the ashes into everything from tatoos to jewelry as if to hide that death is the last enemy. Our culture trivializes the cross that killed God’s Son as bejeweled badges of honor for those whose lives scream: “Crucify him!” and “What is truth?”

One wonders how much in those last hours in Gethsemane’s Garden the Lord pondered the meaning of His kenosis, His act of self-sacrifice, in order to accomplish His Father’s will to save us lost and condemned ones. Is it any wonder the Lord Jesus, God’s Suffering Servant Son, beforehand had to set His face like flint towards Jerusalem and His lonely cross? Is it any wonder St. Paul writes so poignantly to the Romans: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (5:6-8)?


He who vindicates me is near” (50:8).

Immature, childish Christian faith is permanently sunny, impossibly unweighty, loudly self-celebratory, and always in a major key. “I’d like my Jesus in a skinny soy mocha latte, please. If we’re going to talk about death today, I’ll need a good beat, cool guitar riffs, and some drums. OK?”

Or there’s the “abundant life” version with nothing but glory, a seven figure salary, and “Yes, I’ll take ‘From Here to Eternity’ for $2,000, Alex.” Can I get “His pain, My gain” painted on the side of my Gulfstream? I’d like the platinum and diamond fish symbol on my Maybach.

One wonders if from His lonely cross in the smoking city dump whether the Lord Jesus could see what would be said and done in His name and how much more pain that added to His last hours. Was Satan whispering in his ear, “Can you see the grand makeover I’m about to give you when you’re gone, Jesus?”

Yes, it was just as He had told them three times. The Lord Jesus was rejected, beaten, suffered, died, and was buried for the sins of the world. Yours and mine! We all declared Him guilty for exposing us as we are. From His lonely cross, God’s Servant Son cried the opening words of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Those who knew the psalm knew its ending: “Posterity shall serve him; men shall tell of the Lord to a coming generation, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, that he has wrought it” (22:30-31).


So what?

In the call of the prophet Isaiah in chapter 6, the angels around God’s throne cry out in Hebrew: “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh!” God is holy – not like us – set apart – wholly Other – the mysterium tremendum (tremendous mystery). Yet He does not remain aloof and detached.

This God, in love for His rebellious creatures, cast them out of Paradise lest they should eat of the Tree of Life and live forever separated from Him. Yes, this God pronounced His death verdict and yet offered the hope of Paradise restored. Martin Luther discovered that hope in Genesis 3:15 when the Lord God declares the woman’s seed (God’s Son and Mary’s) will bruise the serpent’s head. The Servant Son will by the tree of the cross overcome the ancient serpent who overcame our first parents by a tree.

And so we sin-sick mortals must all discover that we will suffer and die. And for this reason alone, we ought to hear the call to keep this Holy Week. By walking with God’s Servant Son in His last days on earth, we prepare ourselves for that final journey which each of us must take alone. Those with children still at home ought to bring their children to the services of God’s house daily and especially for the Triduum (the three days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday). It is a matter of understanding who and Whose we are as Christians, marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit. This is the story of our lives.

Those who have been set apart as God’s own dear children in Holy Baptism and those who will be at the Easter Vigil need to walk slowly and care-fully through Holy Week, so that we may know that the Lord God vindicated His Servant Son, and for His sake, He will vindicate us as well at the last! And so, it remains to be seen who will listen and learn with Him?

In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.



The Rev. Dr. Samuel D. Zumwalt
Wilmington, North Carolina, USA
E-Mail: szumwalt@bellsouth.net

Isaiah 50:4-9 © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers]

St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church