Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 20, 2016
Isaiah 50:4-9a Commentary
Those who try to say something authoritative about the Lord had better have a really good reason for doing so.
After all, few tasks are, more intimidating than trying to faithfully proclaim God’s Word. In fact, most preachers and teachers know the fear that sometimes chases them right up to the pulpit or lectern.
Scholars usually categorize the Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday as the third of four “suffering servant” passages of Isaiah 40-55. Many also believe Isaiah composed it sometime during the late exilic period, perhaps around 540 BCE. This part of the prophet’s writings particularly anticipates a time when God will rescue God’s Israelite sons and daughters from their misery and enemies.
Yet that makes the plight of the prophet and those to whom he speaks in some ways radically different. Israel has known great suffering and loss. However, Isaiah points ahead to a time of reconciliation and restoration. The situation of the person (or people) who speaks this text, however, is quite different. Those fortunes seem to be heading in the opposite of Israel’s.
Our text’s narrator, its “me” (4) remains anonymous. Some suggest it’s Isaiah himself. Others suggest the suffering individual is the community of Israel. In either case, however, as Scott Hoezee notes, the narrator seems like the kind of person we’d all want for a friend. The speaker appears to be someone who knows just when to talk and when to listen. She seems to be able to both speak just the right words at just the right time and offer a listening and sympathetic ear when the situation calls for it.
Of course, our text’s narrator gives all the credit for all of that graciousness to the Lord. “The Sovereign Lord has given me an instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary … The Lord “wakens me morning by morning … to listen like one being taught,” the narrator says in verse 4. “The Sovereign Lord has opened my ears,” he adds in verse 5. The vivid imagery is that of someone who has been taught well to listen very well.
This provides Isaiah 50’s preachers and teachers a wonderful opportunity to reflect with the community on ears and hearts that are softened to God’s voice. How does such a listening spirit manifest itself in God’s sons and daughters? How can God’s adopted children open ourselves to such genuine wisdom and sensitivity?
And yet, the narrator goes on in verse 6, this good listener is also a real sufferer. He has already suffered and endured brutal persecution. His enemies have struck, stripped, insulted and spit on the speaker. Christian hearers’ thoughts are quickly drawn, especially in the season of Lent, to Jesus’ experiences before both Jewish religious and Roman leaders. Yet with little more imagination, we can also hear persecuted Middle Eastern, African and Asian Christians speaking the same words. While such humiliation of such a kind person make no sense to us, it reflects the experiences of countless people of God down through the ages.
The narrator, Jesus and other Christians’ experiences that reflect Isaiah 50 offer its preachers and teachers an opportunity to consider together the nature of Christian suffering. This text especially presents a chance to talk about why those who suffer for their faith’s experiences generally aren’t ours. Jesus seemed to promise his followers things like what the narrator endures. So why don’t we endure them more often?
And yet the narrator refuses to let his misery dissuade him from pursuing his God-given mandate. “Because the Sovereign Lord helps me,” he writes in verses 7 and following, “I will not be disgraced … I will not be put to shame. He who vindicates me is near … It is the Sovereign Lord who helps me.”
How can our text’s narrator endure what he doesn’t seem to deserve? Instead of wavering in the face others’ violence, he is confident God is on his side. Instead of lashing out as those who mistreat him, the speaker expresses his confidence that God stays right with him. As a result, like Job, the speaker is completely confident God will ultimately vindicate rather than him.
So the narrator can confidently offer three rhetorical questions: “Who then will bring charges against me?” (8). “Who is my accuser?” (8). “Who is he that will condemn me?” (9). If the language sounds familiar to people who are more familiar with Paul’s words than Isaiah’s, it should. The apostle makes extensive use of them in one of the great expressions of the faith, Romans 8.
Here, finally, is the best thing anyone who suffers unjustly has going for her. There are no guarantees people won’t persecute us unfairly. There are no guarantees nice people will finish first. There are no guarantees God’s adopted sons and daughters will be popular, healthy and wealthy. The only guarantees are that God will never leave or forsake those whom God loves for Jesus’ sake. The only guarantees are that nothing in all of creation can separate God’s people from God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. The only guarantees are that when we pass through deep waters or hot fires, God goes with us, by God’s Word and Spirit.
It’s in some ways regrettable the Lectionary, in its obsession with omitting anything that’s uncomfortable, ignores the second part of verse 9. There the narrator insists those who unjustly persecute him “will all wear out like a garment; the moths will eat them up.” It doesn’t, after all, just remind unjust sufferers that God takes their misery very seriously. It also warns those who fail to act like Jesus that eventually, like an aging boxer, they’ll wear themselves out by causing so much grief.
The texts the Lectionary links to this passage are hardly surprising. The Gospel reading is Matthew 27:11-54’s account of Jesus’ trial, suffering and death. There Jesus’ accusers literally beat him and probably pull out his beard too. The Psalm reading is Psalm 31:9-16 that, among other things, Jesus quotes as he dangles between heaven and earth on the cross. And the second reading’s Philippians 2:5-11 is Paul’s stirring hymn to the Christ who suffered so horribly and unjustly at the hands of tormentors that sound a lot like Isaiah 50’s narrator’s.
When I was a student in college, we learned and sang a very lyrical setting of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s, “Von wunderbaren Maechten still geborgen” (loosely translated as, “By Gracious Powers So Wonderfully Sheltered”). He wrote it literally months before the Nazis hanged him for his Christian resistance to their murderous rule. In it Bonhoeffer includes the line, Gott ist mit uns am Abend und am Morgen, (loosely translated, “God is with us night and day”). Bonhoeffer reflects, among other things, Isaiah’s confidence that “It is the Sovereign Lord who helps me.”
It wasn’t until later that I realized that Bonhoeffer’s “God is with us night and morning” is perhaps a deliberate play on the German military’s Gott mit uns, (loosely translated, “God with us”). That motto was inscribed on armor between the time of German unification in 1871 and the end of the Third Reich. It reflected the German aristocracy and leadership’s confidence that God was with their military.
This offers Isaiah 50’s preachers and teachers an opportunity to reflect on our own confidence that God is with us, no matter what, even if our way is not God’s way. In what ways do we try to baptize our own various causes in God’s purposes?
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