Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 25, 2018

Isaiah 50:4-9a Commentary

Isaiah 50:4-9a’s juxtaposition of beauty and brutality is so jarring that it may be disconcerting.  Yet that combination is part of what helps make our text in so many ways reminiscent of daily life.  After all, it sometimes feels as if we’re almost constantly moving from beauty to brutality (and then, so often, right back to beauty – and back yet again).

The prophet probably penned the words of the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday to an Israel whose sins have dragged her far from the beautiful home God had promised her ancient ancestors and granted her parents and grandparents.  But the second half of Isaiah’s prophecy anticipates a time when God will bring Israel home.

That brightening future, however, puts Israel’s fortunes in stark contrast to those of our Old Testament lesson’s narrator.  After all, while Isaiah 50 suggests Israel’s fortunes are on the rise, its narrator’s seem moving in the exact opposite direction.

His persecution is both sad and perhaps a bit surprising.  The narrator seems to be, after all, as our colleague Scott Hoezee notes, the kind of person most of us would want for a friend.  He seems to know just when to talk and when to listen.

Of course, assaults on “nice” prophets like our text’s are hardly unique.  As Hoezee noted in an earlier Sermon Commentary on this text, “Whether it’s the assassin’s bullet that shatters the face of Martin Luther King, Jr., pierces the body of Mahatma Gandhi or takes out Abraham Lincoln; whether it’s the Tiananmen Square tanks that threaten to run over non-violent students or the powers that be that sequester away in prison for years and years a Nelson Mandela, those with a gift to speak sustaining words for the weary and listen to the cries of those who need to be heard are indeed turned over to the smiters and the biters and the spitters and the whole shameful lot of those who carry out this world’s worst persecutions.”

Yet even in the face of almost fanatical persecution, Isaiah 50’s narrator insists he has not rebelled against God’s call to speak God’s truth.  The narrator insists that he has “not drawn back” (5).  It’s certainly possible, if not likely that his courage stems at least in part from the strong sense of God’s calling that verses 4-5a recount.

There the narrator recognizes that God has given him not just his mission, but also his ability to carry it out well.  God has given him the tongue of a teacher.  However, God has also given him the ear of someone who’s willing to be taught so that he can be an effective communicator.  Morning by morning God awakens our text’s narrator to listen to God like a student.

At least some of us who write and read Sermon Commentaries are tempted to think that the most important qualification of a good teacher is the ability to communicate effectively.  Isaiah 50 reminds us that good teachers are, first of all, good students.  Those who wish to teach God’s truths are eager to hear God speak before they even dare to speak on God’s behalf.  So we pray for open ears before we pray for articulate tongues.

Yet citizens of the 21st century, perhaps especially in North America, seem increasingly quicker to speak than to listen.  Christians of every political and theological stripe also seem increasingly quick to speak on God’s behalf.  We’re naturally more eager to put our tongues than our ears to good use.

So Isaiah 50’s wise preachers and teachers will want to at least consider reminding anyone who claims to speak for God, whether formally or informally, to listen to God before speaking for God.  We’ll urge each other to pray for open ears before we pray for nimble tongues.  We’ll challenge each other to be diligent students of God’s Word and ways before we’re speakers of God’s Word.

However, as Isaiah 50:4-9a reminds us, even good student/teachers may suffer for listening to before speaking for God.  “The sovereign Lord has opened” the narrator’s ears (5).  So what’s his “reward”?  Brutal persecution.  Yet the narrator insists it hasn’t deterred him.  He, instead, allows his assailants to both physically and emotionally hurt him deeply.

However, our text’s narrator doesn’t let those assaults push him away from his prophetic calling.  He doesn’t flinch when people do their worst to him.  Because he’s confident God will ultimately vindicate him, the narrator continues to listen for God’s Word.  Because he trusts the Lord to help him, he continues to resolutely speak God’s truths.

Our text leaves its narrator’s identity anonymous.  Some suggest it’s the prophet Isaiah himself.  Others suggest the suffering narrator is the community of Israel.  Yet perhaps our text deliberately leaves its narrator unnamed.  After all, almost countless people and communities down through the ages could have voiced his message.

Of course, on what we sometimes call Palm or Passion Sunday, Christians can hardly hear Isaiah 50 without thinking about the ghastly suffering the Romans inflicted on Jesus during the last few hours of his life.  The Markan text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday vividly describes that torture.  Its description of Jesus’ suffering is, in fact, perhaps more graphic than the other three gospel accounts of it.  Mark 15:16-20’s description of the Roman soldiers’ wanton brutality toward Jesus is especially chilling.

Yet with a little imagination we can also hear persecuted Middle Eastern, African and Asian Christians speaking Isaiah 50:5-6.  Perhaps those whom we teach and to whom we preach will even find that its words resonate with their own experiences of following Jesus the Christ.

The suffering teacher is able to confidently stand strong because he knows his God helps him.  The One who vindicates the suffering teacher is “near” (8).  As a result, the narrator is willing to face his accusers head-on.  He trusts, after all, that God is both his defender and judge.

Yet our text’s narrator may also have a larger purpose for describing both his misery and his hope.  Dennis Olson (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts) suggests Isaiah’s description presents a way for the exiled Israelite community to move forward.  She too, after all, has been battered and weakened.  Yet the narrator suggests that the Israelites can endure that misery because they know that God stands with them to both defend and finally vindicate them.

But, as Olson adds, Isaiah 50 can also be a model for the whole Body of Christ that is the Church.  God’s adopted sons and daughters, after all, naturally respond to physical and physical attacks by lashing out at our assailants.  Or we withdraw from those who attack us without speaking a prophetic word to their violence.

Isaiah 50’s narrator provides the kind of Christ-like response to others’ attacks that God equips us to offer.  After all, its narrator harms neither his attacker nor himself in response to the violence inflicted on him.  He remains within the sometimes brutal community to both hear and speak God’s Word because he is confident that while people may condemn him, God will graciously help him.

There are no guarantees people won’t persecute those who proclaim and hear Isaiah 50 for listening to and speaking for the Lord.  There are no guarantees God’s adopted sons and daughters will be popular, healthy and wealthy.

God’s only guarantees are that God will never abandon 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 various deep waters or hot fires, God graciously goes and stays with us, by God’s Word and Spirit.

Yet it’s regrettable that the Lectionary, in its apparent obsession with omitting anything that’s even remotely uncomfortable, omits the second part of verse 9 from the text it appoints for this Sunday.  After all, there the narrator insists those who unjustly persecute him “will all wear out like a garment.”

That doesn’t just serve to remind those who suffer unjustly that God takes our misery very seriously. It also warns those who fail to act like Jesus that they’ll eventually, like an aging boxer, wear themselves out by causing other people so much grief.

Illustration Idea

When I was in college, we sang a lyrical setting of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s poem, “Von wunderbaren Maechten still geborgen” (loosely translated as, “By Gracious Powers So Wonderfully Sheltered”).  He wrote it just 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”). In doing so, he reflects, among other things, Isaiah’s confidence that “He who vindicates me is near” (9).

Yet Bonhoeffer’s “God is with us night and morning” also perhaps deliberately plays on the German military’s slogan, Gott mit uns, (loosely translated, “God with us”).  That military inscribed that motto on its 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 unconditionally 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.  It also offers us an opportunity to explore in what ways we try to baptize our own various causes in God’s purposes.


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