Clearly, the composers of the Revised Common Lectionary thought this little snippet of Scripture was perfect for Palm Sunday because they have selected it for all three years of the preaching cycle. I’m not sure your people will see it that way, because it is obviously more about Christ’s suffering than about his Triumphal Entry. Indeed, all four of the readings (Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11, and Luke 22:14-23:56) focus on the theme of suffering.
Of course, this Sunday has always been called Passion Sunday as well as Palm Sunday. But most congregants will come to church today eager to hear loud Hosannas, even if they know that there were whispers of conspiracy behind the scenes even before the shouts of victory died away. So you will have to remind them that Palm Sunday is the first day of Holy Week during which our focus is completely on Christ’s suffering and death. Our reading from Isaiah 50 gives us a head start on our somber meditations, even as it celebrates the Good News that the Sovereign Lord was involved in Christ’s suffering.
One might wonder why this text was chosen; at first reading it seems a bit random. But then we begin to hear echoes of the New Testament here: verse 6 sounds like the preliminary sufferings of Jesus before his actual trial; verses 8 and 9 describe the trial before the Sanhedrin and Pilate; verse 7 reminds us of that striking phrase in Luke 9:51; and we hear echoes of Romans 8:32ff in verses 8 and 9. The more listen, the more it all begins to sound like a prophecy, not just for ancient Israel in Exile, but for us as we enter Holy Week.
That conclusion is confirmed when scholars tell us that this is the third of four Servant Songs in Isaiah (42:1-9, 49:1-13, 52:13-53:12, and this one). These same scholars fiercely debate whether the Servant is corporate or individual; the evidence here seems to point in the direction of individual. But all agree that the Servant is everything God wanted his servant nation to be, but was not. (See verses 1-2 for a summary verdict on Israel’s failure.) Whether corporate or individual, the Servant of Isaiah was Israel idealized or, better, Israel fulfilled.
That, of course, was exactly what Jesus was—the fulfillment of all God had intended Israel to be, the fulfillment of all God’s promises to Israel, the fulfillment of Torah, the fulfillment of God’s purposes in choosing Israel in the first place. This third Servant Song gives us a perfect picture of Christ’s perfect obedience– his active obedience as he did what Israel had not done and his passive obedience as he suffered the penalty for their (and our) disobedience. Whatever ancient Israel may have gained from this prophecy, it gives us a beautiful picture of Christ as we enter Holy Week.
It truly is a song. There are lovely poetic images (“an instructed tongue” and “wakens my ear”) and recurring words intricately connected (“I did not hide my face” in verse 6, “I set my face like flint” in verse 7, and “Let us face each other” in verse 8). Best of all, the song returns to its dominant theme 4 times, like those first 4 notes in Beethoven’s Fifth—“Sovereign Lord.” The Sovereign Lord gives me an instructed tongue and has opened my ears (verses 4 and 5), so that I am obedient. And when the suffering befalls me in spite of my obedience (or more accurately, as part of my obedience), the Sovereign Lord helps me (verses 7 and 9).
Those two words send a crucial message. It may seem as though the nations are in control of Israel and the Servant’s fate, but our God is Sovereign over all nations (and all nature, for that matter). And it may seem as though God has totally forsaken his rebellious covenant people, but our God is Yahweh, who will act through the work of this Servant to save his people.
It was no accident, I think, that the early church responded to the first incident of persecution with a prayer that opened with these 2 words (Acts 4:24). In that prayer, those Christians directly connected the suffering of Christ at the hands of both Jew and Gentile to the plan and power of their Sovereign Lord. “Indeed, Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should Lord (verses 27 and 28).” That is exactly the theme of this Third Servant Song.
The Sovereign Lord gave his Servant all he needed to be obedient—an instructed tongue so that he could speak “the word that sustains the weary;” an awakened ear so that he could listen to the word of his Father and always obey, even when it was difficult. Contrary to Israel that often persecuted the weak and weary and worn, Jesus sought them out in his mercy. And unlike Israel that was often deaf to God’s word, Jesus’ was always perfectly attuned to God’s word. As Psalm 40:6-8 says (and see how this Psalm is applied to Christ in Hebrews 10:5-9), God had “dug” an ear for his Servant, so that he could obey, which was better than offering sacrifices.
But the Servant did offer sacrifices—not of animals or grain or drink, but of his own body and blood. “I offered my back, my cheeks,” my whole self in a humble, humiliating sacrifice to God. But even in this, the Sovereign Lord was with his Servant. Thus, he was able to triumph even in his humiliation. As Jesus said, “No one takes my life from me; I lay it down of my own accord.” So, Jesus “set his face like flint” to go up to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51 in older translations), even though he knew what would happen there. Though the enemies would humiliate him, he would not be put to shame, because the Sovereign Lord would ultimately vindicate his Servant by raising him from the dead.
Even at his trial, in those moments when he seemed to be nothing but a helpless criminal condemned to dying an accursed death, Jesus was in charge of things. He faced his accusers bravely, because though they condemned him, he was innocent of all charges. That’s what made his sacrifice so effective for us. “It is the Sovereign Lord who helps me. Who is he that will condemn me?”
Because Jesus spoke such words, we can speak the words of Paul in Romans 8:33-34. “Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.”
That is finally where our meditation on Isaiah 50 should end—with a word of comfort to the weary and worn and sad who languish in Exile or in sin. This text, and all the others in what scholars call Deutero-Isaiah (chapters 40-55), are spoken to people who have given up all hope because it seems that God has utterly forsaken them (cf. Isaiah 40:27 and 49:14 and the opening verses of Isaiah 50). Living in the darkness of God-forsakenness, they had no hope.
God has explained to them why that had happened to them and God has offered them the promises of deliverance. But his last, best word to them was not an explanation or even a promise; it was a person, this Servant who would do all they had not done and suffer as though he had committed all their sin. The Sovereign Lord would deliver them by the active and passive obedience of the Suffering Servant named Jesus.
That should be your major theme on Passion Sunday, and it would be nice to end your sermon there. But that’s not how our text ends, whether we stop where the Lectionary reading ends or proceed on to the end of Isaiah 50. Both endings have a rather severe cautionary note. In verse 9b, those who condemn the Servant “will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up.” Verse 11 has a fiercer sentence: “You will lie down in torment.”
These harsh words about those who oppose the Suffering Servant are a sour ending to this lovely servant song. Thus, the RCL simply leaves them off the assigned reading. You can do that, too, but that seems a bit like shaping the Scripture to suit our theological tastes.
Or, you could use these words as a strong call to come to the light that is Christ. Verses 10 and 11 use that imagery of light in contrasting ways. Those who try to light their own way, who light their own fires and torches, will lie down in the torment of the outer darkness. We simply cannot save ourselves.
But those who acknowledge that they cannot save themselves, who know they walk in darkness, who confess that they have no light, should put their trust in the name of Yahweh and rely on their God, who has sent his Servant into the darkness. A sermon that ends this way is not merely a lovely description of the Servant who saves by his suffering, but a powerful call to trust him and him alone.
Last week I mentioned the novel, Purple Hibiscus, which is set in a troubled time in Nigeria. It focuses on a well-to-do family whose sternly Catholic father abuses the family, even as he showers his church and community with benevolent gifts. At one point, JaJa, the teenaged son rebels. He refuses to participate in the Eucharist and he finally rejects the Faith entirely. When the abusive father is found dead in his office, thus freeing the family from his depredations, JaJa’s sister piously says, “God knows best. God moves in mysterious ways.” The embittered JaJa laughs and replies, ‘Of course God does. But have you ever wondered why? Why did he have to murder his own son so we could be saved? Why didn’t he just go ahead and save us?” That will be the response of many unbelievers (and some Christians) to our text’s focus on the active and passive obedience of the Suffering Servant of the Lord.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 14, 2019
Isaiah 50:4-9b Commentary