Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 28, 2021
Isaiah 50:4-9a Commentary
The choice of this text for the Sixth Sunday of Lent makes perfect sense if we remember that the RCL has been tracing the theme of covenant this year (Year B). We have moved from God’s covenant with Noah and nature to God’s covenant with Abraham, from the giving of the covenant Law at Sinai to Israel’s egregious breaking of that Law in the wilderness, ending with the marvelous New Covenant which promises that God will forgive and forget the sins of his covenant partners.
When we examined that promise in Jeremiah 31:34, I said that our next reading would explain how a holy, just, and omniscient God could forgive so completely. Isaiah 50 introduces us to the Suffering Servant whose substitutionary obedience is the basis of God’s forgiveness of our disobedience.
Putting this text in that covenantal context might help your people listen to this hard text, but I suspect that many people will be disappointed with it. It is, after all, Palm Sunday, a day for “Hosannas” and happy children. But the RCL seems determined to focus our attention elsewhere on this glad day, because there isn’t much joy and celebration in any of the readings. Psalm 31 is filled with suffering. Philippians 2 traces the downward movement of Christ’s kenosis. The Gospel reading from Mark 14 and 15 is the whole passion story from before the Last Supper to the sealing of the Tomb. And, as I said, this first reading is the testimony of the Suffering Servant. (In fact, the RCL is so determined to focus our attention on the Passion of this Sunday, that it assigns Isaiah 50 to Palm Sunday in all three years of the cycle.)
Thus, no matter which text you preach on today, you will need to spend some introductory time explaining that Palm Sunday has always been observed as Passion Sunday, too. Palm Sunday is not just one last glorious victory before the horror of Holy Week; it is also the horrific introduction to Holy Week. Our readings for today don’t fit our favorite celebrations of Palm Sunday where your granddaughter waves palm branches as she happily processes down the center aisle. This is the gritty Passion Sunday meant to comfort and encourage the miserable daughters of Zion in Exile.
This reading from Isaiah is the third of the four Servant Songs in Isaiah (42:1-9, 49:1-13, and 52:13-53:12 are the others). As with the other Servant Songs, the central problem with this one is the identity of the Servant. Is it Israel who failed as God’s servant? Or is it Isaiah himself who called failed Israel back to God and threatened punishment if they didn’t return? Or is it the coming Messiah who would fulfil all that Israel was supposed to do and be?
The key to understanding this text is seeing the contrast between failed Israel in verses 1-3 and the faithful servant in verses 4-9a, and hearing the call to walk in the light of that faithful servant in verses 9b-11. In the midst of the suffering caused by Israel’s failure, there is One who will suffer for All. If the sufferers will follow him, they will find the light. Thus, this song of suffering is, finally, not a lament, but a psalm of trust and confidence.
The servant of verses 4-9a is the ideal Israel, who was everything Israel was not. While they failed by being disobedient and suffered for it, the Servant of our text succeeds by being completely obedient. Indeed, to use old theological terms, his was both an active obedience (verses 4-5, 7b) and a passive obedience (verses 6-9a). He perfectly kept God’s Torah and he suffered as though he had broken it all.
Contrary to Israel who regularly closed their ears to God’s Word and filled their mouths with foolish and blasphemous words, this servant was receptive to God’s word. This receptivity was born of God’s grace, for it was “the Sovereign Lord” who “wakens my ear to listen….” Because of his open ears, this Servant has “an instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary.” This is probably a reference to weary Israel, languishing in lonely exile, and to anyone weary because their sin has led to suffering. The servant has a gracious word for the weary soul, because he has been receptive to God’s word.
Thus, this servant has “not been rebellious; [he] has not drawn back” from following the Word of God. Indeed, says verse 7b, he has “set his face like flint” to obey God, even if it leads to shame. Knowledgeable readers will hear an echo of Luke 9:51 here, where some older translations say that Jesus “set his face like flint to go up to Jerusalem” even though (or because) he knew that decision would mean a shameful death on the cross. He was determined to obey his Father’s will to the bitter end.
And his end was bitter, as verses 6-9a predict. In addition to fully obeying God’s will, this servant will suffer as though he had been disobedient. But he will suffer not merely as a helpless victim of cruelty and injustice, but even more as a willing sacrifice of himself. Thus, “I offered my back and my cheeks… I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.” He faced those who condemned him without flinching and looking away. “Who is my accuser? Let him confront me!” His suffering was an act of willing obedience.
Think of Jesus’ words in John 10:18. “No one takes my life from me. I lay it down of my own accord.” Or his rebuke in the Garden, “Do you think I cannot call my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels (Matthew 26:53)?”
The sense of being in control even when he was being beaten and spit upon, accused and condemned, is conveyed in the confidence the servant exhibits. Though he looks helpless, he knows he is not. At the beginning and the end of his suffering, he says, “The Sovereign Lord helps me.” Therefore, though his tormentors will shame him, he will not finally be disgraced or put to shame. The Lord will finally vindicate him, and his condemnation will be set aside as he is raised from the dead in glory.
What a message of encouragement and hope this little song brought to its original readers in the Babylon! For 50 or 60 years they had been imprisoned there; that’s nearly two generations who had been born and raised in that foreign land. It was the new normal; it was just the way things are. What possible hope could there be?
Well, says Isaiah 50, in place of disobedient Israel who has been sent away by Yahweh, a new servant will be raised up by Yahweh to obey and suffer in their place. Like the other Songs, this one aims “to persuade a downtrodden community of Jewish exiles in Babylon to have hope in God’s promise that they will return to Jerusalem.” (Dennis T. Olson) Even though Israel the Servant is humiliated and beaten and disgraced, the Sovereign Lord is with her, so she must stay the course, be obedient, and keep trusting in the light presented by this new Servant.
But this Song is not just a pep talk for disgraced and discouraged Israel. It is also, and finally, a prediction of the coming of the Ideal Israelite, the quintessential Suffering Servant, who will save all his people from their sins. There can be no doubt that, in the end, this servant is Jesus, who suffered exactly as Isaiah 50 predicts. He has offered his active and passive obedience to the Father as an atoning sacrifice for our sins, so that we can be liberated from our own captivity. We can walk in that liberty if we walk in the light of Christ.
All around us people are lighting their own torches to find a way through the darkness, but that leads only to the outer darkness. “Let him who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the Lord (Jesus) and rely on his God.” That’s the message for Palm/Passion Sunday. It’s dark all around us and it’s going to get darker this week, so walk in the light of the Servant who set his face like flint and was obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
At the heart of the best-selling Hunger Games trilogy is Katniss Everdeen, the brave teenager whose suffering was voluntary and substitutionary. When the authorities do their annual lottery to pick the young people who will do gladiatorial battle in the annual entertainment spectacle called the Hunger Games, Katniss’ little sister, Pim, is picked. Katniss immediately volunteers to take Pim’s place. She goes to the Games, improbably wins, and becomes the symbol of a rebellion against the evil President who rules Panem. She not only takes her sister’s place, but also stands in the place of her home district and, indeed, all of Panem. She sets her face to go up to the Capital city to suffer and die, in order to save Pim and Panem.
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