Although one would think the Old Testament offers up lots of compelling possible Lectionary texts for Palm/Passion Sunday, the RCL likes Isaiah 50 for this particular day and so assigns it in Years A, B, and C. It is definitely a text that tilts away from all things “Triumphal Entry” and more definitively in the direction of passion or suffering.
Speaking of that, years ago when my son was in the 8th Grade (he just turned 27 so this was indeed some years back now!), his Christian school teacher was preparing the students to watch the whipping scene from the Mel Gibson movie, The Passion of the Christ, which at the time had come out quite recently. Long before they got to viewing the actual video clip—in fact, they never did watch the clip—the teacher’s rather graphic and gory descriptions of Jesus’ torments in the film were sufficient to cause one young man in the class to keel over, fainting dead away. I can only imagine what Mel Gibson’s actual overly gruesome movie scene would have done to this young man if not to many others in that middle school classroom.
If you’ve seen that movie, then you know that the whipping scene is embellished far, far beyond the biblical witness, which in most gospels is just a single verse: “But [Pilate] had Jesus flogged”. The scene is excruciatingly long and bloody as the Roman soldier in charge of the beating keeps reaching for more deadly whipping implements, culminating in a nightmare whip studded with nails, bits of bone, and a couple of other things even Stephen King at his most terrifying might not have dreamed up.
But what was most striking in that scene was the depiction (as some critics at the time noted) of “Jesus as Braveheart” (evoking another Mel Gibson movie from that era). As the flogging proceeds, there are several occasions when Jesus is brought to his knees from the pain of it all. And on a couple of those occasions, it looks like the soldier is about to give up, deeming that the man has had enough. But then Jesus heroically and stoically rises back to his feet, juts his chin out just a bit, and seems essentially to be saying, “Bring it on.” The soldier obliges and returns to the merciless beating.
Is something like that how we should envision Jesus’ living out the words of Isaiah 50? After all, this passage does speak of the Servant of the Lord being exceedingly obedient, even setting his face “like flint” toward those who would pluck out his beard and beat his back. Maybe Mel Gibson was on to something in depicting a defiant Jesus in that whipping scene.
Maybe, but I doubt it. Jesus was no masochist and he was not posturing as a macho hero or as the prizefighter who refused to stay down for the count or as the Army soldier who kept firing away with his rifle even after taking two bullets to his own chest. Such posturing would seem wholly at variance with everything else we know about Jesus prior to that point.
But what we can perhaps take away from Isaiah 50 is something that most certainly did characterize our Lord throughout his torment: a sense of righteousness, a sense that he was doing the will of his Father and that the end result of his obedience would be the salvation of all. Such knowledge may not have led Jesus to the kind of strongman antics Mr. Gibson portrayed. Indeed, the full humanity of Jesus lets us know that he did cry out in pain, that he did perhaps cower from the blows inflicted on him, and that it did hurt him spiritually and emotionally when men spit on him and mocked him. We must not envision Jesus as being impervious to all that lest we lapse into Docetism.
But that Jesus knew the injustice of what he was suffering, that he knew these punishments were not being properly inflicted on him, is certain. If Jesus was able to stand up to any degree under his torments, it was only because—right up until the very end at least—he was being strengthened by the Holy Spirit and by the Father. They did not abandon Jesus on account of his having made a mistake in letting all of this happen to him. They were with him, giving him the courage to accept that cup in Gethsemane and to stand up under false accusations.
And as Lent comes to a close and the passion of Jesus takes center stage during Holy Week, we acknowledge that the reason for all that courage and conviction was precisely that Jesus was taking onto himself the sins and evil of the rest of us. We cannot celebrate in any sense the strength with which Jesus endured the hell of the cross and of separation from the Godhead without locating the cause of it all squarely within our own hearts.
Isaiah 50:4 tells us that God had given his chosen Servant a word “that sustains the weary.” That word sustained Jesus but we now have a Gospel Word to sustain us in this weary world, too: namely, the truth that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. The courage and conviction and fortitude the Servant talks about in Isaiah 50 is not something to be admired for its own sake. It’s all in the service of all of us who not only would be unlikely to have such strength ourselves, we’d lack that strength at least partly because any accusations that could be lobbed our direction would be accurate. Apart from Christ, we would have no innocence to claim.
But because of Christ, we now share in the glorious righteousness of God’s Chosen Servant, of the One who was indeed vindicated by the God of all Mercy.
[Note: We have a special page dedicated to further sermon ideas and resources for the 2023 Year A Season of Lent and on into Easter. Visit this page here.]
In his book, Searching for Home, Craig Barnes claims that many people today sense the incompleteness of life as it is, but they don’t know where to look for anything better. So they keep trying to fill in the holes in their lives by indulging in food, by increasing their consumer spending, by seeking new experiences, by trying a new drug, by changing careers. But, of course, none of it satisfies for long. At one point Barnes observes that you know people have hit bottom when, instead of longing for a time when suffering will be no more, they plod on in life while never allowing their hopes to rise any higher than the furtive wish, “Maybe tomorrow we will suffer a little less.”
That resigned attitude lets suffering have the last word. In despair, our suffering begets only more suffering in the dismal belief that suffering is what we were made for. The Gospel goes another way, seeing suffering as something that can produce hope. But this hope is not the shrunken hope that says we can do no better than try to suffer a little less. Instead Jesus gives the hope of glory that comes when you realize that by loving the unlovely and by bringing life out of death, Jesus can now give peace even in the midst of suffering.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 2, 2023
Isaiah 50:4-9a Commentary