March 20, 2016
First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-7
Life can be a grind. Getting up early, staying up late, working hard—all of it can take its toll and cause us to lose sight of what our life is supposed to be about. The grind can actually wear us out, make us weary. In those moments, we need a certain spiritual encouragement, some help to get up and keep going. Our own inner self-encouragements aren’t enough to get us back on track. That’s when we need a messenger from God.
In the Bible, God sends lots of messengers: The “angel of the Lord” appears to many people. God sends the angel Gabriel to Mary. He sends Moses to the Hebrews. He sends Samuel to Saul. He sends the prophets to Israel and Judah. He even sends a donkey to Balaam. But here in Isaiah, God promises to send a different kind of messenger—one who will not only bear his word, but who will also suffer on behalf of the people. This messenger is often referred to as the Suffering Servant. Our first reading constitutes the third of the four Servant Songs in Isaiah (42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13–53:12). Often we feel left alone, apart from God, lost in the vastness of the universe, but in fact he repeatedly reveals himself to us through a multitude of messengers like the Suffering Servant who comes with “the tongue of those who are taught” (Isa 50:4 RSV). We don’t think about tongues much, but the ancient Hebrews viewed the tongue as the organ of speech. The Servant’s tongue has received special training so that he can bring God’s message to his people.
In particular, his message is for the “weary” (Isa 50:4). He comes to lift up, help, sustain the weary. By his very speech, he will encourage them, awaken them. His project of waking up others parallels his own experience of the word of the Lord coming to him “morning by morning.” The Servant gives what he has received from the Lord and its effect is similar. It wakes him up and he uses it to rouse others from their weariness. The rare Hebrew word for “weary,” yaseph, is only used once elsewhere by Isaiah: “He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength” (Isa 40:29 RSV). The ancient Jews were weary from the oppression of foreign empires, Assyria and Babylon, and from their experience of exile from their homeland. These ancient conflicts prefigure the great conflict of sin. Our oppressor, sin, finds ways to enslave us, to drag us down, to trap us into addictive patterns, but the Servant preaches a word to us that can free us from the “weariness” of sin.
Suffering for Sin
The Servant does not stop with mere words, but puts his money where his mouth is. He takes the awful weight of sin—not his own sin, but the people’s sin—upon himself. He insists upon his fidelity to the Lord. He does not “turn back” nor is he “rebellious.” But in the face of grave opposition:
I gave my back to the smiters,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I hid not my face from shame and spitting. (Isa 50:6 RSV)
The Servant is willing to undergo physical harm and public shame for the sake of his message. The angry crowds who oppose him will not hold back his mission of proclaiming the Lord’s word to the weary. The punishments Isaiah lists match up remarkably well with Jesus’ experience on Good Friday when his back is whipped (Mark 15:15) and the soldiers spit on him and hit him (Matt 26:67). The Suffering Servant bears the sins of the people and takes their deserved suffering upon himself, though he is innocent and undeserving.
The Unshameable Servant
All of the punishments that he suffers are designed to shame him, to humiliate him, to dishonor him. Notably, ancient peoples were far more concerned about honor and shame than we are, yet we can still feel the sting of embarrassment that comes from losing your cool, having your name attached to something smarmy, or having a piece of broccoli stuck in your teeth during your end-of-the-year sales presentation. In the case of the Servant, those seeking to shame him into capitulation or inner crisis will fail. They won’t be able to destroy his confidence. Why? Because his hope, his honor, does not reside in mere public opinion. His hope is in the Lord. He looks forward to the day when the Lord will “vindicate” him:
For the Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been confounded;
therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
(Isa 50:7 RSV)
With his confidence totally in the Lord, public shaming cannot stick. It falls away as he trusts in the Lord’s vindication. What seems like failure today will prove to be victory tomorrow. What looks like a disaster for his message on Good Friday will be shown to be a triumph on the third day. The Servant, with his rock-solid reliance on the Lord, will prove unshameable.
While many forces constantly advertise to us, teach us, inform us, or “notify” us, the messengers of God are the ones we really want to be listening to. In fact, in the end, God sent just one ultimate messenger, his very own son. He comes with a message of repentance, healing and encouragement, which in fact fulfills another Isaian passage: “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench” (Isa 42:3 RSV). The Servant hears from the Lord, speaks to the people, and offers a rousing word to the weary. He persists in proclaiming, despite persecution, and, in the end, he is vindicated. When we feel weary from the burdens of this life, we can listen again to his inviting words and find the strength to endure: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28 RSV).