March 29, 2015
Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion
First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-7
Speaking up for God can be uncomfortable. While everyone loves to be showered with Christian charity, help in time of need, and nonjudgmental loving assistance, not everyone loves to hear a Christian speaking up on behalf of God. Whether we are speaking out on behalf of the poor in the public arena or being the one person at the Thanksgiving table who dissents from the group on a hot-button issue by clinging to the truth, we might, by our speaking, join Christ in his suffering.
Speaking for God
In this Palm Sunday’s first reading from Isaiah 50, we find the suffering servant describing his own plight. This is the third of the four Servant Songs in Isaiah (42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13–53:12). The servant speaks for God, who has given him a “well-trained tongue” (Isa 50:4 NAB). But notice his skilled speech is not for giving others a prophetic tongue-lashing, but for encouragement: “that I may know how to sustain with a word him that is weary” (50:4 RSV). It is so easy to discourage others with disparaging, disrespectful, and hurtful words, but encouragement is difficult, even divine. God gives the servant the skill he needs to help others with his words. Speaking for God might sound frightening—as if every time it contains a mortal risk—but perhaps speaking for God is more about giving a boost to a tired soul, bolstering the confidence of a frustrated child, or encouraging those little steps toward the Light we see in those around us.
Listening for God
Of course, it is no use speaking on God’s behalf if we never listen to him. Our “prophetic” interventions, encouragements, and words at that point become “merely human” (1 Cor 3:4). To speak for him, we need to listen to him—and not just every once in a while, but every day. The servant says “Morning by morning he wakens, he wakens my ear to hear as those who are taught” (Isa 50:4 RSV). Listening to God’s voice is not always easy. It takes patience, persistence, and time. But this is the heart of prayer—to hear God speak to us. Many, many books, talks and retreats are directed to helping us hear God’s voice. Yet the hearing of God’s voice does not reside in mere technique, but in the willingness in our own hearts to be transformed by what we hear. If we listen to him and embrace what he says to us day after day then we will not only be prepared to speak on his behalf, but to suffer for him.
Suffering for God
We all know that speaking up for God brings suffering with it. Whether that mean creating an awkward moment in an otherwise pleasant conversation—say about politics, education, or sex—or losing a friend who can’t stand to be around a person who disagrees about a particular issue, the sufferings that come to those who speak up for God are real. In extreme cases, Christians have been thrown in prison or executed for refusing to give up their beliefs under pressure—whether we think of St. Thomas More being beheaded for refusing to recognize Henry VIII as head of the Church of England or Middle Eastern Christians being beheaded for refusing to convert to ISIS’s violent version of Islam. When we speak up for God, encourage the weary, or defend the truth, we become what we ought to be as Christians: contradictions. That is, we contradict the spirit of the world. We stand as sign posts at a fork in the road, pointing the way to God. If someone encounters the Truth in us, he or she must choose either to turn toward Him or turn away from Him. Speaking up for God provokes a decision for or against Him.
Vindication by God
Speaking up for God requires determination. The servant “sets his face like flint” and willingly undergoes terrible sufferings in order to be true to his message. He is spat on, beaten, and struck violently. Of course, we see fulfillments of this passage in Jesus’ passion, when he is scourged, spat on, punched, and ultimately crucified. The problem with this kind of treatment is that it seems shameful. It seems as though the Suffering Servant fails. He is publicly disgraced, convicted, tortured, and splayed on a cross, naked and bleeding. It seems as though he has been completely beaten. Nothing is left expect his shame. Yet the servant in Isaiah insists “I have not been disgraced” and “I know that I shall not be put to shame” (50:7). Why would he insist on this? We have to look below the surface to understand. What seems to be shameful—the public beatings and humiliations—in reality is honorable. The servant remains true to his message in spite of the public shaming, a very difficult and truly heroic effort. While it seems that Jesus is shamed, in truth he is honored. The cross looks like his downfall, when really it is his triumph.
When we listen to God and speak on his behalf, we can expect suffering to come. Most of the time the suffering will come in small ways, but we may be called upon to suffer severely for the sake of Christ. But if that moment of suffering comes, we should take it like the apostles whom we find “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Act 5:41 RSV). The real honor is not that which the world offers, but that which God offers. If we stick close to him, we are bound to suffer in this world. That suffering will not lead to our shame, but to vindication by God, who will see to it that we are not discouraged or destroyed, but encouraged and honored. When we join Jesus on the cross of shame, we can likewise embrace the glory of his victory.