Tuesday, April 08, 2008

“Unto Death”

Isaiah 50:4-9; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 27:11-54[1]

The 1998 film Saving Private Ryan is about a platoon of men who carry out a strange mission.[2] After surviving the maelstrom of Omaha Beach on D-Day, Captain John Miller is ordered to take his platoon and find Private James Ryan, a paratrooper who was part of the Normandy invasion. Ryan’s three brothers were all killed in various battles on D-Day, and the Army had decided to send him home in gratitude to his mother for the sacrifices she had already made.

Miller and his platoon are baffled by the order. They are battle-hardened troops, having already survived the invasion of Italy before D-Day. In their minds it is a foolish waste of manpower and resources. They complain constantly as they scour the French countryside to find a “needle in a haystack” amongst the confusion of misplaced and displaced combat units. At one point, Captain Miller actually has to quell a mutiny among his troops!

But they follow orders—at first reluctantly and even grudgingly. But in the midst of the mutiny, Captain Miller reclaims the humanity that had been stripped from him by the brutality of war. Miller decides that it is after all worthwhile to find and save Private Ryan, if for no other reason that it’s the humane thing to do in the midst of a world gone insane with violence.

When Miller and his platoon finally find Private Ryan, they are caught up in a battle for a bridge in an abandoned town. Captain Miller and most of his platoon die in the process of obeying their orders, but they do in fact save Private Ryan. Of course, there are many such stories of soldiers who obeyed orders even though it cost them their lives.

In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he says that Jesus was “obedient to the point of death” (Philippians 2:8). That phrase may not make much sense to many of us. We have gotten used to thinking that obedience leads us to blessing or to success; but our Scripture texts for today make it clear that is not the case. The fact is that we can actually expect to suffer when we determine to follow God’s will and God’s way in our lives.

We see this connection between obedience and suffering reflected in the “Suffering Servant” of Isaiah. It’s not at all clear who the servant is, whether Israel, or a prophet, or a character in the future. What is clear, however, is that the servant’s role is to suffer on behalf of those who have strayed from God’s way. Notice what the servant says in our lesson for today: as a result of determining not to rebel against God’s call but rather to obey, the servant was beaten, insulted, and humiliated:

I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. (Isaiah 50:5)

The question inevitably comes to mind as to why the servant had to suffer like this. Did God want the servant to be beaten? Is God some ultimate sadist who enjoys the pain of others?

That’s not the point at all, though you may hear those very objections to the whole idea of a savior who dies for us. But the purpose is this—the servant is called to suffer on behalf of the wayward because God suffers on their behalf. The God of the Bible is not some cosmic bully who enjoys inflicting pain on us. The God of the Bible is a God who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” The God of the Bible is the one who is completely faithful, which means that God never gives up on relationships.[3] The God of the Bible is a God of justice, which means that God works to make everything and everyone right again.[4] The God of the Bible is a God of mercy, which means that God loves us in such a way that promotes the well-being of all life. And the God of the Bible is a God who never quits loving us this way. [5] God suffers on behalf of sinful people like you and me because the only real way to break the power of evil is to absorb it; the only way to set someone free from suffering is to take it on oneself.[6] And that is exactly what God does.[7]

That is why the servant of God suffers. God’s servant is called to suffer because it is the only way to truly fulfill God’s purposes in a world of sorrow and pain, of suffering and injustice, of sin and death. We may never know the real identity of the “Suffering Servant” Isaiah spoke of so eloquently. But we can know what Christians have known from the very beginning—Jesus is the one who most fully completes the task of the servant.[8] In Jesus the Christ, God is revealed as the redeemer of the despised, as the savior of the hopeless, as the one who chooses the unwanted.[9] Jesus fulfilled God’s suffering love for us all by embracing it on the cross. [10] He was called to give his life for the sake of others—and he obeyed that call. His obedience cost him his very life, but it made it possible for us to truly live.

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/16/2008 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] See the review by Frederick and Mary Ann Brussat at http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/films/ films.php?id=1600

[3] Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith, 134; Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 112-120, 143-148: “God is the same God all the way from promise to fulfillment” (115).

[4] Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, 139; Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 121; cf. also Stephen Shoemaker, GodStories, 217–18;

[5] Berkhof, 128.

[6] Cf. PC (USA) Study Catechism, q. 45: “An abyss of suffering” has been “swallowed up by the suffering of divine love.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 91, 95; Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 246, 277.

[7] Abraham Heschel, The Prophets II:9: “The disparity between God and the world is overcome in God, not man.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 82-83, 117-19.

[8] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I.2: 89; cf. Brevard Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments, 509.

[9] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 94: “Through his forsakenness Jesus has brought God to the Godforsaken.” Cf. also Moltmann, Crucified God, 242-43.

[10] Moltmann, Way of Jesus Christ, 172-78.

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