Saturday, April 30, 2011

Suffering Servants
Isa. 50:1-9 [1]
This is the time of year when we look to the founding events of our faith: the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. But I think we’d have to confess as people of the 21st century, that we have some challenges with these events. Especially as they have traditionally been presented. The traditional way of presenting Jesus’ death is that he was offered by God as a sacrifice that would appease God’s anger over our rebellion and cleanse us from our rebellious tendencies. This whole way of thinking about Jesus’ death on the cross is a problem, because it’s offensive to think of any parent doing that. We don’t believe in a God who commands people to take their children and slaughter them for religious purposes. So how can we believe in a God who sacrificed Jesus on a Roman cross?
I think our lesson from Isaiah for today may help us with this. This passage is one of the “Servant Songs” of Isaiah, where the prophet speaks about one who was to be the “Suffering Servant.” It’s not at all clear who the servant is, whether Israel, or a prophet, or someone else. What is clear, however, is that the servant’s role is to suffer on behalf of others. Notice what the servant says in our lesson for today: as a result of determining to obey God’s call, 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 that inevitably comes to mind is why the servant had to suffer like this. Did God want the servant to be beaten?
If that were the case, I think we’d have to agree that we would have some problems with a God like that.[2] But I don’t think that’s the point at all. It seems to me point is this—the servant is called to suffer on behalf of the wayward because that’s who God is. God suffers on our 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 creation. And the God of the Bible is a God who never quits loving us this way. [5]
When it comes to the whole idea of Jesus as a sacrifice for our sins, I think this point of view might help us as well. God didn’t use Jesus as a scapegoat for God’s own anger or for our bad deeds. The God who never quits loving us is a God who suffers with and for us.[6] And so part of the mystery of our faith is that it was God who was suffering on that cross. It was God who was taking on the suffering we have created in this world. God suffers on behalf of people like you and me because that’s who God is—a God of suffering love. And God suffers for us because the only real way to break the power of evil in this world is to absorb it.[7] As one of our confessions puts it, in the mysterious event of the cross, an “abyss” of sin and violence and suffering has been “swallowed up by the suffering of divine love.”[8]
That is why the servant suffers. Not because God is some cosmic bully but because God is determined to heal the suffering of this world. God’s servant is called to suffer because it’s the only way to truly fulfill God’s purposes of justice and peace and freedom in a world of sorrow and pain, of suffering and injustice, of sin and death. What we see on that cross is a God of love poured out for others, a God who takes on all the pain and suffering of the world, in order that we might find true peace and freedom and new life.[9] And we see a person who is willing to follow God’s purposes and fulfill God’s suffering love for us all no matter where it leads—even to a humiliating death on a cross. [10]
We may never know the identity of the “Suffering Servant” Isaiah spoke of so eloquently. But we can know what Christians have known from the very beginning—Jesus carried out task of the servant. Jesus fulfilled the role of the redeemer of the despised, the savior of the hopeless, and the one who chooses the unwanted. But in a very real sense, if this is the only way to truly fulfill God’s purposes in a world of suffering and injustice, then Jesus carried out the role that we all are called to embrace.[11] The suffering God of the suffering Savior calls us all to be suffering servants, breaking the power of evil in our world, taking on the suffering of others in order to bring them relief, pouring ourselves out for a world of pain and injustice in order to bring healing and peace and freedom to those who are struggling in that “abyss" of suffering.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/17/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian, 100: “if this is what the divine Mystery we call God really is, it’s a mystery that repulses rather than embraces.”
[3] 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] Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith, 128.
[6] Knitter, Without Buddha, 126: “The God embodied in Jesus suffers not only for the victims of the world; this God suffers like them and with them.”
[7]Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 91, 95; Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 246, 277.
[8] Cf. PC (USA) Study Catechism, q. 45.
[9] Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 82-83, 117-19.
[10] Moltmann, Way of Jesus Christ, 172-78.
[11] Cf. Walter Wink, The Powers That Be, 124, 134-35.

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