Monday, April 11, 2016

Ours the Sufferings

Ours the Sufferings
Isaiah 53:1-9[1]
It doesn’t take much to recognize that one of the greatest challenges we may face in this life is undeserved suffering. And it’s not hard to find plenty of examples of those who suffer unjustly. In fact, if we pay attention carefully enough, we might be overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people who live with hardships and afflictions that they didn’t do a thing to deserve. It’s a part of life that can call into question our faith in God’s grace and mercy and love at its very core. In fact, throughout history, Christian thinkers have wrestled with this problem. Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone has come up with convincing answers as to why it is that the innocent people of our world who put their faith in God are often the ones who suffer the most.[2]
This is a difficulty that the Bible is intimately familiar with. From Moses to the Psalmists to Job to the prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, the Bible is well acquainted with the concept of the innocent bearing underserved suffering. And in many cases, those who are suffering ask God “Why?” They wrestle with God and with their faith and with their suffering. At times these “wrestling matches” in Scripture can be pretty blunt in the honesty with which they express their anguish and discouragement to God. Some of what they say we might even consider blasphemous, but there it is, in the Bible, written as an example and an instruction for us.
Our lesson from Isaiah addresses the question of innocent suffering head-on. It is perhaps one of the best known descriptions of undeserved suffering in the Bible. It is considered one of several “Servant Songs” in Isaiah, sections where the role of the “Servant of the Lord” in carrying out God’s purposes is proclaimed. The “Servant” is one who will set things right for those who have been oppressed (Isa. 42:1-4). The “Servant” will bring “light” to restore Israel, but he will also bring light to grant the “nations” salvation as well (Isa. 49:1-6). In this chapter, the “Servant” take the sufferings of “the many” on himself, thus fulfilling God’s purpose to make us all whole through the salvation he brings.
An interesting feature of the “Servant Songs” in Isaiah is that it’s not easy to figure out who the “Servant” is, whether an individual, a group, or the nation of Israel.[3] In fact, one of the great challenges with the lesson we are studying is that it would seem that the role of the “Servant” relates to all three, and extends beyond that to all who recognize God’s purpose in the suffering he bore. In some respects, it’s clear that the Scripture is referring to an individual. This person, whether fully understanding the purpose of his suffering or not, willingly offers himself to endure undeserved mistreatment for the sake of others. As the Scripture puts it, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isa. 53:7).[4]
In other respects, it would seem that there are other “Servants” who are making a report about the “Servant” and the true meaning of his affliction.[5] In fact, these “Servants” recognize that they totally misunderstood what was happening to the “Servant” initially.[6] They confess, “He was despised, the lowest of men, a man of sorrows, familiar with suffering, one from whom, as it were, we averted our gaze, despised, for whom we had no regard.” (Isa. 53:3, NJB). In that context, anyone who suffered was thought to have done something to deserve it, as Job learned from his so-called friends. But these “Servants” who had missed the true meaning behind the one who was suffering came to recognize that he was suffering for them. They put it this way: “Yet ours were the sufferings he was bearing, ours the sorrows he was carrying, while we thought of him as someone being punished and struck with affliction by God” (Isa. 53:4).[7]
It is this “report” or “testimony” of this group of “Servants” that points us to the message that undeserved suffering doesn’t have to be something meaningless and tragic. It can be the very means by which God carries out his purposes to renew and restore and redeem this world and all of us in it.[8] In fact, this recognition carries with it a call to all Israel—and indeed all of us who hear—to embrace the possibility of suffering on behalf of others in order to carry out God’s purposes in our world.[9]
None of us likes to suffer. Nor do I think that this passage is telling us to go out and seek suffering. Rather, it is addressing one of the great mysteries of our faith: God uses innocent suffering to set things right in this world. For some of us, suffering just comes upon us when we least expect it, and we have to struggle through it as we wrestle with our faith. For those who suffer in this way, we can look to this Scripture for comfort, knowing that ours were the sufferings Jesus bore for us on the cross.
For others of us, God calls us to be willing to bear the sufferings of others and to carry their sorrows, just as God’s servant Jesus did on the cross. It seems that at least part of the reason for this is that those who would seek be God’s servants are called to suffer because it’s the only way to truly set things right in a world of sorrow and pain, of suffering and injustice, of sin and death.[10] We may never fully understand why God works this way. But we can accept the calling knowing that we are following the path that Jesus marked out for us. And we can do so in the assurance that our Savior knows everything we have to bear, because it is true also in this case that ours were the sufferings he bore on the cross.        

[1] © Alan Brehm 2016. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/24/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, 24: “Christianity … ultimately offers no theoretical solution [to the problem of evil].  It merely points to the cross and says that, practically speaking, there is no evil so dark and so obscene—not even this—but that God can turn it to good.”
[3] Cf. Christopher R. Seitz, “The Book Of Isaiah 40–66” New Interpreters Bible VI:462: “with the death of this individual servant, the servants depict the nations coming to an understanding of Israel’s destiny, while Israel, in its own way, also understands that this individual expression of ‘Israel,’ in the servant (49:3), has effected the removal of sin, in the same way as Moses’ death and intercession brought new life, for Israel. The dual mission of the servant—restoration of the survivors of Israel and as ‘Israel,’ a light to the nations (49:6)—is here confessed by the servants as fully accomplished.” Cf. also Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 154, 163-66.
[4] Cf. Seitz, “Isaiah 40–66,” NIB VI:465: “‘He was despised and we esteemed him not’ captures the passive character of his afflicted condition, without stipulating further the reasons or the agents. … There are despising, rejection, sorrow, sickness, smiting (by God), wounding, bruising, chastisement, stripes, oppression, and judgment; but they are uniformly unstipulated in respect of agency (cf. 49:7). What is stipulated are the beneficiaries of all this.” See further, ibid., “Whether they were the agents of his distress or not, they are most assuredly the beneficiaries of his suffering, and this even while they had failed to comprehend it and, indeed, had regarded him as afflicted to another end altogether. No, ‘the Lord has laid upon him the iniquity of us all.’” Cf. also Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 156-57: “Isaiah 53 is Second Isaiah’s … answer to the question of how the tragic pattern of sin and punishment could be broken and replaced by the wholeness that accompanies a hearty embrace of God’s compassion and righteousness. It revolves around the notion of a Servant of the Lord whose surrender to God’s will was so total that he took the consequences of the sin of the community upon himself, even though he was innocent of any wrong.”
[5] Cf. Seitz, “Isaiah 40–66,” NIB VI:460: “The ‘voices’ responsible for this poem are the servant followers of the servant, who see in his death the bringing to fruition of God’s design for him, that he be a ‘light to the nations’ (42:6; 49:6).”
[6] Cf. Seitz, “Isaiah 40–66,” NIB VI:463: “The servants confess their massive misunderstanding of the servant’s suffering and affliction.”
[7] Cf. Seitz, “Isaiah 40–66,” NIB VI:466: “The confession of sin and iniquity is clear as it rises from the lips of the servants. Whether they were the agents of his distress or not, they are most assuredly the beneficiaries of his suffering, and this even while they had failed to comprehend it and, indeed, had regarded him as afflicted to another end altogether. No, “the Lord has laid upon him the iniquity of us all.”
[8] Cf. Seitz, “Isaiah 40–66,” NIB VI:469: “The report got written, even though a generation had got it wrong at first. The report got written, and it was not tragic because God had the final word, and that final word included even the promise that, not just us, but the servant himself saw something of God’s purpose within his agony and was satisfied.” Cf. also Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 154: “What is occurring in the experience of the Servant bears significance that extends far beyond the life of the Servant. … the events of the Servant’s life are episodes in God’s providential care for the whole world.
[9] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 83: “Through his death and resurrection the church participates in his mission, becoming the messianic church of the coming kingdom and man’s liberation.”
[10] Cf. Moltmann, Church in the Power, 91: “in the act of dying [Jesus] brings the liberating rule of God into the situation of deepest abandonment.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, Way of Jesus Christ, 178: “the inner secret of Christ’s vicarious act ‘for us’ is the vicarious act and self-giving of God.”

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