This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Suffering Servant

This was my sermon for Thursday night.  I originally wasn't going to preach at this service, but I felt led by the Spirit to grapple with this text.  The "suffering servant" passage from Isaiah is often used to defend and justify the "penal-substitutionary" theory of the Atonement.  In this theory, God is honor-bound to punish human sin, but instead of wiping us out he puts the sin of humanity on Jesus and annihilates it there.  This theory makes several errors, one of which is that God is somehow bound to some higher law that says the only way to deal with sin is by "punishment."  It also assumes that God's holiness requires someone's violent death in order to be appeased.  It also appears to apply a division in the Godhead between the Father who inflicts punishment and the Son who bears it.  This corrodes both  the love and unity within the Trinity.   Isaiah 53 is frequently rolled out to explain this Atonement theory.

The penal-substitutionary Atonement theory is not universal in Christianity.  The Eastern Church doesn't know it.  It wasn't finally codified until the 11th century, which means the early church didn't know it either.  Unfortunately, it is for many in the West synonymous with the Atonement itself.  The "God punished his Son in our place" theology has had a disastrous effect on Christianity.  I am trying to counteract it.  

Isaiah 52:13-53:12.
            Christians have always understood these words from Isaiah to refer to Jesus.  We see Jesus as the servant of God by whose suffering and death we are healed.  What is happening in this passage could also be said about the poor. 
            Jesus comes into the world identifying with the poor and defeated of the Earth and advocating their cause.  We see this first in the very circumstances of his birth, which could not have been more humble, and in the words of his mother even before he is born, that he will turn society upside-down.  Jesus sets the tone of his whole ministry when he quotes another portion of Isaiah, about his mission to heal, liberate, and “bring good news to the poor.”  Jesus clearly teaches that the poor, the grieving, the gentle, the peacemakers, and the persecuted are blessed.  He explicitly says that to serve the poor and deprived is to serve him.  These passages and many others indicate that the Messiah came to be poor and to advocate for the poor; that was an essential element of his mission.
            Isaiah is trying to get his people, the exiles in Babylon, to see the bigger picture, which is that, as Jesus says and embodies, it is the poor, the common people, the victims of history’s machinations, who inherit the Earth.  These are God’s people.  It is not what you have, but the wealth and power you don’t have that make you a child of God.
            Isaiah’s  description talks about those who grow out of the dry ground of poverty.  They have no importance or glory; they are not particularly attractive.  They are “despised and rejected by others,” they are people “of suffering and acquainted with infirmity.”  They are held of no account by the people in charge, who even think God is cursing them.  All these things are also true of Jesus, as well as of the Jews in exile, who had lost everything.
            Isaiah notices that they do not suffer on their own account, but because of the actions of others.  The infirmities and diseases of their whole society are dumped on them. The lowly are wounded because of the transgressions of the powerful, crushed due to the iniquities of those who run things.  Jesus embodies and represents this. 
            Because those at the bottom are bearing these consequences, the people at the top reap the benefits; a fact that would have been obvious to Isaiah, whose people served the Babylonians.  In the larger scheme of things, who profits because of the low wages, the horrible working conditions, the crushing unemployment, the theft and ravaging of the land of poor people all over the world?  Jesus takes on the life of the impoverished when he allows himself to be kicked around by Roman authority, even crucified.
            Isaiah then diagnoses the root of the problem that has generated all this misery: “All we like sheep have gone astray;
 we have [each] turned to our own way.”  In other words, people have rejected the good of the community and disregarded their responsibilities for each other.  He echoes the end of the book of Judges, where it is sadly stated that in those days everyone did what was right in their own eyes.  When this happens, the social order gets perverted.  It creates iniquity and lays it on the poor.  Their suffering reveals the selfishness and isolation that afflict the whole society.
            Because we have each turned to our own way, because we demand to be able to do what is right in our own eyes, we create a society in which innocent people get crucified… every day.  This philosophy guarantees that the rich will get richer and everyone else poorer.  It depends on and spawns violence; and it makes injustice and inequality inevitable.  It guarantees that Jesus would be treated the way he was.
            So what Jesus suffers is not punishment from God.  When we read that “it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain,” and “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all,” it means that God, of course, knew what the consequences would be of entering this human life with good news.  He would be punished by powerful human forces.  He would be a victim of human iniquity.  He would intentionally absorb the evil that the poor deal with all the time.  God is not the source of this punishment; people are. 
            In Jesus, God is taking on the consequences of the violence we have embraced, taking on our poverty and powerlessness, even taking on our death.  It is the final movement in God’s self-emptying in becoming one of us.  God takes all this on in Jesus, and transforms them, transfigures them, transmutes them in himself into a blessing.  Jesus reveals and establishes that these things can kill us, but they can’t hurt us.  And in the end they don’t even kill us….    
            Isaiah writes about the servant: “When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;
through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.”  In other words, when people finally realize what Jesus is showing us, that his blood, the blood of the poor, has been shed for all of us, then Jesus shall see us, his offspring, the ones whom he empowers and feeds to be his people, the ones who continue his ministry on the Earth, energized by his Body and Blood.
            We are his offspring when we follow him.  And we follow him by identifying with and advocating for the poor people of the Earth.  Through us the will of the Lord, which is always for justice and love, prospers.
            So, if Isaiah 53 is about Jesus, it is also about the poor… but at the same time, it is also about his “offspring,” the church, the gathering of his followers, whom he sends into the world on a mission: us.  What Jesus does he does as a “pioneer.”  He goes ahead of us so we may follow.  We are not spectators, or the audience, or the inert beneficiaries.  He demonstrates what to do, then he tells us to do it as well.  Jesus shows the apostles that such suffering leads to life, giving them the strength to suffer as well, and even die, as a witness to God’s love for the world.  Which they did.
            In the next little while [the Tenebrae service in which we read the Passion narrative] we will be following him in spirit through his last hours.  We will be doing so already infused with his life, shared in the Sacrament.  God’s Body and Blood are already infusing and becoming every cell of our bodies, as we sit here.
            As we listen to this story, let’s reflect on what it is going to mean to follow him, to take up our own cross, to embrace his life of giving, healing, losing, sharing, and teaching, as he represents us up there, on the cross.  And let us also hear ways in which we can be made open to his new life of liberation and power, which we receive in his resurrection.

1 comment:

"Risking a Deeper Welcome" said...

Paul: Thanks for this. Here is my sermon from the week before, trying to wrestle with the same theme: