Isaiah 50: 4 The Sovereign LORD has given me a well-instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed.
5 The Sovereign LORD has opened my ears; I have not been rebellious, I have not turned away.
6 I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard;
I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.
7 Because the Sovereign LORD helps me, I will not be disgraced.
Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame.
8 He who vindicates me is near.
Who then will bring charges against me? Let us face each other!
Who is my accuser? Let him confront me!
9 It is the Sovereign LORD who helps me. Who will condemn me?
They will all wear out like a garment; the moths will eat them up.
I seem to remember being able to sleep well, to sleep long, to sleep all through the night and even long enough into some days that my college roommate may have wondered if I was still alive. Funny, those days don’t seem so long ago. But now some strange things are happening with my sleep pattern, things that may not be funny to many of you, but familiar. Like sleeping for a half hour at night and then, Bingo! the lights behind the eyes go on and I start to remember things that should be on my to-do list, but which aren’t there yet. Or maybe its 4 AM and I am suddenly wide awake and stay that way. Some people say it has to do with aging. But in all my fifty-four years I can’t remember ever having done that. Sometimes I can do something about the things going through my mind at 11:30 PM, or 4 AM, like at least writing them down on my legal pad. Sometimes I can’t. Except for praying about them.
Amazing how few distractions to prayer there are after 11 PM.
I used to panic whenever I was up way too late or way too early and couldn’t get back to sleep. But now I’ve learned that getting five hours of sleep some nights is not fatal, and that I’ll survive and do well the next day, maybe with an extra cup of coffee. Then again, maybe that extra cup of coffee is why the lights go on at 11:30. And I’ve learned a few things. Don’t turn on the TV unless you really like 30 minute infomercials for The Amazing Ab-Cruncher. Don’t turn on the radio and listen to angsty talk show hosts and their angsty callers or you’ll just get more worked up. Surfing the web can have the same effect. And listening to a repeat of last week’s high school basketball game on some staticky distant AM station will only add to the loneliness, anxiety and frustration of being up at odd hours.
Instead, I might read. It was in such late hours, in an easy chair under a lamp, that I was re-introducing myself to my old Dioula language resources, in the months and weeks before I went to Burkina Faso this year. And sometimes I get up to journal or to write. I might write things like………. this sermon.
It seemed especially appropriate that, while I was up so early one morning this week, I was pondering the words of today’s passage, Isaiah 50: “He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed.” So, this week, in those odd hours, I pray and ask, “Is there something you wish to say, Lord?….Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”
If I were to say that suddenly a light shone from heaven and a voice spoke and I was seized, like Isaiah, with some, “Thus saith the Lord!” I would be lying. But there is something different about the perspective you get when all the world is dark and quiet and waiting, and you are waiting, too. And from that relaxed and quiet perspective, and that openness to God, I hope it is also true for me what the Suffering Servant says in Isaiah 50, verse 5: “The Sovereign LORD has given me a well-instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary….The Lord has opened my ears, and I have not been rebellious.”
Its also a fitting passage for the wee hours of the night and the morning, because I can testify that there is Someone, a friend, who walks and visits in the quietness and the solitude of such hours in response to our prayers, to comfort, guide and renew us, the same Person who walks, visits us and speaks to us in this strange and haunting passage from Isaiah, chapter 50. Just when we might think that prophecy and prophethood are all about predicting the future or exposing injustice and idolatry—and they are—there emerges here and there in the last twenty-some chapters of Isaiah a shadowy figure whose story is told sometimes by God, sometimes by the prophet, sometimes by himself. Scholars call this shadowy figure “The Suffering Servant,” because he is often called, “My Servant” or “The Servant of the Lord,” and because he suffers. We read about him in Isaiah 53, that “He was wounded for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement for our sins was laid upon him, and by his stripes we are healed.”
Yet I prefer to call him “The Fighting Servant.” His sufferings, after all, come as a result of hearing God’s Word, of speaking God’s Word, and of doing God’s Word, against determined opposition. Yet his sufferings do not dissuade him, nor does he turn away from his God-appointed task. And that’s how he fights: not by returning bruises for bruises, nor insults for insults, but by staying in the fray, continuing to hear, speak and do God’s Word in spite of suffering and opposition. Thus the Servant reaps the reward of his faithfulness, when God says to him, “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth (Is. 49:6).”
Who is this mysterious person, this Fighting Servant whose story is told in separated bits and pieces throughout Isaiah? Is he Israel in exile, or Isaiah the prophet, as some say? I say yes, and more: Jesus, the Gospels and the whole New Testament quote the Servant songs of Isaiah to explain who Jesus is, what he did, and why. These scriptures are the script for the life and ministry of Jesus. Jesus is the Faithful, Suffering but Triumphant Servant. The story of the script in the scriptures goes like this: The servant listens to the Word of God; the Servant speaks and does the Word of God; the Servant suffers and pays the price for hearing, speaking and doing the Word of God; but God rewards and vindicates the Suffering Servant for his faith, for staying in the fight.
And that’s why Isaiah 50 is also a Palm Sunday Bible passage. Because this scripture is the script for everything Jesus would do, and everything that would happen to him, from this day forward in Holy Week, especially Good Friday. And Easter, too. Jesus gave his back to those who beat him, his face to those who would mock, strike and spit at him, and pull at his beard, not because he likes such suffering, but because that was how he fought for God’s peace, and because he trusted his heavenly Father to defend him, and to restore his honor and his joy.
And not only for Jesus. The Apostle Paul quoted these very words of Isaiah to shore up the suffering Christians in Rome, when he says, in Romans 8: 33 “Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one.” He went on to say, “Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.”
So, Isaiah’s Song of the Fighting Servant is the church’s script, our script, too. But here and today at least, in our time of relative peace, its easy to forget that many, many people have paid and still pay the price for hearing the Word of God, and doing it, as did Jesus, the Fighting Servant. This week I attended a prayer and informational meeting of Paz Y Esperanza, the Christian justice advocacy and support organization in Peru and other countries of Latin America. Their work on behalf of victims of political, domestic and sexual abuse, has helped a lot of people, but it has also earned them some enemies and opposition, sometimes from both sides of a conflict.
As tough as it is to be in such a spot, lets not count its a tragedy unless the purpose of life were only to be the one who dies with the most Facebook friends, or the most people who follow our Tweets. Or to have on our tombstone the words, “Here lies the one voted most likely to succeed by the Class of 87.” Yes, we all need affirmation and appreciation. But do we want it, or trust it, from a fickle world, or from a faithful God?
Just ask Jesus, the Fighting Servant. The joy and acclamation of that crowd on that Palm Sunday was short-lived. Mixed in to the story of the Triumphal Entry are hints and shadows of the pain and peril to come. Above the crowds waving their palm branches, at the gate nearest Bethany, stood the Antonia fortress, where Roman soldiers surveyed the scene. Among the crowds were Pharisees and partisans of the ruling priesthood, who shook their heads, scowled and worried about what the Romans might think of all this hoopla. Within a day, Jesus’ enemies and accusers are asking him, “By whose authority do you do these things?” And they are plotting his death.
But there is to be a judgment upon our lives that counts more and lasts longer than any polls or popularity contests. The true verdict of our lives will be according to the similarity between ourselves and Jesus, the Suffering but Triumphant Servant. God is working with at least as much love, skill and care to shape us into Christ’s image, as Patti has applied to the wonderful ceramic art on our altar today. To become what it is today, that artwork received much time, attention and the tender shaping of skilled, powerful and yet gentle hands. So do we. But it also went through heat and pressure. So must we. In both the tender and the tough times, God, the Master Artist, can shape us into works of everlasting beauty and utility, if, as the Suffering Servant says, “we listen morning by morning,” as God awakens our hearts and minds, if we can say, “I was not rebellious; I did not turn away.” When suffering and opposition come our way, can we also entrust ourselves to God’s strong, faithful and tender hands?
Or did we think that the triumph of our faith was supposed to come easily and automatically? There is always pressure from the world, to domesticate us to the point where our mission and our contribution, as disciples of Jesus Christ, is only to help people be better adjusted to the world as it is, to just give a little bit of refreshment, comfort and confidence to people even as they go about doing things for which they have not examined the value nor the reason, just so we might keep doing them, and do them better, and more contentedly. That’s like being a chaplain for the Mafia, or cheerleaders for gladiator contests in ancient Rome, or lobbyists for tobacco companies or cluster bomb factories. Yes, with a little bit of wisdom and TLC we might make the whole thing run smoother and work better. But the Fighting Servant in Isaiah 50 suffers because his script runs counter to the script that the world always plays: that the last one left standing over all the inert bodies wins.
And He wins because it is the voice of his Father God whom he hears, because he does the Father’s word, because he shares his word, and because he pays the price, willingly, and with trust in his Father’s power to accomplish his purposes. So I finish this message with the words inscribed on the wall of a small wooden chapel in Gnadenhutten, Ohio, where 90 Indian Christians of the Delaware tribe were martyred by American soldiers during the Revolutionary War, because of their witness of love and hospitality to people on both sides of the conflict. Its written in Latin, Vincit Agnus Noster; Eum Sequamur.”
It means: “Our Lamb has conquered; Let us Follow.”
This victory is worth getting up for, any hour of the day. Or night.