The servant of the Lord

These are Scriptures: the Scriptures given by God preserved by blood, pain, past and present martyrdom. Without it we the church have no story and no song – and without a story and a song we have no certain future.

The organised coincidence which is lectionary and a succession of coincidences in a ministry team which meant that Andrew shouldn’t be here and various other things meant that I got to share with you today. To speak today is more of a privilege than usual because these verses from Isaiah are the place where my searching was first transformed into faith or something that was approaching faith and that faith is what it’s sustained and brought me to this place through really quite a lot of bad stuff.

So beloved brothers and sisters in this holy church be at peace. I want you to hold on to that throughout this talk because it might be the most important thing that gets said today

The Ministry of Jesus of Nazareth is clearly revealed in the Gospels but very often it it feels muzzy to us it feels unclear; and it feels unclear because we lack the deep scriptural knowledge that our faith mothers from Judaism had and indeed do still insist on their young people having.

We can’t see the links that Jesus was pointing up to God’s work and pattern in the world if we can rebuild our understanding then Jesus’s sin defeating world redeeming work leaps out and becomes clear and is that clarity which helps us to tell the story of God in an intelligible way in our world.

In fact what Jesus was doing in the New Testament both resonated with the expectations of a ‘messiah’ and exceeded them and that was what caused the offense and a difficulty for him.

I think perhaps of the well-known account of Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth when he reads from an earlier [actually later: Ch 61] part of the scroll of Isaiah ‘the Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is enough upon me because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news for the poor’… you know the passage…’to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners…’ and there he stops and he stops: precisely before the part where Isaiah talks about the day of vengeance of our God – and the day of vengeance of our God was the great hope of many faithful Jews in Nazareth because they wanted their Roman oppressors to get a taste of the day of vengeance of our God. Jesus wasn’t picking and choosing from the prophecy he was simply saying that the timing with which God works is not always clear to us.

So as we turn to [Isaiah] chapter 53 the question on my mind is how can we read this text in a way that is faithful and which does speak into our lives. This is an excerpt from the passage that begins in [Isaiah] 52:12 and I’d really encourage you to read it when you go home perhaps over lunch or before lunch. Here ‘he’ is the one that Isaiah refers to as ‘the servant’.

I’m starting from the premise that the wise servant was a prophecy fulfilled by the Messiah King Jesus. Because we are now called as church to be the body of Christ… this is prophecy of things past – in large part the – question is how can we read this in a way that is helpful to us and which both honours the prophecy and reveals new things to us.

In six bare verses of poetry like like tense text Isaiah lays out a vision for the way that the wise servant will affect the work of saving us humans who as a Isaiah accounts for in Ch 53.5-6 ‘he was pierced for our transgressions and he was crushed for our iniquities – the punishment that brought us peace was on him and by his wounds we have healed. We all like sheep have gone astray each of us have turned to our own way’. And that is the first point about this passage and the first reason why it continues to have resonance for us today. We are all like sheep. We wander off away from the good grass which Jesus wants to give us to eat. It seems so much more attractive to go into the bramble patches of the world.

So three quick-fire points: Jesus was silent and peaceable in the face of the opposition and affliction he faced – verse 7 – in doing so he meets the standard that God said his ‘wise servant’ would set. Presumably then as church we should think very hard before being anything other than peaceable. Peace is more than the absence of war; and it does not preclude direct action for example civil disobedience or protests. Being peaceable is a commitment which means not doing violence and not doing violence includes the way we treat the world environmentally, the way we treat our families, the way we treat our friends, what we buy, and so on. It makes us in this human race ‘Resident Aliens’ To steal the chapter [actually book] title from the Stanley Hauerwas book.

The prophecy then holds that the servant will be carried away by oppression; and affliction and that the generation of people then living will not protest and indeed that seems to have been true by and large for Jesus. So perhaps that this indicates we shouldn’t expect that the church to have an easy path or even to appear victorious and it’s very easy to fall into those great hymns which speak of the church victorious and so on, to think ‘you know this is this is all great stuff’ but actually apparently it might not look victorious even though God has won the victory.

In Chapter 53, verse 9 we read that the servant will be assigned a grave with the wicked and rich in his death and although Jesus was crucified and hence assigned a grave with the wicked to be thrown his body to be thrown away and buried in an unmarked grave; exceptionally Nicodemus ‘he of how can a man be born again and Joseph of Arimathea who was said to be a sympathetic and wealthy member of the ruling council come to ask Pilate for Jesus’s body and they lay him in the best grave going – and from this I suggest that today we need to be aware that not all support for the church is always visible before the fact. so Nicodemus had clearly been deeply affected by what Jesus said and Joseph of Arimathea even though he was sitting on the ruling council was a sympathiser it was just impossible for them as humans to make that sympathy visible at the time.

And now I ask you to indulge me for a moment: these are scriptures. Scripture is troubling painful and sometimes difficult and yet it is also numinous, powerful and redemptive you see it is in these texts that I first found Scripture as more than print. That is to say the words lifted off the page in one holy explosion and God demanded, invited and then demanded again that I join in with the song that the living and precious Word of God is singing in our world and ever since then scripture has been a thing to be deeply treasured. A holy thing a complex thing recorded by humans but beyond all human reckoning by turns awesome sometimes frightening and often more than a little funny; and it was in these texts that I started on the journey with God.

I have to say the church I grew up in read Isaiah an awful lot Isaiah 53 especially. I had it bashed into me and yet there came a point where it became more than simply rote learning. I don’t think that I had quite decided to follow Jesus all my days when that first happened. When scripture burst out of the page and demanded my attention. These are Scriptures: the Scriptures given by God preserved by blood, pain, past and present martyrdom. Without it we the church have no story and no song -and without a story and a song we have no certain future. We are as our friends in the Islamic community call us one of the ‘peoples of the book’.

Today on Facebook if you want your video to be watched: 15 seconds is about the right length of time for that video to run for. You have to make your point in 15 seconds and yet in this this Bible these scriptures we have 66 books bound together into one. It’s not 15 seconds worth it’s not even 30 seconds worth it’s a lifetime’s worth learning and I don’t know the answer to how we reconcile that but what I do know is that we the people of God need to hold on to our scriptures and we need to hold on to them personally because without them we are lost.

In parts of the church there have been heresies perpetrated by people who persist in insisting in one form of spiritual experience over another and I don’t want you to think that I’m doing that here. I do think though that if you don’t have an experience of Scripture as something more than text: if you don’t have an experience of God interpreting scripture for you in your heart then you’re missing out and I think God would like to change that and if you’re wondering whether that’s true for you then please do come and talk to Andrew or to Sally or to myself afterwards

If of course you’re sitting here thinking ‘what is he going on about all this: scripture, Jesus, prophecy, thing’ then please also come and have a chat.

So now we approach the holy table to take the given gifts of communion and the last three verses in this reading are the prophetic fore-shadowing of the sacrifice which Jesus made in order that all who may come: will be redeemed and the recreation of the earth be brought to pass. “He poured out his life unto death and was numbered with the transgressors for he bore the sin of many of me and you and made intercession for the transgressors’

Thank you very much. Amen