Posts Tagged 'song of the suffering servant'

For April 16, 2014: Holy Wednesday, Year A

The Reading            Isaiah 50:4-9a

For the first evening of the Triduum—the holy ‘three days’ leading up to Easter—we begin with a lesson that is also read on Palm Sunday: the third of the “songs of the suffering servant”. Though abused, the nameless servant speaks encouragement, listens to teaching, and fears no shame because the Lord God will help.

The Response            Psalm 70

The brief but heartfelt Psalm 70 calls upon the Lord for help against those seek one’s life and who gloat when bad things happen to one.

The Epistle            Hebrews 12:1-3

This short reading is preceded In Hebrews by the list of persevering, believing heroes of the faith that it calls “a cloud of witnesses”. Our chief example, of course, is Jesus, who withstood the worst that people could deal out in order to win people for God.

The Gospel            John 13:21-32

The reading from the gospel of John tells part of the story of what Jesus endured: that people whom he loved and had taught would nevertheless be among those to betray and deny him.

For April 13, 2014: Palm Sunday, Year A

1. The Liturgy of the Palms

The Gospel            Matthew 21:1-11

The gospel of Matthew that we read to open the Palm Sunday service tells of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. It paraphrases Psalm 118:25-26, which forms part of the Sanctus that we sing most Sundays during the Eucharistic prayer.

The Psalm            Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

Psalm 118 is the psalm of praise that includes the verses of praise and triumph that are cited in Matthew’s version of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

 

2. The Liturgy of the Word

The Reading            Isaiah 50:4-9a

The reading from Isaiah is the third of four “songs of the Suffering Servant”. The servant speaks with the authority of a teacher but listens like a student, and submits to God even in the face of insult. It is not clear about whom the passage was originally intended to be, but of course we read it as prophecy about Jesus Christ.

The Response            Psalm 31:9-16

Psalm 31 is one of the classic psalms of lament. The speaker may be terminally ill or perhaps simply deeply at odds with the rest of the community, but is certainly in crushing distress. Nevertheless, the speaker—like Jesus en route to the cross—declares trust and hope in the Lord.

The Epistle            Philippians 2:5-11

Just who the Suffering Servant was thought to be in the time of Isaiah remains unclear. This reading from the letter to the church at Philippi clearly identifies Jesus Christ as God choosing to humble himself even to death. It may be a very ancient hymn. It is certainly a concise and lyrical confession of faith.

The Gospel            Matthew 26:14-27:66

Each gospel’s Passion reading sheds its own light on the sorrow that is the betrayal, framing, mocking, and hideous death of the Son of God. Matthew’s Passion contains interesting nuances: perfidious Judas repents (though he still kills himself), and Pilate is depicted on the horns of an intractable political dilemma.

 

Ponderables

Even if we participate in all the services scheduled for Holy Week, those take up at most a handful of hours of the Triduum, or ‘three days’ between Wednesday sunset and Saturday sunset. Much more common, of course, is that Palm Sunday is the extent of our brush with Holy Week: for the rest of the days, we’re preoccupied by daily obligations plus Easter eggs and preparation for visiting relatives (those we visit and those who visit us).

As we read the Passion gospel, and as we go about our dailinesses… how shall we respond?

The best choice of all and for all might be “Hosanna”. The word is derived from the Hebrew Hoshana, meaning ‘Save us!’

Save us, O Lord, from cheering for the Jesus who kicks butt and not the Jesus whose war steed is, incongruously, a young donkey. Save us from betraying our families, our friends, and others with a kiss—and when (not if) we’ve betrayed them anyway, save us from such grim despair that we slam the door on life. Save us from framing and shaming those who tell us what we didn’t want to hear. Save us from crucifying others again and still on our own unresolved pain.

And save us from the complacency that blinds us both to our own guilt and to the only way past it: the way of the cross.

For Jan. 19, 2014: 2 Epiphany, Year A

The Reading            Isaiah 49:1-7

Today’s reading is one of four passages in the book of Isaiah that are called “suffering servant poems”. In this passage, the servant speaks of being God’s secret weapon, though also frustrated. Then comes the fullness of God’s call: to bring salvation not only to the scattered people of Israel but to the very ends of the earth.

The Response            Psalm 40:1-12

Psalm 40:1-12, though it probably predates the reading from Isaiah by several centuries, touches on some similar themes: what God intends for God’s creation is salvation, and it is not a matter of what we do to earn it but of God’s compassion in giving it.

The Epistle            1 Corinthians 1:1-9

We begin reading from the first letter to the church Paul founded at Corinth, about which he has heard rumors of discord and division. Paul glosses quickly over his apostolic credentials to praise the grace and gifts of God in them—but he is also at pains to point out that, however richly they have been blessed, they are not complete.

The Gospel            John 1:29-42

In the opening chapter of the gospel of John, Jesus’ cousin John the Baptizer testifies powerfully about his younger kinsman—so powerfully that John’s own disciples leave him to find out more about Jesus.

 

Ponderables

With the benefit of two millennia of hindsight, it is easy to read Psalm 40 and Isaiah 49:1-7 solely as prefigurings of Jesus, and the decision of the makers of the Revised Common Lectionary to combine them with Paul’s effusive opening words to the Corinthians and with John’s announcement of his cousin’s exceptionality serve only to reinforce that tendency. It’s also easy to read ourselves—as individuals, as the church of Jesus, and as a nation under God—into Isaiah’s prophecy: “Look, we’re God’s secret weapon! Aren’t we special!”

If we’re going to read ourselves into these lections, however, we have to do it all the way—which means realizing that being called by God is no guarantee of success or even of staying out of trouble. The speaker in Isaiah’s prophecy bemoans that his work is worthless, and even the Lord calls him “deeply despised, abhorred by the nations”. The speaker in the psalm knows the mire and clay at the bottom of the desolate pit. The Corinthians that Paul praises in his introduction are about to get read their pedigrees for their pride. Peter is dubbed the Rock here but will soon deny Jesus publicly and then flee to grieve in Galilee. And Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s crusade for the civil rights that had been written into the U.S. Constitution more than a century before got him the unwanted attention of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI before he was assassinated.

What if we Christians spent less time looking godly and making sure others do likewise, and more time acting on the grace we ourselves receive by being God’s hands and feet and heart for all in this hurting world?

For March 29, 2013: Good Friday

The Reading            Isaiah 52:13-53:12

Chapters 40 to 56 of the book of Isaiah contain four “songs of the suffering servant”, of which today’s reading is the fourth. We do not know about whom they were originally written; in Christian practice they are understood to be about Jesus. The speaker in the first three lines and the last six (“I”) is God; elsewhere “we” is surely the people.

The Response            Psalm 22

The Epistle            Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9

Both the reading from Isaiah and the psalm for Good Friday detail the sufferings of God’s servant but conclude with his triumph. The letter to the Hebrews identifies the servant as Jesus: both God and man, both high priest and sacrifice, and ready to forgive.

The Gospel            John 18:1-19:42

The Passion account in the gospel of John is the one we read every year for Good Friday.

 

Further thoughts

Good Friday, in all its horror and agony, also is a “day the Lord has made”.

For Oct. 21, 2012: Proper 24, Year B

The Reading            Isaiah 53:4-12

Today’s reading from Isaiah is one that we associate with Holy Week. It speaks—at first from the point of view of those who benefit, later from the point of view of God—of a mysterious figure who suffers grievously in order that others may be spared the punishment they deserve.

The Response            Psalm 91:9-16

The Epistle            Hebrews 5:1-10

Hebrews 5:1-10 explains how and why Jesus Christ is the ultimate high priest, in both senses of the term: he is human, so he understands human weakness; he is God, but served humbly just as, in today’s gospel, he calls us to serve; he knows what it is to sacrifice—and to be the sacrifice. Melchizedek, which can mean ‘king of righteousness’, is the king and priest who came to Abram in Genesis bringing bread and wine.

The Gospel            Mark 10:35-45

 

Further thoughts

The Melchizedek who is Jesus’ prototype in the book of Hebrews is named in Genesis 14:13-20: as the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah and three other kingdoms flee from an unsuccessful revolt, their overlords the Elamites capture Lot, who is the nephew of a certain Hebrew that the world will later know as Abraham. Blood being thicker than water, Abram combines his own forces with those of his neighbor Mamre and Mamre’s brothers Eshcol and Aner and goes to Lot’s rescue.

Abram’s forces rout the enemy and take Lot and and his goods plus, one surmises, prisoners and booty. On the way back, Abram meets the king of Sodom—Lot’s king—in the Valley of Shaveh. Also there is Melchizedek, king of Salem (which is Arabic and Hebrew for ‘peace’) and priest of God Most High. This is in the time before the Levites in Israel were set aside as priests; indeed, neither Israel nor the tribe of Levi even existed. Now it was not unusual for a king also to be a priest. Unusually, though, Melchizedek comes to Abram rather than making Abram come to him, and Melchizedek brings bread and wine. That is, even though Melchizedek is a king and Abram is not, Melchizedek serves and honors Abram before blessing him.

What a contrast this is with the bumptious Sons of Thunder, James and John, demanding their places at Jesus’ left and right hands in heaven! It’s easy to laugh at their lack of polish, at least when I’m not wincing at how much it looks like my own.

And yet the most valuable servant is not the one who passively waits for orders but rather the one who takes initiative. James and John, and the almost irrepressible Peter, have caught glimpses of what Jesus is doing on earth; whatever their mistakes, they are doing their best to live into the vision given their understanding of the way the world works. That God Almighty is also in the business of seeking dirty feet to wash remains a startling concept, two millennia and thousands of Bible studies later. As I struggle to reconcile Jesus’ vision of servant leadership with the facts of worldly hierarchical life, I have a good model to follow in Melchizedek’s graceful integration of the exalted roles of king and priest with a personal reality in which, by God’s grace, he is clearly pretty well over himself. I have a very long way to go to match Melchizedek as a servant, let alone Jesus—but, as with James and John and Peter, there’s grace and work and hope for me, too, in Jesus’ vision.


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