Posts Tagged 'suffering servant'

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 March 24, 2013: Palm Sunday, Year C

The Liturgy of the Palms

The Gospel            Luke 19:28-40

Proceeding into Jerusalem on the back of a young donkey is a little bit like riding to one’s presidential inaugural on a mountain bike. What kind of king is this, anyway?

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

The Liturgy of the Word

The Reading            Isaiah 50:4-9a

Chapters 40 to 56 of the book of Isaiah, written during the exile of God’s people in Babylon, contain four poems called “songs of the suffering servant”. The third of these is today’s reading. The identity of the speaker is unclear, though the fortitude and obedience expressed here cannot help but remind us of Jesus on Good Friday.

The Response            Psalm 31:9-16

The Epistle            Philippians 2:5-11

The reading from Isaiah anticipates today’s Gospel with its rendering of Jesus’ suffering and death at hands like ours. Today’s Epistle reading places the Passion in context: this luminous passage, one of the earliest hymns of the Church, tells of the very Son of God shucking off power and glory to take on human flesh, to serve, to die for all, and to rise to unimaginable greatness.

The Gospel            Luke 22:14-23:56

What kind of king, indeed? Listen and look, and weep.

 

Further thoughts

The Palm Sunday readings are almost identical from one year to the next in the three-year Revised Common Lectionary of the Episcopal Church. Outside in the courtyard or the prayer garden, blessing the palms that will be burned for next Ash Wednesday, we recite Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29. Once in church, the Old Testament lesson is always Isaiah 50:4-9a, with its mix of resignation and determination; the psalm is always Psalm 31:9-16, with terror followed by hope; the epistle is always the incandescent Philippians 2:5-11. Only the pairs of gospels change, cycling through the longer or briefer stories of Jesus’ humble yet triumphant entry into Jerusalem of Matthew 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-11 or John 12:12-16, or this year’s Luke 19:28-4 with the palms and the variously heartrending Passion accounts of Matthew 26:14- 27:66, Mark 14:1-15:47, and this year’s Luke 22:14-23:56 at the Eucharist.

This near-identity stands in marked contrast to the situation on most Sundays—when all the psalms and readings vary, Year A to Year B to Year C—and that on the handful of days on which the readings are exactly the same no matter which liturgical year it is. Good Friday, one of that handful of days, features the Passion account of John 18:1-19:42.

These are big enough similarities to be intentional. Each of the sets of gospel accounts, while grounded firmly in the history of our inclusion in God’s people and in the glorious outcome, takes a different perspective on this week of hopes horribly dashed only to be fulfilled beyond expectation. The version in the book of Luke keeps Judas off-camera while relating a positive interaction between Jesus and one of the two thieves, and in giving no voices in Pilate’s ears to counter those of the priests and the crowd, it shows us an administrator whose resistance to condemning Jesus is perhaps a bit more his own. These shifts in emphasis are consistent with Luke’s focus on forgiveness and outreach to gentiles. Embedding Luke’s gospel in the Palm Sunday matrix may serve, among other things, to honor even the most stumbling path to Calvary and beyond—whether it’s another’s or our own.

For April 1, 2012: Palm Sunday

THE READING   Isaiah 50:4-9a
Chapters 40 to 56 of the book of Isaiah, written during the exile of God’s people in Babylon, contain four “songs of the suffering servant”, the third of which is today’s reading; the identity of the speaker is unclear, though the fortitude and obedience expressed here cannot help but remind us of Jesus on Palm Sunday.

 

THE EPISTLE    Philippians 2:5-11
Second Lector:
Today’s Epistle passage tells of the very Son of God shucking off power and glory to take on human flesh. The Gospel today continues the story through Jesus’ death and burial; this luminous passage, one of the earliest hymns of the Church, looks beyond.


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