For those who want a change from the Gospel
Palm Sunday – Isaiah 50:4-9a
When I was at college about 200 years ago I developed a theory of preaching which has stood the test of time, and which I am now passing on to my students. I reckon there are three types of sermons. ‘OK’ sermons are … well … OK. Then there are ‘But how?’ sermons. You should all be praying a lot more than you are, but there is no help given about how I actually go about that, so that I’m left feeling even more guilty. And finally ‘So what?’ sermons are great on theological insight, and may have imparted to me some new information, but I am given no help in understanding what that actually means for my discipleship, and how it makes a difference. I remember as a student on placement explaining this to the congregation, and telling them that if I ever preached a ‘But how?’ or ‘So what?’ sermon, they were free to shout out the question. Of course this was too much of a challenge for the Youth Group, and one Sunday the inevitable happened. So I rose to the occasion and gave them an impromptu further 20 minutes of application, which cured anyone of ever shouting out again.
Today’s passage, from the third so-called ‘Servant Song’ of Isaiah, couldn’t be accused of being ‘So what?’ In its wider context, the passage is an answer to the accusation from Israel in 49:14 that the Lord has forsaken and forgotten his people. No, says God through the prophet, far from it. The servant, a personification of the whole people, lists some of the things God has done, but then goes on to give application, which completely removes the ability of anyone to shout out ‘So what?’ The servant has been given an instructed tongue, so that with wisdom he can sustain the weary (v.4). God has spoken to him, and as a result he accepts persecution without the desire for revenge (v.5). God helps him, so he sets his face with determination (v.7) Again, God helps him, so he does not fear being condemned (v.8) There words, spoken to an exiled nation who believe that God has forsaken them, form a double rebuke. It simply isn’t true that God has done nothing for you, but what have you done with what you have been given? How has God’s wisdom enabled you to encourage others, or have you just joined in with their whingeing? Are you able to treat your captors with mercy, and accept from God’s hand the punishment you so richly deserve, realising that it’s a fair cop? Are you flinty faced and looking for salvation, or has despair crept in a sapped your life away? And do you really believe that in the end you will be forgiven and vindicated?
Once we read the passage in that light, it becomes a bit easier to see why our lords and masters have chosen this as a passage for Palm Sunday, because the role of the Servant is so perfectly lived out in the next week of Jesus’ life. He is indeed going to be beaten and mocked, but today is the day when above all he sets his face firmly in the direction of all that suffering and goes out to meet it head on, believing that vindication will be his, which of course it was seven days later.
The real challenge, though, comes predictably enough in the verse after our set reading (again!). Who among you fears the Lord? The trust in him, and rely on him. And lest you fear that this is a ‘But how?’ blog, the next chapter tells them how to build their trust: by reminding themselves of their history and looking to their promised future.
We know that Jesus must have constantly looked to the Jewish Scriptures for inspiration and comfort: indeed the words of Psalm 22 were on his lips as he died. The words of Isaiah’s Servant Songs must have shaped his ministry profoundly. Today we are challenged both to welcome Jesus with praise and enthusiasm into our lives, but also to walk with him towards the cross, and ultimately to the resurrection.