For those who want a change from the Gospel
Trinity 15 – Isaiah 50:4-9a (Related)
The Penny Drops!
The Gospel reading for today, which guides the choice of the related OT passage, is about a penny dropping for Peter. Through a series of clever questions Jesus helps Peter to articulate just who he thinks his master is, and, in Matthew’s version of this incident, to give Peter his commission as the rock on which the Church is to be built. If we get this penny-dropping moment, then we’ll be able better to understand the parallel dynamics in Isaiah 50.
The middle chapters of Isaiah (40 – 56), known as ‘Deutero’ – or Second – Isaiah contain four ‘Servant Songs’, and todays passage is the third, and least well-known of these songs. We’re particularly familiar with the fourth, from Is 53, the ‘lamb to the slaughter/by his stripes we are healed’ one which is used extensively during Holy Week. Ever since Philip encountered the Ethiopian official in Acts 8, people have been asking questions about who this ‘servant’ is, and the consensus is that the prophet is referring to the nation of Israel, rather than any particular individual. Of course the NT Christians saw in these words with hindsight a picture of what had happened to Jesus, the perfect Jew, but that isn’t what Isaiah meant by them. To understand what is going on here, we will have to look into the context of Deutero-Isaiah’s writing.
For maybe 70 years the nation had been in exile in Babylon, which they understood was a punishment for their false worship and unjust living. They had gone in spite of many warnings from the prophets, including Isaiah of Jerusalem, who wrote the first 39 chapters of the book we call Isaiah. But in chapter 40 a profound change of mood comes, and rather than a warning, the prophet’s message is ‘Comfort my people’. Their punishment is coming to an end, and they are soon to be returning home. So what are these servant songs doing in this context, with all their talk about torture, mocking and spitting? Perhaps it is to help the people experience a penny-dropping moment.
They can’t help but have been asking the question ‘Why?’ What has all this exile been about? The prophet’s words are to do two things: to reassure them that actually God has been with them all through their ordeal, and that it has not been purposeless, as he has been forming and shaping the people for their future ministry.
It is God who has enabled them to make it through, to get out of bed each morning and carry on. He has been teaching them and instructing them, however little it felt like that, and putting backbone and resilience into them, they have survived the beatings and the racist abuse of the Babylonian slave-masters, and been enabled to become stronger and more resilient. Above all, God has been building their confidence in him, in the face of the Babylonian competition of local gods.
Of course none of it felt like that at the time: it just felt as though they were a broken, guilty and enslaved people who were getting beaten up far from home, a home they never thought they would see again. But that is the point of the story: when we think things can’t get any worse, God is at work unseen, building strength into us and preparing us for the calling he has given us.
So what was the calling of the Jewish nation? The same as it had always been, and the same as Peter’s was to be: to teach others about God. Out of their own distress had come an understanding of suffering, but also an understanding of the faithfulness of God. Those who have learnt important lessons are to become teachers for others: those who have been through desperate times are those who have learnt how to sustain others weary of their own suffering. Once you get that, it might just begin to make sense of what you have been allowed to go through. This passage is about the point of hard times, words to a nation tempted to believe it had all been completely pointless. And once the penny drops, it might just be possible to begin to co-operate with God as he shapes you in the crucible, rather than merely wondering in a agonised way what it’s all about.
As we emerge cautiously from the Coronavirus pandemic, we too might be asking what it has all been about, and as churches begin to plan for their future ministry we may be wondering what lessons have been learnt from it all. This passage encourages us to give thanks to God that he has never left us, and that even though we may have been to hell and back he has enabled us to keep going, and has been building into us good things which only in the future we may come to appreciate fully. That’s a good penny to have dropped.