Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.
The themes of recognition and rejection shine through today’s gospel, from the end of Mark 7. These themes are well illustrated by our Isaiah passage. ‘Deutero-Isaiah’, the unknown prophet who spoke of the people’s release from Babylonian exile and their return to their homeland several times identifies the nation as God’s Servant, the idealised Jewish community who will carry out God’s will in addressing all nations with the news of his greatness and universal reign. In this passage he puts words into the mouth of that Servant, expressing on the people’s behalf something of that nature of that calling. There is much here from which church may learn, struggling as we are with our own calling in an age of increasing marginalisation. In a nutshell, the prophet tells them that God equips them, that opposition will be fierce, and that God’s final vindication will be sure.
The servant first of all is hungry for the voice of God. He knows what it is to hear from him, on a daily basis, and he understands that he has nothing to teach or speak if he has learnt nothing. We live in a time, as did Eli, when the word of the Lord is rare. Many Christians simply do not have any expectation that God will speak to them, few read the Word with any regularity, few expect the voice of the Lord to come to them through preaching or liturgy. In many church services where the Bible is read publicly, there is simply no expectation that people will have Bibles or want to follow. No wonder we have so little voice, and nothing to say to a confused world when we are not regularly being taught by God.
This servant, however, does have things to say, but he realises that to say them will bring opposition. We’re not told from whom this opposition comes, but we know from experience that often it comes from the very people who are supposed to be, as it were, on our side. I love the definition of a leader as ‘one who defines reality’, but I also know only too well that to try to do this to people who would rather continue in happy fantasy can result in the ‘shoot the messenger’ syndrome. The images used of this opposition and punishment are from the world of public shaming: the beater stands above and behind the beaten in a position of power, and the removal of the beard, symbolising manhood, is about opening the victim to public shaming. Enemies do not play nicely!
But they will not have the last word. There is a combination of human determination and resilience (v 7b) and divine vindicating power (v 8-9) which mean that his will and purposes will ultimately prevail, even if to get there hurts. We’re still waiting, of course, for God’s final purposes for creation to be fulfilled, but the way we wait is important. We wait on tiptoe, we wait as those who know the last page of the story, and therefore we wait with resilience and with the truths of God on our lips.