Just over a month ago we made a commitment to keep pace with Jesus as He walks toward Jerusalem. It is out of love that He moves toward the cross, teaching us along the way how we are to live as His followers.
There are four passages in Isaiah that feature the Suffering Servant. The servant is often identified with Israel but is more likely an individual. The role of the person is, not surprisingly, he suffers. It’s not because of anything he’s done or that someone has done to him. This servant is called to witness to God and this leads him into suffering. His preaching is costly!
The passage from Isa. 52:13-53:12 describes better than any place else the kind of voluntary suffering that we take on for the sake of others. It is arguable that this is one of the greatest chapters in the OT. As Christians, we see in the description of this willing servant a precursor to the Messiah. Jesus took on Himself the weight of the world for the redemption of even the lowliest sinner. This was a new concept. In Biblical times, the assumption was that someone suffered because of their own sin or that of their parents. For a person to intentionally put themselves in harm’s way for the well-being of others was not a common value.
My parents traveled to India many years ago. They learned that the Hindu faith teaches reincarnation: we suffer because of the way we lived our last life. There is much misery in India because few are prompted to do anything for anyone else. Since we are all living exactly the life we deserve, why work for change or labor to improve anyone else’s life. There is no motivation to do anything about suffering in this society. So slums are ignored and begging children elicit no pity. Each tries to live their own best life now so that they will be elevated in their next life. Everyone focuses inward.
Though secularism has permeated increasing numbers in our country, we are established on Christian principles. We highly value working to improve the plight of others. When we know that someone is suffering unjustly, we become motivated to help. We might even be willing to endure our own suffering to be of service to them because we are moved by their anguish. As we look in on our Ukrainian neighbors, fleeing for their lives or courageously fighting for their homeland, we witness willing suffering for the sake of others. Men in their fifties are loading their families on trains and buses then heading back to defend their territory. When people willingly put themselves in peril for the sake of a cause much larger than themselves, the world notices because it is rare.
In Isaiah 53 the servant of God is rejected rather than glorified. All will be astounded when they find out who he is! The Kings in this passage represent the human race before whom this servant has come. They defend themselves. There is no reason they should have known he would be the Chosen One. He grew up in front of them, was unattractive and rejected by all! How could they know that he was the servant of God? The kings assume he is being punished for something he did wrong. It is, therefore, just that he suffer, so why should they have done anything about it? They are defensive, an unfamiliar stance for royalty.
In verse 4 the theme begins to change: ours were the sufferings he bore. We thought he was being punished for his own sin but he wasn’t! Job endures unimaginable hardship but he never concludes that his suffering benefitted anyone else. This is a whole new thought for the Israelite nation. The Kings realize that their sin has contributed toward the servant’s suffering. He bears it willingly even though he is without fault. God uses the servant to bring redemption for others. Even though this is written more than 500 years before Jesus, we hear His story and, in His story, we hear our own.
On this Lenten journey, we have put ourselves in the place of the transgressors. Like sheep without a shepherd, we have strayed. The ashes that marked the beginning of Lent remind us of our common mortality. We have committed during this holy season to intercede for others. This means we put ourselves between the suffering individual and the enemy. Graphic images on the news each night from another side of the world show what it looks like to take a stand against an enemy for the sake of others. Intercessory prayer is more than benevolent thoughts. It is also action that puts us at risk by offering to help. This is a costly prayer because of the hardship it might bring us. I wonder who is living this sort of life? Mother Theresa is an easy example. She dedicated her long life to aiding the lowliest, sickest people in her country. We recognize this sort of servanthood so readily! It stands out from usual worldly values.
Most of us will never come close to matching her lifelong investment of showing mercy. But there are those among us who sacrifice willingly. We look at those who work in missions, halfway houses, and not-for-profit organizations. We admire those who take foster children into their homes and underpaid teachers who teach in challenging school districts. We praise Red Cross volunteers who drive into disaster zones, working long hours with little sleep. Sometimes we look away because we fear that our work ethic pales in comparison to others and we feel guilty. But Jesus calls out to us on the road to Jerusalem to stay the course. We join hands as Christians to find the strength to voluntarily take on the needs of those around us. Each day God places opportunities before us to shine the light of Christ in the darkest places.
Sometimes in our churches we encounter folks bring their kids to church so that they will “get religion.” The parents haven’t necessarily cared about the faith but they hope the church can straighten their child out. When the kids graduate, the parents drift. Their motive wasn’t to become involved in the church and offer themselves sacrificially. It wasn’t out of love for Jesus and the other members of the church that they attended. It was a quick fix for their children who might just benefit from a little religion. We, who are experiencing Lenten lethargy, understand the joy and responsibility of continually shaping a vibrant church family. We have folks in our congregation who stay overnight in the church to host homeless families for a week. Some help out by showing up early on Sunday to do some cleaning of our facility after the guests leave. The curious thing about Christians to those looking in from the outside is that we give of ourselves for the sake of others. We do it in little ways each day. We do it when no one is looking. Aware that our lives are a gift and time is short, we discover that it is in giving away of ourselves that our lives derive their greatest meaning.
Several years ago we decided that it would be meaningful in our congregation to recognize one individual who exemplifies the sort of servanthood that Christ modeled. We called it the “Devoted Disciple Award” and invited church members to use a particular form to nominate someone. Wonderful essays came in with names of folks who quietly make our congregational life run smoothly. One individual came up to me during the week, as these nominations were coming in, and said, “I don’t assume that I will be chosen but I wanted to tell you that if I were, I would not want to accept it. You would need to go to the next person.” Hmmm. This person, I knew, could easily be the one who was chosen. And she didn’t want it. I realized that all the folks who were being recommended for this new honor were the sort who work behind the scenes, happily staying out of the limelight. Receiving some sort of certificate or ceremony went against the very fiber of their volunteerism. I talked with church leaders who had helped shape this “Devoted Disciple Award” and we agreed to call it off. With a smile we proclaimed that the greatest servants among us wanted no special treatment. And that, we decided, was precisely the kind of disciple who needed no acclaim.
We began the Lenten journey by smearing the grit of ashes and the oil of anointing on our foreheads to remind ourselves that we are all in this together. We are humbled to know that we are no greater than any other and that our world is reliant on common folks like us to make a difference for Christ. Though we are wearied from a violence we have witnessed along the way, we commit to journey with Jesus to Jerusalem, whatever the cost.