... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

Good Friday
Message April 03rd, 2015

Suffering Servant: the Way to Covenant

Text: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 22; Hebrew; John 18:1-19:42

During Lent this year we have been looking at the theme of Divine covenant and tracing it from its rudimentary beginnings through various trials and fixes initiated by God and now culminating in its revelation of intended purposes for humanity. At the very core of the covenants has been a journey toward what the author of Hebrews paraphrases from the prophet Jeremiah. “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.” The basic intent of this statement boils down to the relationship, “...and I will be their God and they shall be my people.”

And while the final result and ultimate intention is both joyous and good, the journey there is burgeoning with grief despair angst and guilt. The author of Hebrews tells us the renewed covenant is in place and has been secured both by and through Jesus Christ. His sacrifice, his obedience, his righteousness and his purity have paid the price and we are the beneficiaries of that “scapegoat”. Jesus has indeed been the scapegoat and to understand this concept we need to understand that term in light of early Judaic comprehension since Caiaphas mentioned it in the assembly of the Sanhedrin when he referred to Jesus and the chaos which he had caused among the traditionalists of his time. In early Jewish times and indeed in the Middle East nations the widespread practice of scapegoating was used to allow the widely deserved sins of the whole to be placed on a single victim. In ancient Israel the priest would lay hands on a sacrificial goat transferring the sins of Israel upon the animal which was then slaughtered. “The ritual of sacrifice demonstrated both the people’s awareness of their faults and transgressions and of God’s grace and mercy in accepting the gift of the scapegoat.” The last of the Suffering Servant Songs from Second Isaiah as well as Psalm 22 seem to have this understanding behind their words. The Servant serves as the scapegoat bearing the infirmities of the nation he is one who is afflicted and can be given up as a tribute for the rest. Yet this servant is the one whom God restores, liberates raises up and becomes the beacon of hope for the nation.

It is true that the Isaiah reading has been appropriated by Christians since the earliest Christian days. In fact Wm Danker Jr. cites an early eye witness account to the Good Friday observances in Jerusalem circa 350 AD. According to Ergeria, the Isaiah passage read at noon demonstrated “to all the people” that the Lord actually suffered everything the prophets had foretold.” She noted, “You could hardly believe how every single one of them weeps during the three hours, old and young alike, because of the manner with which the Lord suffered for us.”

Scholars throughout the Christian time frame have taken this passage to be a sure foretelling of Jesus as the Messiah, the Suffering Servant as well as the victim spoken about in Psalm 22. However, to jump to this conclusion often results in a superficial understanding of God’s actions in human history. We need to ask ourselves what did Isaiah’s words mean to the children of Israel in captivity almost 600 years before Jesus? What did it mean to the nation 200 years previously? What did it mean to the early church? What does it mean for us?

To the captives in Babylon the passage spoke of hope in the midst of despair. IT pointed to either the Jewish nation itself or to a servant who would liberate them yet once again. Some even postulated it referred to Cyrus the King of Persia who would overthrow the Babylonians, liberate the Jews and allow them to return to Israel and to even rebuild the Temple.

Early Christian scholars saw the Servant Songs as examples of forbearance in the face of injustice and as such a model for proper living. Later it took on the vicarious righteousness of the Messiah as an apologetic against the Jewish view of the Servant being the nation. Contrary to all views we would be well served to see in the Servant Song the redemptive work of God being carried forward by God’s own actions in and through a divine representative. In this way the Song enables worshipers to realize their own short-comings, to own their own guilt, to confess their sins and rejoice in what God has done to provide a way for us to continue in covenant. In a way what Isaiah states about the Servant prepares humanity for the time when God does have the Divine law on the hearts of all people and we become truly and fully in relationship with the creator.

Notwithstanding the various options for interpretations of both the Servant Song and Psalm 22, both the writer of Hebrews and of John’s Gospel recognized that Jesus fit the mold of the Servant perfectly. John’s narrative of the events of the Passion serve a dual role – on the one hand describing the trials and sufferings of Jesus as fit the Suffering servant and on the other contrasting the ideal of obedience to the divine will, the flawed adherence by the rest of humanity. Examples of this abound throughout the entire Gospel. But in chapters 18 and 19 they take on a particular poignancy. From the opening arrest Jesus’ willingness to obey God’s plan is contrasted to the violent actions of Peter. In the name of defense and protection Peter draws his sword and attacks Malchius the high Priest’s servant.

The trial of Jesus at the Sanhedrin is in fact a dual trial – one with Jesus the Suffering Servant, the other with Peter the exemplar of humanity. Where Jesus remains true and steadfast consistent in his mission, Peter fails, denying his involvement and denying Jes8us. For his truth and sincerity Jesus is struck in the face and alter taken to Pilate. Peter meanwhile goes unscathed only to be brought up short by his own conscience and guilty feelings.

Again the contrasts are continued at the court of Pilate where we see Jesus entering the praetorium while the Jewish leaders remain outside, “so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover.” However they defile themselves in lying and bearing false witness whereas Jesus who had entered the praetorium remains truthful and righteous. And yet a third trial bears witness to not Jesus being on trial but rather Pilate, having to defend himself in a case that pits him against the Roman Empire. Finally the real exposure of the human heart comes when Pilate addresses the people concerning Jesus as their king. The Jewish leaders respond saying they have no king but the emperor, a direct affront to what they recite in the Passover liturgy that their only king is God.

John’s picture of Jesus as the one who is without sin and who by example opens our eyes to our own falsehoods, deceits, lies and sins. How can we, as we contemplate these readings, remain unmoved? How can we remain silent in the light of the sufferings around us? How can we be so nonchalant to the atrocities committed in the name of “cleansings” etc? Yes! The act of contemplation on these readings for Good Friday condemn us and if that were the end of the story we would indeed be lost. However and fortunately, that is not the end. The mercy of God reigns supreme. Through Christ God pave the way for a clean slate: a heart prepared to accept the laws of God within. Moved to compassion and corresponding corrective actions we are made anew and I am sure that at some point we, collectively and individually, will realize the meaning of being in complete partnership in the Divine covenant, living to God’s glory and the welfare of one another in its fullest meaning.

May God clean the slates of our hearts through the Passion of Christ and bring us to that state of obedience as exemplified by our Lord and Saviour. Amen!