Isaiah 50:4-9a New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
4 The Lord God has given me7 The Lord God helps me;
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens—
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
5 The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backward.
6 I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
8 he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
9 It is the Lord God who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?
Preachers have a choice when it comes to the lectionary for the Sunday prior to Easter. They can choose to go with the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry or go with Passion Sunday (a good choice if Good Friday is not on the liturgical calendar). Since the lectionary only provides a reading from the Psalms for this Sunday, I have chosen to reflect on the Passion Sunday reading, which is taken from the Book of Isaiah. This is in keeping with my decision to pursue, as much as possible readings from the Old Testament.
The choice of this text for Passion Sunday is found its references, especially in verse 6, to a situation that looks eerily like what the Gospels describe regarding Jesus’ flogging and humiliation by Pilate’s guard prior to his crucifixion (Mt.27:26-31). Despite the pain inflicted, and the humiliation imposed, the Servant/Jesus will not be put to shame. Such is the liturgical context of the passage. By reflecting on this reading from Isaiah, weight is given to Jesus’ fortitude during the trial that led to the cross. It also speaks to Jesus’ confidence in his vindicator. But what about the one who speaks these words in the context of exile? What is the context here?
The author is one we call Second Isaiah. The word of this prophet (or prophetic school) is spoken to the Babylonian Exiles. It is spoken to people who have experienced suffering and humiliation. Yet, the people are resilient. Better yet, even if the people are like the grass and flowers that wither and fade, God’s word is eternal (Is. 40:6-8). That is why the prophet can speak with confidence. It is the word that sustains, and here in Isaiah 50, we’re told that “the Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word” (vs. 4). That word, as noted in Isaiah 40, is eternal. As John Goldingay notes in his comments on Isaiah 40, which offers up the commissioning of the prophet who speaks these words, “When God speaks, things happen. God had said way back that he would not simply abandon Israel as ‘not-my-people’” [Isaiah for Everyone, pp. 145-146].
The reading from Isaiah for Passion Sunday forms Isaiah’s third “Servant Song.” Since this is the song of the Servant, we will speak from here on of the Servant, rather than the prophet. It should be noted as well that this is the first of these Servant Songs in which suffering of the servant is mentioned. Nevertheless, despite the description of suffering, there is no hint here of lament or complaint. As Christopher Seitz points out, it is “an individual psalm of confidence.” [“Isaiah 40-66,” NIB 6:436]. They may beat me, but I remain strong because God is with me. It is this confidence in God that enables the servant to speak words of encouragement to the people.
The servant has been called to speak a word that will sustain the people. God has given the servant a “well-instructed tongue” (CEB) so that he can encourage the people who are weary. Every morning God awakens the prophet and sends him out to declare this word—he could resist, but he doesn’t. There are significant challenges, but he will let them stand in his way. Yes, as the prophet declared: “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.” Why did he do this? The answer is simple: “The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced.” Indeed, God will vindicate the Servant, so that he might not be put to shame.
Despite the humiliating efforts of the adversary, whomever that might be in this case, the Servant has confidence, because the “one who vindicates is near” (vs. 8a). Since the vindicator is close at hand, who is going to mess with the servant. Therefore, and this is key, the Servant invites the reader/listener to stand together. There is strength in numbers. There is a bit of “Dirty Harry” in this response: “Go ahead, make my day.” Though it should be noted that the Servant is not carrying a gun and isn’t threatening violence. But, the Servant remains confident that the righteousness of God will prevail.
The Servant is empowered by the word of God, which will not fail. The Servant stands fast, despite the humiliation and suffering, because the Servant is confident in the Vindicator. The Servant Song speaks to the Exiles, but in the liturgical context it speaks to Jesus’ own journey to the cross. We have affirmed him to be the one who brings, even embodies, God’s eternal word. He was humiliated and he suffered mightily, but he remained strong. The nature of his suffering was not unique. Many suffered under the lash of Rome. Many would suffer the horrors of the cross. But that really isn’t why we come to this passage. We come to it because it speaks to Jesus’ confidence shown in the one who would vindicate him. Despite the violence inflicted, he will not be shamed. Therefore, even as the cross approaches, he will remain steadfast in his calling to bring a word of encouragement and hope to the people. Why is this? Is it not due to the intimacy of the relationship that exists between God and the Servant, between God and Jesus? Indeed, is this not the message of hymn Paul shares with the Philippian church, a hymn that is paired in the lectionary with the reading from Isaiah:
6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! (Phil. 2:6-8 CEB).
While the NRSV uses the word slave, note the use in the Common English Bible of the word servant, a word that seems fitting for this moment. Jesus is the one whom we proclaim to have the very nature of God, but humbled himself to take on human form and become a servant. In this form of the servant, Jesus faces down his suffering, and continues to bring the Word. Indeed, if we go to John 1, he is the Word!
Here is the final word for Passion Sunday—If God is his help, who will declare him guilty? While trial and tribulation stood in the way of Jesus, he overcame. Indeed, God vindicated him with the Resurrection.