“The Willing Servant” (Isaiah 50:4-9)
A Lamb goes uncomplaining forth / The guilt of sinners bearing
And, laden with the sins of earth, / None else the burden sharing;
Goes patient on, grows weak and faint, / To slaughter led without complaint,
That spotless life to offer, / He bears the stripes, the wounds, the lies,
The mockery, and yet replies, / “All this I gladly suffer.” (LSB 438.1)
Isaiah 50:4-9 – The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary. Morning by morning he awakens; he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught. The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious; I turned not backward. I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting. But the Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame. He who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who is my adversary? Let him come near to me. Behold, the Lord GOD helps me; who will declare me guilty? Behold, all of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up.
I would venture to guess that most of us are pretty good at avoiding conflict. No one really likes to dive headlong into their problems, whatever they might be.
When you were a child, maybe it was the bully at the end of the block. He has been waiting for you for weeks. He would just love for you to walk by so he can yell one more epithet at you, throw one more rock at you, and see how you respond. If you yell back, this justifies (in his own mind) his coming after you and beating you to a pulp … to show you who’s boss around here. You know you ought to stand up to him and show him that you aren’t afraid. That’s what your parents told you about the way to deal with a bully. But your fear and sense of self-preservation tell you to not to go near him. And so you walk the opposite direction and find another route, even if it means you have to go far out of your way to get where you want to go.
Now that we are adults, we are good at avoiding other types of conflict. We probably don’t have any neighborhood bullies to death with. As we get older, we find ways to avoid our personal problems. We procrastinate, prevaricate, preoccupy ourselves with pet projects, or become passive-aggressive by talking about others behind their backs instead of confronting the issues – or the people – face-to-face.
That wasn’t Jesus’ style. Jesus plunged headlong into conflict. Jesus willingly walked – or rather rode – right into a dangerous place where his opponents were waiting to pounce on him. Recall his disciples’ reaction in last week’s Gospel. When Jesus was determined to return to Judea to raise his friend Lazarus from the dead, the disciples said, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” (John 11:8) When it was clear Jesus would not be deterred, Thomas declared, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:16)
And so, when Jesus entered Jerusalem on the day which we are celebrating, he didn’t do it secretly or subversively. It was all out in the open. On the back of a humble donkey. Processing to the calls of “Hosanna!” with palm branches raised in nationalistic fervor. This was the Messiah, after all, coming as the Prince of Peace to rescue his people from Roman domination.
Forgotten in all of this was the portrait of the Suffering Servant painted by the prophet Isaiah. In four separate “Servant Songs” as they are called, Isaiah foretells a certain figure to come, chosen by God, who would be a light to the Gentiles, bringing salvation to the ends of the earth, and who would bear the sins of all people. The Messiah did not come to rescue from the Romans but to suffer for sin. Jesus is the faithful Servant of the Lord foretold in today’s passage, one of the Servant Songs from Isaiah. St. Paul also calls Jesus a “servant” in Philippians 2. In his divine nature, Jesus is equal to the Father. Yet in his incarnation, Jesus “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant.” (Phil. 2:7)
Because of our sins, you and I are in conflict with God. And what are we inclined to do? Avoid the conflict. Just like Adam and Eve, we run away and hide. We are prone to hide our face from the Lord rather than turn our face towards him in repentant trust. We know what our Lord’s Word says about what we should and should not do. The Ten Commandments are pretty straightforward. Yet we consistently close our ears to God’s Word. Our sinful rebellion is evident in the ways we behave toward God and towards our neighbor … doubting, hating, lusting, slandering, coveting, and so on. Apart from the work of the Servant on our behalf, we are left in disgrace, shame, and guilt before God. We deserve to have him hide his face from us.
But out of his great love for us, God the Father sent his Son to face the cross for us. There, at the cross, God the Father hid his face from his one and only Son, because the Innocent Son had taken upon himself the guilt and shame of the world’s sin.
This was not something that took him by surprise. Isaiah has the Servant saying, “I have set my face like a flint.” With steely determination, Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem and his appointment with death.
As the faithful Servant, Jesus listened faithfully to his Father’s word and was strengthened by that word. Never rebellious, always obedient, he knew that bitter suffering and an excruciating death was his destiny. He knew it was his Father’s will, that there was no way around it. Adam and Eve hid from God’s will in a garden. It was in another garden where Jesus fell on his face and prayed, “Not my will, but yours be done” … or in the words of the hymn,
“Yes, Father, yes, most willingly, / I’ll bear what You command Me.
My will conforms to Your decree, / I’ll do what You have asked Me.”
O wondrous Love, what have you done! / The Father offers up his Son,
Desiring our salvation. / O Love, how strong You are to save!
You lay the One into the grave / Who laid the earth’s foundation. (LSB 438.3)
Willingly, Jesus did his Father’s will. Willingly, he gave himself into suffering and death. Our natural reaction would be fight or flight. Jesus did neither.
Jesus willingly gave his back to be struck by the Roman soldiers ... and you and I have God’s loving embrace.
Jesus willingly offered his cheeks to those who would pluck out his beard, a symbolically shameful act towards a Jewish man ... and you and I are honored with God’s grace and favor.
Jesus was spit upon in contempt ... yet you and I are sprinkled with the waters of Baptism and esteemed as beloved children of the Heavenly Father.
Through faith in Christ’s suffering and death for our forgiveness, God takes away our disgrace and showers us with his grace. Now, we will never be put to shame. We who are wearied by the changes and chances of life and the effects of sin and death are sustained by our Lord’s word of absolution and his body and blood which nourish our souls for time and eternity. Through Jesus, you and I are vindicated. Our adversaries of sin, death, and the devil are sent packing, conquered forever at the cross and the empty tomb. The righteousness of the Innocent Servant is applied to us, and we can now declare, “Who will contend with me? Who is my adversary? Who will declare me guilty?” The answer? “No one! Behold, the Lord God helps me. The Lord God HAS helped me. My Lord and my God has taken the punishment for my guilt upon himself, and I am free.”