April 15, 2022-Good Friday: Sermon Preached by The Rev. Carolyn H. Eklund
Year C; FB; Good Friday, 4.15.2022
Isaiah 52:13-53:12 The Suffering Servant
Amy-Jill Levine is a Jewish New Testament scholar. Recently, just before the high holy days of the Christian observance of Holy Week, she wrote an article meant for Christians to encourage us to address anti-Jewish passages in our readings of the Passion Narratives of Jesus. Since she is a scholar of scripture, she shares the many passages of all scripture, Old Testament and New that are problematic. She does not call people of faith, herself included, to ban or cut out passages that have been part of our sacred heritage for thousands of years. She calls us to address the problems together and embrace the many common values Jews and Christians share.
The Passion of St. John we just heard moves us to tears. We are wrenched by the way Jesus was betrayed, arrested, handed over to Pilate, was whipped, mocked and crucified. Good Friday is the one day of the year Christians always listen to this story from John’s gospel and focus our devotion, our adoration even, on the cross of Christ.
In the meantime, though, “the Jews” in John’s gospel is a negative descriptor that looms large in the reading. And without addressing the centuries of focused hatred of Jews by Christians, anti-Jewish sentiment smolders until once again, like currently in our country and the world, it is brought up and fanned by people who wish to harm Jews and foment hatred.
In seminary my senior year, I took a theology class at Hebrew Union Theological Seminary with Carol Ochs, a Jewish lay professor. I sat around a table with fourth year rabbinical students. Of the many things I learned that semester, I learned that rabbinical training includes the study of the New Testament; the gospels and epistles. These students not only studied the Torah, the Historical Books, the Wisdom Books, the books of the prophets and the story of Queen Esther and the Maccabean revolt. They studied the texts both faiths hold dear.
I learned from my Jewish colleagues that semester that they were required to study the Greek Scriptures, what we call the New Testament. Of course, they studied these important texts! The Gospels of Matthew and John were very likely to have been written by Jews before there was a division between Jews and Christians. Paul our patron was a Jew. Many of the references and metaphors in the New Testament are from Jewish writers and from the Old Testament.
The lesson of the Old Testament Christians always read on Good Friday is from the prophet Isaiah. This text has the title Jews and Christians have named, “The Suffering Servant.” It begins with a description of a man exalted and lifted up very high. And then in a crushing crashing-down of words, this man is described as being so marred, so repulsive, of such low beginnings, that others were repelled.
From Isaiah 52: “See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. Just as there were many who were astonished at him – so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals, – so he shall startle many nations…” (Isaiah 52:13, 14.)
As Christians, we take this passage to mean that the particular “Suffering Servant” is Jesus. So, after the Suffering Servant, Jesus was tortured, he was lifted high upon the cross. Our Jewish friends believe that this passage refers to an unidentified man whom God has taken to show the world that exiled Israel is not destroyed forever. The marred man of lowly birth in Isaiah ends up startling the nations in his exaltation. It demonstrated that God’s power gives new life to that which seems broken beyond repair. Christians and Jews believe this power in common.
Christians believe that the “Suffering Servant” is the marred man of lowly birth that startles nations, and that this figure is Jesus. Walter Brueggemann, a Christian scholar of the Old Testament points out the importance of recognizing the commonalities about God for Jews and Christians in this passage and so many more in the sacred texts we share.
Brueggemann writes, “…both Jews and Christians have seen in their own history, in quite particular ways, the capacity and willingness of this God to do something new through suffering. For Jews, the restoration of Zion after the exile. For Christians, the life of Christ.”
Both Jews and Christians acknowledge that, as Brueggemann writes, “The world insists that suffering is a dead end with no future and that there is no newness, only endless derivations [of this suffering].” The world is cynical about suffering as a “dead end.” Right now, the world is witnessing a renewed evil of killing in Ukraine and the distortion of the truth. This is a cause for much suffering. In my lifetime, policies of mass murder in Syria, South Sudan, Bosnia and Rwanda have startled the world in the brutal killings. The suffering does seem a “dead end.”
But people of faith do not rest our faith in what we witness from the world. The Suffering Servant of Isaiah for Jews and in Jesus for Christians informs us and strengthens our faith against the world by trusting that “Newness through suffering is the gospel that attests to the power of God at work through human weakness to bring to fruition God’s intention for the world.” Not the power of Caesars, Hitlers, Stalins, Assads, Milosevics, Putins.
God’s power is the only power that exalts those that are marred. God’s power through our witness startles the nations.
People of faith this holy season are invited to trust God’s power and, as Walter Brueggemann writes, to trust in the “….witness not only to the power of God and the destiny of the [suffering] servant but also to the faith of the witnessing community…” That’s us! We are the witnessing community to the suffering.
As witnesses to the suffering of the world, we are called to remember our common values with our Jewish siblings as lovers of God who trust in God’s power, not the world’s power. The power of nations ends without renewal. It ends in death and desolation. But our witness is to let the world see that God’s power is all about renewal and raising up those things which are cast down.
On this Good Friday we embrace the One on the cross who reveals this truth in his suffering, death and resurrection. That’s why we kneel at the foot of this marred man, giving thanks and renewing our trust in God’s power to raise up all that is sick, marred and destroyed.
My friends, what will our witness to God’s power be this Good Friday?