Posted by: owizblog | February 7, 2016

New Every Sunday 7 February 2016: The Servant of the Lord 4: Isaiah 53 – Coalescing Patterns…

 

1) Welcome

Good morning. New Every Sunday comes to you this morning from the United Church of Bute, in Rothesay, one of two Church of Scotland parish churches striving, along with our Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Baptist and Christian fellowship brothers and sisters to live out the Christian faith on our gorgeous and complicated little island ; my name is Owain Jones, and I’m the Minister of this congregation. Welcome!

2) Hymn  The Saviour Died But Rose Again

Let us pray:

For people who talk so much and so glibly,

We find it difficult really to talk.

We use language to hide from meaning, to evade difficult discussion,

To spin, to sell, to control…

We use language, too, to fill the silence.

For we are terrified of the awkward pause,

The unfilled conversational space,

“Dead air”.

[Pause, just long enough to establish a disruptive silence!]

Yet sometimes, we sit in the silence

With things we can’t yet talk about.

Truth for which we can’t yet find words…

 

Yet out of their encounters with you,

Out of their experiences of you,

Your people have learned to speak what they have seen,

And to listen to what is said.

The Spirit spoke by the Prophets.

Hear the Word of the Lord

The Word was made flesh.

 

Patterns coalesce; shapes and figures prefigure expectations,

Out of what we have seen and dimly understood,

We look to see what will come from you,

And we shall come to understand what we have from you.

Forgive us when, in our arrogance,

We claim to see it all, know it all.

 

For now we see puzzling reflections, as in a mirror;

Only then, in your good time, shall we see things as they are,

Face to face with the fullness of meaning and truth.

 

Give us grace to speak the truth we have,

Humility to listen to the truth we are offered,

And the faith to wait on you, and the fullness of your truth,

Spoken in your good time.

AMEN

 

4) Reflection 1

Don’t we love the cliché of the “emotional roller-coaster”?

Outside the realm of spectator sports, it isn’t a happy metaphor; the carefully contained scares of the fairground are not to be compared with the ups and downs of a difficult stretch of real life – except for the rapidity and violence with which the ups and downs can come. Those the cliché does illustrate, literally graphically.

Mark’s Gospel charts the vertiginous ups and downs of the disciples’ journey with Jesus, and Matthew and Luke reproduce much of his pattern in their graphs of the story: the gentle upward slope after the first calling of the disciples; the rapidly steepening ascent, as they see things, hear things, experience things which don’t fit into known patterns; the occasional brief dips, but each succeeded by a renewed climb, up to the point at which they are called upon to summarize the ride thus far.

Who do you say I am?

The Messiah. The expected one. The one who fits the pattern.

And then, the first fall away from the dizzy height, a dark plunge into the anticipation of the unimaginable – Jerusalem, crucifixion, death. And all is low, depressed, creeping along. And they approach Jerusalem. And there’s a sudden climb, with the strange improvised welcome of Palm Sunday, the endorsement, of what they had come to believe about this man, the greeting which hails him, recognizes him for what they had come to know he was.

“Perhaps it will be all right after all…”

And things move rapidly from the triumphal entry and the command and authority of the Cleansing of the Temple, to a sickening plunge; the unease of crystallizing opposition, growing hostility, and, by the Thursday, the heavy, oppressive anxiety, uncertainty and fear of that powerful meal. A last pinnacle, Jesus’ strange, new words and actions, “This is my body, this cup…” glinting preciously in the gloom, like echoes of a light from beyond this darkness…

And then…

The cross…

By a rich and complicated to-and-fro process of reading Jesus’ story into and out of the Jewish Scriptures, the disciples had used the ancient patterns and words to try to make sense of what they saw and experienced on this roller-coaster ride – let’s use the phrase – with him. But the final plunge, the trauma of Golgotha, how are they to make sense of that? Where are they to find a pattern to fit that?

5) Reading: Isa.53

Who has believed what we have heard?

And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?

For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned, every one, to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb,
so he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth…

 

6) Hymn:  O Sacred Head Sore Wounded

7) Reflection 2

Pearls, famously, are the products of irritation – we would say “pain”  if molluscs could feel pain – as the oyster’s secretions coat the intrusive grit, and a thing of sublime beauty envelops the irritant, and transforms it.

We have no idea what it was, the contemplation of whose suffering generated the incomparably arresting poem we’ve just heard, the last of the four so-called “Servant Songs” set into the prophecy of the Second Isaiah. Whether it was a predecessor or contemporary of the poet, or someone he envisaged as yet to come, or whether the figure portrayed so strikingly must be interpreted in some other way, we do not know.

What we do know is that the earliest Christians, still traumatized by the world-wrenching violence of the crucifixion despite the experience of the resurrection, turned here for a grammar and vocabulary, a Biblical Rosetta Stone to help them decode the language of the event.

But they also turned to what they had seen, or what had been portrayed to them, to infuse new meaning into an evocative, deeply suggestive text, which for half a millennium had seemed to reach out beyond itself, gesturing to a meaning that lay outside it.

There is no more shattering depiction in art of the Crucifixion than Matthias Grunewald’s great Isenheim Altarpiece. The towering giant of modern theology, Karl Barth, had a copy of the Isenheim Altarpiece over his desk, in his study, to remind him of what Christian theology is about. You may not think that you know it, but you probably do, and a common response, despite the sixteenth-century style, is that it places you before the cross, on Calvary. “You feel as though you are there…

None of us was there, of course; but in a very real sense, the Christian experience is to have been set at the foot of the cross time after time after time, in sermons, hymns, Good Friday services and vigils, and yes, in portrayals of the scene in art.

For me, to stand before a painting like Grunewald’s, of awe-inspiring power, of the event of the crucifixion is almost to be taken back to where the disciples stood, at their various timid distances from the cross, or to be placed at its foot, with the courageous women.

Words fall away. There are no words, yet, to speak of this. It is simply, shatteringly, an event, which destroys all our preconceptions, and silences us with its terrible actuality. Words will have to follow, words will have to come, or the horror, the trauma, will remain, mute and catastrophic.

But where are words to be found? What meaning can possibly be made of this?

Event and interpretation have to be brought together. What happened, and what sense we can make of it, what occurred, and what meaning it can possibly have, come together in a process which is the work of the Holy Spirit.

But our next reading, in a sense, is the reverse of that. It appears to be the story of a man who has a fragment of an interpretation – but no idea what it’s about; the lock, you might say, but not the key. Or is it vice-versa?

8) Reading: Acts 8

But an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert road. And he rose and went. And behold, an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a minister of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of all her treasure, had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go up and join this chariot.”  So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. Now the passage of the scripture which he was reading was this: “As a sheep led to the slaughter or a lamb before its shearer is dumb, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken up from the earth.” And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, pray, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”  Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture he told him the good news of Jesus.  And as they went along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What is to prevent my being baptized?”  And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him.  But Philip was found at Azotus, and passing on he preached the gospel to all the towns till he came to Caesarea. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught up Philip; and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.

The  Ethiopian eunuch, the high, successful official in his chauffeur-driven chariot, has the Servant Song, but he does not have the story of Jesus. He sits with his questions, the questions this poem has raised for getting on for six centuries before Jesus. It’s a very difficult thing to do, a very hard discipline – to read the poem in and for itself, to sit with the questions it poses. Yet that’s exactly what the Ethiopian eunuch is doing.

The Old Testament Scholar Norman Whybray invites us to consider the poem by focusing on four words, I, we, he, and they.

“I” is the voice that appears only at the end. It proclaims the turning-upside down of the tragic fate of the Servant, announces the verdict on the matter, which is so different to that of those who watched the story unfold.

Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out his soul to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

“They” are the nameless, faceless ones who move the story along, who do the things we watch, look at and talk about.  “They are filling in those potholes in the main street…” There’s a matter-of-factness about “their” contribution. There’s no moral assessment of what it is they do. It’s just the action of the story, what happens.

And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

“We” however do seem to be involved. We maybe spectators, but the situation we watch unfold, the fate of the Servant, arises out of conditions we have created. Our impasse, our difficulty, our quandary, our emergency…

All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned, every one, to his own way;

“He”, of course, is the Servant himself.

“As a sheep led to the slaughter or a lamb before its shearer is dumb, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken up from the earth.”

And that’s the passage the eunuch was reading, just as Philip jogged up to the trundling chariot…

It’s one of the very few parts of the poem that doesn’t bring “he” into some sort of relationship with “we.” But for Luke, writing the Book of Acts, that’s very important. Because the Ethiopian eunuch, pondering the passage alone, doesn’t know who “he”, the Servant, is. So how can he make the connection with “we” – and with himself?

For the Ethiopian, “he” and “we” have yet to be brought together and given substance.

And here comes Philip. It’s Philip who brings “he” and “we” together for him

And you might say that it’s the story of Jesus that fills out the missing content of the poem. But it’s equally true that it’s the poem that makes it possible to talk about the crucifixion as more than just a fact, an event, a traumatic horror before our eyes.

It isn’t that Philip presents Jesus as “the answer” to the “question” the poem puts – “Who is this?” No, what Philip does for the Ethiopian is to place the poem and the story of Jesus side by side, and let each interpret the other.

Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture he told him the good news of Jesus.

This is one pattern. There are others, many others. And the conversation among them is inexhaustible.

The poem helps us, as it helped Philip and the Ethiopian, to bring the crucifixion into language and talk about it. The event is mute. The poem turns the traumatic stress of what we have seen into a narrative and a story, and offers us meaning. It reaches deep into the developing Biblical tradition for language to speak of the truth of our compromised position, our conflicted situation, our awful impasse, and the unimagined possibility that at terrible cost, willingly borne, the resolution of all this may be found for us.

The poem is short, far short, of all the doctrinal positions and disputes of two Christian millennia. It’s just one starting-point for all the talk, all the language, that has swirled around the cross down all those centuries. But it’s also where the insight is found that the cross, despite its trauma – or, better, because of it – is the point at which healing begins.

But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
and with his stripes we are healed.

The sense this seems to make to the eunuch is complete and profound –and, apparently, instant. I find it impossible not to smile at his question about baptism, and Philip’s response: if someone asks me about baptism, well, I’m a good wee Minister of the Kirk, and I say “Come round to the Manse, and I’ll talk you through it, and I’ll set up some preparation sessions…”

The Ethiopian eunuch says: “See, here is water! What is to prevent my being baptized?”

And Philip says “Aye, all right!” And the baptism happens, and the eunuch with the fancy wheels hasn’t even time to say “Can I give you a lift somewhere?”

“And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught up Philip; and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing…”

A pattern has coalesced, been glimpsed, grasped, and has now dispersed. But it has found language, and been put into a story. As with the tale of Philip and the Eunuch, so with Calvary and the Song of the Servant of the Lord. And so, too, with the Gospel.

Hymn:  When I survey the Wondrous Cross

Let us pray:

We pray for the world – but where shall we find the words

To speak of this complex, compromised, glorious and sullied world,

This world made good by God, and strange by us?

 

You speak your Word, and the Word is made flesh,

And around Jesus, language swirls and coalesces,

Old patterns take new forms,

And in him we can speak the experience of our faith,

And our experience of the world.

 

And so we speak of contradiction and catastrophe,

And redemptive love and obedience;

Of consequences to be worked through,

And the grace that works through them,

Of a world lost, a world loved, a world won back.

We pray for our world in all its contradictions,

Its wonder and its ugliness, its joy and agony,

And then we turn to Christ on the cross,

And there language swirls, and meaning coalesces,

Though we could never exhaust it for all our talk.

In the reality of the world

Before the reality of the cross,

We sit in silence.

 

And then we pray words given to us, by him:

 

Our Father, which art in heaven

Hallowed be thy name,

Thy kingdom come,

Thy will be done

On earth as it is in Heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,

And forgive us our debts

As we forgive our debtors

And lead us not into temptation

But deliver us from evil,

For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory

For ever and ever

AMEN

 

And the blessing of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit

Be with you all now, and evermore

AMEN

 

 

 

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