The suffering servant: paving the way for the new covenant

Scriptures: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Mark 15:1-39

We have been doing this study on covenants, and we have seen how the four covenants were made. First with Abraham, then with Moses, then with David. Then a new covenant that would end up being made with us, though it was prophesied first in Jeremiah.

We saw how they built upon each other, and how God is faithful and loving throughout all of them, no matter how much we fail. We discussed a little bit about how it was fulfilled in Christ, so that the covenant, having been fulfilled, enables us to partake freely and participate.

This week, I want to touch on some of what Christ actually went through in fulfilling the covenant for us. This really isn’t well-known to most people these days, even those who grow up in the church. Now, I have to admit, in the Presbyterian Church, we tend to have a large variety of backgrounds.

We call ourselves sometimes “people of the middle way.” We’re one of those “compromise” denominations. That is, you get a Catholic and a Baptist married, and they go to a Presbyterian church, because it’s a compromise. It’s a little of both but none of either.

I’m no different, by the way. I call myself Presbyterian because my mother was a born and bred, dyed-in-the-wool Presbyterian, and if my mom and dad hadn’t gotten married in the Presbyterian church, my grandmother probably would have shot my dad herself with a shotgun.

The fact of the matter is, growing up in the military – my dad was in the Air Force for 27 years – we worshiped wherever we could, whatever was closest. So we had non-denominational worship on base, I’ve worshiped Episcopalian, I’ve worshiped Methodist – which is what my dad’s roots were. And we worshiped Presbyterian whenever we could find a Presbyterian church that was nearby.

I grew up in the church. We always sang in the choir. My family has always been musical. My dad was the true musician. I know that you all like my voice, but he played seventeen different instruments, and sang as well. He was one of those people, he said, “Well, once you know one saxophone you can play all of them. You just transpose in your head.” And we’re like “What?”

But anyway, so I was raised in the church. I understood, when I had my confirmation and I took my vows, that I needed to renounce sin and I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. I grew up and I held onto that faith. I walked away from it for a while, but I came back to it when I was about 26 (and I can tell that story another time).

But one of the things, as I look back on it, that I remember, was that while I understood that Jesus Christ died for my sins, I understood he was crucified, and what that meant in terms of hanging on a cross, I really didn’t understand just how much he went through because he loved me – and because he loved you.

It wasn’t until I was 26 years old, and I was at an ecumenical Good Friday service, and there was a Baptist preacher preaching – a black Baptist preacher – that was fun, he had his own little “amen pew” there. He told and described in full detail what Jesus went through for us.

I grew up in the church and I really never knew. And I really don’t know how much you folks know about what Jesus went through. I recommend The Passion by Mel Gibson to anyone, as long as you can handle the bloodshed, but it’s truly realistic as to what would have happened to him through most of it.

But even he leaves out some of the stuff that Jesus went through. Some of the stuff that’s mentioned here in chapter 50 of Isaiah. Of the four servant songs that are spoken of throughout the last 27 chapters of Isaiah, Isaiah 49-53 contains the last two of those songs. Much of what Jesus Christ was going through was prophesied in Isaiah 50 and Isaiah 53.

Here in Isaiah in most Bibles is labeled “the suffering servant,” and it talks about him mostly in general terms about being oppressed and despised and forsaken and all those things, including, obliquely, the flogging and crucifixion. That’s what a lot of people point to.

The suffering servant in Isaiah 53 could have been Israel, or it could have been Christ. There are times where it’s hard to tell, they kind of mix them, and it can refer to a single person or it can refer to Israel.

Now, in Isaiah 50 it’s very clear that it’s talking about a person, not Israel. It talks about things that occurred during his trial, and it has some very specific details. Now first it starts out by noticing how “the sovereign Lord has given me an instructed tongue,” it says here, or a “discipled tongue” is what a lot of translations say. “To know the word that sustains the weary, and he wakens my ear to listen like one being taught.”

Whoever this servant was, that we know now was Jesus, he was disciplined. He was disciplined and following the word of God. He was listening for the word of God. He had the word of God so deeply embedded in him that he knew the word to sustain the weary. This disciple, this servant, was obedient.

He was obedient. He says, “I offered my back to those who beat me.” We know that Jesus was flogged, and the terrible thing that was, that I’m not going to go into great detail about now. (If it was Good Friday I probably would, but not now.)

He offered his back for a beating. One of the things we know is, besides the flogging, when he was in trial by the Sanhedrin, one of the things they did was they blindfolded him, and the soldiers took short rods and they smacked him on the facing, saying, “Prophesy! Prophesy who’s going to hit you next.” So they whacked him about the head and the shoulders until he could stand no more.

But Jesus offered himself without a word to those who would beat him. “My cheeks to those who pull out my beard.” Now, most of you are clean-shaven. I’ll be clean-shaven in a week (my marital compromise). But I can tell you, having had even infants grab my beard hair, that it’s a very painful thing.

How many of you ladies have ever plucked your eyebrows? Let’s be honest. My mom did it all the time. More of her eyebrow was put on with her eyebrow pencil than her hair. And that can be pretty painful.

Imagine if, by raw force, your hair was pulled out of your face. Has anybody ever had their hair pulled out of their head, on the top? It would leave some bleeding. It would be very painful. Yet Jesus allowed them to pull out his beard.

The beard, by the way, which was the pride and joy of a Jewish man. Those who are more particularly the conservative Jews, the Hasidic Jews today, one of the ways we know them is by the hat they wear and the prayer shawl, but another one is the beard. They have their beard and they keep it in two different styles, depending on whether they’re married or not.

A beard was an identifier in many ways that you were a Jewish male, and whether you were an eligible bachelor or already taken. But it got pulled out from his face, clump by clump. And he did not hide his face from mocking and spitting, as they said, “Prophesy! Prophesy who’s going to hit you next.”

As we saw in the reading from Mark, as even the Roman soldiers mocked him, as they jammed a crown of thorns on him. Do you know what a crown of thorns is? Have you ever seen a rose of Sharon crown, the real stuff?

It has thorns, not like a rosebush, it has thorns that are two to three inches long. They twisted that all up into a crown and then jammed that on his head. Scalp wounds are some of the most heavily bleeding wounds you can have, because of all the blood vessels to help support the brain.

Then they mocked him. They beat him. And they pretended to bow to him and call him king. All of this pain, all of this humiliation, because that’s what we deserved. And he set his kingship in motion by sacrifice.

He notes that “the sovereign Lord helps me and I will not be disgraced.” Through all this time, through all this stuff that would be so humiliating to most people, he had his face set like flint, and he refused to be put to shame. “Because he who vindicates me is near,” he said.

Note that it goes on to say, “Who will bring charges against me? Let us face each other. Who is my accuser?” They could never, in the trials, bring any credible witness against him. They had all kinds of false testimony but it conflicted to the point where even some of the members of the Sanhedrin said, “Get on with this. These guys aren’t doing anything. They aren’t proving anything.”

Nobody could prove anything against him. It was a kangaroo court all the way. Totally illegal even by Jewish law, the trial itself. Jesus knew there was no one to bring charges against him.

“It’s the sovereign Lord who helps me.” No one could condemn him, not legitimately. Because, you see, he lived a perfect life. He lived a life that did everything that God calls us to do. He lived a perfect life, so that he could be the perfect sacrifice, and then end up the perfect king.

All of it was done for you. We had a reading, in the responsive reading, that talked about the triumphal entry. On Palm Sunday you can go two routes. You can go with the Passion, which is obviously what I’ve done, or you can go with the Triumphal Entry.

But those people that were giving him a triumphal entry, yelling, “Hosanna! Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” they were looking for a king to overthrow the Romans. That’s not why Jesus was here.

They were looking for a king to set up the kingdom of Israel again. But that’s not why Jesus was there. They were looking for a king to be a new David or a new Saul, to lead them in battle, to rule the world. But that’s not why Jesus was there.

He had come for a much more humble purpose. As he told Pilate, his kingdom is not of this world. He came as a suffering servant, that we might have the keys to eternal life.

So if ever you doubt your faith, if ever it seems like you’ve been pressing on and things are just not going well and you don’t understand where God is and you get frustrated and angry at God – and by the way, that’s OK, His shoulders are big enough, you can be angry at God – take a moment to dwell on what Jesus did for you.

Not in the abstract, of hanging from the cross, which we will probably never experience and may see, but rather those humiliations he suffered, the pain he suffered for us because he loved us. He didn’t have to endure any of that. But he did.

It’s kind of hard to stay with somebody that you know loves you so much – at least in my experience. At those times when it seems like God isn’t there and He’s not supporting you and lifting you up, remember how much He has already done, just so you can be where you are now. And then give thanks.

It may not make your situation any better immediately. It may not change your status in life and the things that are going on. But I promise it will change your heart, and it will strengthen you to deal with whatever tragedy you’re facing now.

To know that God is good, that He makes good on His promises. That His covenant never fails, and that His Son, the Son Jesus, has gone to such extreme lengths, out of love for you and me, just so you can be with Him.

May that bring you joy, even in those hard times, and bring you strength, and bring you assurance that God is with you.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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