There is a story, possibly apocryphal, of a man who attends church for the first time, and gets into conversation with the vicar after the service. The vicar asks him what he does, he replies that he is a bit of a musician, so the vicar invites him to bring his guitar along the next Sunday and play for the congregation. When he had finished his solo acoustic account of In the presence of the Lord, the congregation realised that Eric Clapton had moved into their village. Fully knowing who someone is can take a while.
When we read a Bible passage today, we read with at least 2000 years of reading behind us, and more if we are reading from the Hebrew scriptures. Thus, when we hear the extract from Isaiah, it rings various bells in our minds, which set off other trains of thought, and we swiftly move from a 6th BCE prophet to Jesus being mocked by Roman guards before his crucifixion.
But take a step back, and try to put yourself in the shoes of a Jew listening to this text for the first time. Where was it first heard? Who was talking? And to whom? Modern scholarship dates this text to the Babylonian exile, a 70 year period when the majority of the Jewish nation was enslaved by the Babylonians, to work across what is now modern Iraq. The Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed, their king lead away in chains with his eyes put out. Everything was finished. And then, as they gathered to talk of the old country, and to recite psalms together in a place that was approaching holy – by water, outside the Gentile city – this prophet got up and uttered these words. In the first person. Speaking with God’s authority.
Who is the servant? Why does the servant suffer? Surely the servant is innocent – how can this be? Jewish theology at the time would blame the people themselves for all the catastrophes that had befallen them. They had not kept the law, they had strayed to foreign gods, they had disobeyed God and formed alliances with Gentile nations, they had not trusted in their God to keep them safe. But a new generation is growing up, one which was not part of those who had abandoned their God, and they surely are innocent, yet suffering. They must learn patience, they must find again the ways of their God and walk in them, and they will be justified. So, the first answer to the question, “who is the servant”, is the nation of Israel, reborn in synagogue worship and the rediscovery of the Law and Scripture, in exile.
Scroll forward a few generations, the people are back in their own land, and this passage is read again, in the newly rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem. Who is the servant now? Is everything written by Isaiah fulfilled by their return? No, things are still difficult, Israel is not paradise – there must be a different interpretation of this servant text – there must be a servant, an individual, who will fulfil all these words – and a Messiah is born. So, answer number two is, the Messiah.
Scroll forward again to the time of Jesus, and as his followers watch his miracles and hear his words, as they listen to him preach and teach, then watch him suffer innocently, their minds are turned again to this text, and they see in Jesus this Messiah – and when Jesus asks them about what people are saying about him, they can say for themselves that they think he is the Messiah.
Fine and dandy, you think, but then Jesus proceeds to paint a very different picture of what the Messiah is and does. The disciples, nurtured on a messianic theology of deliverance and independence, reject what Jesus is saying, to the extent that Jesus has to use the same language with them that he used in the wilderness as he was being tempted – the disciples have become the tempter, and Jesus must resist them, and teach them the true meaning of Messiahship.
And that meaning is hard. Jesus talks in terms of a life of suffering, carrying around with us the means of our own execution. This isn’t remotely comforting, nor will it drive out the Romans, but it will lead the disciples into the mind of God. As they look back, post Easter, on the terrible things that happened and then look at the resurrected Jesus, sat with them beside Lake Galilee or in the upper room, they see their God in action in the most radical way. A God who loves extremely – they can see the marks of that love, the nail prints in his palms, the gash in his side, the imprint of the thorns on his brow – and this Jesus they thought they knew, this Messiah they thought they understood, has taken them somewhere completely different. And now they must love in the same way, so that the whole world can understand and meet and know the God who loves them to death and beyond.
We still today have to answer the question that Jesus put to his disciples. Who do we say that Jesus is? He is certainly not the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” of our childhood, or the baby who never cries in the Christmas carol. We have heard him today treat his most loyal disciple as the devil incarnate. Last week he used the term “dog” of a Gentile woman in not so friendly banter. According to the Archbishop of Canterbury, he would berate Amazon for not contributing properly to the nation’s wealth in their taxes and condemn the employment practices of modern industry.
Today, where would we find our Jesus? Is there room for him at work? If he did come to your workplace this week, how would he react to what is going on? And how would you explain his radical love to your colleagues? In our homes, where is Jesus? On a shelf, with our other books about religion? And if he wandered in here, what would he make of us? And could we possibly sit down and eat with him?
As the concept of the suffering servant evolved into a Messiah, who then overturned all those preconceptions with his death-defying love, so may our understanding of the Christ, and our image of the living God, inspire us to live and to love as he did, that this world may be transformed into his likeness and all come to see his glory for what it really is – a life lived for others.