A reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah (52:13-53:12)
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;
kings shall shut their mouths because of him;
for that which had not been told them they shall see,
and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.
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 majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.
Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people.
They made his grave with the wicked
and his tomb with the rich,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.
When you make his life an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;
through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.
Out of his anguish he shall see light;
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out himself to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
This past Palm Sunday marked a horrific act of violence in the Middle East. We were hear, getting our palms setup and prepared. The vergers were working through the details of the procession. I was arranging books and sermon notes… but a world away our sisters and brothers were reeling. A bomb was set off in a Coptic church in Tanta, Egypt, a city about sixty miles from Cairo. Twenty-five Christians gathering for Palm Sunday worship were killed. Another seventy-eight were injured. Then, just a few hours later, a suicide bomber struck the church in Alexandria, Egypt, where the Coptic Pope has his official seat, his cathedral church. They did not succeed in killing the Coptic Pope, but they did kill eleven more people, including three police officers, and injured another thirty-five.
Thirty-six. Thirty-six Christians gathering for worship… now dead.
The photo I cannot get out of my mind is of a small child, dressed in what I think must be acolyte clothes in the Coptic tradition. He is wearing a crown made of folded palm branches, carrying a cross of folded palm branches. The photo is not a professional one, it looks like it was taken by a parent before the service started. He seems to be no more than eight years old. He looks so excited, like any child serving as an acolyte at an important church service. Now he joins the ranks of martyrs… and we are left here, confused, angry, unsure of how to deal with more death.
Of course, it’s not just that child. This week we have dealt with the aftermath of a saran gas attack on civilians in Syria. This was followed by a strike by our own missiles upon the aircraft base. But just days later, planes were taking off again. The violence seems unconquerable, something that we cannot stop. Each attempt seems only to pour fuel upon the fire.
And I must tell you, I stand here today as your priest, but I am bereft of answers.
Good Friday is not, it seems, a day that offers many answers to anyone.
When I was reading through the lessons appointed for today, I was deeply struck by verses two through three of this reading. “For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.” This reading is actually appointed in the oldest lectionary we have on record, from the fifth century. It was used at the noon liturgy on Good Friday in Jerusalem itself. They would read chapters forty through fifty-five, in their entirety, at the three-hour long liturgy. But then they would repeat this section from chapter fifty-three later in the day, finding something potent in these verses, something that points to what we believe happened on the cross.
One of the key points of this text from Isaiah is that the Suffering Servant of whom Isaiah writes is someone from whom people hide their faces, someone who people didn’t think was worth much. This description opens the Suffering Servant up to a myriad of connection in our own time, anyone who society—who we—would rather not look at. People whose value we see as… less than our own.
That could be the person holding a sign asking for help, from whom you avert your eyes. It could be the conservative Christian, whose views you find offensive as a progressive… or vice versa. It could be the child from that photo, a minority in country that does not protect religious minorities. It could be a child in our own community, whose parents live under threat of deportation. It could be the Syrian children who we will refuse as refugees, even while the death of Christian children pulls at our heart strings. Any of these suffering people could be the Servant in Isaiah. Any one of these suffering people from whom we look away, who don’t have the same value as others, any of them could be the one Isaiah holds up as an image of God’s coming salvation.
Perhaps most unsettling is what Isaiah says about this Suffering Servant, about the suffering and pain that the servant undergoes. “He has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases… he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities.” That is, you and I see the suffering of this world and want to point the finger at all kinds of other people. But the prophet Isaiah tells us that this suffering is our own doing. Our sins lay upon the Suffering Servant because we are always willing to scapegoat, we are always willing for someone else to pay the price for our wealth, for our comfort, for our safety. But this, beloved of God, this Suffering Servant, these people from whom we look away, these people whose pain we ignore, whose pain we often cause… this Suffering Servant is who we discover each year on Good Friday.
We think Jesus is coming to bring peace, to make us feel better, more spiritual, more whole, to give us some kind of spiritual shot in the arm. And instead, when God comes in Christ, God takes his place with those we have rejected, with those who are suffering.
The answer to the problem of suffering and pain in this world is not an easy one. The answer to the death of that child in Egypt or those children in Syria or those children seeking a new life with their parents in the United States but finding the doors closed… the answer to all of this suffering isn’t to fix it. God refuses to make us be people of justice.
Instead, God takes the place of the oppressed. God says, I will be here with you. I will suffer here with you. I will be rejected here with you. I will die here with you. We religious don’t see this because it’s not how we see God. But this is how God comes to us in Jesus Christ.
And we should feel sadness on this day. We should feel sadness for the brokenness of this world, for the unanswered suffering all around us. We should feel sadness that we have not done more to bring peace to this world, particularly to those places in the world we tend to ignore, those communities we tend to push to the side.
We should feel sadness, but we should also feel a profound lift of hope by knowing Christ meets us here, in the darkness of our own failures and violence. We are complicit in the death of Christ, but God does not abandon us in this sin. God takes on the suffering you and I have inflicted and yet remains, persists, here with us. Every drop of blood we have drawn through our sharp words or through our callous inaction, every drop of blood is mingled with the blood of Christ… and somehow, we find ourselves forgiven.
So we should find confidence on this day as well. That’s what the Preacher says in the Hebrews lesson says, “Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”
We come today in the presence of God not only acknowledging our sin, not only acknowledging our grief that our failures have resulted in the suffering of so many, a suffering that finds its focal point in the suffering of Christ. We come here also for another purpose. Finding ourselves forgiven for our many failings, in the words of Hebrews, we are called now to “consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.” We come together renewed with the knowledge that in Christian community we will find ourselves made uncomfortable at times, but we will also find ourselves called to love more, to love better. Amen.
Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.