Sermon at St Mary’s Church Hadlow – Servanthood – 17th October 2021
Isaiah 53 vv 4 – end The suffering servant
Mark 10 vv 35 – 45 Challenge to Christlike service
- Introduction. A senior government official was being driven home from an important visit to a foreign country. Passing through an area of many square miles of desert, he was surprised to see a lone man by the side of the road. He ordered his driver to stop. He offered the man a lift, which the man readily accepted. The man, named Philip, recognised the book that the Official was reading and asked him if he understood what he was reading. The Official responded, “How can I unless someone explains it to me?” The book was that of the prophet Isaiah. The passage, our first reading this morning. Philip explained that ‘The Servant’ is Jesus of Nazareth, who had recently been executed in Jerusalem, either shortly before or during the Official’s visit to Jerusalem, that this was all part of God’s plan of salvation. The Official gave orders for the chariot to stop at an oasis and Philip baptises him (Acts 8 vv 26 – 39). The Book of Isaiah contains four servant passages or ‘songs’, perhaps more appropriately poetic verses, of which today’s reading is the major part of the fourth climactic servant passage. Thus, we have the clear authority of the New Testament for seeing Jesus as the one who fulfilled the poetic prophesy of Isaiah. Let’s then relate today’s Old Testament reading to our gospel reading today.
In Isaiah we see the contrast between ourselves, the straying sheep and Jesus as the suffering servant who achieves sublime salvation for the straying sheep. The whole concept runs counter to that of other religions and philosophies.
- Straying Sheep. Soon after my parents obtained the tenancy of a small farm in 1943, they bought a flock of about 50 sheep. Petrol was rationed, it was difficult to get a transporter so we drove them the 3 miles, from the farm of purchase to our farm. We had no sheepdog. The sheep were exploring new territory. Frequently one would try to get through a hedge into a field beside the road. On my bicycle I, aged 8, acted as a sheepdog to keep a stray sheep on track along the road. Sheep have been domesticated and farmed over several thousand years and are common to many countries of the world. It is easier in the fenced fields of much of England to keep sheep from straying, albeit not so easy on the Yorkshire moors or the Lake District Fells. It is not only sheep that stray but human beings who stray from God’s plan for humanity, as revealed fully in the Christian Scriptures and not so completely in other religions. As Isaiah says, “All we like sheep have gone astray, each has turned to his own way” (53 v 6). The theme of this phrase is taken up in the Book of Common Prayer, General Confession at Morning and Evening Prayer in the opening words, “Almighty and most merciful Father; we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.” In our Gospel today, we find James and John seeking power and glory in the soon-to-be re-established Kingdom of God. Probably James, the elder brother, wanted to be Deputy Prime Minister and John, Chancellor of the Exchequer. One only has to read a national daily newspaper, watch a news programme on TV or listen on the radio to be aware of the straying of humanity, the sin in the world. Any theology, ideology, system of government and criminal justice must reckon with sin, at least in its effect on other people. How do we counter it? By more laws, more police, more education or what? Sin though is more than an offence against one’s neighbour. It is an offence against God, breaking our fellowship with God. Just as the poor and marginalised need help to achieve better standard of living so we all need the help of God, rather than judgement and condemnation, in the salvation of our souls. How do we bring people into harmony with God’s plan?
- The Suffering Servant. The suffering servant is introduced initially outside the context of our sin. He is described as having ‘no beauty or majesty to attract us to him’, ‘as being despised and rejected by others’, and ‘a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity’ (53 vv 2, 3). Isaiah goes on to say, ‘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’ (53 v 5). James and John, the sons of Zebedee, seem not to have taken in a few weeks before, Jesus talk to the twelve about the fact and the manner of his own death in Jerusalem, that he must undergo great suffering (Mk 8 vv 31 – 33). Nor had they taken in, following their presence with Peter, at Jesus’ Transfiguration (Mk 9 vv 2 – 8), when he discussed with Moses and Elijah, the import of the manner of his departure from this life (Lk 9 v 31).
- Sublime salvation. Isaiah goes on to link his description of the Suffering Servant with our sin in the well-known verse, ‘All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all’ (53 v 6). Sublime salvation! Let’s use a simple illustration. Let this book represent my sin, my left hand, represent me, and my right hand, represent Jesus. My sin is a barrier between me and God. God has taken my sin and placed it on Jesus. Now there is no barrier between me and God. This of course is not the whole story, for if my sin has marred my relationship with my neighbour, with any person, there needs to be reconciliation there, in the form of an apology and as far as possible a full re-establishment of a good relationship. Often public apologies take the form of, “If my words have caused any offence, then I apologise.” Usually, the apology has been made because clearly what the person said did cause offence. The inclusion of the word, ‘if’ is not only redundant but it tends to carry with it that the person’s statement was, in his or her eyes, right and true and therefore that the person offended is actually being oversensitive. There are times when something needs to be said which will almost inevitably cause offence. Jesus never said to the religious leaders of his day, anything like “If what I said caused you offence then I apologise.”
Christian salvation is fundamentally different to that of other religions. In other religions the path to Paradise, Nirvana or Heaven is achieved by a person’s own efforts. Christian salvation is through acceptance of what Christ has done for us. Our good works follow, out of love for Christ, our love for God, rather than love for ourselves in our own spiritual progress.
- Service. Jesus makes clear not only to James and John but to the other 10 of his immediate disciples and more widely, all his followers, including ourselves, that the outcome of this sublime salvation. The conclusion of James and John’s request is, in the words of Jesus, “Whoever wishes to be first among you, must be the slave of all. For the Son of man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (10 v 45). We call those who hold senior positions in government or those who exercise leadership in the Church, ‘ministers’, to convey the concept of service that should be embedded in such posts and positions. The suffering servant offers to the straying sheep, sublime salvation. This sermon explores but one main theme of the passion of Christ, theologically known as ‘substitutionary atonement’. I conclude with the collect from Common Worship Morning Prayer for Friday as encompassing a wider view of Jesus’ passion.
Gracious Father, you gave up your Son,
out of love for the world:
lead us, so to ponder the mysteries of his passion,
that we may know eternal peace
through the shedding of the blood of our Saviour,
Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
Word count: 1401 words Christopher Miles