Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Christ the Disciple

Isaiah 50:4-9a, the First Reading for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost in the Year of Mark, is often referred to as the Third Servant Song.  This is understandable since it bears resemblance to the first two songs in 42:1-4 and 49:1-6, yet in this passage the writer does not refer to self as servant, but rather as one who is taught.  Another way to think of this term is 'disciple'.  This song, in other words, is the song of one who is being taught, one who is listening and following and learning.  I wonder how many times we have thought about Christ as one who is himself a disciple, one being taught.  I wonder how important that might be for the church, if we identified ourselves as ones who are perpetually listening, being taught, and learning.

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive.  They are part of a method to help Law and Gospel preachers discern some of the ways the Word functions in the text.  For more on Law and Gospel preaching see my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word functions as testimony and witness to God's faithfulness.  As such it is a Gospel word.  This can be seen clearly in the latter verses where the disciple declares "I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near."  This resembles very much the psalms of trust with which we are familiar.  (e.g. Psa. 27:1-6)

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no word of rebuke here, or any word which exposes our need for Christ.  There is allusion to the temptations we face, such as refusing to have open ears to God's leading, being rebellious, or turning back from following Christ, but a rebuke is not present.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  There is only one voice in this text, and it is one with whom it is difficult to identify.  Can I be confident that I will be open to God's call, never rebellious, never allowing myself to abandon the task set before me?  I can aspire to this and hope for God's help, but I dare not presume that I shall be the one who sets"my face like flint."

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is always the Word functioning to invite us to live in a certain way in response to God's work.  One way of looking at this text could be to regard it wholly as a call to obedience.  In other words, the speaker here is an example for us to follow.  We are to be those who have a call to speak a word to the weary and we must not veer from that,  no matter the hardship.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The language in the text is helpful in constructing couplets here:  deaf to God's leading/open to God's leading; rebellious/obedient; turning back/following faithfully.  These, of course, are not so much Law/Gospel couplets as disobedience/obedience couplets.

6.  Exegetical work:  Long before George F. Handel wrote his magnificent Messiah oratorio, the words of this text were assumed to be the words of Christ.  "I gave my back to the smiters" was assumed to be spoken by Christ by writers from Athanasius to St. Jerome to Cyril of Alexandria.  Theodoret, Bishop of Cyr, brings to mind the Passion of Christ most directly:  "This whole recital is taught by the holy Gospels.  For the servant of the high priest gave [Christ] a blow on the cheek; some struck his face, saying, 'Prophecy to us, Christ!  Who is the one who struck you?' Others spat in his face; as for Pilate, he had him scourged and delivered him to be crucified.  so, all this he predicts in the prophecy to teach of his own patience." (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, OT, Vol. XI, p. 132)  It goes without saying that in the modern era scholars have recognized more and more the identity of the servants as speaking corporately of the nation of Israel.  Yet, as the Lutheran Study Bible points out, "in the traditional four servant songs, the servant is given a particular commission or task that sometimes sounds quite individual... Certainly the servant is Israel, but it may also be true that sometimes a particular member of Israel represents the whole people."

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Henry Mitchell was well-known as a preacher who celebrated God's grace in a big way in every preaching event.  Since this text is a witness to God's faithfulness, what better way to preach it than to celebrate God's faithfulness throughout.

Blessings on your proclamation!

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