Tag Archives: Suffering Servant

Life from the jaws of death

John 18.1 — 19.42


Here hangs a man discarded,
a scarecrow hoisted high,
a nonsense pointing nowhere
to all who hurry by.
Can such a clown of sorrows
still bring a useful word
where faith and love seem phantoms
and every hope absurd? ― Brian Wrenn


We read these words in Isaiah 53, about a figure we call ‘the Suffering Servant’:

… he endured the suffering
  that would have been ours,
the pain that we should have borne.
All the while we thought that his suffering
was punishment sent by God.

But because of our sins he was wounded,
beaten because of the evil we did.
We are healed by the punishment he suffered,
made whole by the blows he received. 

For two thousand years, Christians have taken these words from the prophet Isaiah [chapter 53] as pointing toward Jesus and his suffering on the first Good Friday. 

You may have heard that Jesus died because God needed someone to die in order that our sins may be forgiven. Yet Isaiah says, 

All the while we thought that his suffering
was punishment sent by God.

So, was it really sent from God? Isaiah says, 

But because of our sins he was wounded,
beaten because of the evil we did.

It was humans and human sin that drove Jesus to the cross: it was an unholy alliance of church and state that drove him there. His cowardly disciples didn’t help one bit. 

Only a few women stayed. And, according to John, the disciple he loved. 

What was the outcome? 

We are healed by the punishment he suffered,
made whole by the blows he received.

Somehow, God brought good out of this evil. God rescued victory from the jaws of defeat, life from the jaws of death. 

It wasn’t God who put him there, it was people. It was bad people, and good people who did nothing. 

God suffered on the cross in and with Jesus. God identified Godself with the godforsaken. Our God is a crucified God. 

You may have realised from the way I say some words that I was born in England. My wife and I were over there a few years ago, and we visited an aunt and uncle. I didn’t know them well; it was the first time I’d seen them in 33 years and only the second in 48 years. 

My uncle had something on his mind, and it took him a while to get it out. But he had to get it out before we went. He looked at me, and said in his broad Yorkshire accent, ‘Thi’s no God, lad’. There’s no God.

My uncle went on to speak of the depth of suffering he had seen and experienced growing up in the slums of Sheffield as a great industrial centre in the 1930s and 1940s. He couldn’t believe in God when such things happened.

As far as he was concerned, I was wasting my life. 

It wasn’t the time for a long discussion. I had one shot at saying something helpful, and that was all. So I said, ‘Perhaps God cried with you about what was happening in Sheffield. Perhaps God was on the side of those on the bottom of the heap’. 

It was a new thought for my uncle. I don’t know what he did with it; he died a few years later. 

But this is the God we see on the cross. The God who suffers with us, who took the side of the condemned, crucified One. The God who snatches life from the jaws of death, who raised Jesus from the dead. Amen.

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The Year of the Lord’s Favour


Isaiah 61.1–4, 8–11

Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbour, does not yet understand them as he ought. — Augustine, On Christian Theology

The entire Biblical Scripture is solely concerned that man understand that God is kind and gracious to him and that He has publicly exhibited and demonstrated this His kindness to the whole human race through Christ his Son. However, it comes to us and is received by faith alone, and is manifested and demonstrated by love for our neighbour. — First Helvetic Confession, 1536

You have heard that it was said … but I say to you … — Jesus, The Sermon on the Mount

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse brought down its final report on Friday, after 4.5 years. The life of the churches has changed for good in the light of the Commission.

One survivor of child abuse said on Friday:

Care and compassion has already lifted tenfold. We need to make sure we keep people alive and in a good place, by making sure they’ve got the counselling care they need.

It has taken a royal commission to bring this care and compassion to this man, and no doubt to many others.

In our reading from Isaiah today, we heard these words:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me
to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God;…

I think we can see who are the oppressed, brokenhearted ones are in this situation. It is the children who have become adults with burdens that were never lifted from their backs.

Jesus once placed a child in the midst of his disciples. The story is in Matthew 18:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me…”

The disciples hanker after greatness; Jesus shows them what greatness is in God’s eyes.

To be great is to take the place of a child, to embrace humility, to serve others. There is no other way; this is the way of the cross.

Time and time again, we have seen that the way church leaders took is another way altogether. It has been to protect their church’s good name, to keep their mouths closed, to disbelieve what they were told. Or they can’t remember anything about it.

The end result has been to deny care and compassion to the children in their care.

Perhaps I should read the next verse in Matthew18:

If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.

It’s a grim warning.

The consequences for the churches are also grim. Many non-churchgoing Aussies have lost any faith they had in the church as a community in which the love of God is to be found. Our moral authority is at record lows.

What should be our response?

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A blessed stranger (Easter 5B, 3 May 2015)

Acts 8.26–40

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.…The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
1 John 4.1, 21

At the beginning of our service, we prayed a Prayer of Invocation which came from Korea. It began:

Stay with us, blessed stranger,
for the day is far spent,
and we have not yet recognised your face
in each of our sisters and brothers.

Philip the deacon met a stranger, a blessed stranger, on the wilderness road from Jerusalem to Gaza. And Philip saw the face of Jesus in the stranger’s own face.

This is part of the fulfilment of Jesus’ words to the disciples in Acts 1:

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

The Book of Acts is about the way the Good News of Jesus spread in those early days of the Church. At first the message was heard in Jerusalem, and then in Judea; those who were part of the covenant people were to hear it, and respond. Which they did.

But the message couldn’t be contained to the people of the covenant. It burst those boundaries, like new wine bursting old wineskins. They proclaimed it in Samaria, where tainted people lived because their ancestors had violated the covenant.

And then the next step comes: the ends of the earth. Total non-Jews. And so we come to the first recorded time that someone from “the ends of the earth” heard the Good News of Jesus.

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Come to serve—Sunday 29, Year B (21 October 2012)

Mark 10.32-45


Jesus said:

whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

It’s not easy to be a servant, but it is the Way to Life. There is a Native American story that might help us to reflect on how we should live. It begins like this:

A young brave goes to an elder and says, ‘I’m confused. My heart is filled with good and with bad.’

Like the young brave, James and John were filled with good and bad. They desired to serve Jesus, but they were being led astray by false desires.

Peter, James and John were Jesus’ three main men. Oh yes, there were twelve apostles, and there were others, men and women, who followed him. But they were a core group of three.

The Three had come from the same place, Capernaum in Galilee. Fishing was their trade, and they plied it on the Sea of Galilee.

They were loyal to Jesus, but there were deeper loyalties at work. James and John were brothers, they were the sons of Zebedee. They wanted a core group of two, not three. They wanted Peter demoted.

So they come to Jesus asking a favour:

Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you… Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.

Now, that is so understandable. Ambition isn’t wrong, right?

It’s so understandable—yet so wrong on so many levels.

Let’s look at what has been happening just before J&J came to ask their ‘favour’.

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God is love (Easter 5, Year B, 6 May 2012)

Acts 8.26-40
1 John 4.7-21
John 15.1-8

Back in 1967, The Beatles sang

All you need is love.

And they were right. Love is all you need.

Many of us spend our whole lives trying to find that love. We look for it everywhere, convinced it’s ‘out there’, somewhere. We look for it in romantic attachments, in our children, in friends, in sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.

Sometimes we find enough of it to meet our aching need. Sometimes we find it only to lose it again, or to realise that the ‘love’ we found wasn’t love at all.

The Bible talks a lot about love, and no more so than in 1 John. Let’s refresh our memory:

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.

In fact, John goes further than that. He says,

God is love.

What does that mean? How do we see God’s love for us? John answers this question too:

In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

John is saying that God loves the unlovely. God loves those who put his only Son on the cross, where he died for them. Can we believe that? It’s not necessarily easy for every believer to believe that. It’s not easy because either

  • we think we’re deep down unloveable and don’t deserve God’s love; or,
  • we think we’re better than most and God is lucky to have us on his team.

Both are dead wrong.

The fact is that God loves each one of us absolutely and unconditionally and for ever.

Of course, the love we’re used to is deeply conditional. We love others as long as they do the right thing. But if they do something to hurt us or our family, then we criticise and turn against them.

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Third Sunday of Easter (Year A, 8 May 2011)

The risen life: walking in hope

1 Peter 1.17-23
Luke 24.13-35

 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.

Cleopas and his friend had hoped…but their hopes died with Jesus.

People can live through any loss, except the loss of hope. Hope is essential to a human life. Without hope, we are diminished.

How do we sustain hope when things go wrong? How do we keep ourselves out of the pit of despair?

To answer those questions, let’s join Cleopas and his friend on the way to Emmaus. (There are those who believe this was no friend with Cleopas, but his wife—and I think they make a good case. So I’m going to call them Mr and Mrs Cleopas.)

As we join them on the road, we notice something straight away. This isn’t an amble, a ramble or a stroll. Neither is it a quick march, and there’s no spring in their step.

These despairing disciples are trudging, they’re plodding, barely able to drag one foot after another.

The stranger can’t help but notice the way they’re walking. It looks a lot like the walk of a condemned man to the scaffold.

Yet even in their deep despair, they allow this third man to join them. They extend hospitality to him.

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Passion/Palm Sunday (Year A, 17 April 2011)

Jesus: emptied of ‘all but love’

Isaiah 50.4-9a
Philippians 2.5-11
Matthew 21.1-11

 Last week, we sang that wonderful hymn, And can it be. Recall these amazing words from verse 3:

He left his Father’s throne above
(so free, so infinite his grace!),
emptied himself of all but love,
and bled for Adam’s helpless race.

Jesus ‘emptied himself of all but love’. As I’m saying these words, some of you will be hearing the tune in your heads.

Scholars think that the passage from Philippians we read today was originally a hymn, so the Philippians may have also heard the tune in their heads when Paul wrote these words:

Christ Jesus…emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.

We have no idea of the tune today; it would sound like a kind of chant to our ears rather than a song. I’m sure it sounded nothing like the tune to And can it be, but the words certainly inspired Charles Wesley.

He left his Father’s throne above…
emptied himself of all but love…

That summarises the first half of Paul’s words very well indeed.

Paul isn’t trying to give us a stand-alone theological explication of the ‘being’ of Jesus. He has a very practical reason for speaking of the ‘self-emptying’ of Jesus. Let’s look at why Paul introduces this hymn. He says,

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…

So the ‘mind’ of Christ Jesus is a mind that has something to do with being emptied for others.

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