Suffering Servant Songs in Isaiah

SUFFERING SERVANT SONGS IN ISAIAH – Sermon by Rev Mark Waters at St Bride’s Sunday 9th July 2017

I first came across the Servant Songs entirely by accident.
It was my first week as a sixth former at Secondary School.
I’d not done well in my O Levels (remember O levels?) and I had to negotiate with my Year Head Teacher what A Levels I would do.
I had already decided on English and Art. But I really wanted to do French as well.
But he wouldn’t let me. I hadn’t done well enough in the O level.
So I asked what I could do alongside English and  Art.
Only one thing he said, Divinity!

So next day I was sat in an A Level Divinity class looking at these astonishing texts from Isaiah. I had absolutely no Christian or religious background.
But from the beginning these passages had a powerful and haunting effect on me.

Since then. Having discovered a Christian faith in my late 20s, and also having had a chance to study theology,  these Servant Songs as they are known have become more and more important to as one of the keys texts to understand the bible.

There are 4 Servant Songs and they  appear in what is known as Second Isaiah – Chapters 40-55 of the book - which relates to the time when the people of Israel were experiencing their second exile in the 6th Century BC under the Babylonian Empire. 

I’d like now to unpack some of the things which these beautiful songs teach us about faith

Firstly, the whole idea of theological development.

You could be forgiven for thinking that Christians skip over most of the Old Testament, apart from the passages which they interpret as predicting the coming of the Messiah. As if God was pretty inactive between the Fall and the birth of Jesus. As if history had stopped really for a few thousand years, and all the world was waiting for was the birth of the Christian God.

This is a denial of the God of incarnation.
It is really important to recognise the theological development that takes place in the OT.

And in these Servant Songs, we see the emergence of some of the most sophisticated theology we can find in the bible.
They speak of the nature of redemptive suffering. And they prefigure Jesus, not by anticipating his arrival, but by spelling out the sort of costly love by which he was to live.
They mark a real watershed in the Old Testament. 

We will all be able to think of OT theology which sticks in our throat. The vengeful God who tells us to be vengeful. The top-down chess playing picture of God who moves things around the board of the world at will. The God who visits the sins of the parents on their children.

But here in these songs in Second Isaiah we see the dawn of a completely different understanding of God.

What this says is that we don’t have to accept the incarnation in terms of ‘lift shaft’ theology – or ‘beam me down’ theology, the idea that the figure of Jesus was somehow ‘sent’ to earth on a particular day of God’s choosing bringing something entirely new.
For me, this astonishing theological development around the Servant Songs shows us Jesus the Christ not coming into the world, but coming out of the world.

This is an important difference. Instead of the interventionist God, who interferes with the laws of the universe when it suits ‘Him’, we have a picture of a God who is deeply present at the heart of God’s own creation, moving within that creation to bring a host of new possibilities to birth.

It is about the emergence of a particular notion of love. A process over thousands of years of the development of a deep, redemptive, sacrificial notion of love. 
The same love that we see and reverence in Jesus, but not something that somehow suddenly comes with him. It’s more as if the world is growing into Christ, becoming Christ. And Isaiah’s Servant songs witness to that growth and development.

Secondly, these songs speak most clearly about a particular understanding of Suffering

Suffering is clearly central to the Servant Songs.
This 4th song that we heard this morning is used during Holy Week at Passiontide.
It speaks of a deep suffering on behalf of others – a true com-passion – a suffering with.

Christians, of course, have seen in this suffering servant a prediction of the coming of Jesus.
But Jews, of course, have instead seen something of the vocation of their community and its history of being persecuted.

We don’t need to choose between these two. Why not see this figure as a symbol of the deepest outgoing love, the preparedness to suffer on behalf of, which only comes out of a deep internalising of one’s own suffering and its redemption by refusing to take offence, but instead being prepared to pay the price of truth and integrity.

Of course it speaks of Jesus Christ.
Of course it speaks of God’s chosen people.

Again, the idea of this portrayal of love coming out of the world, rather than suddenly appearing with Jesus is really important. It guards against those awful atonement theories which speak of Jesus’ suffering as some sort of transaction between him and an abusive deity who needs blood in order to forgive humankind. Isaiah’s Suffering Servant is the antidote to that kind of twisted spirituality which gives Christianity a very bad name.

Finally I want to talk about the notion of Exile that is at the heart of these Songs.

When Isaiah was writing, the people of Israel were experiencing their second period of exile from their homeland. 
Exile to Babylon cannot have been an easy experience. 
The home of the Temple, and their capital city, Jerusalem had been completely destroyed by the Babylonian army.
And large numbers of people, particularly the better educated and wealthier, were moved hundreds of miles from their homes to an unfamiliar land. 
In itself that must have been a traumatic experience.

But there is no indication that any other ill-treatment was experienced by the exiles.
Many people in all likelihood would have assimilated to Babylonian culture and settled down to live their lives, get work and raise their families. There is evidence that once the exiles were allowed to return home, many chose not to return.

And this raises an interesting idea about exile.
That exile is not simply a geographical fact, but also a theological decision. 
Exile is about how people read reality. 
As well as outer reality of displacement, it is also an inner acknowledgement of the abrasion
between the cultural values that we see around us, and the spiritual values that people hold.

For those with eyes to see, the Jewish Babylonian exiles would have been bombarded by definitions of reality which were alien to their understanding of what it meant to live by faith in God. And the Servant Songs speak of a figure – or a community – which has chosen the self-definition of exile. To live with the tension of the

Like the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, Jesus defines himself as an exile within his own religion, and as an exile within his own nation under oppressive Roman rule. In this sense exile is a vocation. A willingness to recognise, and pay the price, of all that it means to live in a setting which is over-against all that you believe in.

The same is true for us today. We are surrounded by definitions of reality that come from the military-industrial-scientific empire which we could sum up as ‘consumer capitalism’. Some Christians feel no sense of abrasion between these cultural values and Christian faith. The prosperity gospel for example, opens its arms to consumer capitalism and makes it a badge of honour to succeed on its terms.

But for others of us, the abrasion, that rough edge between how we are invited to live, and how we believe we should live, is felt most keenly. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?