Tag Archives: Suffering Servant

King !?

Pilate faces a poor man in court, and he just cannot understand (John 18:33-37). He has condemned many would-be revolutionaries, but Jesus doesn’t fit the type. He suspects those who have handed him over.

“Are you King of the Jews?” Well yes, he is, or rather King of Kings. What Pilate, the poor politician, cannot understand is what the gospel writers have been telling us all along. Jesus is Messiah, the promised King – but his Kingdom will come as he also takes the role of Suffering Servant.

Pilate would never understand the need for the cross. Jesus wins his Kingdom not by conquest and coercion, but by taking the place of guilty humanity, and dying for each of us. Only in that way can we be set free. Only by such extreme measures can we come to a Kingdom which is not only eternal and universal, but also:
a kingdom of life and truth, of grace and holiness,
a kingdom of righteousness and justice,
of love and peace.

If you find that hard to take, look again at all 4 gospels. Each, in a different style, makes Jesus death and resurrection the climax and centre. Each makes clear that there is no mistake, no accident. Jesus is King, and chooses the path to his throne.

It involves truth – not compromise, or uneasy coalition, but truth. Pilate’s next line is, “What is truth?” It sounds very post-modern. As if what is true for you might not be true for me – but we must live in Jesus’ Kingdom, and follow his standard of truth.

In addition to Pilate’s court, our other readings give us entry to two others. Daniel’s vision (Daniel 7:9-14) sees not only the “Ancient One” take his heavenly throne, but with God the Father is “one like a human being” – in the older translations, one like a “Son of Man”. You may remember Jesus’ favourite term for himself, and see in God the Son the one given “dominion and glory and kingship” – an everlasting dominion, a Kingdom never to be destroyed. Prophecy from generations before Jesus birth.

Another vision of heaven comes from John the divine in Revelation 1:4-8. Here we see the heavenly Christ, “who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, . . “ Marvellous words, not only for the persecuted believers of the first century.

He is the Lord of 3 tenses: “who is, and who was, and who is to come”. Pilate has not only lost his grip on truth, but he has forgotten / ignored the higher court which will judge him. A drama of incomprehension is played out in Jerusalem, but a higher court will give a different verdict.

And where does that leave us?
I hope we can take warning from Pilate’s failure to understand. Jesus Kingdom will never make sense to those who value only earthly power, possessions and status. But it is truly the most wonderful Kingdom ever. It brings
life and truth, grace and holiness,
righteousness and justice, love and peace.

There is no coercion, no bullying, but entry for all who want to belong, to learn the new way of discipleship. It costs nothing, it costs everything. As Jesus stands on the opposite side to Pilate, who do you side with?

Is that a new commitment, or does is show clearly in your past life?

Either way, will it be clear next year to those who know you best?

Go on listening!

I like to be right, so I can Identify with Peter in Mark 8:27-38. And Peter is; Jesus is the Messiah, and it is a terrific discovery. A high mid-point of Mark’s gospel; you can feel the excitement. And in the middle of it, Peter stops listening. He doesn’t hear – doesn’t want to, can’t ? – Jesus talk about suffering. If he had gone on, what a disaster that would have been! But Jesus doesn’t let him.

It’s easy to stop listening. I might even have done it myself. But I notice other people doing it much more easily. Perhaps you have seen it too? Someone learns “God is love”. That’s great, true and important. But then they stop listening. If God is love (and it says so in 1John 4:8 (& 16)), then God must do whatever I think is loving? And they find out he doesn’t, and get hurt and confused, because they have stopped listening. God is love, but he defines what that means and how it works, and we need to go on listening and learning to find out.

Jesus is the Messiah – the great King long expected by Jews because of Old Testament prophecy. But if Peter thinks that means he will take over, throw out the Romans, and give him an honoured, easy and rewarding place in the new government – forget it! Peter will find it hard to learn that the Messiah is also the Servant Isaiah talked about – the Suffering Servant. I think I find that hard, too. I know what it means in theory, but theory isn’t enough.

It’s much easier to preach, or hear: “Jesus is King of the Universe; once you follow him as his disciple your life will sort out and work better”.  That’s true, and important too. But somehow it is easier to say and hear than the next bit:

“Jesus teaches his disciples what it means to serve; it is sometimes difficult, embarrassing, or even painful. You may not always understand what he is planning, or why you have to play a particular part.” That’s also true, and important – but it doesn’t have quite the Wow factor. It is still worthwhile, not only because it forwards God’s plan and the Kingdom on earth, but also because it helps you grow, develop in faith and love and holiness, and be what you are meant to be. It’s just not quite so – marketable.

So you might like to think about 2 things from this gospel:

  • Jesus is the Messiah –  the greatest King ever, Ruler of the Universe; but he sets about that in a new and strange way to serve us and free us.
  • Secondly, don’t stop listening to God. Especially when you think you know what’s coming next, or you make some new discovery. You know that Christians keep making mistakes? Remember that they get away with it by keeping listening and following instructions to put things right. It’s very simple.

Peter got it right. Jesus is the Messiah. But it wasn’t a theory test; he had to keep listening to work out properly what it meant. So do we.

Suffering and Supremacy

In several of the Easter stories, including this week’s Luke 24:36b-48, there is reference to the Old Testament writing about Jesus’ ministry.  Modern Christians have largely given up the idea that Jesus can be “proved” from Old Testament prophecy, and that seems right.  However, the fact that you cannot prove Jesus in that way does not mean that there is not a great deal to be usefully thought through and understood from the Old Testament texts.  With the benefit of hindsight, those who accept Jesus as Lord can look back and enrich their understanding.

During his ministry, Jesus was shy of using the title King (Messiah, “Anointed One”, the promised descendant of King David, who would come to rule a golden age).  It is not that he was not the Messiah, but he would combine “Messiah” with the “Suffering Servant” prophesied by Isaiah.  This hadn’t been predicted – or at least had not entered popular understanding.  Indeed, who could have imagined that the victory of the Messiah would come in criminal execution? Only after the resurrection can Jesus use time with his disciples to explain.

We can sympathise with the disciples, who heard Jesus warnings of coming suffering without really taking them in.  Later, they were remembered and recorded in the gospel. We have the benefit of hindsight. We ought to hear, understand and remember.

What do we hear? Prophecies of the King, descendant of David, mix with the Suffering Servant, whose suffering is extreme, yet somehow beneficial.  This is not all!  There are many other elements, both descriptive (eg the prophet like Moses of Deuteronomy 18), and specific (eg Micah locates the birthplace of the Messiah in Bethlehem). It is good to read the Old Testament with an eye open for such glimpses of who is to come, and how his ministry will work.

And it is important that God chose to act in that way. The good news of the gospel is not “We win, you lose, – tough”, but much better news. Hope for all, through repentance and forgiveness, won by a suffering Messiah, who gives those who suffer hope both for the future, and that there may be purpose in what they endure.  Jesus kingship is not yet another revolution, which in time will be replaced by the next group to grab power and rubbish their predecessors.  It is a lasting Kingdom, giving more than it takes, and offering support to those who do not wish to do others down, but long for hope and relief.

Weird!

Weird! That’s the only word for this story.  (Mark 9:2-9)

Jesus takes three disciples up a mountain – and glows ?!

Yet it is clearly important. All of the first three gospel writers tell it, after Peter’s key recognition of Jesus as Messiah. But even the disciples don’t seem to understand at the time, and we struggle to make sense of it.

I think it helps our focus.  Jesus has done some amazing things – healings and other miracles. His teaching is sometimes puzzling, but popular. The disciples enjoy some of Jesus fame, busy themselves with crowd control, – and haven’t noticed the change that is coming.

Jesus has started to talk about suffering, coming in Jerusalem. His followers seem unable to hear. They are focussed on senior positions with the new King.

Which is what Paul was speaking of in 2 Cor 4:4 “the god of this world has blinded . . to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ”. The Christians gospel is wonderful news, for all sorts of people – and many fail to hear because it does not lead to fame, celebrity, wealth, or simply getting your own way.

For us, like the disciples, freedom and forgiveness seem less than giving love, service and obedience. It is a very normal temptation.

Jesus’ Transfiguration is weird – or, if you prefer, unexpected and unparallelled. He appears in otherworldly light, with the representatives of the Old Testament Law and prophets, to place the Son of God firmly in the sweep of God’s plan. The voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to Him” underlines the point.

And the disciples need to listen – they have much to learn. Jesus chosen path will per, frighten and test them. They have to know He is the one to follow without hesitation.

And so do we! We read this before Lent. If we think of the cost of Christian faith – what it means to take it seriously, and not just go through the motions – we need confidence Jesus knows what He is doing, and what He asks of us.

Perhaps the Transfiguration was deliberately a weird experience – outside all routine. Perhaps only something strange and bizarre would ready them for a Messiah who also chose to accept the role of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant.

There is always more to faith than meets the eye, more to learn, and we still need to go on learning.

Unrecognised

It is surprising how often Jesus is not recognised.  Today’s story of a walk with a “stranger” (Luke 24:13-35) is an example.  The resurrected Jesus is the same, but not immediately known.  There is time for talk on the road, and Jesus listens.  It is a good school of evangelism.  As he listens, he discovers what these two travellers had hoped for, expected, and felt about events as they had unfolded.  He gets an insight into their disappointment and confusion.

Then – only then – “he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (v27).  I wonder how long a list you could write of the Old Testament passages which tell us something about Jesus?  We may not see them as “proofs”, for there is always discussion about how they were originally understood, but there is plenty to guide and encourage us.

I suppose the biggest references would be to the “Suffering Servant” in Isaiah, especially Isaiah 53.  A pointer to how suffering might set people free!  With the Servant, and joined totally, is the King, the Messiah expected to succeed to King David’s legacy.  For that we might look to the Jeremiah 33:17f, as well as to the gospels.  The idea of the Servant King, whose glory is at the cross, will explain a great deal to us of who Jesus was, and what he did.

Is that it?  I think there were many more references Jesus could have picked up.  His favourite title, “Son of Man” has a meaningful background in Daniel 7, as a figure empowered by God.  Then there is the expectation of a “prophet like Moses” in Deuteronomy 18.  Earlier in Isaiah are the passages we typically read at Christmastime – the descendant of Jesse (King David’s father) bringing peace (Isaiah 11), but also Emmanuel – “God with us” (Isaiah 7.14).  The one who brings light to Galilee, and is “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9).  Perhaps Jesus talked of the donkey-riding King of Zechariah 9, or the prophesied birth in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2).  There are more you could look for.

These are useful references in Eastertime.  They may not “prove” anything, but they make us think more deeply, and help us understand how much history came to a climax and fulfillment at Jesus death.  He was so many things, fulfilled such varied hopes and expectations.  Faith can wear thin if we only explain in one way, endlessly repeated.  Jesus then remains unrecognised as the one for us.  That is a disaster!  God has provided many dimensions to wonder at, and a Lord with a heritage worth deeper exploration and greater appreciation.

Fitting it all together

The gospel reading this Sunday is long – either the full account of Jesus’ Passion from Matthew, or a shorter version.  That leaves us to try and make sense of all that is going on.  It is rather like a detective story.  Different events, perhaps connected, but is there a pattern?  It all comes together at the Cross, as Jesus dies, with the last strands tied up at the Resurrection.

Let me try and bring two major strands together. One picture of Jesus comes from the prophet Isaiah, who spoke of a “Suffering Servant”.  It doesn’t make easy reading:

Isa 53:6 All of us were like sheep that were lost, each of us going his own way. But the LORD made the punishment fall on him, the punishment all of us deserved.

His suffering is, somehow, for us. By his death, he sets us free. It’s not obvious – partly because it is not flattering. It means I need someone else to die in my place. Coming to terms with that is part of the offence of the gospel – like the reminder that Christian life begins with repentance, and trusting God to do for me what I am incapable of.

But I talked about a detective story. Alongside this theme of Suffering for us in the way Isaiah described, there are others. Perhaps the easiest is Jesus the Messiah King:

Mat 21:5 “Tell the city of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you! He is humble and rides on a donkey and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

On Palm Sunday, Jesus rides into Jerusalem, cheered by excited crowds.  All through his ministry, he had spoken of the Kingdom of God (Matthew calls it the Kingdom of Heaven), and slowly his friends came to understand that it didn’t mean a revolution against the Romans. It meant a community of people, for whom “God rules” – God in charge, directing lives, activity, priorities.

It seems that Jesus was the first to put together these 2 great ideas – the King, and the Servant. 2 ideas which nobody else had imagined could combine in one person!  But don’t think that is all there is. We could talk about why it was important that his identification with us included suffering, so that all who suffer and have suffered know he understands. We could talk about Sacrifice, and how Jesus is both priest and sacrifice. Or we could see that through the language of the “Lamb of God”.  That’s not a complete list! There are so many things brought together, resolved and explained at the cross. But if that is difficult to focus on, or to remember for more than a minute, just take the two.

Jesus is the Suffering Servant. Isa 53:5,6  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.  All of us were like sheep that were lost, each of us going his own way. But the LORD made the punishment fall on him, the punishment all of us deserved.

Jesus is the promised King  Psa 89:3,4  You said, “I have made a covenant with the man I chose; I have promised my servant David, ‘A descendant of yours will always be king; I will preserve your dynasty forever.’ “

and if nobody expected those to come together, that is why it was unexpected!