April 1, 2012

He Who Vindicates Me Is Near

Passage: Isaiah 50:6-8a

I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.  The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near.

An online internet blogger named Stephen Smith has been tracking Twitter to take a snapshot of what people say they are giving up for lent.  According to his informal survey here are the top five things Americans say they gave up: Twitter, chocolate, swearing, alcohol, and soda.  I wonder if a Canadian survey would reveal a different top five.  I was surprised that coffee didn’t make it onto the top ten; I did note, however that giving up Starbucks made it into the top 100. (I suppose what I looked for may reveal my predilection for coffee).

I am not meaning to make light of the effort people make to give something up for Lent.  Giving up something you are accustomed to having does serve as a constant reminder that you are in Lent; it reminds us every time we reach for what it a routine part of life and have to say “no, I am in Lent”.  It reminds us we are journeying towards Good Friday and Easter.   Still, I find that most of what we choose to give up really doesn’t demand too high a price; that is when seen in light of what our Saviour gave up for us.

And of course once Easter arrives we readily return to our previous pattern.  One year I decided to give up sugar for Lent.  With two weeks left in Lent I bought a big package of chocolate eggs and put them in the cupboard promising myself that Easter was going to begin with a bang; filling my face with plenty of chocolate.  My body reacted quite negatively to my Easter over-indulgence.  I think I missed the point of giving up sugar; surely it wasn’t to heighten my craving for it?  Generally, when Lent is over, we plan to take up again our Lenten deprivations.

1. It is most likely that Isaiah chapter 50 is written and proclaimed to Israel while in exile in Babylon.  This chapter is a great message of hope to a people who had come to exile because of their faithlessness with respect to the covenant with God.  It was the message that God loves them and has a second exodus in mind for them; a return to home is on the horizon; a restoration of the temple and the worship of the Lord.

Chapter 50 begins with the Lord asking Israel: “Where is your mother’s bill of divorce with which I put her away?”  God is depicted as Israel’s husband and in spite of her unfaithfulness no such bill of divorce exists.  God assures them that his love for them has not changed.  And the servant to whom God has given the “tongue of a teacher” is to deliver a message that will sustain the weary.
So why aren’t the people happy to receive this messenger?  The text indicates that many exiles rejected the messenger and the message of hope: “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting,” said the messenger.  Have the people in exile so acquiesced to their plight they now believe that things could never be different?  Are they too comfortable in Babylon and the dream of return sounds like too much effort?  Are they angry with God and simply refuse to dream of what might be possible?

In first-century Israel, how happy were people in receiving the message of Jesus; the messenger to whom this text in Isaiah points—the One in whom all God’s messages of real hope are gathered up?  We could say that on Palm Sunday many seemed happy; but what happened between then and Friday?  The message Jesus brings is that not only would God release us form sin’s guilt; God can release us from sin’s grip.  Not only will God release us from sin’s penalty; God can release us from sin’s power.  The purpose of the cross isn’t merely that we are forgiven but that we are rendered holy.  And the content of holiness is the great commandments to love God and neighbour.

We Christians must never be naive to the grip wherewith sin throttles people.  The things we typically give up for Lent are usually tokens of commitment; such tokens can have much good as they point us to our greater commitment to give up the world’s way of life and put on Christ.  Believers find that God is ever working in us to lay aside, as the writer of Hebrews puts it, the sin that so easily besets; to lay aside the thing we try to hide from others; to lay aside the habits of heart and imagination contrary to our Lord’s life and way.

Are we like the exiles in Babylon?  Have we acquiesced to these things we know to be sin thinking them impossible to ever change?  Are we too comfortable with them and laying them aside seems too much effort?  Are we angry with God for not making it easier to straighten up a fly right—blaming God for my proclivities?  Gently, insistently, God’s suffering servant—our Saviour Jesus Christ—comes alongside us with his message of hope and deliverance.  What our Saviour asks of us he empowers in us by his presence.  God’s questions for Israel are also for us: “Is my hand shortened, that I cannot redeem? Or have I no power to deliver?”

2.  We have come again to take our annual walk with Jesus down the Mount of Olives and up Mount Zion into the temple at Jerusalem.  It’s Palm Sunday; we have come again to Jerusalem.  Today signals the beginning of what Christians mark as holy week; indeed, in the gospel record of Jesus’ life one third of everything written details the events of this one week.  Some among us have taken this Palm Sunday walk; with the advent of the internet any of us can visually experience the journey through the efforts of those who have posted video of the walk. For those who have taken this walk it is, in some measure, transformative because it was our Lord who walked this path.

As Jesus takes this walk we call the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the gospels make clear he knows the trouble that is at hand for him.  He knows that to set foot in Jerusalem is to sign and seal his death warrant.  He understands that what will look to the world like the triumph of evil will in fact be the power of God to save.  The reality of his message of release for humans from what truly ails humanity—release from sin’s guilt and grip—is to be accomplished once and for all during these days ahead.

Every time I come to this story I wonder what it was like for Jesus to take this walk; what was going through his mind and heart as the throng crowded the roadway and shouted their praises of him. Perhaps you have seen movies that endeavour to depict events taking place as through you were looking through the eyes of story’s main character and seeing what they see.  In some movies while seeing the events taking place through the character’s eyes the sound is turned off and you are in the quiet of the person’s mind and glimpses of other events flash from this character’s life as if you are experiencing this person’s thoughts.

Imagine that we are looking through Jesus’ eyes as he rides into Jerusalem.  One of the things we know about Jesus is that Bible was a lifeline to him; he read and absorbed for years the law and the prophets.  We know that the understanding of his ministry and mission came through the prophet Isaiah; recall the day in the Nazareth synagogue when he claimed Isaiah’s words for himself; “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me ... to bring good news to the poor.”  His absorption of the prophet Isaiah would also have been a source of his conviction that his pathway would include suffering.

We are now looking through Jesus’ eyes at the crowd of excited noisy people thronging each side of the pathway; we look to the right and left at happy hopeful faces.  Now in the quite of Jesus’ mind we are aware that he knows he will not deliver what they want.  He recalls Isaiah’s voice: “The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn back.”

We are getting ever closer to the gate of the city each stride of the donkey carrying him ever closer for what is to come.  We hear the crowds shouting, “Save us, Son of David”!  Now returning to the quiet of his mind we are aware of his angst; “They have no idea what is needed for their salvation.”  Again Isaiah’s voice: “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.

We watch the crowd again; we are at the gate of the city; looking through his eyes we see the crowd’s actions have reached fever pitch. The religious leaders are coming into view; their hostility is palpable.  Longing for Galilee cascades into his heart and in the silence we somehow hear Isaiah again: “The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near.”

To “set you face like flint” is a euphemism to describe that silent resolve to listen to neither the cheers nor the jeers, but to continue in a direction.  Clearly Jesus lives this resolve.  The other thing we know is that he was put to shame; that is he was humiliated before humanity—it was one of the purposes of crucifixion.  What the text affirms is that he was not put to shame forever; shame was not the end of the story.  Why—he who vindicates me is near.

It is interesting to note that the name of God appears several times in a few verses in this text from Isaiah.  Clearly it is a picture of this suffering servant clinging to the presence of God.  Nothing, as Paul said, can ever separate us from the love of Christ.  Often believers find that faithful living before God appears to accomplish nothing and attracts only resistance; resistance that often heaps insults and seeks to denigrate or shame.  Our Lord shows us the way:  he who vindicates me is near.

William Hamilton, the retired theologian who declared in the 1960s that God was dead, died on February 28th at the age of 87. (It's funny how God seems to outlive all the people who have declared his death.) Hamilton created a firestorm of controversy when he was featured on the cover of Time magazine for his God-is-dead theology. Hamilton put it this way: "The death of God is a metaphor. We need to redefine Christianity as a possibility without the presence of God."  Hamilton was trying to wrestle with the presence of God in light of suffering proclaiming God absent.  Jesus shows us the opposite—in the face of suffering the one who vindicates is near; the very thing we can rely on in those moments is his presence.

3. There is an interesting court case winding its way through the Australian legal system.  Gina Rinehart is an Australian mining billionaire.  In short, Ms. Reinhart inherited a mining empire from her father.  Her three children were also left with a stake in the family trust.  But Ms. Reinhart shut them out of their ownership stakes claiming that the children were unfit to manage their fortune; she said the children are “manifestly unsuitable” to manage the fund.  She thinks they should go out and work instead.  The court case is because the children disagree.

Jesus Christ went to hell and back not only so that we might share in his inheritance but also to render us fit to enjoy this inheritance forever.  The inheritance is ours in him; the restoration work he is doing in our lives is to render us fit for it. As I walk with him into Jerusalem can I doubt he loves me?  “He who vindicates me is near”; this is the Saviour’s promise.