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Crucifying Power
Palm Sunday 2005

Sermon 3/20/05
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Isaiah 52:13--53:9

We turn now from the shouts of Hosanna! to the cries of "crucify him" as we ponder the significance of the triumphant entry into Jerusalem in light of the devastation of the crucifixion.  I turn to the prophet Isaiah to help us interpret these events.  Reading then from chapter 52 of Isaiah, verse 13 through chapter 53 verse 9:

13 See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. 14Just as there were many who were astonished at him--so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals-- 15so he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.  

53 Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? 2For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. 3He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.

4 Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. 5But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. 6All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. 7He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 8By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. 9They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.

Last Sunday I made the case for a new paradigm, or a new way of thinking about our faith and how to 'be church'.  Or to use the language of Paul, how to 'be the body of Christ in our world today'.  And I suggested the need for this change is evident in that so many of our churches today are dying [declining membership], and that in a very real way they need to die.  That we need to die to this old way of being.  And I know, as many people have pointed out for me, the old paradigm is still working for many churches, especially those of a more fundamentalist or Pentecostal or evangelical bent than our own.  

But for many progressive, open-minded, non-literalistic, non-doctrinaire churches, it does not work.  And the key to this new paradigm is instead of focusing on correct beliefs about God and Jesus as the way to get to heaven, we are called, I believe, to focus on a correct relationship with God through Jesus as the way to bring heaven on earth.  To transform this life -- both our own individually as well as the world's.  And at the heart of this paradigm shift is the crucifixion.

I've often said that the most misunderstood and misinterpreted non-event in scripture is the rapture, and along with it, the second coming.  And I gave a whole sermon series on this back in May, and I won't repeat that today, but just to sum up:  there will be no rapture because there is no rapture in scripture.  It just isn't there, it's bogus.  Made up from 2 verses that have nothing to do with what some suggest it does.  And secondly, along with that the second coming of Christ which is very much, very prevalent in scripture, is best understood as the vision for the fulfillment of the reign of God, the Kingdom of God, not as an event that will occur on a certain date on our calendars.  And so these two non-events are often misconstrued and terribly misinterpreted by some who have left all common sense behind.  Not that I have any books in mind with that J.

The single most misunderstood historical event, I would suggest, is the crucifixion.  And I point as an illustration of that Gibson's powerful portrayal of the Passion of the Christ that hit theaters last year at this time.  Which captured all the pain and suffering of Jesus in a way that only Hollywood can.  And yet at the same time totally missed the meaning of the story, in my humble opinion.  If you want to understand the brutality and cruelty of crucifixion, watch that movie.  But 20 minutes of flesh-ripping whipping is about as effective for revealing the meaning of Christ's suffering, as torturing prisoners in Iraq is effective in revealing the meaning of democracy.  You see, in reality it is a voyeuristic diversion that actually diminishes the true meaning of the crucifixion just as torture diminishes the true meaning of freedom and democracy.  It's not that I have strong feelings on either of those subjects. . . . . . 

It's not my desire to rehash Gibson's movie, so I'll mention it no more, save for the quote that begins the movie, which is taken directly out of this passage from Isaiah -- 'but he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, upon him was the punishment that made us whole and by his bruises we are healed'.  

It is easy to read this text as an interpretation of the death of Jesus and rightly so.  Therefore it is also tempting to read this text as a prediction of the death of Jesus, but wrongly so.  And it is in understanding the difference between these two things -- the difference between interpretation and prediction in scripture -- that is the key to this different way of reading our text that is at the heart of this new paradigm.

So let me say first a word in general about prophecy before I get to the specifics of this text.  I'm not saying anything new here, it's something I've said many times over the years, and others have said as well.  Prophecy commonly understood is prediction.  And yet, less than 10% of the prophecies in the Bible concern future events.  So clearly, prophecy must mean something much different, other, more than prediction.  Prophecy is better understood, I think, as forth-telling, rather than fore-telling.  Speaking the truth of God in the current context.  The primary purpose of a prophet is not to predict the future, but to interpret the present.  To reveal what God is doing in current events.  How God's vision for the world is either being fulfilled or is being denied.  

Thus when prophecy is reduced to the prediction of events, once that event has passed, the prophecy has fulfilled its usefulness.  Whereas prophecy understood as the proclamation of God's vision, you see, is not dependent upon one event and whether it happens or not.  But it becomes relevant whenever it reveals God's will in any event throughout all of history.  Thus prophecy understood as the proclamation of God's vision has much greater power and relevance than prophecy understood as God's predictions.

With that basic understanding in mind, we're ready to look at this text in Isaiah.  And the question we ask is not what does this say about the means of Jesus' death, but what does it say about the meaning of his death.

This text is one of four found in Isaiah known as the suffering servant songs.  So named for it's portrayal of the servant of God suffering on behalf of the people of God.  The other 3 texts are found in chapters 42, 49, and 50 (in portions thereof).  Scholars have long debated the identity of this suffering servant in these four passages.  The leading candidate by far is that of the nation of Israel, in part because chapter 49 verse 3 identifies the suffering servant as Israel.  But other scholars have pointed to allusions to Moses or references to the royal function of King or that of prophet to suggest specific individuals that the prophet may have had in mind.  So whoever the suffering servant may have been, it is clear that this servant was not someone who would bring healing and salvation to the people centuries later, but was already at work bringing hope and healing in the present context which was the exile when the nation was hurting and suffering the most.  And it's a way of saying, if the suffering servant is the nation, that Israel itself is that servant that brings healing to the world through it's suffering.

More importantly, then, was the manner in which this suffering servant made God's presence known and God's power real.  Through his or her suffering, by taking on the suffering of others, to bring about the healing of all people.  And by the way, I say 'his or her' not to be politically correct, but to be biblically correct.  And I refer you specifically to verse 7 where we read 'like a lamb that is led to the slaughter and like a sheep that before its shears is silent'.  First half is very accurately translated 'the lamb' here, though not evident in the English, the Hebrew word is a male lamb who is led to slaughter.  Sheep, in Hebrew, is the female lamb -- ewe.  Why translators used 'sheep' here I don't know, but it's a poor translation.  The proper translation would be the female ewe.  So in other words, if you think about the three specific ways you could refer to an individual sheep -- lamb, ewe, or Ram, the prophet chooses the first two in contrast to the third.  And I think that is intentional.  It's the prophet's way of saying that this is God's presence in the world -- like that of a lamb and a ewe and not like that of the ram.  I think that's something we would do well to ponder, and I'll just leave you to ponder that.

And here's the point the prophet makes:  that God's way of transforming the world is not through force, violence, and war -- the macho way of being in the world, but rather is through love, non-violence, and suffering service -- or of the feminine way of being in the world.  And to which we are all called to participate.  

Just as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King taught us that justice is accomplished by suffering injustice, and the Jews in the concentration camps, and Japanese Americans in the internment camps, showed us what it means to be wounded for our transgressions, not for their own.  And Dietrich Bonhoffer and Stephen Biko and Oscar Romero and other martyrs of the faith have demonstrated that lambs led to slaughter -- though they have done no violence -- reveal the moral bankruptcy of their killers.  This has been and always will be the way of God in contrast to the way of the world.  Thus the prophecy of the suffering servant interprets, not predicts, the death of Jesus because this is the way God seeks to transform this world through suffering love not violent power.

Whereas the cross was the ultimate symbol of Rome's absolute power over the oppressed people of the world, the death of Jesus turns that power on its head, revealing as Isaiah says 'the perversion of justice', making his grave with the wicked, crucified between two insurgents -- not just criminals, but the term we would use today would be terrorists.  Though he had done 'no violence', the prophet said, and there was no deceit in his mouth.  And the result is that the crucifying power of Rome is itself crucified on the cross and is exposed as the evil that stands in direct opposition to the way of God in Christ.  The way of the suffering servant, wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities.  

This is the meaning of the crucifixion that I think we have yet to fully comprehend.  That our Lord and savior of the world was not just killed by an unruly mob, he was executed by the most powerful and greatest government known in human history.  And further, it is this vision of Isaiah, that Jesus lived out and which got him killed, that we too are called to live out as the people of God, the body of Christ, to take up our cross to follow Jesus. 

On the second anniversary of the war in Iraq, with a scattering of protests across the country, I'm reminded of the story of a small group of Jewish women who have stood for years in a Jerusalem square dressed in black, standing in silent protest against the occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.  A group of American tourists from Chicago happened upon this group as they were being verbally assaulted by other Israelis shouting obscenities, questioning their patriotism, accusing them of treason.  One man picked out an elderly woman in particular and yelled "why don't you marry Yasser Arafat?"  And he continued to taunt her and ridicule her in every way imaginable as she simply stood firm and silent.  And finally, in quiet determination, she said to him:  "My son was killed in the Yom Kippur war.  Who have you given to Israel?"

The vision of the suffering servant is not just a prediction of an event long ago in the life of Jesus, or in the life of the prophet, it is an invitation to all God's people to put on the servant's robe, to risk the blows and insults in choosing God's way and following Christ as the joyous crowds of Palm Sunday turn to the vicious mob of Good Friday.

To be a disciple of Jesus is to be a suffering servant for the justice of God.  Are we willing?


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