Sunday, 5 April 2020

‘And I know I shall not
be put to shame; he who
vindicates me is near’

Jesus is condemned to death … an image on the façade of Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 5 April 2020,

Palm Sunday, the Sixth Sunday in Lent

The Readings: Isaiah 50: 4-9a; Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29; Philippians 2: 5-11; Matthew 21: 1-11.

There is a link to the readings HERE.

‘I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard’ (Isaiah 50: 6)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The Gospel reading for the Liturgy of the Passion (Matthew 26: 14 to 27: 66) this morning is so long that I imagine the Old Testament reading was going to be heard in few churches in normal circumstances.

And yet, the loneliness of Christ, as he is abandoned by his friends to die, as he cries out on the Cross, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ … ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27: 46) sounds like the chilling experience I imagine of many people who are dying on their own in hospitals these days, without being surrounded by those they love, forced to be without the comforts of Word and Sacrament at a time when they most need them.

And the other, Palm Sunday Gospel reading (Matthew 21: 1-11) is so familiar that few people were going to hear new reflections on the story of that well-known entry into Jerusalem.

But the lack of opportunity for many people to preach or hear a sermon this Palm Sunday morning stands in sharp contrast to the reading from the Prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 50: 4-9a ), which begins with those well-known words: ‘The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher.’

The 19th century French writer Victor Hugo included the Prophet Isaiah in his list of the six great writers of Western literature, alongside Aeschylus, Homer, Job, Dante and Shakespeare.

This morning’s reading is well known as the third ‘Servant Song’ of Isaiah – in all, there are four servant songs of Isaiah (Isaiah 42: 1-4; Isaiah 49: 1-6; Isaiah 50: 4-11; and Isaiah 52: 13 to 53: 12).

But this third Servant Song is relatively unknown. It builds on and develops the two previous songs in chapter 42 and chapter 49 in that the Servant of God, for the first time, suffers in this reading. In words that are adapted by George Frideric Handel in his oratorio Messiah (1742): he ‘gave his back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard’ (50: 6).

So, the Servant Song in our Palm Sunday readings provides vital insights into an individual’s suffering for the sake of the nation and for the sake of the world.

There are many questions about the identity of Isaiah’s servant.

In the past, the sufferings of the Suffering Servant in the writings of Isaiah have been identified by Jewish scholars with the sufferings of the whole children of Israel, and in more recent years, by some scholars, in particular with the experiences of the Holocaust. It is an interpretation that is worth bearing in mind this year, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and the end of the Holocaust.

Christians have traditionally identified Isaiah’s Suffering Servant with the suffering and crucified Christ, the Christ who is condemned to death in the Gospel reading for Liturgy of the Passion. And, for early Christians, there was only one answer. For them, Christ clearly was the one long predicted by the prophet.

Most especially, they saw him in the fourth ‘Servant Song’ (Chapters 52-53), where the servant was ‘despised and rejected’ (53: 3), ‘a man of suffering’ (53: 3), who ‘has borne our infirmities’ (53: 4), who ‘carried our diseases’ (53: 4), who ‘like a lamb was led to the slaughter’ (53: 7), who ‘bore the sin of many, and made intercession for our transgressions’ (53: 12).

For those early Christians, that fourth song was clearly about the one they had experienced in Christ’s life and particularly in his death on the cross.

So, perhaps, that fourth song in Isaiah 52-53 might seem to be more appropriate a reading this morning as we face into Holy Week – and the Old Testament reading on Good Friday [10 April 2020] is part of that fourth song (Isaiah 52: 13 to Isaiah 53: 12). So why was this passage (Isaiah 50: 4-9a), the third song, chosen instead for the Old Testament readings on Palm Sunday for Year A, B and C?

In Isaiah 50, the servant is given a clear and powerful description. But so too is God. Four times in this passage (verse 4, 5, 7, 9) the Lord is known as the ‘Lord God,’ an address that is unique in Isaiah. Other versions render this as ‘Sovereign Lord,’ and it catches attention because of the double title of God (adonai Yahweh). Perhaps, we should see this as a way of emphasising the dependence of the servant on God.

The word the servant uses to describe himself (lemudim, verse 4) has been translated ‘of a teacher,’ or ‘of those who learn,’ or ‘of the learned.’

It is not clear whether the word means that God has given the servant the tongue of a teacher or learner. But we all know that the best teachers are those who are the most eager learners. Theological teachers, in particular, need to listen to human wisdom and divine wisdom, need to listen to creation and to the Creator. To have the tongue that teaches, I must first have an ear that hears. The servant of God is one who learns and proclaims a message from God.

The prophet implies by that language that the servant is not necessarily a leader, he does not always need to be out front, but he is the one who can speak well when right speech is needed. Indeed, God’s gift of speech is given ‘that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word’ (50: 4b).

The primary role of the servant is to pay special attention to the ‘weary,’ to those who are in desperate need of encouragement and support, to those on the margins, who are neglected, who are in danger of being forgotten.

This role of listener and right speaker is given to the servant ‘morning by morning,’ again and again (50: 4c).

In contrast to other prophetic figures, who may have received the Word of God while in the Temple praying (Isaiah), while watching the flock (Amos), or in dreams or in visions (Ezekiel), the prophet here emphasises the daily inspiration that came to him.

The suffering servant was so committed to the task that he gave his ‘back to those who struck me’ and his ‘cheeks to those who pulled out the beard.’ Neither did he ‘hide (his) face from insult and spitting.’

These acts – striking, beard pulling, insulting and spitting – are harsh, demeaning actions in a shame-based culture. Each of these deeds is designed to humiliate and denigrate a person, forcing him or her to ‘turn back,’ to reject the course he or she had first decided to follow.

However, this servant is not going to be deterred from his task of being a careful listener and a true encourager, no matter what insults are heaped upon him.

Although the message will be proclaimed, it is his suffering that is emphasised here. Just as the mouth speaks what the ear hears, so the parts of the body that suffer are stressed here. His persecutors strike him on his back and, when they pull out hairs from his beard, they attack him at the front too. They hurt him physically, when they strike him, and hurt him psychologically when they taunt and insult him.

The Suffering Servant was empowered to take on his suffering and to not turn his back because ‘the Lord God helps me’ (verse 7a). Because of the presence of the Lord God, the servant feels no ‘disgrace’ and has ‘set my face like flint.’

This second image suggests the unbreakable conviction of the servant to do what he has been called for.

The remainder of the passage enumerates the absolute conviction of this servant to act on the call of the Lord God in all things:

and I know I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near (Isaiah 50: 7c-8a).

The servant can perform the work of the Lord God, however difficult and dangerous it may be, because the Lord God stands with the servant.

We live in a society and a culture where we try to avoid suffering. The Covid-19 or Corona Virus pandemic this year shows how in our culture we feel sickness and ill-health have to be avoided at all costs. We take out insurance against every inevitability and if, despite that, we end up in hospital we want what we have paid for. So much so that doctors and hospitals that fail to provide a ‘cure for every ill’ run the risk of litigation.

Until this pandemic, suffering was no longer appreciated or reflected on in our culture. We had become more interested in the exploits of the rich and famous than in the suffering of the marginalised and the global majority.

Yet, we should know, of all people, that suffering is at the heart of our experience of life, and the servant whose story we hear today is the one who leads us on the way to it. And In the week between Palm Sunday and Easter Day, we are invited again to be brought once more to the mystery of divine suffering.

We know that suffering and rejection must never have the last word. All suffering must eventually be put to an end, because that is the promise of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.

The Suffering Servant offers us the opportunity this Palm Sunday to look forward to Easter hope and the hope of the Resurrection.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

‘He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross’ (Philippians 2: 8) … the rood beam in Saint Chad’s Church, Stafford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 21: 1-11 (NRSVA):

1 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately.’ 4 This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

5 ‘Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’

6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

‘Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’

10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ 11 The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’

‘Condemned’ … Station 1 in the Chapel at Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield, Pilate condemns Jesus to die (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Colour: Red (or Violet).

Penitential Kyries (Passiontide and Holy Week):

Lord God,
you sent your Son to reconcile us to yourself and to one another.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Lord Jesus,
you heal the wounds of sin and division.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
through you we put to death the sins of the body – and live.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect of the Day (Palm Sunday):

Almighty and everlasting God,
who, in your tender love towards the human race,
sent your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ
to take upon him our flesh
and to suffer death upon the cross:
Grant that we may follow the example
of his patience and humility,
and also be made partakers of his resurrection;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Lenten Collect:

Almighty and everlasting God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent:
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts
that we, worthily lamenting our sins
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Introduction to the Peace:

Now in union with Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near through the shedding of Christ’s blood; for he is our peace (Ephesians 2: 17).

Preface:

Through Jesus Christ our Saviour,
who, for the redemption of the world,
humbled himself to death on the cross;
that, being lifted up from the earth,
he might draw all people to himself:

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ,
you humbled yourself in taking the form of a servant
and in obedience died on the cross for our salvation.
Give us the mind to follow you
and to proclaim you as Lord and King,
to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

Blessing:

Christ draw you to himself
and grant that you find in his cross a sure ground for faith,
a firm support for hope,
and the assurance of sins forgiven:

Hymns:

235, O sacred head, sore wounded
134, Make way, make way for Christ the King
227, Man of sorrows! What a name
231, My song is love unknown

Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday … a fresco in the Analpsi Church in the village of Georgioupoli on the Greek island of Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

The Entry Into Jerusalem ascribed to Fra Angelico (1387-1455) in Saint Mark’s, Florence

This sermon was prepared for the Parish Eucharist in Saint Mary's Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick, and Morning Prayer in Saint Brendan's Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert), Co Kerry, on Palm Sunday, 5 April 2020, but because of the restrictions introduced due to the Covid-19 pandemic it was delivered at a celebration of the Eucharist in the Rectory, Askeaton

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