Sermon for Pentecost 22 2018

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

There are several volumes to which I generally turn in order to gain a more fulsome understanding of the Sunday readings, and one of these volumes had the following to say about the Old Testament lesson: These verses have been the inspiration for some of the greatest sermons ever written. These are not comforting words, and needless to say, this will not be one of the greatest sermons ever written.

It is exceedingly hard to know how to approach the prophet Isaiah’s words, for they summarize more poignantly the whole mystery of our redemption than perhaps any other passage in the Old Testament. Perhaps these words benefit from Handel setting them to magnificent music, but it is hard to see how they would benefit from me opining about them for ten minutes.

Perhaps a little history will help, though, or I should say a little historiography, which is the history of how history itself has been interpreted. Over the course of centuries, people have tended to hold what is called a “deuteronomicview of history”, so-called because the writer of Deuteronomy, who probably also wrote Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, seemed to hold something like this view. Such a view generally holds that there is a neat correlation between good and evil acts, and divine reward and punishment. Do nice things and God will be nice to you; do bad things and God will do bad things to you. This is a helpful way to interpret history if you’re doing well, but no so much if you yourself are suffering. Indeed, the assumption that this is how history unfolds has led far too many people to utter the popular lament “what have I done to deserve this?” and to really believe that they must have done something horrible, even if they didn’t.

By the time we get to the 6th Century before Christ, when today’s Old Testament lesson was written, such a view of history was found to be clearly lacking. The best and brightest Jews had been taken by King Nebuchadnezzar into exile in Babylon, leaving the poorest to live in the wreckage of Jerusalem. Deporting and scattering the leading citizens of defeated nations was a standard tactic in those days, and usually the deportees didn’t have that hard a time of it in their new location. The people were not enslaved, nor were they subject to forced military conscription; they were simply removed to a more neutral location so as not to incite rebellion in their homeland. Thus, the tactic had not caused too much pain and grief to deportees from other peoples defeated by the Babylonians and Assyrians and other major empires of the day.

But this was not so for the Jews, for the land had not only been a useful means of security and livelihood for them. The Jews believed, and they were quite right, that the land was a gift from God. So to have that gift revoked, would have made a number of people believe that they must have done something awful indeed to deserve it.

The God-given, inspired insight of the prophet was that this is not how the judgment of God works. “All we like sheep have gone astray,” he says, “we have turned everyone to his own way.” But God is not in the business of meting out particular punishments for particular sins. Rather it is “the man of sorrows” God-incarnate Christ himself, who was “despised and rejected of men” who “hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows”. Christ, we are told “bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”

This does not mean that everything is peachy under the sun. Suffering is indeed ubiquitous because of our condition, because we still sadly live in a sin-sick world. It is not my particular sin which causes me to suffer, nor your particular trespass that causes you to experience a world of pain, but we encounter the dreadful reality nonetheless.

Walt Whitman is certainly not a thinker to whom I would normally make recourse, but he sometimes got it right, and he recognized the reality of the ubiquitous, indiscriminate suffering he saw. He wrote:

I sit and look out upon all the sorrows of the world, and upon all oppression and shame;
I hear secret convulsive sobs from young men, at anguish with themselves, remorseful after deeds done;
I see, in low life, the mother misused by her children, dying, neglected, gaunt, desperate;
I see the wife misused by her husband–I see the treacherous seducer of young women;
I mark the ranklings of jealousy and unrequited love, attempted to be hid–I see these sights on the earth;
I see the workings of battle, pestilence, tyranny–I see martyrs and prisoners;
I observe a famine at sea–I observe the sailors casting lots who shall be kill’d, to preserve the lives of the rest;
I observe the slights and degradations cast by arrogant persons upon laborers, the poor, and upon negroes, and the like;
All these–All the meanness and agony without end, I sitting, look out upon,
See, hear, and am silent.

There is indeed much suffering in the world, and many have suffered in ways that I cannot imagine. Many suffer, not because they did anything to deserve it, not because God is punishing them, but because of harsh reality of original sin. Even so, there is exceedingly good news in the sacrifice of the suffering servant; there is remarkable hope thanks to our Lord, the man of sorrow. For we can be assured that the pain we may come to experience in this life is not a punishment, and that even the most intense sorrow is fleeting when seen in the context of eternity.

We are given the promise not only of eternal life, but of new life. “The righteous one,” Isaiah says, “my servant, shall make many righteous.” We are not only assured salvation, but given a means of achieving saintliness. We too may come to experience suffering, but thanks be to God, that we, like Christ, can offer up both our pain and our pleasure, both our sorrow and our joy, to become ourselves servants of the Gospel. As the hymnwriter, John Bowring put it, “Bane and blessing, pain and pleasure, by the cross are sanctified; peace is there that knows no measure, joys that through all time abide.” May we then all come to appreciate our own lives, our own joys and sorrows, not as rewards and punishments, neither as meaningless phenomena, but as realities which can find purpose and meaning in the light of the cross.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.