Francis Montagu, Evensong sermon                Sunday, 28th April, 2013                                                         Isaiah 52.13-53 end;  Acts 8 26-39
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Secondly, Hebrew parallelism. We come across this in the psalms, it is also evident here: he grew up before him like a tender shoot, the root out of a dry ground; surely he bore our iniquities and carried our sorrows. So to Theology. It is often said that what is new in this passage is the doctrine of vicarious suffering – voluntarily suffering on behalf of someone else – substitutionary atonement– that this appears here for the first and only time in the Old Testament. This is true, but we have to move from being onlookers – accepting the intellectual truth – to being participants – that we are invited to share in this activity of God. The great movement of divine life, for St John, is Jesus’ descent from glory and return to the Father – and this divine pattern in what Paul speaks of in Philippians, when Jesus is put to death on a cross, but is exalted and given the name above every name. It is this divine pattern and purpose that Isaiah sets out for us – ‘my servant will be lifted up’ –  John records Jesus as saying ‘when I am lifted up on the cross, I will draw all men to myself’ – namely that the cross is the moment when God’s glory is revealed; and that this runs contrary to all human ideas of greatness: we despised and rejected him, we considered him smitten by God – punished like Job for his sins; he accepted his punishment – as a sheep before his shearers is silent – and his life ended with no descendants - blotted out from the earth, for the Hebrews who lived through their descendants, this was the greatest misfortune; then we realised that it was our iniquities he bore. But finally, that this was all enfolded in the divine purpose – ‘yet it was the will of the Lord to bruise him’ – and that purpose was to result in the vindication of the Servant – ‘he will see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied.’ Far from being pointless and unfair, His suffering had a much deeper significance. This divine pattern is also the pattern of our own lives in the spirit- that process of humiliation, purification and resulting spiritual growth. God is present in both. In the words of Julian of Norwich: ‘First there is the fall, and then we recover from the fall. Both are the mercy of God.’
This passage made an impact when read at evensong 3 weeks ago, and that gave me the idea of preaching on it this evening. Although it is contained in two chapters, it is, of course, a unity – a poem of five stanzas, the last two slightly longer than the others. I’d like to address history, literary style and theology – although they all connect. History. It was written at a time when Israel hoped to return from exile, and the crushing experience that represented. Prophecy is forth telling- speaking God’s word for that time as much as foretelling- that is prediction of the future. Who, for the prophet, was the servant – in his time? This remains a mystery – was he already present or to come in the future – this righteous sufferer? Perhaps it was ‘faithful Israel’, perhaps an individual, possibly, as the Ethiopian eunuch thought, the prophet himself. From early Christian times, as Acts records, Christians have identified the servant as Jesus , the messiah who must suffer and enter into his glory. Literary Style. It has been very carefully put together. The first verse of each stanza summarises the whole of that stanza. One analysis is: 1.God  speaks  – See my servant will act wisely – or prosper- that is, he will succeed in his purpose 2,3,4 The people respond People – who has believed our message People – he took up our infirmities. This is the central middle verse, and the ‘key’. People – he was oppressed and afflicted 5.God speaks  - yet it was the will of the Lord to bruise him Then notice, too, how the first stanza has in it the ‘seed’ which the last stanza will confirm: in the first, my servant will be exalted and lifted up. In the last ‘therefore I will give him a portion among the great. The will of the Lord will prosper in his hand – that word again ‘prosper’. Then two other points. First, the number of pronouns – see how often ‘he’ ‘him’ ‘his’ ‘our’. The servant is unnamed and does not speak, but is utterly central.