Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Consequences of Obedience

Holy Week reminds us that being faithful isn't hard some of the time; it's hard all of the time. If we are going to be faithful to God and the establishment of God's reign, we will be subjected to hardship. That is as true in first-century Palestine, when Roman and Jewish authorities rejected the reign of Jesus, as it is in twenty-first-century Bible-Belt America, where the powers that be cling to that power in the face of the ever-encroaching reversal that God's kingdom represents. Jesus was the center of that, and we, to the extent that we are faithful to his call to be his disciples, are caught in the middle with him.

On Wednesday in Holy Week, the lectionary presents us with another of Isaiah's Servant Songs, the poetic accounts of the anointed call and divine mission of God's servant. In Isaiah 50, we read,

The Lord God has opened my ear,
    and I was not rebellious,
    I did not turn backward.
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.
As we recall the passion of Jesus--the scourging at the pillar, the crowning with thorns, the spitting, the mocking, the crucifixion and death--we read these words about God's servant and quickly make the connection with our Lord. He is the one who endured great suffering on our behalf. But do we forget why that suffering occurred? Yes, it was for our sake that he was stricken, but why was that suffering brought upon him?
"The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious." In other words, God himself spoke to his servant and convinced that servant that inaction was not acceptable. As I wrote on Monday, the servant is called to establish God's justice in all nations--the ultimate leveling of the playing field for all people. The mighty are to be brought down from their seats of power, and the lowly are to be raised up to positions of prominence. The servant recalls that he was faithful to that call--not rebellious to God, unwilling to turn backward in the face of opposition. And what was the result? He submitted to those who persecuted him, offering his body to physical torture for the sake of God's call.
Jesus, as one whose life and ministry and death provide a fulfillment of Isaiah's servant's identity, came to establish God's reign on earth most fully. His ministry to the ritually and socially ostracized, welcoming sinners to God's table, is the work of one who brings justice to all nations. As we heard yesterday in Isaiah's song about it being "too light a thing" for the servant to bring back the children of Jacob and God's call that the servant would be a "light to the nations," we see that Jesus' suffering and death are the means by which that reign of weakness, self-sacrifice, and submission are established. Jesus' kingdom work got him killed, but that work now belongs to those who follow in his name.
"Thy kingdom come," he taught us to pray, and, if we are going to take those words seriously and become agents for the reign of God in today's world, we will face similar pushback. Just because the religious powers of the day self-identify as Christian does not mean that they actually represent God's will for the world. The concentration of wealth in the hands of the elites isn't merely un-Christian; it is anti-Christian. The denial of the dignity of any person of any race, ethnicity, class, orientation, or condition isn't merely un-Christian; it is anti-Christian. The refusal of those in control of the church or the state to acknowledge their failures and repent of their self-interest is not only un-Christian; it is anti-Christian. And those who would stand up to that--those who would advocate for the least of these--will always, always, always, be met with strong opposition. How far are we willing to go? Humble and obedient, Jesus chose steadfastness to God's will in the face of torture and death. Will we allow our obedience to bring us into a place of discomfort--perhaps even open conflict--or will we slink back into the crowd? Whether we're yelling the loudest or simply standing alongside the mob, the words "Crucify him!" belong to anyone who is not standing up with Jesus.

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