Sunday 16th September: Trinity 16: Proper 19
Isaiah 50: 4-9a. The word "servant" does not appear here but this is reckoned by most to be the third of the so-called "servant songs" and it is the most intensely personal mentioning the tongue, ears, back. cheeks, beard and face, emphasising that God always uses real human beings to fulfill his purposes.
James 3: 1-12. A great piece whose main thrust is personal integrity and the equal treatment of others, all made in the image of God.
Mark 8: 27-38. Peter is dismissed as "Satan" for standing in the way of the will of God for Jesus. The essence of true discipleship comes in verses 34-38. Taking up your cross and laying your life on the line is the kind of devoted allegiance that Jesus is looking for.
How does God’s will and purposes get carried out on earth?
The answer, pre-eminently of course, is through human beings.
The Bible stories are, in the main, stories about how human beings have heard and responded to God, from Abraham onwards, all the way through the kings and prophets of Israel, reaching their climax in Jesus Christ, and then through Jesus’ followers since the Jesus event.
True, God has also used people who were outside the fold to fulfil His will, perhaps most famously King Cyrus, a pagan, who nevertheless was absolutely necessary to the story of the people of Israel, who ended their exile in Babylon, so God can use absolutely anyone at any time but in the main He needs to use conscious followers of God, who have spent time in prayer and study of God’s word to purposely do His will in the world.
But as this famous prayer asserts;
Teresa of Avila (1515–1582)
The servant songs in Isaiah are a wonderful example of this from the Old Testament and when you read them you are left in no doubt that being a servant of God is not an easy ride.
You have serious decisions to make and these decisions can often result in a certain amount of suffering and opposition. These are not willed by God but are a natural consequence of the world’s opposition to God. But such is the nature of the spiritual battle that these sacrifices are necessary and happen as a direct result of following God’s will.
The suffering servant in Isaiah, whose back was struck, who had his beard pulled out, endured insults and was spat at in the face, was of course attributed to Jesus himself of course, but as they and the early church were to find out, included them as well.
Such outright violent opposition is almost unknown to us in this country though many millions of Christians live under similar opposition, especially in many Muslim countries, but the opposition in the West comes in a much more hidden and subtle form.
You can be belittled, called stupid, ostracised by some circles, called a bigot or a fascist. Made to feel that your input is not wanted or needed by intelligent, polite society to the extent that so many Christians are left feeling that they don’t have a voice in modern society.
We are too old fashioned and our ideas are outmoded so the opposition from the liberal secular elite is to silence us not by violence but derision and social exclusion.
Pushing us to the margins in a social and intellectual sense has been far more productive than violent oppression.
The response from Jesus and therefore expected of ourselves as found in the words of Isaiah is to stand firm “and set our faces like flint” against our accusers.
Our best defence is personal integrity. In this wonderful piece from the letter from James on both the damage and the good that our tongues can do, James implores us to train our tongues to bring forth fresh not brackish water, and for this to be a reflection of our internal disposition.
If we can train ourselves to do and speak well of people, and to stand firm in defence of our faith despite all provocations we provide a much better example to everyone and will make even our detractors think twice about what we have, and what motivates our lives.
Jesus, in the gospel story knew what was coming to him for daring to stick to his guns – “setting his face like flint” against his accusers.
He knew that His actions would defeat evil and win salvation for the whole world so He could not be sidetracked.
This is what drew that stern response to Peter for trying to deflect Jesus from his path.
Jesus called him “Satan” for even suggesting that Jesus should not suffer at the hands of his enemies.
Here, what might be characterised as “evil” came not beating him, spitting at him, pulling out his beard, but in a velvet glove, with good but misguided intentions.
Proverbially we know that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Often, we don’t understand, we don’t know what to do or say, and Peter’s tongue earned him a stern rebuke from Jesus.
He needed to be less impetuous, show a greater understanding of God’s will, and intuit a greater knowledge of the realities of life in this world.
As Jesus said;
In this world you will have trouble but take heart for I have overcome the world.(John 16:33)
But also as Paul notes;
And if God is for us, who can be against us. (Romans 8:31)