Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost September 11-12, 2021
“Unbending Faith” Isaiah 50:4-10
Rev. John R. Larson Ascension Lutheran Church Littleton, Colorado
What is the best time of the year? Right now, right? Cool mornings and then pleasant evenings are pretty nice. The changing of the colors in the Fall can make this world look like a postcard. Or maybe you like the first snow of the Winter or the Christmas lights and decorations in December. But maybe your favorite time is Spring, when warmer days begin and flowers start to show up. How about Summer? Vacations, baseball and even a trip to a lake make it memorable. I guess every season has a reason to be someone’s favorite.
But we are in church and we have our own type of seasons in the church. Maybe your favorite is the Christmas season. We certainly have many people who come to worship during those days. Maybe Easter. There is nothing quite like the powerful hymns on Easter Sunday. We sing as loud as we can and we would like to get even louder. In Lutheran churches the Reformation celebration is such a proud, confessing moment, “Here I stand; I can do none other, so help me God!” One of my favorite Sundays in the Church Year is All Saints’ Day – November 1. The names of God’s recent arrivals in heaven are read and we weep and we rejoice for them and with them.
But one of our faithful has told me that her favorite time of the church year is none of those – it is Lent. The 40 days with no alleluias, the time when some give up some type of pleasure for a while. This time of quiet and reflection and repentance gives her joy. She looks forward to Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent every year. To that individual I have good news – we have only 172 days until March 2 in 2022, the beginning of the season of Lent, the day of Ash Wednesday.
Today, almost half a year from Lent’s beginning is a reading that would be appropriate for those 40 days of the consideration of Christ’s suffering. “The Sovereign Lord has opened my ears, and I have not been rebellious; I have not drawn back. I offered my back to those who would beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting. Because the Sovereign Lord helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame.” (Isaiah 50:5-7)
That word, written 700 years before Jesus was born, is one of four Servant Songs. That word is all about Jesus. He comes as a servant to people, to us. He had a back that was beaten, a beard that was pulled, there was mocking and spitting.
I know why these words are so important to that lady, it is because this is what the definition of love truly is. It is giving of self to another. It is fighting for another, giving them everything that you have, so they can be benefited. “I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard.”
There is determination and focus in Jesus, when He does such things for us and for all of the world. Jesus speaks about His heart, “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life – only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again.” (John 10:17-18.) This unbending resolve, this divine determination is also found in Luke’s gospel as he records the words, “As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:51) Jerusalem was the place of the cross of Christ.
Twenty years ago, on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, some of the most severe moments of human loss and suffering occurred in New York City. Fleming Rutledge in a sermon titled, “A Cross at Ground Zero” said that that day made for great love and service to others. The resolute, determined actions of some were sacrificial and willing. Rutledge writes, “Every day, the New York Times has a full page of pictures and profiles of the people who were killed. The page is called ‘Portraits of Grief.’ A lot of people are reading every word of this page every day. Let me read you just two of the notices. Here is a man named Zhe Zeng, a Chinese-American. When the first plane struck, he was safe on the street below. He could easily stayed secure in his office at the nearby Bank of New York. But he did not. He was a certified emergency medical technician. He ran into his office for first aid supplies and then headed for the inferno. A video camera later that day caught sight of him, still wearing his business suit, ministering to someone on the street. He was not seen again.”
“Here is a second story. This man named named Giann Gamboa, a Hispanic American, the manager of Top of the World Café in Tower Two. He was a devoted member of Iglesia Nueva Vida (the Church of New Life) in Queens. ‘Friends are still talking about how he arranged for 70 children from the church to visit and pray atop the World Trade Center just a few months ago. ‘He loved being a Christian and sharing his faith with people,’ said Fernando Montoya, his best friend. The last time anyone saw him, he was on the 78th floor about to squeeze into a crowded elevator…but he offered his spot to a young woman on his staff who was crying…’I’ll just take the next one,’ he told a friend, as the elevator doors shut.’” The heroes ran into buildings that others were running from.
That is what makes the account of such love from heaven, that came from Jesus Christ, so amazing. He had an unbending faith in what He was going to do to bring us the gifts of our forgiveness, our faith and hope. Isaiah says of the servant, “Therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame.” (Isaiah 50:7b) When we sing, “What wondrous love is this” we are not exaggerating. When we sing, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me” we are describing this unrelenting, unbending faith in His purpose quite clearly.
This is the third of the Servant Songs. Another one would come a little later, one that you know well. Isaiah 53 has these words that were put to a tune, “He has no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:2b-5)
Why would this Servant, this Jesus, do such things for us? Love. Love does that. I can understand why many people, not just the one that I mentioned, have such a great love for the season of Lent which centers upon the suffering of Jesus for the sins of the world.
This Song of the Servant begins with the word, “The Sovereign Lord has given me an instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being taught.” (Isaiah 50:4)
The unbending faith of Jesus, to do for us, what no other could ever do, also makes our life resilient and unbending. We, in His strength and by His purpose, also have a word that sustains the weary. That is what Christians do every day. Do you know someone who is just worn out and weary? Do you know anyone who is about ready to give up? Let them know that there is a Savior and a friend who gives a word that is ready to sustain them.
In all the pictures from Ground Zero there is one that has caught my attention – It is the cross at Ground Zero. A few days after 9-11, one of the folks pulling bodies out of the rubble, saw a cross, formed by pieces of the destroyed steel structure. When this man, Frank, saw the cross, in that rubble, he wept. There was hope in a very hopeless situation.
No matter what event in the church year is your favorite, none of them take on a deep and full meaning without the unbending service and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. His running in, when others are sprinting out, tells us that His saving love is what secures our life and sustains us on the hardest day. It is a great day when we know how deeply we are loved. Amen!!