Sermon for Sunday March 20th, 2016, Palm Sunday
The Lessons: Mark 11:1-11a, Isaiah 50:4-9, Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11, Luke 23:1-49
Text: Isaiah 50:4-9
Theme: The obedience of Christ to the call of God
Martin Luther reportedly told of two mountain goats which met each other on a narrow ledge just wide enough for one of the animals to pass. On the left was a sheer cliff, and on the right a steep wall. The two were facing each other, and it was impossible to turn or back up.
How did they solve their dilemma? If they had been people, they would have started butting each other until they plunged into the chasm together. But, according to Luther, the goats had more sense than that. One of them lay down on the trail and let the other literally walk over him – and both were safe.
(p. 463, Robert J. Morgan: Preacher’s Sourcebook of Creative Sermon Illustrations.)
ISAIAH 50:4-9: THE OBEDIENCE OF CHRIST, THE SUFFERING SERVANT
The supreme obedience and humility of the Lord Jesus Christ in giving His life for the life of the world is shown in most of our Lessons today. The psalm speaks of the psalmist’s distress, humble circumstances and hope in the Lord. The Epistle declares the obedience of Christ in humbling himself and becoming obedient to the point of death on a cross. Our long Gospel Lesson from St. Luke’s passion narrative tells of all the humiliation and suffering the Lord Jesus Christ endures at this various trials and his suffering on the cross, on which he still expresses the hope that he and the penitent thief will be in paradise that day. Even the passage from the Gospel according to St. Mark is a fulfillment of the word of the Lord through the prophet Zechariah, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass” (Zechariah 9:9).
As we begin this Holy Week and consider the wonderful extent of God’s love for the world, I would like to focus today on our Old Testament Lesson. In the verses preceding this passage, God has been reproving Israel for their doubt in his ability to save them. He asks the questions, “Is my hand shortened at all, that it cannot redeem? Or have I no power to deliver?” (Isaiah 50:2, KJV) The Lord’s answer to his own questions tells of his power to dry up seas and rivers and to clothe the heavens with blackness. Directly after these claims, perhaps in contrast to them, or maybe in fulfillment of them in an extraordinary way, a speaker, whom scholars call “the suffering servant,” begins to speak. Christians have interpreted this speaker to be the Lord Jesus Christ, and the words he speaks as prophecies of the maltreatment he received at the hands of Jews and Romans during his trial and thereafter.
The first verse of our Old Testament Lessons reveals an aspect of the prophetic office of God’s Servant, the Christ: the gifts of knowledge and wisdom (“the tongue of the learned”), so that he should know how to speak appropriately a message suited to the one who is weary. How does the speaker receive this knowledge? Morning by morning God awakens him to impart this knowledge to him (Isaiah 50:4). Christ’s great ministry and mission on earth began with listening to God, and receiving His word daily. The daily discipline of awakening to hear the Lord’s word is considered necessary both for the man who loves righteousness (Psalm 119:148, Ecclesiasticus 39:5) and the prophet, who must be vigilant as a watchman (Ezekiel 33:1-9, Habakkuk 2:1). The wise man, too, must apply himself to gain wisdom and knowledge, so that he can give fitting advice to all who seek it from him (Proverbs 22:17-21). An important insight is that God imparts knowledge and wisdom to the Lord Jesus Christ, and he does so every morning. The source of this knowledge is God, and so the knowledge is both spiritual and practical, and in the case of Christ, the revelation of his purpose on earth as Savior and Redeemer through his death on the cross.
The Lord’s word to Jesus Christ proved fruitful, for the Lord God caused him both to listen and to obey the difficult command to endure the persecution, rejection, passion and death on a cross, to be treated as a common criminal would be treated by the Romans, to be hung on a cross and left to die a long, torturous death. The Servant was not rebellious in the face of God’s command to redeem the world by suffering this kind of death. He testifies prophetically, “I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off my hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting” (Isaiah 50:6). What motivated the Lord Jesus Christ to go to the cross, and endure this intense and prolonged suffering? Certainly the first motive was love for God and obedience to him, but we see from the last three verses of our Lesson, that it was great faith in God that the Lord would help him so that he would not “be confounded,” or put to shame. Though the Lord Jesus Christ died, he was not “put to shame,” since God vindicated him by raising him from the dead. Though the resurrection of Christ from the dead is not clearly prophesied here in this passage, the series of questions, such as “Who will contend with me?…Who is mine adversary?…Who is he that shall condemn me?” all imply that the speaker in the end triumphs over all his enemies and accusers, in that He lives forever. By contrast his adversaries become like an old moth-eaten garment.
What are we to conclude from this passage, which prophesies clearly the persecution of the Lord Jesus Christ?
The conclusion drawn by the speaker in the verses that follow this Lesson is that it is better for the servant of the Lord, while walking in the darkness with no light to trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God, than to kindle his own fire and walk by its light, for the result of doing the latter is sorrow (Isaiah 50:10-11).
Precisely when the will of God clearly revealed looks impossible, or too difficult to do, or too painful, we must persevere in doing it, as Christ did, while trusting in God for a happy outcome of all our afflictions.