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Watch 2022-2023 online sermons » Robert Barron » Robert Barron - God Suffers for Us

Robert Barron - God Suffers for Us

Robert Barron - God Suffers for Us

Peace be with you. Friends, with our readings for this weekend, we are on very holy ground, because we're dealing with the imagery, symbolism, and theology of the suffering servant. It's an image of extraordinary importance in our great tradition. And we start now in our first reading. It's taken from the book of the prophet Isaiah. I might have mentioned this before to you, but the scholars divide Isaiah. The first 39 chapters they think is associated with the historical Isaiah. Then the central section, chapters 40 through 55, they call it Deutero or Second Isaiah, associated most likely with a figure around the time of the return of the captives from Babylon. Then they think 55 through the end would be a third Isaiah. But I won't get into all those details. What's important is the suffering servant imagery is taken from this middle section, this Deutero-Isaiah, dealing with the triumphant return of the exiles.

So this section is particularly lyrical and beautiful. It's the language of triumph and comfort and return. It's joyful. Listen to how it begins. Here's the opening lines of chapter 40. "Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, that she has served her term, and her penalty is paid". Good news. The exiles have paid the price. They're now coming home. And we hear throughout this section of the overwhelming majesty and power of God. Listen, here's an example. "See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him.... All the nations are as nothing before him. ... To whom will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Lord".

This is the powerful God of Israel now bringing his people back triumphantly from exile. This section's filled with the language of light and hope. God who seems to have abandoned his people now reveals himself as gracious and powerful. Now, sprinkled throughout this section of Isaiah, sprinkled throughout this triumphant section, are these poems, let's call them, there are four of them, dealing with the figure of the servant of Yahweh, a special servant who will do the work of the Lord associated with salvation. Now, here's the first reference. You'll find it in chapter 42, which is a particularly beautiful and famous chapter of Isaiah. Listen: "Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations... He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice for the earth".

Okay. There's the triumphant, powerful God of Israel bringing the exiles back. And now, now he's going to appoint a servant who will establish justice, not just for Israel, but through Israel for all the nations of the world. Okay; it fits in perfectly with the triumphant, powerful tone of Deutero-Isaiah, this servant of the Lord. But then things start getting more complicated. Listen now. This is our reading for today. It's taken from the fiftieth chapter of Isaiah, so right in the middle of this second section, and the servant is being further described. And listen. "I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting". "Okay, wait a minute," the readers of Isaiah must've thought.

"Wait a minute. I thought we're talking about triumph here. God bringing the exiles back, appointing a servant who will now bring his justice to all the nations, right? Isn't that what we're talking about? And now he's not only enduring these things; he's giving his back to those who will beat him, his cheeks to those who'll pluck his beard? He's not even shielding his face when they spit at him? Wait a minute. I don't get it. This is the servant you're talking about"? Mm-hm. Now go to chapter 53, which is the most famous of these suffering servant songs. See because now that's the motif. He's a servant of the Lord, but he's a suffering servant.

Now listen from 53: "He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we would desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces". Okay, I'm still not getting this. This is the triumphant servant of Yahweh who will bring justice to all the world? You know how important the appearance of the king was in the ancient world. And it hasn't changed that much, how appearance-conscious we are about our leaders: that they look good, they look impressive. But this one: "no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him".

And then, you'd think the triumphant servant of the Lord would be someone full of power and majesty, but here he's despised. He's rejected. He's a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity. Okay, this is a little bit puzzling. And it gets even more puzzling. Listen now, I'm still in chapter 53. "Surely he", the servant, "has borne our iniquities and carried our diseases; we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed".

Okay. Here's what I meant when I said we're on a very holy ground here. This indeed is the great servant of the Lord, who indeed will bring justice and salvation to all the world. But how will he do it? What's very clear now, not in the customary way, not in the way of worldly kings, not through armies and through conquest, but precisely by bearing the suffering of the world, by taking upon himself the punishment that is due to the world. What could this mean? Now, imagine people for the first time encountering these texts from Isaiah, and they're wondering, "Well, I get it, I suppose, but how does this work? What does it mean"?

Well, we can think of some ready examples, I think. The great Maximillian Kolbe, the priest at Auschwitz who gave himself to save another man who had been chosen for execution. Kolbe simply came forward and said, "I'm a Catholic priest. Take me". And so Kolbe, by his wounds, by his bruises, by his self-sacrifice, saved this other man. Less dramatic examples: the mother of a child who stays up all night, denies herself sleep that she might care for a suffering child. She bears in her own body the suffering of her child. The dad who brings his kid to skating practice at 5:30 in the morning. That's less dramatic than Maximillian Kolbe, but still the same idea. By his suffering, he brings life and betterment to his son. Or think of a friend who says, "I'm going to donate my own kidney that my friend might live".

So we begin to get it, we begin to see that we can bring life to others, we can bring salvation, it just means healing, to others, precisely by taking upon ourselves suffering. Okay. All of this, I suggest to you, all of this, let's say Isaiah, the second part, is written they think around the year 500 BC, so for all these years, Israel had carried within its mind and heart this idea, this image of the suffering servant, God's servant, who will bring justice to the world precisely through suffering. Okay? With that in mind, we come to the famous scene, which is in our Gospel: the scene of Jesus and the disciples at Caesarea Philippi.

"Who do people say that I am"? "Who do you say that I am"? And of course, it's Simon Peter that gives the correct answer: "You're the Christ, the Son of God". Okay. I've preached often on that passage; consult those homilies. But I want to focus now on the follow-up. Once Peter makes the confession, "Yes, you are the Christ, you're the Son of God", listen now. Here's in our Gospel. "He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed".

Now, I want you, friends, to move into that kind of wrenching psychological space the disciples must have been in. They watch their Master at work, teaching and healing and performing miracles, and they're guessing, they're wondering: Is he the one? Is he the Messiah? And then, at this climactic moment, Peter, speaking for all of them, says, "Yes, you are. You're the Christ. You're the Son of God". I mean, how thrilled they must've been. Here's the long-awaited "Mashiach," the anointed of Israel. Here's the new David, who will drive away the enemies of the nation. Here's the one who will establish justice, yes for Israel and for the whole world. But then Jesus reminds them of these strange passages from the book of the prophet Isaiah.

What he's saying is, "Remember what it means to be the anointed of the Lord. Remember what it means to be the servant of the Lord". He "must suffer greatly," "be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed". At the end of his life, Jesus was indeed persecuted, arrested, beaten, spat upon, dragged through the streets, nailed to a Roman cross, endured all of that suffering, and died. Who is he? Well, Peter confessed correctly. He's the Christ, the Son of the living God. He's the servant who'll bring God's justice to the world. How will he do it? Precisely as Isaiah predicted. Not through worldly power and triumph, but by taking upon himself the sin and cruelty and dysfunction of the world and swallowing it up in the ever greater divine mercy, Jesus journeying all the way to the bottom of human dysfunction, so as to bring into that darkest place something of the light of God's forgiveness.

It was precisely in his suffering that he accomplished this great act of justice. In Zeffirelli's "Jesus of Nazareth", which I watched as a kid; it came out in the 1970s. It's a wonderful film about the life of Jesus. And it stars many of the biggest stars in the world at the time, including the great Laurence Olivier. People saw him as, at the time, the greatest actor in the world. And he plays Nicodemus, the one who came at night to talk to Jesus. But Nicodemus is there as the procession with the cross is going on, as Jesus is moving toward Calvary.

And they show Nicodemus, and the great face of Laurence Olivier is communicating this anguish and confusion. But then he begins to recite exactly these passages from Deutero Isaiah. He begins to recite the passages dealing with the suffering servant. "By his wounds we are healed". It represents the moment when the Church began fully to understand what was at stake.

Yes, he is the "Mashiach". Yes, he is the Christ the Son of the living God. Yes, he is the one who will bring God's salvation to all the world. But he will do it precisely by bearing the pain and suffering of the world. Friends, move into the power of these texts. Can I recommend: get out your Bibles; go to that central section, chapters 40 through 55 of Isaiah; read those passages; and maybe like Laurence Olivier in the film, repeat those passages. They'll help you understand precisely how Jesus brought salvation to the world. And God bless you. Thanks so much for watching.
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