Isaiah 53:4-12; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45
My paternal grandfather (my dad’s dad) was really interested in genealogy. I never asked exactly where this interest came from but through it, I learned some random historical facts about my dad’s side. Little nuggets of info such as, I apparently have a Quaker ancestor from somewhere near Pittsburgh or Erie, PA, or that others in my family line were British Loyalists who moved up to New Brunswick after the American Revolution.
Not everyone has the privilege of knowing about their specific ethnic heritage: some cultures lack written documents, while others were subjected to abuses and atrocities that wiped away much cultural and historical memory. In one of my classes this semester, I’ve learned a little about DNA mapping and how one’s ethnic heritage can be traced by the stories on our bodies that we can’t see. For some people, learning about their ethnic heritage or genealogy provides a way to understand themselves as part of a larger, longer human story, bringing meaning and even healing to known or unknown pasts.
The Bible has a lot of genealogical information. The New Testament starts off with a genealogy of Jesus. Jesus was ethnically and religiously Jewish—a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He was also in the family line of David, whether you trace him through Joseph’s lineage in Matthew or Mary’s in Luke. While the genealogy passages Matthew 1 and Luke 3 might seem a little dry or tedious, they are actually important for understanding that Jesus didn’t just spring up out of the blue. His ministry was an extension of a few thousand years of faith and worship in Israel.
In the Church of the Brethren, we say that the New Testament is our creed and we emphasis the words and teachings of Jesus. This emphasis came out of a desire not to fight over creeds and theology, as Christians were doing in the 1600 and 1700s. But in saying that the New Testament is our creed, we aren’t saying that the Old Testament should be thrown away or isn’t important. The Hebrew Scriptures or First Testament, as the OT is sometimes referred, provide an important context and foundation for our faith and for understanding Jesus.
We Need the Hebrew Scriptures
A few weeks ago, we had footwashing in our Love Feast worship service. Footwashing is rather weird. Our feet are clean, pretty much, but we kneel down and scoop water over them and dry them. Feetwashing needs context in order to understand the meaning behind it, something that we try to do regularly—teach context and meaning. The need for context is present any time you read the Bible, including when we look at Jesus’ life and ministry, his death on the cross and his resurrection. Without the context of the Hebrew Scriptures, everything about Jesus is pretty weird. Some might say it’s rather strange even in context—but it is in context that we learn the spiritual and practical meanings of who Jesus is and why what He did matters.
The Hebrew Scriptures—which were Jesus’ Bible—put the New Testament into a context of God the Creator reconciling the world. As created beings, humans were given the freedom to choose: to choose love or to choose hate and harm and greed. In the beginning of the Bible, we see that people chose the latter. God then took the long road, the thousands of years-long journey of reconciling us to Himself and to each other and our world. Curiously, at least to me, God has chosen to do this through small and seemingly insignificant people and people groups. A wandering nomad named Abram became the ancestor of a nation. A large clan of Jacob became a nation state, though with significant ups and downs like slavery and the Exodus and wars and idolatry and wise kings and bad kings and exile.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, we also see a complicated religious system revealed by God. The LORD, Yahweh, is holy and the people of Israel—corrupt as we all are in our hearts—need to purify themselves to remain in relationship with God, through religious rituals. This system of purification—Levitical Law—is messy and bloody and complicated and, overall, insufficient for permanently making the people right with God. High priests were appointed to offer sacrifices on behalf of themselves and the people. No lambs or goats made lasting dents on the Israelites’ or humanity’s capacity for violence, hate, and greed.
Thankfully, God’s plan didn’t stop with that sacrificial system. It was a bridge, something that the ancient Israelites could grasp and that pointed to a final act of reconciliation, where Yahweh would perform the ritual acts needed to cleanse human hearts. We see this foreshadowed in the Old Testament, when the prophets speak of the LORD giving the people new hearts, of making a new covenant that the people themselves could never ever break.
Our passage in Isaiah is one of those foreshadowing passages. In it we read about a suffering servant. Isaiah has several poetic passages called “servant songs,” one of which goes from chapter 52:13-53:12, of which we read a portion. Servant songs point towards someone who would lead Israel out of its path of exile and back towards its mission as God’s people, bringing light to the nations around it. In Isaiah 53, we see that the servant is so willing to commit to God’s will that the servant suffers, is killed despite innocence, and is lifted up as great and righteous, and in doing so, making others also righteous.
Several years ago, when I was in college in Chicago, I was volunteering in a ministry that tutored English as a Second Language to senior citizens, ones who had emigrated from the former Soviet Union and most of whom were Jewish. There was typically a short devotional and then we broke up into pairs to work on English, sometimes just having conversation or sometimes reading passages together from the Bible or a newspaper, as each senior felt comfortable.
My partner, Olga, was interested in learning more about the Hebrew Scriptures, since many Jews in the USSR had not been allowed to practice their faith. Since she was okay with reading the Bible, I thought we could read a passage that might also raise some questions about how Christianity is connected to Judaism. She started reading aloud from Isaiah 53 and she stopped part way, a bit aghast. “This is Jesus!” she exclaimed, incredulously. I said, “Yes, that was what Jesus’ disciples said too.” The NT writers looked back and saw several layers of meaning in this passage: meaning for Isaiah’s time and also a meaning for 800 years later, in the time of Jesus. The suffering servant pointed toward Jesus, who would also suffer in innocence and “make many righteous” after doing so.
Preaching the Cross and the Empty Tomb: Christ Crucified and Raised
As I was preparing this sermon and reading these texts, I wondered, “Is it possible to preach the Cross without also preaching resurrection? Is it possible to preach the resurrection without also preaching the Cross?” Neither, I think, provides us with a full gospel. In college and a bit beyond, I grew dissatisfied with a message that I often heard, preaching Christ “came to die” without also preaching about what Jesus did while on earth and without emphasizing the Resurrection. It seemed as if the dying part was only what mattered to some people, not also the healing the sick, the feeding the hungry, the loving the outcast, the raising the dead—and being raised FROM the dead. It seemed like an incomplete approach.
This dissatisfaction was one of the things that drew me to the Church of the Brethren, which draws heavily from Jesus’ life and ministry and emphasizes the resurrection and Christ’s coming Kingdom. Now, I am a preacher and a minister, tasked with interpreting and helping people understand God’s word and the gospel of Jesus. It is good news that Christ conquered death and rose from the dead: that death no longer has mastery over us, that we are dead to sin, dead to hatred, to racism, to greed and alive to God, alive to love, alive to reconciliation, alive to generosity.
Romans 5:12-21 talks about how sin and brokenness began with the first humans in Genesis. Hatred, violence, and greed became a way of life for all of humanity. Even if not all of us commit violence or are that greedy, our hearts have this tendency to hurt others and care mainly about ourselves. The apostle Paul writes about how someone was needed to help us break this cycle, someone who wouldn’t succumb to hate. A servant of God who would not do violence, would not be deceitful (Isa. 53:9). Someone who could live out humanity as it was meant to be: loving, serving, healing, feeding, reconciling, and forgiving. This person was Jesus.
The religious elite of Jesus’ day didn’t like that he healed, fed, loved, and forgave sins on God’s behalf. They were concerned about preserving the status quo, about outward rituals, about not rattling the Roman occupiers. So Jesus was falsely accused of blasphemy and executed as a criminal by the Romans. Looking at Isaiah 53, we see how the Suffering Servant, like Jesus, did not resist the violence being done to him (v. 7). The punishment meted out by the Romans was unjust; Isaiah said that the servant “by a perversion of justice he was taken away” (v. 8). Jesus certainly did not deserve to be crucified alongside thieves and murders, for the crimes of healing the sick and forgiving sins in the name of the LORD.
While we read that Jesus was Immanuel, God with us, fully God and fully human, it wasn’t automatic that He would live as He did. He had to work to love and be obedient. God recognized Jesus’ obedience at his baptism (Matt. 3:17). Hebrews 5:5 says that this obedience, even if it meant suffering and death, this fulfillment of what it meant to be a loving and just human—even if it cost him everything—led to God appointing Jesus as high priest. Jesus became the High Priest of all High Priests, the one who could offer up prayers and ask for forgiveness of sins once and for all.
Transformed by the Cross and Resurrection
All of this—prophecy, Jesus being the human of all humans, a suffering servant, a prototypical high priest—it is all rather complicated. Yet what it means for us, as followers of Jesus, is that we follow the One who lived out what humanity should look like—and died because of it. We follow the One whom God raised from the dead and appointed as our high priest, our mediator before Him. Hebrews 4 says that Jesus was tempted in every way that we are, yet without sin: “Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (4:14-16).
Sisters and brothers, who is Jesus and why do we follow Him? Jesus is God-in-the-flesh, the perfect human to come and break us out of our cycle of hate and violence and greed. Jesus is the One who shows us what it really looks like to live and to love, that the greatest are not those of us who lord ourselves over others but the great ones are the ones who serve. Jesus is the One who was willing to follow God’s way of love, even if it meant dying an unjust death. Jesus is the One who has conquered sin and hate and greed, who has walked through the darkness of death, and has forged the way of new life as the firstborn Resurrected child of God.
We follow Jesus to learn what it means to be human and to truly live. Jesus is the One who stands before us as our High Priest, bringing us into right relationship with God. We follow Jesus to be reconciled to God, through Jesus’ submission, death, and resurrection. We follow Jesus to be transformed, to encounter new life through the Holy Spirit, as God gives us a new heart. We follow Jesus to show the world what God’s love looks like: compassion and justice and reconciliation and nonviolence and mercy and sacrificial service. AMEN.
Hebrews 12: 1-2
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.