Scripture: Isaiah 42:1-9
In the last year or two, a number of the small groups here worked through some curriculum written by Adam Hamilton which is titled Half Truths. For those who haven’t had the good fortune of reading the book or watching the videos as of yet, the basic premise is that there are things that Christians often say without really thinking about it which are not really biblical and are often damaging. These are things like:
Everything happens for a reason……
It must have been God’s will……
God won’t give you more than you can handle……
God helps those who help themselves……
God said it, I believe it, that settles it……
Love the sinner, hate the sin……
In the discussion surrounding each of these, Hamilton argues that there may be a kernel of truth at the center of each saying, but as articulated and used in general conversation each is more harmful than helpful.
I’m not going to regurgitate Hamilton’s book to you this morning, but these “half truths” seem like a good place to start our reflection. They are (in my assessment) bumper sticker stop-gaps–they are pithy things we say when we don’t know what to say, usually in response to something we don’t understand…… like injustice, or death, or change.
A lot of them have at least a tangental connection to a question that has plagued human philosophy for millennia: Why do bad things happen to good people?
Does that not continue to be a relevant question?
We all know someone–or more than likely several someones–who have had more than their fare share of hardship, or grief, or suffering.
We all know someone whose time on earth was cut short.
We all know someone who–despite their generous sowing of kindness and love–has only seemed to reap thorns and brambles.
We all know someone who deserves better out of life than they have received.
This doesn’t seem right to us. It doesn’t seem fair. It doesn’t seem just. And we don’t really understand why it is so.
Which makes it all the more unfortunate when we become so uncomfortable by these rough edges of life that we strike out at those suffering with one of these largely thoughtless aphorisms. At times when we would better off say nothing at all, we feel the need to say anything so we can feel like we did something.
I continue to find that there are a good deal of people who identify as Christians and who genuinely believe that this identification with Jesus should somehow insulate them from the troubles of life.
Like Hamilton’s “half truths,” this can work itself out in damaging ways.
When we point this at ourselves, we can despair and lose hope–after all, if only we were closer to Jesus we would not experience these things…… and yet we seem unable to be “good enough” to cross that threshold into a trouble-free life.
More often, however, we point it at others–not to their faces, perhaps, but in our minds and perhaps through gossip:
“Did you hear about so-and-so? They made that bed for themselves……”
Or: “Those kids wouldn’t be like that if they brought them to church…….”
Or: “What do you expect? You know who they were growing up!……”
In their own ways, these are all expressions of the falsehood that bad things only happen to people who deserve them.
Far too often, I fear we have become more like Job’s so-called friends than the Jesus we follow.
Job’s story (if you remember it) stands somewhat unique in the scriptures in the ways it directly challenges the kind of bumper-sticker theology that we are tempted to develop out of the Psalms and Proverbs. Job is described as an exceedingly just and faithful person–the most godly person you can imagine [Job 1:1]. He is also described as what many Christians today would call “blessed,” in that he has all the trappings of success: a big family, good health, a great amount of wealth, and even community influence (it seems). He is the paradigm of the good, successful, godly life–a role model in every possible way.
And in one–or actually two–fell swoops, all of it is gone. Most of his family have died tragically. All of his wealth has been taken from him. His health gets so bad he cannot even function anymore. And ultimately Job is joined by a few other community leaders (or so we are to suppose of them) who insist repeatedly that Job brought this on himself.
For roughly the next 35 chapters, they insist that bad things just don’t happen to good people; that Job must have brought all this onto himself by doing bad things in secret; that he must have only appeared to be good, and that these catastrophes have only proved that he was really a bad dude all along.
The biblical book of Job stands as a vivid corrective against this temptation to assume that a person only experiences hardship if they deserve it. It proclaims to those with ears to hear that bad things do happen…… and they happen to good people too…… and our attempts to understand why bad things happen are usually fruitless.
Jesus’ Response to the Question
It’s natural to try to make sense of life. But the testimony of the scriptures–which I suspect is confirmed through the experiences of each person here–is that the hardships of life are not reserved for those who deserve them.
Every day, we are aware of people who deserve better than what they get.
Every day, we are aware of people who deserve worse than what they get.
Our Heavenly Father “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous”–that’s what Jesus said (Matthew 5:45). That was his way in that moment of acknowledging that human life is unpredictable when it comes to such things.
At the beginning of Luke 13, some people bring news of recent catastrophes–some Galileans who were killed by Pilate, and eighteen who died when a building collapsed (perhaps in one of the region’s frequent earthquakes).
“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No…” Jesus says…… (Luke 13:2-3a NRSV)
“Do you think they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No…” Jesus says…… (Luke 13:4b-5a)
They did not bring these things on themselves. They were not targeted and taken out by a strategic strike by God. Life is dangerous. Life is short. Life is fragile.
That’s the lesson Jesus tries to impart on his hearers there in Luke 13. He urges them to awareness of the brevity and fragility of life–to be aware that they don’t know how much time they will have on this earth–and to live into the fullness of abundant life in God’s Kingdom of the Heavens.
A mentor of mine used to suggest that if a question cannot be answered, try turning it around. So if we cannot easily answer “Why do bad things happen to good people?”, we should instead try asking “Why shouldn’t bad things happen to good people?”
Maybe (in some ways) that’s a less comfortable question–but I do believe it gets us closer to the bible’s description of life and faith.
Three hundred years or less, St. Anthony the Great summed up the whole of the Christian life in this way: “Our great work is to lay the blame for our sins upon ourselves before God, and to expect to be tempted to our last breath.”
Within this corpus of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, one also finds examples like that of the wise woman Sarah. It is said that Amma Sarah “waged warfare” against a particular temptation for thirteen years. “She never prayed that the warfare should cease but she said, ‘O God, give me strength.'”
A Difficult Road
Difficulties will be a part of any Christian’s life, because difficulties are part of every person’s life. In our redemption, we do not somehow cease to be human; rather, we become more fully human–more fully what God intends and desires that “human” means and becomes.
Jesus himself experienced tremendous hardship–even and ultimately a sham trial and capital punishment. To anyone who chose to follow him, Jesus did not suggest the road would be easy; rather, he suggested they should expect to receive the same treatment he himself received. In John 15 (for example), Jesus reminds his disciples:
“If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you…… Remember the word that I said to you, ‘Servants are not greater than their master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (John 15:18, 20 NRSV)
This brings us back to today’s scripture lesson.
Here in Isaiah 42, we find the first of what has come to be called the “Servant Songs” of Isaiah. These are poems that describe someone called “the servant of the Lord.” Jewish interpreters tend to read these as either describing a messiah figure (the more classical reading) or describing a restored and fulfilled Israel (the more modern reading).
Christian interpreters usually see them as anticipating Jesus the Christ, especially in light of the Servant Song found in Isaiah 52 and 53, which describes a servant:
who is “lifted up” (52:13),
whose appearance is “marred…beyond human semblance” (52:14),
who is “despised and rejected by others” (53:3),
who “was wounded for our transgressions” (53:5),
and who “bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors” (53:12).
As we followers of Jesus have traditionally read these texts, we understand that the servant in Isaiah 42 is the same as the one in Isaiah 53. The servant who suffers in chapter 53 is the same one who preserves the suffering in 42. The one who experiences injustice in chapter 53 will “faithfully bring forth justice” in 42.
The way of this Servant-Who-Endures is a gentle way that invites instead of demands: “He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street” (Isaiah 42:2 NRSV).
The way of this Servant-Who-Endures is persistent and enduring, despite obstacles and obstructions: “He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth” (Isaiah 42:4a NRSV).
The way of this Servant-Who-Endures opens up pathways of good news–and good news precisely for those on the margins of society: “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isaiah 42:6–7 NRSV).
This Servant-Who-Endures paves the way for us to endure as well. Just as was his own experience of life, our own will not be without hardship. In fact, we may find that following the Servant-Who-Endures will place us at odds with the government and other people of faith. Just as with Jesus himself, we may find that it feels like the world hates us [John 15:19].
But if we are following the way of the Servant-Who-Endures, we will discover that we can abide in the blessedness of Christ’s Kingdom even “when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matthew 5:11 NRSV).
Because in Christ, we realize that our blessedness and experience of God’s favor is not conditional upon the circumstances of our life, but rather independent from them. That God’s love for us is not limited to our ability to live rightly or follow the rules, but is rooted fundamentally in our very creation: because we exist, we exist as creatures loved by God.
And as we begin to grasp this reality in our developing relationship with Jesus, we learn that we are able to endure not because of our own strength or stubbornness, but because of the endurance of the Servant-Who-Endures, who offers his presence and power to endure whatever the world may throw our way. We may even find ourselves discovering that we can, in fact, “Rejoice and be glad” (Matthew 5:12 NRSV)–not by trying harder, but by growing in relationship and trust with the Servant-Who-Endures and learning ever-more of his love.