Monthly Archives: March 2020

29 March – Sin-sick

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Lent 5

Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Psalm 130
John 11:1-26

In a sentence
God’s promise is that all that which limits us – spiritually, physically, politically – will be healed; until that time, faithful living bears what is not right in the world and looks forward to God’s fulfilment of this promise.

There is a lot going on in our reading from Isaiah this morning, only a small part of which we’ll be able to address closely in this time together.

We begin by picking up something we noted a couple of weeks ago. This is the ‘flicker’ the prophet allows around the identity of the ‘Servant’ who features in the readings we have been considering over the last month. We saw how the Servant is sometimes the people – ‘Servant Israel’ – and sometimes an individual distinct from the people but nevertheless deeply connected to them – the ‘Saviour-Servant’.

We can detect hints of this again in today’s text. If we replace the pronouns which appear to refer to the individual Saviour-Servant so that they now refer to Israel, we get the following from one section of the passage:

53.2 For [Israel] grew up before [the Lord] like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
[It] had no form or majesty that we should look at [it],
nothing in [its] appearance that we should desire [it].
3 [Israel] was despised and rejected by others;
a [people] of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces.
[Israel] was despised, and we held [it] of no account.

This ‘works’ as an account of Israel’s own experience: a people chosen for no value it had in itself other than God’s own call to it, a people raised up out of nothing, a people overrun, afflicted and dismissed by the nations.

We noted last time how this flickering from the Saviour-Servant to Servant Israel is important for Isaiah and also, ultimately, for our understanding of how God works with us in Jesus.

I bring this to mind again because there is another important ‘flickering’ in today’s reading: between illness and disease on the one hand, and sin and unrighteousness on the other.

Verse 4 in today’s translation (NRSV) ran,

4 Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.

But, in a modern Jewish translation, the text reads:

4 Yet it was our sickness that he was bearing,
Our suffering that he endured.
We accounted him plagued,
Smitten and afflicted by God (JPS Tanakh translation)

Those who know this passage well ‘know’ that it is about how the sin of the people is overcome by the afflictions of the Saviour-Servant: ‘he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors’ (53.12). Yet there is a flickering here between the suffering from disease and the suffering brought about by guilt and transgression which is also present in the fuller passage.

We are greatly tempted to read the reference to sickness and plague as ‘metaphorical’. This is the way many modern translations prefer to slant the references to ‘disease’. But why exactly do we do this?

One reason is that we reject – rightly, and with the righteous sufferer Job – any notion that illness and suffering are reliable indications of personal sin. Against this, we hold that a person must not be reduced to what happens to her; that the sick person does not ‘deserve’ to be sick because of her sin.

And yet here in Isaiah sickness is a least a ‘sign’ of sin – something which appears where we might expect sin to appear.

Perhaps another reason we treat sickness as ‘only’ a metaphor for sin is that we hold physical illness to be more ‘real’ or tangible than sin – almost too bodily to stand for sin. Yet the text does not hesitate here. Isaiah flicks happily between sickness and sin as if they were the same kind of problem, as if the one had something to do with the other.

Of course if this is what Isaiah is doing then it matters for us here and now, quite directly and existentially. For today we ‘gather’ remotely for the first time on account of a plague which has fallen on the world. Reading this text in this context, we have to ask, ‘Has the Servant’s being ‘wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities’ (v5) got anything to do with the suffering that afflictions like COVID-19 (or any other plague) bring?’

The answer to this question would have to be ‘No’ if disease and sin are ‘only metaphorically’ related in this passage. If illness is merely ‘borrowed’ as an analogy to illuminate what it means to be a sinner and is not really about the meaning of sickness before God, then what the Saviour-Servant experiences has very little to do with what COVID-19 might do to us. For if the biblical text will not allow it, our modern minds certainly won’t allow that the unhappy accident of a new virus springing from genetic mutation has anything to do with sin.

But hesitation to bring sin and sickness at least into ‘dialogue’ with one another requires that we do a violence to ourselves. It requires that we separate what ails us ‘physically’ from what ails us ‘spiritually’. It tempts us to imagine that we can be ‘fixed up’ spiritually even as we still suffer physically, because sin and sickness are cast as problems in different unconnected parts of ourselves. A common manifestation of this way of thinking is talk about the ‘now-and-not‑yet’ nature of our salvation: the ‘now’ is that God already forgives us completely (‘spiritually’) and the ‘not‑yet’ is that our health or mortality or even our politics lag behind in the process, still to be ‘fixed’.

Yet the Scriptures will not divide us into ‘spiritual’ and ‘physical’ like that. If the ‘physical’ is incomplete or still ailing, so also is the ‘spiritual’. Instead of ‘now-and-not-yet’ the Scriptures tend more towards ‘not-yet, and yet…’ (to which we’ll return in a moment).

What holding sin and sickness together might speak to us is that, if we continue to be afflicted by plagues, so we continue to be afflicted by sin. If we continue to sin, so we continue to be afflicted by plagues. This is not to say that the one ‘causes’ the other. Abstractions of cause and effect are not the point here. The point is that the human being is a spiritual and physical whole. If we dare to separate out the spirit or the soul for a moment, whatever happens to it happens to the body, and vice-versa. Letting illness ‘stand’ for sin, and sin ‘stand’ for illness, keeps us whole, even in our alienation from the fullness of life.

It is this wholeness – or its absence – which most deeply ails us. We are divided. We can treat the interior while the exterior suffers or decays; we can treat the exterior while the interior languishes. We can favour the now at the expense of the future; we can languish in the now for a future which may never come. We would have to say that it seems impossible not to divide ourselves against ourselves in this way.

And this division within ourselves flickers back and forth with the division between ourselves and God. This brings us to the heart of the work of God’s Servant in Isaiah.

The Saviour-Servant in Isaiah reveals the ‘not-yet, and yet’ of living faithfully in a world of divisions. His afflictions are the ‘not-yet’, whether in sickness and disease or in being abused by others. In sickness he is divided from himself; in oppression he is divided from common humanity. The world is not right, and the Servant’s experience is evidence of this.

But his posture in this suffering is the ‘and yet’: ‘This is ghastly, and yet I still know who is God’. This is pain, and yet it is not the end of all things. This is rejection, and yet God embraces me. This now is the not-yet, and yet God’s tomorrow is coming.

The triumph of Isaiah’s Servant is not what God does with the Servant’s faithfulness but his very faithfulness itself. Infected by the sin-sick world, he is brought to death. But he dies denying that death is the last word, affirming that division from self and other will be overcome, affirming that he will be – in God – whole.

The miracle is that God takes the Servant’s faithfulness and makes it our own.

In the same way Jesus dies on a cross, the lines of which divide the world horizontally and vertically. Signalling our division from each other and from God in this way, the cross becomes the final word about our condition: separation left and right, up and down, within and without. This is as ‘not-yet’ as any talk about wholeness and reconciliation could be; such things are not even in sight.

And yet. And yet the miracle is that God takes the dividing lines of the cross and makes of them a sign of God’s power to create from nothing. God makes of Jesus’ outstretched arms a span which holds together what the ‘horizontal’ divisions between us separate. God makes of the stretch between the crown of thorns and the nail in Jesus’ feet a span holding together the ‘vertical’ division between us and God.

In this way, as with the Servant, God makes a reconciliation of Jesus’ own faithful ‘and yet’ in the face of all of which afflicted him. For Lent is the ‘not yet, and yet’ of Jesus.

This righteous one – the Servant of God, makes many righteous (v.11) – by carrying our disease and bearing our iniquity, by identifying with us in an intercession which prays, ‘Yes God, they are sin and disease, and yet…’

Praise be to God that the prayer of the Servant is heard.

MtE Update – 28 March 2020

  1. Sunday worship this week will be via a pre-recorded service, either  directly online at YouTube on the MtE ‘channel’ or by following the links from the home page of the MtE website.
  2. If you’re still trying to get your head around what COVID-19 is — the nature of the threat and so on — this video from the Doherty Institute at the University of Melbourne is very helpful.
  3. THIS SUNDAY March 29 (Lent 5): we continue with our reading of the ‘servant songs’ from Isaiah, this week looking at Isaiah 52.13-53.12. See here for more information. For commentary on the Psalm and Gospel reading for this Sunday, see here.

Sunday Worship at MtE – 29 March 2020

The worship service for Sunday 29 March 2020 can be viewed by clicking on the image below. It’s still a bit clunky — we’re learning! – – let us know what you think. Other worship services can be found in the list below or at the MtE YouTube channel

Sunday Worship at MtE – Gathered and Online

With the relaxation of some COVID-19 restrictions in Victoria, MtE is able to move towards fully gathered worship again.

The first gathered service will be November 29, 2020. Members of the congregation who would like to attend can expect that there will be space for them.

We regret that, on account of a strict limit on numbers permitted in the building, we cannot guarantee entry to everyone who might like to come and so visitors who would like to attend should register their interest — please contact the minister.

Masks will have to be worn, attendance registered, seating will be according to current health requirements, ‘physical distancing’ will be in place as well as other C-19 requirements. Holy Communion will be distributed ‘under one kind’ (bread only) after a suitable sanitisation of hands.

As these services will be live-streamed, there is also the possibility that you will appear in the broadcast (should this be a concern to you) although the cameras will principally focus on the front sanctuary space.

After the live-streamed services are finished they will continue to be available on our YouTube channel or via the links below (the most recently available service is at the top of the list):

Lenten Studies 2020 – ONLINE VERSION!

In view of the COVID-19 epidemic, the study groups have moved online; contact the minister if you would like to join in!

This year our Lenten Studies will be offered across a several churches/locations and times, to enable greater participation and to encourage more people to attend.

The Lenten studies will be around a little book by Rowan Williams, ‘The sign and the Sacrifice: the Meaning of the Cross and Resurrection’. Williams unpacks a number of central themes around Easter in a helpful and illuminating way. An easy read, with 30-40 minutes of preparation for each session.

Participants should obtain their own copy of the book, which is readily available from online sources such as The Book Depository and Amazon, and lots of other sources.

An electronic (Kindle) version of the book is also available, although it is published under a different title: God With Us: The Meaning Of The Cross And Resurrection – Then And Now . You can peek at the first few pages of the book on this web page.

Setting up Zoom

Mark the Evangelist has adopted the ‘Zoom’ online conferencing platform as a means of enabling ourselves to continue with meetings, study groups and other ‘get-togethers’ during the period of the COVID-10 lock-down. You will need Zoom to connect to these ‘gatherings’, although not for the worship services, which will come via another means.

Zoom is easy to set up and easy to use once you are set up. MtE has purchased a subscription for congregational activities, which means MtE events can run as long as we need them to. Participants don’t need a subscription to join. You can also run your online online meet-ups for up to 40 minutes without a subscription.

You also don’t need to sign-up with Zoom to join meetings but it’s probably useful to do so (should you want to arrange your own get-togethers; entering a meeting with your own account also means your name and not only your email or location appears under your image on the screen). Sign up here. It’s free and requires, as usual, a password.

Zoom can be used on Android and iOS phones and tablets which have a front-facing camera (they almost all do!), or on a laptop with a webcam (most do!) or a desktop computer with a web cam (you might need to purchase one of these if you’ve a desk top computer. HOWEVER, you can join in by audio only, without the video — you’ll see the others but they’ll not see you; this can be useful if your connection is not strong — the audio requires less than the video). The laptop/desk top arrangement has the advantage of the larger screen, meaning that you can see most of the participants; with the phone you can usually only see the person who is currently speaking.

To set up Zoom on your phone, PC or Mac, see the guidelines on  Zoom’s ‘Getting Started’ page. Once you’ve attempted the set up, you can test your success with a test meeting here; follow the instructions and, all being well, you’ll connect and see yourself on the screen!

We understand that this won’t be easy for everyone, and so we are setting up a couple of help sessions — details of these have come in the email which directed you to this web page. If you’re still having trouble, contact Rod or Craig.

22 March – Love’s new creation

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Lent 4

Isaiah 50:4-11
Psalm 130
John 11:1-25

In a sentence
The Servant’s faithfulness is a confidence that, in all things, he is held by God, and this frees the servant for love even when he is being made to suffer.

The fear unfolding around the COVID-19 pandemic is, in part, fear of the widespread suffering and death it threatens to bring. This is the fear of the loss of things we love – people we love.

In fact, in this instance, significant loss is already being realised even before any such death touches us personally. Fundamental to being human is our embodied relationality – the physicality of our being-in-relation with others. Without this we are not ourselves.

Yet a virus weaponises human social being against us. And so, in the absence of a vaccine or antidote, we are forced to battle this threat by denying it what makes it` strong: the centrality of our bodies to our relationships with each other. In order to defend ourselves and those we love we isolate ourselves from each other. And yet we lose something of ourselves and them in this process. Even before anyone dies, then, the virus brings about a kind of death-in-diminishment.

What we fear here is the loss of what we love – the deaths of people who matter to us, the isolation from those who are a part of us.

There is, however, another fear which has manifest itself in response to the threat of the virus. We see the signs of this fear in the empty shelves in our supermarkets. Those empty shelves are not merely about greed or irrational thinking. They are a sign of the fear that, in all this, we might actually be alone.

If the fear of death and social isolation is the fear that we might lose what we love, the run on supplies reveals a fear that we might not be loved, that there is finally only me-and-mine on whom I can depend in the struggle to survive.

Thomas Hobbes characterised human social existence as ‘a war of all against all’. This might seem a little dramatic as a characterisation of recent toilet paper shortages, but that is only because of the robustness of our supply chain and the strength of our institutions. Hobbes argued we need such things to protect ourselves from ourselves, and we have learned from him. We have been able to set the ship upright again because the ballast in our political economy is so substantial. But this can blind us to what was indicated in the temporary imbalance: I feel safer if my pantry is full rather than having to rely on you to give to me from yours when the need arises. I’m not sure you love me that much, that God loves me that much or that ‘the system’ which is our economy and society loves me that much.

Our lives, then, are caught up in the threat that we might lose what we love – by the virus or any other means – and in the fear that we might not be loved, that we might be alone in our suffering.

Our reading from Isaiah this morning describes one whose experience of threat and suffering differs from ours in form but not in substance. He too is faced with the loss of things loved: the loss of freedom, the loss of dignity, the charge of unrighteousness. In this way, he knows the pain of death, and possibly also has an understandable fear of it. In this he is not different from us.

But this pain does not lead to doubt that he is loved. Whatever happens to the Servant – and it is bad enough – he declares, ‘I have not been disgraced.’ This is because it is not what happens to him which is the measure of who he is but rather the God who claims him: ‘It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?’ (v.9). This in no sense justifies or even alleviates what the Servant suffers. But there is something here starkly different from what we have seen around us lately, and not only lately.

The prophet makes this point explicitly:

Who among you fears the Lord
and obeys the voice of his servant,
[the servant] who walks in darkness
and has no light,
yet trusts in the name of the Lord
and relies upon his God? (v.10)

The implied answer to the question, ‘Who among you,’ is, ‘no-one’: no-one walks in darkness and – despite this – holds that they are still loved. But Isaiah is not being pessimistic here.

Only love itself – the refusal to compete for survival – overcomes the fear that we are alone. When the prophet doubts, then, that there are any who honour the way of the Servant, any who dwell in darkness without despair, it is not quite to accuse. It is to see something new in the relationship between God and the Servant.

The Servant’s suffering does not lead to despair, does not cause him to doubt that he is loved. And so the Servant does not compete with others in order to survive, There is no ‘war against all’ which is necessary for him to engage in, because survival is not the point – his relationship to God is: love is the point. Survival – mere survival – is always ultimately lonely because it finally pits us against each other. Yet the defining mark of the Servant is that he is not alone, and it is out of this that he has life.

This is something new, and it brings us back to what we noted in passing in our first reflection on these Servant Songs. There we saw a strange juxtaposition in Isaiah of the way the Servant suffers and the creative power of the sovereign God. What this means becomes clearer today. The Servant is a true creature of God because, despite what happens, he remains the Servant of this God. This unbroken relation, in which the Servant is servant of this God and God is God of this servant, is precisely what creation is: the binding of God and creature together so that the one cannot be itself without the other.

Creation happens in the faithfulness of the Servant, in his trust that in all things God is his and he is God’s. This is a creation from the chaos and void of competition and the struggle of all against all for mere survival. In its absence we are left, as the prophet so graphically puts it: to ‘walk in the flame of our own fire’ (v.11).

But in the creative spark which is God’s faithful Servant, a different kind of fire is kindled. This is the fire of love in the freedom of one who knows that he, she, is loved.

We can tighten the law to protect ourselves from each other, but fear will out, as will the chaos it brings. The law does not create, does not bring life. The law does not set us free from our fears but only suppresses them.

Yet where there is love, we are fully alive even should we suffer or die (cf. John 11.25f).

Perhaps you recognised some of the phrases in the Isaiah reading this morning, more familiar in St Paul’s borrowing:

If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is [Servant!] at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.

Naming the space of that community as one in which ‘we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered’ (v.36), Paul continues:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, [or disease,] or nakedness, or peril, or sword? …

The answer to this is the same as the answer to Isaiah’s question, but now it is clear gospel: ‘No-one’ can separate us from this.

And so, Paul declares, ‘in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

For though we may have good grounds to fear the pain that death and separation can bring, it remains the case that

38…neither death, nor life,
nor angels, nor rulers,
nor things present, nor things to come,
nor powers,
39nor height, nor depth,
nor anything else in all creation,
will be able to separate us from
the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,
the resurrection and the life.

When this is our confession,
every moment is alive with God,
as love:
the beginning of a new creation.

Let us then, even out of the depths, lift up our hearts.

MtE Update – 20 March 2020

  1. If you have not already seen it, please see the post about the cancellation of gathered public worship after this Sunday.
  2. Lenten Studies will continue to their completion, now via the online service ‘Zoom’. Details of how to join in on the online discussions (very easy!) will be available soon. 
  3. Our Congregational AGM has been postponed pending a return to normal Sunday worship gatherings.
  4. THIS SUNDAY March 22 (Lent 4): we continue with our reading of the ‘servant songs’ from Isaiah, this week looking at Isaiah 50.4-11. See here for more information.
  5. As Bunnings has cancelled all its fundraising BBQ’s for now, Hotham Mission’s BBQ is now cancelled too. The Mission did receive a $500 donation from Bunnings in lieu of the BBQ!
  6. LATE ADDITION: Pastoral Letter from the VicTas Moderator in response to the present COVID-19 crisis.

Cessation of gathered worship at Mark the Evangelist

20 March 2020

Sisters and brothers in the Congregation of Mark the Evangelist,

last night the Church Council met to consider the meaning of the current COVID-19 crisis for our life together at MtE. Taking into consideration the necessity of containing the virus and the growing anxiety in the community about even those social gatherings which are still permitted, we resolved that the worship service this coming Sunday March 22 will be the last gathered service for at least four weeks, and likely longer. This will include the Holy Week and Easter Services. We believe this to be the most appropriate step with respect to our common worship under these circumstances. The service on March 22 will be as usual, except that the Eucharist will be received only by the celebrant, we will space the chairs out more than usual, and we will not serve morning tea afterwards.

We recognise that this is a dramatic step, although we are mindful that a large number of churches have already or soon will also cease gathered public worship.

We are aware that some MtE members have already decided no longer to attend worship under the present circumstances and that others may also be feeling that they don’t want to attend this coming Sunday. Please act in relation to Sunday’s service in whatever way feels most appropriate to you.

While we will no longer gather for worship, it is our intention to continue to deliver a weekly worship service online. The details around this are yet to be finalised. We hope that at least an audio recording of the service will be available even from this Sunday, although there is a steep learning curve to ascend to perfect this! We will let you know when these online services are available and how to find them on your smartphones or computers.

Most meetings and study groups will no longer take place face to face but via an online platform – ‘Zoom’ – which has already proven efficient and easy to use over the last few days; we will help anyone who needs to use Zoom to get it working. Operations in the church office are still largely normal but we will be shifting to more work being done from home. The Hotham Mission staff are thinking through how to continue to maintain as much as possible the Mission’s programs.

We are in the midst of something new to us all, and quite disorienting. As we are forced to distance ourselves from each other for ‘natural’ reasons, so must we also strive to draw closer to each other in every way we can, for love’s sake.

I encourage you to be carers of each other in word, deed and prayer.

I encourage you to let others know when you are in need, when circumstances mean you can’t help yourself.

Please let me or your elder know if you are free to assist others, should the need arise (some help has already been offered, if you would like to ask for assistance).

The Church Council will, of course, continue to monitor the situation closely and, as we await changes for the better in our circumstances, we will do whatever we can to maintain as much as possible the common life of the congregation towards the ends of faith and hope and love.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.


15 March – The flickering Servant of God

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Lent 3

Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm 95
John 4:5-26

In a sentence
God identifies so closely with us in Jesus that happens to us happens to Jesus, and what happens to Jesus happens to us

Those of you who take delight in horror movies will know that ‘the flicker’ is an important cinematic device for creating unease in that kind of story telling – the flickering awareness of a presence revealed in a flash of lightning then disappearing, or the spirit caught in the corner of an eye but not visible to closer attention, or the fleeting hint of something hidden under a normal surface.

In the first of our reflections on the Servant Songs of Isaiah we noted that it is important to look closely at the details of the Songs, for they have the potential to disrupt too easy a reading Isaiah through received Christian tradition.

One of the things such close attention reveals is a flicker in the identity of the ‘Servant’ who features in them. This is clearer in today’s text, in which we hear first an account of the calling of the ‘Servant’, who is identified as the people Israel (v.3), as elsewhere in Isaiah. Yet the text then shifts to describe a Servant who is not Israel but apparently an individual who is commissioned ‘to bring [Israel] back’ to God (v.5). This flickering or slippage of identity of the Servant – now what we might call the Servant Israel, now the Saviour-Servant – takes place several times in Isaiah, apparently quite deliberately. (In what follows we’ll use ‘Servant Israel’ and ‘Saviour-Servant’ to distinguish between Isaiah’s two apparent uses, while trying to keep them as close together as we can)

The traditional reading of the Servant Songs pays little attention to this difficult double-reference. The figure of the Saviour-Servant has typically been used to interpret Jesus along the lines that Jesus experiences and brings about the kinds of things that the Saviour-Servant does. That is, as the Saviour-Servant seems to do, Jesus comes from God to save Israel, and the world, appearing not unlike a ‘currency’ in an economy of salvation: a transaction takes place in which Jesus is ‘spent’, and we are saved as part of the bargain.

It is easy to read this economy of salvation back into Isaiah, so that the suffering and rejection of the Saviour-Servant also becomes a price paid on behalf of the people, perhaps after the fashion of a sacrifice made to win reconciliation with God. The Saviour-Servant and Jesus, understood in this way, mutually support each other.

But such a transactional economy of salvation gets in the way of what Isaiah might help us to see with his flickering of the identity of the Servant between the individual and the whole people. Isaiah reveals two things, one the flip-side of the other.

First, the Saviour-Servant suffers what Servant Israel suffers. The Saviour becomes the thing to be saved – becomes Israel – rather than being a price ‘paid’ for it. This means that the Saviour not only suffers ‘for’ Israel, but the suffering is what Israel itself suffers. The Saviour bears what Israel is already bearing.

Important here is that Israel is a community humiliated in exile. The words applied today to the Saviour-Servant – ‘deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers’ (v.7) – describe exactly Servant Israel’s own situation. Its humiliation has been the sign to Israel of its own failure and punishment from God. The Saviour-Servant, then, does not undergo any further humiliation God might require for reconciliation; the Saviour ‘re-enacts’ or embodies the suffering and humiliation of Servant Israel. As it watches the Saviour-Servant, Israel sees itself: ‘he’ is, in his suffering, what ‘we’ are. He suffers not as a payment to free us from our suffering. It is our suffering he suffers – he suffers as we do.

But, second, the converse also applies: if Isaiah helps us to see the Saviour in the form of suffering Israel (who is to be saved), he also causes us to see Israel in the Saviour. That is, what happens to the Saviour-Servant happens to Servant Israel as well because the Saviour-Servant ‘is’ Servant Israel. By seemingly confusing the two, Isaiah declares that what the Saviour-Servant experiences will be the experience of Servant Israel.

The crucial thing is that the Saviour experiences an exaltation after the time of rejection and alienation (vv.8f). This is the gospel in Isaiah: unfaithful and failed Servant Israel will be lifted up with the suffering but faithful Saviour-Servant. Because of the identification of the one with the many, the many can pull the one down but the one can pull the many up.

Why does this matter? There is one point I want to draw from this for our appreciation of the ministry of Jesus, and the crucifixion of Jesus in particular.

Isaiah’s Saviour-Servant does not suffer for the people, as if his suffering does something to win God back over; his suffering is not a transaction. This is also to say that he doesn’t suffer because of the people – because they have done something to him. Isaiah’s Saviour-Servant suffers with the people. The Saviour suffers because the people suffer.

This matters for reading the crucifixion of Jesus, if Isaiah’s Servant helps to understand the work of Jesus. Under Isaiah, the crucifixion becomes not a suffering for the people (a suffering in our place) or even a suffering because of the people (which we have caused). The crucifixion is a suffering with the people.

This is an unexpected reading of the cross – or an unexpected addition to our other readings. It is to say that if to be crucified is to be Godforsaken (as Jesus cries from the cross, Mark 15.34), then we who find ourselves Godforsaken are, in this sense, already also crucified. Put differently, the crucifixion of Jesus is a sign of our existence: alienation from God. Jesus does not do something ‘for’ us on the cross so much as simply ‘does us’. Alienation – the heart of the meaning of the crucifixion – is our normal way of being.

As with the ‘flickering’ identities of the Servants in Isaiah – now Israel, now the Saviour, now Israel… – when we look at the cross we are to see the same kind of flickering: now Jesus, now us, now Jesus, now us again.

The gospel in this is that our suffering, our Godforsakenness, is not the measurement of what we are. The measurement of what we are is our identity with Jesus on the cross and Jesus beyond the cross, the identity of the many with this one. The crucifixion is Jesus’ own share in what we are and suffer. And so the resurrection is not his elevation only but the elevation of all to whom he is connected – even us.

Some of the old iconography of the church portrays it beautifully, in which the death of Jesus as not merely his stopping breathing but his full entry in the realm of the dead, so that his resurrection is not merely his being raised but his hauling back into life all whose suffering and death he shared. We share in the Saviour’s death because the Saviour has shared in our death. If this is true, then what happens next to him is what will happen also to us.

Our experience of this miracle is always as a flickering, although not for the unease of the horror movie but for hope. This flickering is at the centre of our life as Church. As we gather each week around the Communion Table it is as the Body of Christ, and yet it is our bodies, and yet it is the Body of Christ, and yet…

To glimpse such a flicker, such a momentary transfiguration of the world, is perhaps as important now as it ever has been, in a time when our mortality and the possibility of widespread suffering looms so large, and we might succumb to the fear that what is happening to us is our only measure.

Yet because God identifies in Jesus with all that we are, and makes of us all that Jesus is, there is finally nothing to fear other than that we might not hear the call of Jesus – God’s Servant – in today’s text,

saying to us alienated prisoners, ‘Come out’,
saying to us who are isolated in darkness, ‘Show yourselves’ (49.9).

Now we catch only a flicker in the corner of our eye but then we will see face to face, and God’s image will settle. And that image will be us, hidden in Christ, in God.

This is how God serves us.

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