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Title: The Prophet’s Last Word
Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York
Date: 3 April 2023 5.30pm
Yesterday morning, as we were reminded of the fickle nature of the crowd whose shouts turned from Hosanna to Crucify in just five days, I invited those of you who considered yourselves to be disciples of Jesus to use this Holy Week to try and work out what you consider to be your last word on the subject of the cross. For, in this week of unique significance, day by day in the scriptures we encounter what are, in effect, last words of many of the biblical authors on the subject of Jesus the Christ, and the significance of his death.
This is not remarkable when it comes to the writers of the New Testament. The writers of the four gospels, St Paul, and the other writers whose letters are found near the back of the Bible, all of them are, in effect, reflecting on what they think is the significance of Jesus’ life and death. After all, we know that hindsight is a wonderful thing, and all the New Testament is, in one way or the other, a reflection on the life and death of Jesus and its implication for the world.
But, as the White Queen so wonderfully remarked, “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards”, and tonight I invite you to consider a ‘last word’ about the cross to be found on the lips of a biblical author who was writing around six hundred years before Jesus was born – but who, nevertheless, has something of great import to offer us in this week of weeks.
The longest of all the prophetic books in the Old Testament is that of the prophet Isaiah. A passionate, beautiful and complex work – almost all scholars would claim that it is a compilation of at least three different writers, spanning from the 8th to the late 6th century before Christ. And in the writing of the second of the book’s authors, we find four strange, beautiful, powerful, and also (in the proper sense of the word) pathetic songs – songs of a figure we have come to know as the Suffering Servant. Songs which, in their way, are a last word on God’s Messiah, a last word on the Christ – although written well over 500 years before his birth.
These four songs speak of a shadowy figure identified only as God’s servant – a figure called to bring justice to the earth and light to the nations. A figure who will open eyes and bring prisoners out of darkness. If some of this sounds curiously familiar to you, it should – for there are probably no other sections of the Old Testament that influenced Jesus’ understanding of his own vocation as much as these four ‘songs’. They are, in their way, a chronologically premature last word on the ministry of God’s chosen one. And they tell us of new things.
Of course, we don’t always like new things. Despite the fact that the opposite of change is really death, new things are often things about which we are very wary. As the Minster moved through the pandemic, and worked out how best to approach the new reality of live-streaming, the service times on Sunday morning were adjusted – and it has been made unnecessarily plain to me just how much some people don’t like new ways of doing things, even though the change happened well before I came here as Dean!
And if such unhappiness can be forthcoming within a Christian community about a relatively minor issue, we should not be surprised that the preaching and teaching of Jesus led to such utter hostility as to bring about his death – a fate that he shares with the Suffering Servant, as revealed in the final of the four of these songs, which we will hear read on Good Friday.
And in the song we hear this evening, if we open our ears, we can recognize just how continuously new the servant’s ministry is. For this figure is called to bring justice across the earth. That sounds so good, until we remind ourselves that it was – apparently – for the sake of justice and liberty that President Putin felt it necessary to invade Ukraine. When politicians and world leaders start to invoke this kind of language, it can lead too often to a situation that involves body bags.
But God, so the prophet tells us, God says he will declare new things, and so he does – for this Suffering
Servant is called to bring justice to the nations without so much as lifting up his voice.
The Servant is called not to break a bruised reed; not to quench a dimly burning wick. This is a long way from how you or I might instinctively think about bringing justice, or liberating people from captivity. What has been taking place in Ukraine for over a year has involved a hell of a lot of reed-breaking and wick-quenching – and it is not just governments and armies that do this.
For I recognize that I’m all too good at crying out and lifting up my voice, and I am sorry to say I’ve probably broken a good number of bruised reeds in my time. And if that applies to you as well, then, like me, use this Holy Week to take note that God is declaring new things to us. God is calling us to a better way – a much better way…. But a very costly better way.
Before Jesus was ever born, the Bible’s greatest prophet had already delivered his last word on the ministry of the Messiah. As we journey again through this Great Week, as we evaluate our own last word on the Cross, let us hear again this strange prophetic figure speak to us of the new things that God is declaring, and let’s make sure that when we speak of justice and liberty, we pursue it in a Christlike manner that shows we have heard and acted on the Prophet’s last word. Amen.
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