The Suffering Servant  

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd                  Mark 8:31-33             Feb. 11, 2018

Rev 21:1-6

What do we believe about the end times? This was a question I posed to our first Faith Café, as I needed some help with this topic. We don’t often broach this topic in the United Church.

Christians have always had hope that peace will eventually reign over all the earth.

However, it has been over 2 millennia and the world has not yet found healing and wholeness. Some say that Christianity has been a big mistake. G. K. Chesterton has retorted, “Christianity isn’t a failure; it just hasn’t been tried yet.”

So how do Christians believe that the peaceable kin-dom of God will finally become a reality here on earth?

We largely have two contrasting responses. One view, called premillennial, believes that there will be a sudden, miraculous intervention of Christ’s return to inaugurate the new millennium. This view, common amongst evangelicals, believes that Christ’s return will happen in Jerusalem during the battle of Armageddon, which is one of the reasons that evangelicals are supporting the arms trade with Israel. They hope to hasten this cataclysmic war in order to hasten Christ’s reign of peace!

The second view is called postmillennial and is a belief that was carried into the formation of the United Church by its founding denominations. It believes that there will be a “gradual triumph of Christ’s spirit within history.”[1] In other words, God will work through humans to gradually bring the spirit of Christ’s reign of peace to all. This is based on an assumption that our world is gradually becoming more peaceful and just—which is debatable.

These two contrasting views have their roots in two different streams of Jewish prophetic tradition. The first stream believes that the Messiah will come to liberate everyone from oppression. There will be a battle and the Messiah will be victorious. Jesus’ disciples largely followed this first stream. They believed that Jesus was the victorious Messiah, and they were willing to fight to death with him to usher in a new era of liberation from their oppressors.

But Jesus represented the second stream of Jewish thought, which taught that the Messiah would be a suffering servant. This Messiah was not a victorious warrior, but rather a compassionate healer even at the expense of his own life. In our gospel lesson, Jesus tells his disciples that the Messiah will suffer, be treated with contempt, will be killed, but will then rise from the dead.

The disciples couldn’t comprehend this. Peter even took him aside and reprimanded him. “Jesus, you are doubting yourself. Don’t give in to these horrid thoughts. We believe in you and you have to believe in yourself. You are the Messiah who will bring liberation to his people. You will not be killed, but be victorious!” These words took Jesus immediately back to his own temptations in the wilderness, when he felt Satan tempting him with this very picture of victory: “I will give you all the kingdoms of the world if you will worship me.” “Away with you Satan,” Jesus replied, “for it is written, ‘Worship and serve the Lord your God and no other.’ ”

Out of this flashback, Jesus then responded to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Jesus felt the pull of this temptation to physically overthrow the Roman oppressors. He knew he could do it. And he also knew that this was not of God. God’s way was the Via Dolorosa—the way of suffering.

Why is this? Why is suffering part of our spiritual walk? Buddhists agree with Jesus that one needs to embrace suffering, not run from it. The Buddhist practice of tonglen breathes in the suffering of the world so as to transform it.

This past week, I talked to a few people who have gone through significant suffering. One person said that if you love, you will suffer. You can’t escape it. Suffering, in itself, is not redemptive, nor should we ever seek it. This type of martyrdom is not of God. But when we do experience suffering, as we all will at some point in various degrees, we can also find God. One person I spoke with said that, through the help of a spiritual guide and prayer, he is in a happier space than ever, even though he is in the midst of significant suffering and loss. As often quoted, “Joy isn’t the absence of sorrow; it’s the presence of God.”

Earl Gould preached a powerful sermon last summer, in which he described his grief and anguish when his brother was killed in a car crash. Earl was a young seminary student at the time, and this significantly affected his faith. He found a God who was crying with him and it was this suffering God who brought him through.

I asked someone else how she managed not to drown in her suffering. She replied that you can’t turn your back on your suffering. If you mask it through self-medication with alcohol or illicit drugs, it will still be there. If you deny it, you are denying part of yourself. The pain does not disappear but will slowly eat away inside you. Instead, she has learned to welcome her own suffering and hold it gently and lightly. She also learned how to be mindful of those little bits of joy that are always there—the patterned hoar frost and the delicate veins of a leaf.

It is a very difficult journey, a dark night of the soul, but when we are able to accept our suffering, we are better able to work through it and find a joy, more delicious than ever.

Another person told me that we can either succumb to suffering or rise above it. The way that he found was to connect with divine power and give up the notion that he is self-made and self-reliant.

If we think that self is all that there is, we are like cut flowers that soon wilt. We are missing our roots and our connection to the whole. We feel a sense of abandonment. There is nothing lonelier than suffering alone.

Prisoners of conscience have said that the most difficult part of their imprisonment was not the physical torture, not the horrid conditions, but being convinced by their guards that they were forgotten and all alone. They have often said that, were it not for the letters from Amnesty International, they would not have survived their isolation.

Our church provides a ministry of companionship through visitors, cards and prayer shawls for those who are going through a difficult time. (please let me know of someone who might appreciate any of these) When people know that they are not going it alone, the suffering is somehow lightened.

Jesus chose the way of suffering because he knew that compassionate presence that suffered with the world was more powerful than the sword of victory that sought to overcome the world. Only after Jesus’ death and resurrection, did the disciples finally realize that the suffering servant was the type of Messiah who would bring the greatest hope to the world.

Our Song of Faith concludes, “Divine creation does not cease until all things have found wholeness, union, and integration with the common ground of all being. As children of the Timeless One, our time-bound lives will find completion in the all-embracing Creator. In the meantime, we embrace the present, embodying hope, loving our enemies, caring for the earth, choosing life.”

[1] John Webster Grant, “From Revelation to Revolution: Some Thoughts on the Back-ground of the Social Gospel,” Toronto Journal of Theology (Fall, 1996, 12:2 Special Issue: “Christianizing the Social Order: A Founding Vision of The United Church of Canada):161.