“Here is my servant, the one I uphold; my chosen, who brings me delight.” Sounds a lot like Jesus doesn’t it. This line from Isaiah feels very much like some of the passages from the gospels. Like when Jesus was baptized by John and the voice of God rings out from the heavens, “This is my son, the beloved. Listen to him.” It might interest you to know that the similarities between Isaiah and the gospels are not entirely accidental. Isaiah was talking to the people of Israel in exile, some five and a half centuries before Jesus. But it seems clear that Isaiah’s images of the Servant of God had a lot to do with shaping Jesus’ understanding of his own ministry, and the gospel writers, in some cases, bent over backwards to show Jesus as the one Isaiah was talking about. Did you know there was a time when Isaiah was actually referred to as “the fifth gospel”?
I remember one Old Testament class in seminary where the professor was lecturing on the question, “Does the Old Testament predict the coming of Jesus?” It’s an interesting question. The church has often taken for granted that many of the passages from the Old Testament are there for the sole purpose of heralding the coming of Christ. And the gospel writers very much feed into that idea; particularly Matthew. Matthew was constantly saying things like, “As it was spoken of by the prophets…” He had a pretty obvious agenda to convince the Jews that Jesus was, in fact, the messiah they had been waiting for, lo these many years.
But much as we can read Jesus into some of what the prophets had to say, I’ve always found it a little hard to imagine that Isaiah’s primary concern, in his own time, was to tell people about something what wasn’t going to happen for another five hundred years. If you did that today, made predictions about what life would be like in the year 2500, no one would take you seriously at all, even if, when 2500 did arrive, you turned out to be right. It makes more sense that Isaiah was writing for the people of his own time, and five hundred years later, there just happened to be a rather remarkable fit between what he said and Jesus’ ministry.
My professor told us he had thought long and hard about this question, about whether the Old Testament predicted the coming of Jesus. What he decided was that in talking about God’s servant, Isaiah was essentially creating a job description. And when Jesus came along all those years later, he said, in effect, “If the job’s still open, I’ll take it.” What was that job exactly? Well, most of our English translations use the word “servant.” But the more literal translation would be “slave.” In Greek, the words used to herald Jesus were, Ecce Doulos; Behold the Slave.
There’s a cute old story about a woman who was teaching a 1st grade Sunday School class one year on Palm Sunday. She asked her kids, “What did people do when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey?” One excited young man blurted out, “They put palms down on the road and everybody sang, ‘Oh! Susanna.” Well, that would be “Hosanna,” of course. But unintentionally, the kid wasn’t all that far off the mark. In Stephen Foster’s 1847 folk song, Susanna was a slave woman. When Jesus rode into town on the donkey, he was taking “the form of a slave.” Ecce Doulos; Behold the Slave.
Now, calling Jesus a slave is probably a little less than completely comfortable. We have such an ugly and painful history when it comes to slavery. Considering the stories that have been splashing across the headlines lately, it’s pretty obvious that the bigotry and racism that drove that slave industry are still very much alive for us. So, when we hear our faith tradition telling us that we should pattern our lives after Jesus by becoming slaves––even if we use the softer term, servants—it’s not something most of us respond to very well. We have a very hard time with the idea that we should subordinate ourselves to someone else’s will. And there are some very good reasons why we wouldn’t want that.
John Alexander is the author of a book, You and Your Money. In it he shares an interesting story. It’s about a time he spent in Asia, mostly with people who had servants. He didn’t like what he saw.
I don’t want to be a servant. Servants are people who drive you to restaurants and sit in the car while you eat. Servants are people who run in from the next room to get the salt for you because it’s a foot out of your reach. They wash your dirty underwear by hand. Sometimes they sleep in a closet or on the floor in the hall.
The essence of being a servant is not existing. If you’re a servant, you do all sorts of jobs without anyone ever noticing that you exist. Whenever I visited a new house during my trip to Asia, I was introduced around. I existed. But a few people were left out. Eventually, I realized that they were the servants. They did not exist. During the whole month, I was introduced to servants by name in only one home.
I was told about a discussion on evangelism in a wealthy church. One woman said she knew so few people who were not Christian that she didn’t see how she could evangelize, and the other people agreed. Finally, an outsider asked if most of the servants were Christians. After a silence, the answer came: “I never thought of them.” Servants don’t exist.
Well, that’s about right isn’t it. The whole notion of Servanthood really goes against the grain for us. We’re so inclined to think of it in much the same terms Alexander was describing; not existing, being at someone else’s disposal, doing the kinds of things no one else wants to do, having no intrinsic value or worth. But then we run headlong into the message of the gospels: “whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:27-28) How, exactly, are we supposed to reconcile our kneejerk negative reaction to slavery with the servanthood that Jesus so obviously celebrates and commends to us? That’s a hard one.
There was a time, back in the 50’s, when most people thought that the values of society and the values of the church were pretty much the same. These days, people are calling that time “Christendom.” We thought of ourselves as a “Christian Nation.” We were God’s new chosen people. This belief was based on an idea of Christian Triumphalism, which is exactly what it sounds like; the triumph of Christianity. This idea was very popular at the time and some people still believe it. Christus Victor; the Victorious Christ. But this idea was always very much at odds with the simply, loving, and self-sacrificing Jesus of the Gospels.
A man named Roger Olson once said, “No truth is more pervasive in scripture and Christian tradition than this one—that real freedom is found in obedience and servanthood. And yet no truth is more incongruent with modern culture. Here we stand before a stark either-or: the gospel message of true freedom versus the culture’s ideal of self-creation, autonomy, and living ‘my way.’” You know, over the years, I’ve had two different families ask me to play that song at a funeral for someone they loved. They thought it was a fine tribute that the person who had died had always done things his own way; like that made him unique and special. I want you to know, I’ve got nothing personal against Frank Sinatra. But to me, that song has always been a celebration of human arrogance; “I’m going to do what I want and I don’t care what anyone else thinks about it.” I very much hope nobody plays it at my funeral.
Let me tell you a secret. Whether we like it or not, we are all servants. We always were. We always will be. The question is not; “are we or are we not servants.” The question is, “to what are we in service.” Or, if you want to put a sharper point on it, to what are we enslaved? The answer is, well, all kinds of things. Drugs and alcohol, cigarettes and sugar all come easily to mind. But we have lots of other attachments. Too much work or exercise, too much time spent with social media or watching TV. We can turn virtually anything into an addiction if we choose to, and, as any addict will tell you, there is precious little difference between addiction and slavery.
But beyond all the substances and compulsive behaviors, a lot of what enslaves us is our ideas, our beliefs, our assumptions; the belief that we are not good enough or that we should never show any signs of weakness, that global warming is or is not really happening, that abortion is or is not really murder, that immigrants are or are not good for our country, that we can solve all of our problems by raising taxes on the rich or taking benefits away from the poor, and particularly, that people who don’t happen to be on our side of the political fence are just sort of stupid or, more likely, evil. We are passionately, we are destructively attached to our ideas, beliefs and assumptions, and anyone who doesn’t share them is automatically the enemy and deserving of nothing but contempt. My friends, we should be calling out this behavior for what it is … slavery.
There are all kinds of things that oppress us. One of the most beautiful things about Jesus’ ministry is that he came to set us free from them. That’s what Paul was talking about when he said, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1) But true freedom is a paradox. He wasn’t inviting us to be free in any absolute sense of the word. He was inviting us to become free of things like addiction, hatred and narcissism, so that we could become slaves of things like love, compassion, and self-sacrifice. Whether we like it or not, we always were and always will be servants. The real question is, what are we going to serve.
I know you’ve heard me say this before, but our calling here at church is to a vision that is radically different than the commonly held values of our society. We are called to the freedom that comes from letting go of our slavery to ourselves, and embracing a more healthy, loving and compassionate slavery to God’s grace. Not that being a servant of love is easy. Peggy Haymes, in a daily devotional she wrote for Strugglers, Stragglers and Seekers, put it this way.
“Love may challenge and love may correct but love will never shame. Love may call us out to uncomfortable places but love will never cast us aside. Love may demand but will never demean. Love will never ask us to dim our light lest we shine too brightly. Love will never ask us to be less than we were created to be. By this we know God. By this we follow Jesus. By this we serve one another. Love. Not fear.”
It is well past time, I believe, for us to stop allowing our fear to drive our servanthood. Our calling is to be servants of love.
Let me close with this story…
A certain pastor was less-than-encouraging when his daughter announced that God was calling her to serve as a missionary in Uganda. At first, he refused to let her go. “Don’t you know that Uganda is a very dangerous place for Christians?” he asked. But his daughter was determined. After two years, the she finally set out to pursue her calling. As her father watched the plane rise into the sky, he commented that he had wanted his daughter to be a respectable Christian, not a real one.
What’s the difference between a respectable Christian and a real one? Jesus put it this way. “The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:11)