The third of the Suffering Servant songs (Isaiah 42:1–9; 49:1–7; 50:4–11; 52:13–53:12) in Isaiah identifies Jesus clearly as the Servant Isaiah is speaking about. Though not present in the text exegetically, the word “disciple” is probably a great category to develop the theological confession in the sermon. The reason is this Servant in Isaiah is actually the model disciple. We all know “disciple” comes from the Latin discupulus, or rather from the verb discere, to learn. The range of meaning indicates the teacher here in our text is also the most faithful and perfect disciple because He alone is obedient to the Father in what needs to be done. Therefore, the idea is we would do well to listen to Him. I emphasize the active obedience of Jesus again for this text (see previous article) because in the book of Isaiah discipleship is emphasized as a choice. Hence, Israel is a wayward and really bad disciple because they are disobedient and rebellious and, as a result, the Servant must be the obedient one for the people, by His choice and active obedience to the Father. So, you get this dichotomy. The tongue of the teacher is, at the same time, the tongue of the instructed one.
An overarching theme of Isaiah 40–66 is the restoration of the people. The “disciple’s tongue” is to support this mission but also accomplish the mission by fulfilling the Word of God for us. When it says, “He who vindicates me is near” (verse 8a), the Hebrew behind this translation is the participle form from the verb “to make righteous (קָרוֹב֙ מַצְדִּיקִ֔י).” The one who vindicates the Servant proves to everyone that the Suffering Servant is in the right person and the righteous person and the person whose word you should trust because their word is true in the most profound sense. The final section of our text concludes with an epic rhetorical question of prophetic authority. The structure of the passage allows us to know the answer to the final question, “Who can declare me guilty” (verse 9b)? Nobody! Because if God is for me, who can be against me (Romans 8:28-39)!
Setting this text in context is really key to proclamation as well. The Lord is bidding the people listen to Him and follow Him even amidst suffering. Cyrus had made his decree in 538 BC (Ezra 1) that they may go home, but many did not return home (Isaiah 50:2-3 and Ezra 2). Instead, they preferred to stay in Babylon despite being called-out by the Lord (Isaiah 48:20). The reason they gave is they were worried God would not come through on His Word (verses 1-3). Maybe He was not even able to give them what He promised? So, God points them to the Exodus event. By doing so, He tries to get them to believe His Word is good (verses 2-3). He will do it! In order to confirm His Word, He will send His Messiah/Servant to prove to them that He will keep His Word (verses 4-5), but it must be known that the Servant will suffer for that word (verse 6). The Servant in Isaiah has been suffering all along the way and as the prophecy moves along, it paints this passion of the Servant which keeps getting harder and harder.
For instance, the Servant “does not falter or become discouraged” (42:4). All His efforts seem to be in vain (49:4). Now in our reading, He is spit on and beat up (50:6), which ultimately leads to His suffering in death (53:8-9) which is clearly fulfilled only in the person and work of Jesus. So, our text begs some questions of us: What does it mean to listen to Jesus? What does it mean to follow Him as He suffers? What does it mean to not “stay put” in our Lenten journey but follow Jesus to the cross and then through the cross to the empty tomb?
What does it mean to listen to Jesus? What does it mean to follow Him as He suffers?
As a result, if we are to listen to Jesus and follow Him out of exile to sin on this epic journey through Holy Week and Easter, the key in our preaching is to focus on the Word of the Servant in Isaiah 50. The Servant in Isaiah 50 is the obedient disciple par excellence, one who speaks the Word of God and suffers for it on our behalf. But this Servant also proclaims faith in the God who will never abandon Him to the grave or even see decay (Psalm 16:10). On Palm Sunday, we see the fulfillment of this prophetic word in the One who:
“Though He was in the form of God, took the form of a servant and humbled Himself and became obedient even to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God raised Him from the dead and gave Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus” (Philippians 2:6-11) we all can cry, “Hosanna, blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord (John 12:13)!”
Since this is clearly an epic day at church, we can use the Epic sermon structure to really drive our Gospel home. “This structure utilizes an epic plot form as the progression of experiences in the sermon.”
Moving the progression of the sermon from Isaiah, to Palm Sunday, to Good Friday, and finally Easter. “The first experience of the epic form is immediate engagement in a conflict leading to a climax which is temporarily left unresolved.” This is where you would unpack to context for our text about Cyrus and the disobedient followers of God to return home. “The second experience of the epic form involves an abrupt shift to reflection in a broader context (for example, the history that lies behind the conflict) which serves to intensify the importance of the outcome for the hearers.” In this section, you would pull from the context of (Isaiah 50:2-3) God’s saving His people in the Exodus as proof He will keep His Word. In the Epic structure, this move in the sermon is so people can “experience a movement backward in time from the opening conflict to the history leading up to that conflict. In this second experience, the sermon should offer information that brings the significance of the opening scene into view for the hearers.” Namely, God can and does keep His Word. “The hearers reflect on the broader context and realize what is at stake in this struggle. Also, this revelation of a larger framework can offer the hearers a glimpse of the how the conflict will ultimately be resolved. It can provide a different way of looking at things that changes how they hear the opening scene and how the story will unfold.” It is the tool we use to set up our Gospel proclamation. “The final experience in the epic form involves a return to the conflict in order to move from climax to resolution.” By returning to the text, we see God Himself provides the solution in the Suffering Servant who will be the sign of God’s kept Word for His people. “The sermon, therefore, ends with the hearers experiencing satisfaction,” because the Word fulfilled was not just for Isaiah’s hearers, but it was for them too. Jesus is the One whose Word is true for us and fulfilled for us for our salvation.
By returning to the text, we see God Himself provides the solution in the Suffering Servant who will be the sign of God’s kept Word for His people.
In order to do the Epic structure well, you need to have a sustained serial depiction which raises the tension in the proclamation to a crescendo that leaves all the hearers convinced and moved to a definitive end. It should feel fast-paced and then suddenly and clearly finished. Coming up with a phrase or refrain to hold this section together would be homiletically wise. I once heard Professor James Voelz do this masterfully in a chapel sermon at Concordia Seminary in Saint Louis, Missouri. I could not find the sermon, but here is a link to a Pre-Lenten workshop where he has the same work. I will attempt to paraphrase as best I can from what I remember of his sermon. This should serve as the final move after you have developed every other part of the structure. Once you have set up the problem with Isaiah’s audience not listening or following God and then establish how God Himself will send the Servant for the purpose of saying and being the word fulfilled, then this would be the final move.
Jesus is the one you need to listen to. Why? Because He is the one who died and rose again! But how do you know? You and I were not there personally. We, like Thomas, did not see Him or touch His wounds. So, how can we know for sure? We know because we have the Word fulfilled in the Gospels! We have the Word fulfilled from the prophetic scriptures! We have the eyewitness testimony of those who were really there! Jesus’ disciples and the naysayers and the bystanders were all eyewitnesses of these facts. We have it all! In the shorter ending of Mark’s Gospel, we all experience the resurrection like those scared women. We believe, not on account of what we saw or felt or because of any physical evidence, but we believe on account of the Word which came true!
How do you know it came true? Jesus Himself says the very words we need. He Himself predicted everything, from the donkey for Palm Sunday (Mark 11:2-6) to the person who would point to the place where they would celebrate Passover on Maundy Thursday (Mark 14:13-14). And when He said it... it was so! Jesus predicts His betrayal by the religious leaders (Mark 10:33) and even the abandonment of His wayward disciples (Mark 14:27). And when He said it... it was so! Jesus predicts He will be mocked, spit upon, scourged (Mark 10:34), and even killed (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34). And when He said it... it was so! But here is the real proof. He also said He would rise again from the dead and He did (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34). Even the young man says it happens “Just as He said (Mark 16:7).” The disciples then obediently share this good news with everyone they could (Acts 2:24; 1 Corinthians 15:5-6). Furthermore, the Apostle Paul, who went from wayward to way-making disciple, also testifies to the truth of Jesus’ Word (1 Corinthians 15:8,12-13).
But here in Lent, the struggle is that all we seem to get is just the Word of Jesus. That is it! Truthfully though, His Word is all you will ever need to know God will fulfill His promises to you. Jesus said it and it was so... for you!
Craft of Preaching-Check out our previous articles on Isaiah 50:4-9a.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Isaiah 50:4-9a.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Isaiah 50:4-9a.
Lectionary Podcast- Dr. Walter A. Maier III Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Isaiah 50:4-9a.