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Gregory P Schulz  Daring to think well; for we cannot afford mediocrity ...

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Suffering? Then run to our suffering God!

Posted on April 9, 2020 at 11:45 AM Comments comments (0)

Are you and your neighbors suffering? It is time to acknowledge that suffering is beyond the skill set of medical doctors and publis health professionals -- that the government (a divine institution, to be sure, see Romans 13) with all its health policies and resources cannot affectively address the experience of suffering.

Suffering is the business of pastoral care. Only Christ Himself, in His own Word (that is, in Word and Sacrament), shows us what suffering means. 


4 The Lord God has given me

the tongue of those who are taught,

that I may know how to sustain with a word

him who is weary.

Morning by morning he awakens;

he awakens my ear

to hear as those who are taught.

5 The Lord God has opened my ear,

and I was not rebellious;

I turned not backward.

6 I gave my back to those who strike,

and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard;

I hid not my face

from disgrace and spitting.

7 But the Lord God helps me;

therefore I have not been disgraced;

therefore I have set my face like a flint,

and I know that I shall not be put to shame.

8 He who vindicates me is near.

Who will contend with me?

Let us stand up together.

Who is my adversary?

Let him come near to me.

9 Behold, the Lord God helps me;

who will declare me guilty?

Behold, all of them will wear out like a garment;

the moth will eat them up.

10 Who among you fears the Lord

and obeys the voice of his servant?

Let him who walks in darkness

and has no light

trust in the name of the Lord

and rely on his God.

 

Isaiah 50:4–10

ESV

 

 

Suffering? Then Listen! Listen to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah!

 

When we are suffering, when our nation is suffering, where do we go? To church. In London’s most famous church, St. Paul’s, there is an artistic installation about suffering by the American artist Billy Viola titled “Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water)”. Viola is a video artist. Looking like an altarpiece at the far end of the south side aisle, his installation on martyrs consists of four plasma television screens set side-by-side in a vertical orientation. On each screen of the four screens the visitor to St. Paul’s church will see four different people, each one undergoing an assault by one of the four elements that the Greeks had identified: earth, air, fire, water.

The video action goes like this: Left to right and in the space of about seven minutes, a man on the first screen is buried under a pile of earth, which “un-buries” until he is able to rise to his feet. On the second screen a woman suspended from a rope at her feet and a rope at her head is buffeted by wind which gradually dies down. On the third screen a man sits placidly in his chair while first little tea candles of fire and then a raging conflagration surrounds him. On the fourth screen a third man is gradually pulled up and out of view by rope around his ankles while water pours on him and he maintains what gymnasts call “an inverted cross”. Incidentally, this video was specifically commissioned for the church by the church of St. Paul’s itself.

Now The Guardian provides a proper artistic review of this work. Its reviewer, Laura Cumming, refers to its intimations of the afterlife and resurrection that the artwork may or may not bring to the viewer’s mind. (See http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/may/25/bill-viola-martyrs-review-let-the-unbelievers-come). But as a pastor who preaches, writes and lectures on suffering, I would like to weigh in on this particular presentation in terms of our text for today, Isaiah 50, which is the third of the four so-called “Servant Songs” which God had the prophet Isaiah write down.

How would it be if I asked you to compare the St. Paul cathedral’s first video altarpiece “Martyrs” with these words from today’s text:

4 The Lord God has given me

the tongue of those who are taught,

that I may know how to sustain with a word

him who is weary.

Morning by morning he awakens;

he awakens my ear

to hear as those who are taught.

5 The Lord God has opened my ear,

and I was not rebellious;

I turned not backward.

6 I gave my back to those who strike,

and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard;

I hid not my face

from disgrace and spitting.

7 But the Lord God helps me;

therefore I have not been disgraced;

therefore I have set my face like a flint,

and I know that I shall not be put to shame.

 

1. The first thing we learn is that Isaiah is proclaiming Jesus Christ. This is not a presentation of a man off the street who is suffering from the elements. On the contrary, it is a specific Man who says, “6 I gave my back to those who strike, / and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; / I hid not my face

from disgrace and spitting.” Isaiah is foretelling the suffering and crucifixion of our Lord Jesus 700 years beforehand. Of course, for us New Testament people of God, this is a matter of history from nearly 2000 years ago. As we Christians confess in the ancient creeds Jesus “was crucified, dead, and buried”.

 

What may cause us to pause for a minute is Isaiah’s description of Jesus’ education: “4 The Lord God has given me / the tongue of those who are taught, / that I may know how to sustain with a word / him who is weary. / Morning by morning he awakens; / he awakens my ear / to hear as those who are taught. / 5 The Lord God has opened my ear, / and I was not rebellious; / I turned not backward. / 6 I gave my back to those who strike”, and so on. “Being very God of very God, wouldn’t Jesus automatically know everything?” we may want to ask. But God did not carry out His incarnation the way we may think He should have. Actually, this is an indication of what the apostle Paul teaches about Jesus’ kenosis: In order to be the Son of Man who would bear our sorrows, whose wounds would heal us as Isiah writes earlier in this book, Jesus emptied Himself of His divine powers – not by ceasing to be God, to be sure, but by not using His divine powers to exempt Himself from all the slings and arrows of suffering that human flesh is heir to. In Philippians 2 the apostle puts it this way:

 

5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

This leads to my first criticism of the Martyr video in St. Paul’s. When we are suffering individually or collectively we come to church for Christ, for Christ’s Word, for Christ’s washing of water and the Word in Baptism, for Christ’s body and blood in His Supper. We do not come to church for moments of inward reflection, each to take solace in his or her own interpretation of suffering and martyrdom. Viola’s video piece would, I think, be a marvelous work of art to be in the Tate Modern. Think of the conversations it could occasion! Think of the opportunities to talk seriously about suffering with our fellow human beings. I daresay it could even serve as an opportunity for pre-evangelism, if you will – a springboard from conversation to our sharing the Bible with other hurting souls and reading to them about Isaiah’s suffering Servant, our Lord Jesus Immanuel. But church is not a place for abstraction; it is the place where we ought to be able to come to hear Christ and the Gospel that He is for us suffering human beings.

 

2. The second thing that we learn is that Isaiah proclaims that Jesus in on our side. It’s not simply that Jesus, the virgin-born God in the flesh is in fact both God and Man in one Person. He is pro nobis or for us, as Luther emphasizes again and again. He is Immanuel, God-with-Us, as Isaiah taught us to call Him. Viola’s artwork on suffering may or may not be suggestive of martyrdom. It does not appear to have to do with Christian martyrdom as there is nothing of the biblical laments or biblical confessions of the real-life martyrs. The video art in St. Paul’s is rich in stoicism but utterly empty of God’s love for us.

 

How can I say that? Because God’s love is not an ethereal benevolence; rather, God’s love is a matter of flesh and blood: flesh nailed to Calvary’s cross and blood pouring from nail and spear wounds in the very body of God the Son. He said it: “Greater love has no one than that he lay down his life for them”. Then He did it, with an effect that only the God-Man here among us could have achieved: The One who was born of a virgin ... crucified, died and was buried … rose from the dead that original Easter Sunday. Why, exactly? Paul, the New Testament Isaiah, writes, “In the fullness of time, God sent forth His Son born of a woman, born under law to redeem us who were under law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4). As Isaiah, our prophet puts it seven centuries before Paul and three chapters after today’s sermon text,

 

3 He was despised and rejected by men;

a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;

and as one from whom men hide their faces

he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

4 Surely he has borne our griefs

and carried our sorrows;

yet we esteemed him stricken,

smitten by God, and afflicted.

5 But he was pierced for our transgressions;

he was crushed for our iniquities;

upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,

and with his wounds we are healed.

6 All we like sheep have gone astray;

we have turned—every one—to his own way;

and the Lord has laid on him

the iniquity of us all.

7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,

yet he opened not his mouth;

like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,

and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,

so he opened not his mouth.

8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away;

and as for his generation, who considered

that he was cut off out of the land of the living,

stricken for the transgression of my people?

9 And they made his grave with the wicked

and with a rich man in his death,

although he had done no violence,

and there was no deceit in his mouth.

10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;

he has put him to grief;

when his soul makes an offering for guilt,

he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;

the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.

11 Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;

by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,

make many to be accounted righteous,

and he shall bear their iniquities. (53:3-11)

 

In an art museum or in art in the highways and byways, works of art treating suffering can function as a sort of Galadriel’s Mirror, as Tolkien presents it in his The Lord of the Rings. There the Elvish looking glass reveals “only what the viewer already brings along”. This is not, however, a luxury the church has. She is not to present souls with a tabula rasa in which sufferers see what they want to see or make of suffering what they will. The church must deliver to all sufferers who come in her doors nothing less than Christ Himself, the Suffering Servant. No eye has seen, no mind has conceived this. Hers is a responsibility, not of video and mirrors but of Word and Sacrament.

 

3. The third thing we learn from Isaiah is concerning the means, the bread and butter of what the church uses to minister to suffering people. Think of it as an art history discussion for a moment. What is the medium of the St. Paul cathedral’s display “Martyrs”? It’s video. It’s art in the visual medium. Now, according to our Isaiah text what is the medium for comforting sufferers, as I have been preaching (1) with Christ, and (2) with Christ who is Immanuel or God on our side?

 

7 But the Lord God helps me;

therefore I have not been disgraced;

therefore I have set my face like a flint,

and I know that I shall not be put to shame.

8 He who vindicates me is near.

Who will contend with me?

Let us stand up together.

Who is my adversary?

Let him come near to me.

9 Behold, the Lord God helps me;

who will declare me guilty?

Behold, all of them will wear out like a garment;

the moth will eat them up.

10 Who among you fears the Lord

and obeys the voice of his servant?

Let him who walks in darkness

and has no light

trust in the name of the Lord

and rely on his God.

 

The medium through which God comforts us in our suffering with Christ and the good news that He, our God, is on our side, is not a visual medium at all. It’s verbal. In other words, God comes to us through our ears and not through our eyes! When we are suffering our eyes are unreliable, as we know by experience. Our eyes are blurry with tears or bleary with sleeplessness. All that we see are the doctors, the hospitals, the institutions that we imagine ought to end our suffering through 21st-century technology. Or if we are religious we see clear evidence that God has abandoned us. No help in sight.

 

And God does not respond by offering to enlighten us. Instead He says through the words of Isaiah, Let him who walks in darkness / and has no light / trust in the name of the Lord / and rely on his God”. In case we miss His point God puts it quite bluntly and rudely in the very next verse after today’s text: “11 Behold, all you who kindle a fire, / who equip yourselves with burning torches!/ Walk by the light of your fire, / and by the torches that you have kindled! / This you have from my hand: / you shall lie down in torment”. No help in sight. Our help is in the name of the Lord. His name is everything that we know about Him. Everything we know about God we know via Jesus, the Word of God incarnate (John 1:1-14). All of God’s Word concerns Jesus the Word incarnate” (John 5:39). Only the Word can speak to the meaning of suffering and provide comfort to us in our suffering. But we have heard from infancy the fact that faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the Word of God” (Romans 10:17). Paul wrote about faith coming through the hearing of Christ the Word and God’s scriptural Word while quoting a small cascade of passages from Isaiah.

 

Well, then. Is this a sermon against this particular piece of video art about abstracted martyrs in a Christian church? I would rather say it is a call to repentance for all of us in the Christian church in this day and age. It is not a cause for pride that your church identifies itself by the preaching of Christ and the employment of Word and Sacrament to comfort sufferers who come in these doors with the gospel, indeed with Christ Himself in Word and Sacrament. We are Lutherans, after all, and this is what we do in our churches and schools. We are moreover, merely unworthy servants. But we do want to say to everyone within earshot, “Listen to the winsome Truth of this Word. Come and sit upon the ground here in our church with your fellow sufferers. Are you suffering too? Then Listen! Listen to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah with us!” Amen!

 

Revd Dr Gregory P Schulz

Concordia University Wisconsin

Westfield House, Cambridge

gregory.schulz@cuw.edu

 

Author of The Problem of Suffering at

https://www.amazon.com/Problem-Suffering-Fathers Hope/dp/0758626614/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=the+problem+of+suffering+a+fathers+hope&qid=1554490084&s=books&sr=1-1

 

Redeemer Lutheran at Harlow, 20 September 2015

 


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