Suffering Servant, October 21, 2018, St. Paul’s, Vancouver
Is 53:4-12; Ps 91:9-15; Heb 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

“Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. Out of his anguish he shall see light. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great.”


“It ain’t much I’m asking, if you want the truth.
Here’s to the future for the dreams of youth.
I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now!”

A new movie will be released in two weeks on the life of Freddie Mercury of the band Queen. Although he recorded those words in a studio, he died of an AIDS-related illness before he would ever perform that song live.  That phrase (“I want it all, and I want it now”) has become something of a rallying cry for people looking for social changes—we want change—and we don’t want to wait for it anymore.

But the original sentiment—I want it all, and I want it now—is something that sounds a little like James and John’s request to Jesus. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” On the one hand, they sound greedy—“I want it all”—but at the same time, they do recognize that Jesus is the central figure, and that he will rule one day.

The problem with their request, of course, is that, as Jesus tells them, they don’t know what they are asking. They think they do, of course. They’ve seen the world and its leaders for their whole lives—they know how they work. They want to rule—they want it all. They want to have servants and underlings and their every wish fulfilled.

You can understand why they thought that. Besides the examples of the rulers of the day, they also have their own scripture to base their assumptions. The scriptures in multiple places speak of the benefits granted to those in God’s favour: “Because you have made the Lord your refuge…no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.” This psalm, psalm 91, is so well known that even the devil knows it, quoting it to Jesus when he is tempted in the desert: “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”

It’s no wonder that the sons of Zebedee want to be on Jesus’ good side—as God’s chosen representative, Jesus is their golden ticket—they will never have to worry again!

But alas, for them, this is not what leadership looks like under Jesus. Those who wish to be first must be slave of all. Under Jesus’ leadership, the path of greatness is the path of humility, of service, of suffering.

Jesus was the ultimate example of this. It is hard to hear the passage from Isaiah that we heard (“he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed,”) and not think of Jesus on the cross. He was like a sheep before its shearers who made his life an offering for sin; he bore the sin of many.

And yes, that is what Jesus did—fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah on the cross. He suffered and died in the place of others—as we heard from Jesus himself in today’s gospel, “the son of man came to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.”

And if we look very briefly at the passage we heard from the letter to the Hebrews, we see that offerings are made to God to atone for sins—but that the one who offers them is chosen by God. Jesus was chosen by God—sent to earth for this purpose but also had his mission affirmed by the voice of God—in the chapter immediately before this one: “this is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him!” Now Jesus, being without sin, was able to offer a perfect sacrifice to God—one that would never need repeating (as the other sacrifices did) because he did not also need to atone for his own sins (as every other priest before and since has had to do, as they are not without sin).

We need to recognize the importance of what Jesus achieved through his sacrifice “once offered”—the path to reconciliation with God became possible—we are justified in the eyes of God—our sins are forgiven—all because of what Jesus did. A monumental change was enacted—forever.

That is not to say that from that point on everything was hunky-dory. As we heard in last week’s gospel: “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” Don’t overlook the “persecutions.” We are not promised a free ride.

But here’s something else we might overlook: we have heard the passage of the Suffering Servant applied to Jesus so many times that we forget that it was written hundreds of years before Jesus was born—and something perhaps even easier to overlook is this: Jesus was not the only Suffering Servant! Jesus’ existence—his birth, life and death on the cross, his resurrection—did not end suffering in this world. There have been many people since Jesus who have also been “suffering servants”—not because they asked to be, but because they were chosen by God—as the writer to the Hebrews told us.

Throughout history, many people have followed Jesus’ path of servant leadership—they have drunk the cup that Jesus drank, they have been baptised with the baptism that Jesus was baptised with. They too have suffered—but not in vain. There have been others who have been oppressed and afflicted—it seems as though it was the will of the Lord to crush them with pain—but their punishment made others whole. These other suffering servants were not without sin, as Jesus was, but they still bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors.

Think of all the many suffering servants that, through their suffering (and sometimes even death), have led this world to a better place. I’m sure your own list will be somewhat different than mine. These suffering servants have taken on one of the world’s sins, not through their own choice, but through their circumstances, almost as though they were chosen by God for the task. As a result of their suffering servanthood, they have led others to greater freedom.

Think of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, or Mahatma Gandhi, or Alan Kurdi (the Syrian refugee child whose body washed up on the shore of the Mediterranean), or Maxmilian Kolbe, or Matthew Shepard, or Malala Yousafzai, or Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. Or, as I was reminded this morning, the newly canonized Oscar Romero. Perhaps even Freddie Mercury himself, who suffered for years, despite his success, once saying famously “You can have everything in the world and still be the loneliest man. And that is the most bitter type of loneliness. Success has brought me world idolisation and millions of pounds, but it’s prevented me from having the one thing we all need: A loving, ongoing relationship.” Freddie Mercury, despite his success, struggled with his sexuality—the challenges he faced living up to others’ expectations can be heard in many of his lyrics. Near the end of his life he wasted away for months before finally admitting publicly that he had AIDS. His death from an AIDS-related illness less than 24 hours after this admission marked the first major musical figure who succumbed to the disease. He was not without sin, and yet his suffering served to help change the discussion of HIV/AIDS from being God’s punishment for deviancy to a devastating illness that could affect anyone, regardless of orientation. In this way, perhaps Freddie Mercury was a “Suffering Servant” as well.

So, with all this evidence of suffering, what then do we make of the “promises” in the psalms? “Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them. With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.”

Are these real promises? Can we really trust in God? If so, why do we still see so much suffering?

Yes, these are real promises and yes, we can trust God. We must not overlook the most important part of the psalm I read: in the midst of all of the ways that God promises to rescue and protect those who love God, God says “I will be with them in trouble.” Not that they will not have trouble, but that God will not abandon them in the midst of it. Here’s the thing to remember: God is not restricted by life and death as we are. The notion of being “in this life” or being “beyond this life” are entirely different concepts for the God who created life and sustains it than they are for us who are mere subjects of them. God can fulfil the promise to “satisfy with long life and show them my salvation” without being restricted to our earthly lives. Elsewhere, the psalmist says “in your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.”

We can trust in a God that is faithful. “Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them.”

We are not alone in our struggles. Our God who sent us Jesus as our example of Suffering Servant Leadership will never abandon us.

“Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. Out of his anguish he shall see light. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great.”