By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
April 2, 2023
Isaiah 50:4–9a (ESV)
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?
Today we begin the period of the church year many call Holy Week. Among the various expressions of Friends, we do not celebrate these religious holidays as formally as other Christian traditions, but that does not mean that we do not understand or respect the significance. When the Religious Society of Friends emerged in England in the mid-17th century, they set aside many things. There is a good reason for these actions. For those that are newer to our Meeting, you will notice we have not served the elements of communion or the Eucharist. Many will look upon that neglect and shutter, but there is a reason we do this. Holy Days are another thing that was laid aside.
It is not that we do not believe in holidays, or in the significance sacramental elements hold. It is that we believe in the reality of what surrounds these things so much that incorporate them into our daily lives. Every day is a blessing. Every day is a glorious opportunity God has given us to live. He has given us this day so that we can participate in his Kingdom work, today. If we were to really consider the significance of that awesome reality, that we each are called friends by the creator of the universe, and we are called friends because the same God that breathed life into our first parents and commissioned them in the Garden to go into all the earth and cultivate it to reflect Eden. That same God has given us today, that same mission. How can we truly say that one day, or one week within the year is more important than another? In fact, in the earliest days of the Friends movement it was not uncommon for the Meetings for Worship to be on days other than Sunday.
That’s another thing. You might notice that I call what we are doing here this morning a meeting for worship, instead of a church service. This is another oddity of The Friends. We call the church building a Meetinghouse, and we often call the church the Meeting. All these oddities come from our history. The Friends emerged during a tumultuous time in England. The Reformation, when Protestant churches began to move away from the Church of Rome, began on October 31, 1517. For all the good the reformation did, it was not all wonderful. Those protesting churches moved away from the authority of Rome, and eventually entire nations became divided. And then nations fought against nation, and they justified this action because the people of the other nation were not true Christians. Well England also had a Reformation; the King wanted an heir and his wife only gave birth to daughters. The king petitioned the Bishop of Rome and asked that his marriage would be annulled, but the Pope rejected the plea. Up to that point England had remained loyal to Rome, but after the Pope rejected the king’s plea, the king decided that England would join the Protesting Churches.
The problem with England’s protestant reformation was that the king was not a theologian. This eventually caused within England several various expressions of faith to emerge that tried to become dominant within the Church of England. Each of these groups tried to become a better expression of Christian faith than those that had come before. Each group claimed to be the true church. And eventually in the 17th century, one of those groups gained political strength among the people and used that strength to start a war within their own nation.
England was at war. A war that was waged in many ways between churches. From this climate and culture those early Friends emerged. People that would read the scriptures on a Sunday morning, scriptures that tell you to love your enemy and do good for those that persecute you, and then battle again on Monday. They saw the hypocrisy of people that claimed to be part of the church yet failed to live it in their daily lives. They saw bloodshed, the arguments, the slander, the hatred among brother in Christ and caused them to lament. What good is communion, if it does not change the hearts of those that participate in the ceremony? What good is baptism if the hearts of those that emerged from the waters are not changed? What good is a holy day if tomorrow we take up arms against our neighbors because they are members of a non-conformist congregation instead of the king’s church? Empty words and empty rituals are what they saw around them, so they stopped. They stopped the ceremonial aspects of expressions of faith and turned to the light within, and they began to meet together in silence to nurture that light, and as they met many would then be led to speak while others were led to act. They based their expression of faith on a life lived.
Which brings us to holy week once again, and this day Palm Sunday. The day we celebrate the proclamation of Jesus the Messiah and King. It is a glorious day. A day for celebration. And yet as the people cheered and waved palm branches in the air. As men laid their cloaks on the ground before Jesus as he approached Jerusalem, Jesus wept. He looked at the splendor of his people gazing at the awe-inspiring temple devoted to the Most High God and he said with tears in his eyes, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
Jesus wept because he knew. Jesus knew that the excited crowd around him would soon be turned. The shouts of Hosanna would within a few days would be lifted once again except the words being shouted would be, “Crucify him!”
I love Holy week, and I know after my brief and probably inaccurate history of the emergence of Friends, you might think it is odd. I love this week because it reveals to us just how easily we can be swayed by those around us. Even within a culture that prides itself on individuality, our thoughts and ideas can be swayed by the opinions of those around us. We can go from celebration in one moment and a demand for blood the next. This week should remind us of our weaknesses and how fickle our minds can be.
Humanity is this way. It is just part of who we are. As much as we would like to say we value independence, we are communal beasts. We are relational creatures. We cannot survive without interaction with other people. Some research even shows that our brains cannot function to their fullest without other brains around us. We need relationships, so when our community celebrates we often join in with the celebration, and when our community cries for revenge guess what most of us will shout along with our community. Fickle creatures we are, and Holy week celebrates or to be more precise laments our human frailty in this aspect. Isaiah also speaks of this in today’s passage, it speaks of the fickleness of our humanity and yet it speaks of hope.
Isaiah 50 contains one of the servant songs. These songs are often seen as prophecies, foretelling of, the messiah and what will happen to this anointed one. But these poems were written over seven centuries prior to Jesus’s birth. That is seven hundred years of interaction with these words prior to the gospel writers connecting them with Jesus. How did these words encourage the people of faith for those centuries?
This is where my mind often gets caught. Isaiah, ministered just prior to the fall of the Northern Kingdom. And it is also important to remember that Isaiah was not just a prophet but a member of the royal court. He was a scribe, and he would often travel to deliver messages for the king. He was well traveled for a man of his era and this gave him special insights when he began to speak his oracles of faith. He likely participated in negotiations and he saw just how fickle our human experience can be. He foresaw destruction and hope.
“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.” This is a profound statement, and one that we may often rush past to get to the part we see speaking about Jesus. Isaiah in this statement is encouraging us to learn. He is saying that an education is a blessing from God. Isaiah is praising God for the education that he has received, and he is also praising God that he can use what he knows to encourage those around him. “Sustain with a word him who is weary.”
I sat with this statement for a while as I studied this week. The word that is translated as sustain is interesting. The sense given in the context of the passage is that it means to provide help or assistance. But it is odd. The root of the word can also mean pervert, stoop, make crooked, bend or twisted. This troubled me a bit, because how can a word mean both?
This is where we are in our world. Warring factions on two different sides. Science and anti-Science. Academia and anti-academia. We can make lists everywhere and anywhere, because often everywhere we look there are two sides and each side thinks they are helping and the other side believes they are crooked. And these divisions bring us to the brink of collapse.
We see this later in the poem, “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.” There is a battle waging in the minds and hearts of mankind. What can help us with these struggles we face?
This is why my mind went to the history of our religious society or church. We, the Friends Church, emerged from within an era of struggle and not just our expression of faith. I would venture to say most faith communities could tell a similar story, their conclusions are probably different than ours, but each group emerged from a struggle of some sort. We could even say that every group, religious or secular, emerged out of a struggle that defined who they are and in many cases plotted their future course. And within each of those struggles we have two sides, and a battle of knowledge.
Back to this one word sustain, on one hand it means to help and the other can see it as perverting or bending. How can we move forward and why is there this struggle? This is where life comes in. To bend or to twist can have multiple meanings. The pickup that rear ended me shortly after we purchased our vehicle bent the metal of our tailgate and I was not happy. But then there are those people that can take metal and bend and twist it to form tools for our survival. It is perspective.
Isaiah continues, “Morning by morning he awakens; he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught.” This is awkward. Some of us in this room can respect the awkwardness of this verse more than others. It is difficult to translate from one language to another. We are all in debt to those that have this ability and training. My favorite book, outside of scripture, was written in Russian had it not been for translators I never would have read it. And none of us could pick up a bible and read it without this as well. Few people can read Greek and Hebrew. Fewer still can pick out the nuances of the language. I am not one of those people. I have a computer program that allows me to click on words and read what others have written on a subject. But to be able to convey the message and meaning of one language to another is a gift.
Even with that gift, phrases can be awkward because different cultures have different expressions. When I was teaching English in Ukraine, this was mostly what we discussed. Little sayings that baffle others but make perfect sense to us.
The New International Version of the bible translates this phrase as, “He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed.” And the New English Translation, “He wakes me up every morning; he makes me alert so I can listen attentively as disciples do.”
How do we overcome the struggles around us that threaten to divide? We listen. We listen as if there is something that could be learned from those around us. And we listen as well to the words of scripture. Only after we listen, truly listen do we act.
How often are disagreements between individuals because we fail to listen? How often do arguments begin because one party made an assumption and acted without consulting the other, which is a form of not listening? This is true with nearly every relationship among people. Brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, parents and children, it is true within the workplace, and even between nations. Yes, it is more complicated that I make it sound, but it is true.
We are all in relationships of various forms. We all interact with people, and each person we come in contact with expands our relational network. This can increase our knowledge and it can also increase the likelihood of conflict. When the early Friends began to meet, they met because they did not seem to fit anywhere else. They were often called Seekers by their contemporaries. They were seekers because each of them in some ways were distraught by what they saw around them. They would ask questions but no one was listening. George Fox, the one often regarded as the founder of the Friends, visited many pastors and priest while he was seeking. He was given answers but those that gave the answers did not listen to the questions so George left each encounter feeling empty. Then one day he went out to a field and as he sat, he said that he heard a voice saying, “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to your condition.” And George said that his heart leapt for joy.
Our God speaks even today. He speaks through the exploration of the universe and science. He speaks through the interactions we have with others, he speaks through the pages of scripture, and at times he speaks through the light within us. Holy Week reminds us just how quickly we can move from celebration to battle. From a loving embrace to vengeance. As we move through this next week, as we walk with the ancients through that journey from the celebration of the king to the crucifixion, let us see just how we stand. And let us make an effort to learn and to listen. Let us make an effort to live according to the learning and wisdom we have gained. And let us stand with Isaiah, and with Christ and say, “But the Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have se my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame. He who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand together. Who is my adversary? Let him come near to me. Behold, the Lord God helps me’ who will declare me guilty?”
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