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Suffering Servant Leader

This is the last in a series on the four “Servant Songs” in Isaiah.

Before we dive into the last servant song, known as the "Suffering Servant," allow me to begin with some historical context for these four songs. The book of Isaiah is broken into three parts by Biblical scholars. The servant songs are part of Second Isaiah, or Deutero-Isaiah, and were written to Jews returning from exile in Babylon.  You see, the Babylonian Empire conquered the Israelites in the year 386 BCE and took the cream of the crop – the wealthy, the professional people, the skilled carpenters (basically all the useful people) – with them to Babylon. There they remained in exile for about 50 years until the Persian Empire conquered the area and Cyrus, the Persian king, allowed conquered, exiled people to return to their homelands.

This was great in theory; not so easy, or idyllic in practice. You see, most of the Jews in exile were now 2nd and 3rd generation Jewish exiles. The majority of the original exiles would have passed away. However, they had passed down magnificent stories of their ancestral homeland, a place of promise, blessing and abundance, where earth and heaven met in Jerusalem.

The journey itself was hard. The new generation traveled 1,000 miles on foot through semi-desert land to get “home.”  They were weakened in number, in wealth, in strength as well as in power, identity and spirit. What they found was practically a wasteland, and Jerusalem and their beloved Temple was not much more than a pile of rubble.  All hopes and dreams for their future were crushed.

Enter the writer of second Isaiah (writing about 200 years after first Isaiah). Second Isaiah, in the words of John Shelby Spong, “began to sketch out a new role and a new vocation for the Jewish people based on the newly established fact that never again would they be powerful, never again could they dream about being rulers and never again would they be listed among the respected peoples of the world.”

Second Isaiah created the “Servant” to show the people of Israel what kind of leaders they could still be. They could be gentle leaders… strong in patience, compassion, caring, tenderness, and empowering others. They could be leaders with the strength of integrity… working for social justice, standing up for what is right, being true to one’s self, leading with honesty and respect. They could be listening leaders who truly sought to understand one another and to do what was best for all people. And, finally, even their suffering would empower them.

Second Isaiah says, yes, they had suffered hatred and hostility, oppression and being outcast, but by not returning hatred with hatred or hostility with hostility, and instead acting with dignity and kindness, the Servant Leader would serve a transformative role in the world. The pain and hatred of others would be absorbed instead of returned and so anger would transform into love, creating wholeness.

It’s no wonder that this image and language was used to describe Jesus! And no wonder it was co-opted to create Handel’s Messiah. And it is no wonder that Martin Luther King, Jr. used the imagery and language of second Isaiah for his famous "I have a dream..." speech.

Put all together, I find the characteristics of the Servant to be a powerful example of who we are all called to be in this world. And, as much as I don’t like the concept of suffering, when we live in integrity with our hearts and souls, I’m afraid it may simply be inevitable because we will end up standing against the norm, against what others want us to do or expect of us, against the powers-that-be.  When we follow where the truth of the Spirit leads us, we’ll end up in some crazy, difficult places, but we will become a light for others who are trying to be who God created them to be, or who are trying to make the world a better place.

Let me be clear… no one goes looking for suffering, nor does God cause it. But think of the people we've named and talked about in the last three weeks: Mother Teresa, Gandhi, MLK Jr, Nelson Mandela, Ellen Degeneres, Desmond Tutu, Barbara Jordan, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Abraham Lincoln, the Dalai Lama. Have any one of them been without suffering as they have stood for justice and spoke their truth? Nope.

Sister Francesca, a nun who had had Mother Teresa as a teacher when she was young, said [of Mother Teresa], ‘She is an utterly selfless creature. She is extraordinary in her sacrifice. She can do anything for the love of God, endure any humiliation or suffering. She was always free of personal bias and did not hesitate to speak out when there was something wrong.’

A more recent example is Malala Yousafzai, who has been an activist for female education since she was 10 or 11 in Pakistan, when she began writing a blog for the BBC Urdo under a false name, about what it was like to be a female student under Taliban rule. She sparked the attention of a journalist who made a New York Times documentary about her, after which she rose in popularity and started speaking out in print and television. She was even nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize by Desmond Tutu.

Then at the age of 15 the Taliban made an assassination attempt on her life. Miraculously she survived being shot in the head and has continued her activist work on an international scale, becoming the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. But, even without the attempt on her life, speaking truth to power came at a cost. She and her family can probably never return to her country, she has been vilified and denigrated, slandered and the brunt of conspiracy theories. Yet, she remains strong as a leader standing up for education for all.

Let’s talk about Greta Thunberg, a teenager from Sweden who sunk into a severe depression after learning about what climate change was doing to the earth. For months she stopped speaking almost entirely, and ate so little that she was nearly hospitalized for malnutrition that would end up stunting her growth. Her parents didn’t quite know what to do, then they started reading up about climate change and realized that she was right, so they started to change their own carbon footprint – eating less meat, not flying, driving less, growing vegetables – and Greta started to get a little better. One day she decided that she needed to do something and told her parents and teachers that she was starting a school strike until the Swedish government agreed to meet the requirements of the Paris Agreement. She figured, “If adults don’t give a damn about my future, why should I?” Eventually, reluctantly, her parents and teachers let her do it.

The first day she was one person. Then one became two, which became 40, which became hundreds, then thousands. Eventually, over 4 million people across the globe joined the climate strike. She has spoken at the United Nations and many, many other venues. Her crusade continues, but it is not without cost.

In the Times article where she was named as their 2019 Person of the Year, it said, "Some of her opponents have attacked her personally. Online trolls have made fun of her appearance and speech patterns. In Rome, someone hung her in effigy off a bridge under a sign reading Greta is your God. In Alberta, the heart of Canada's oil-drilling region, police had to step in to protect her after she and her father were followed by men yelling, "This is oil country." Maxime Bernier leader of the far-right People's Party of Canada, tweeted that Thunberg is "clearly mentally unstable." (He later walked back his criticism, calling her only a "pawn.") Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed Thunberg entirely: "I don't share the common excitement," he said on a panel in October. President Donald Trump mocked her sarcastically on Twitter as "a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future." After she tweeted about the killings of indigenous people in Brazil, the country's President Jair Bolsonaro called her an insulting word that roughly translated to "little brat"... So many people have made death threats against her family that she is now often protected by police when she travels."

The Servant Songs could apply to either of these young women who, though "despised and rejected by many" are making the nations stand up and take notice.

I know these are extreme examples, but my hope is that they can be an inspiration to us. I know they are to me, anyway.

In conclusion:

May we be gentle with others, because gentleness is a strength that this world so badly needs right now. Gentleness that treats others with kindness, honesty, compassion and care.

May we have a deep sense of integrity, being true to who God created each of us to be, and always standing up for what is right.

May we truly listen to others – our children, our partners, the powerless, the planet. But may we especially listen to the Essence of All who leads and guides us with wisdom.

And, finally, may we have the courage to accept that the suffering is part of the package… it is the world afraid of the power we have when, with gentleness and integrity we listen to the voice of the Spirit and follow.

Love & Light!