Hope in the Age of Darkness: Gifts of the Incarnation
The passage for today comes from the Fourth Servant Song in Isaiah. It is from this passage that the church has typically formed an understanding of substitutionary atonement … namely, that God requires suffering for sin, but instead of visiting that suffering upon the sinner, it is cast upon someone who comes as an innocent lamb to be sacrificed. Because that kind of God matches neither my experience of nor my deeper understanding of God, I come to this with a different interpretation of this text.
When we view this from a position of divine solidarity, you see, it begins to take a different shape. It is not so much about God “taking away” the consequences of our sin or our frailty or living fully in this world. It is about a God who is more than willing to stand with us in the midst of this and take on our suffering with us … as one of us … even, as Father Richard Rohr says, “as us.”
While many Christians interpret this text as one that exclusively foretells the coming of Christ in the person of Jesus, the best understanding of this text comes from Jewish scholarship, which offers the interpretation that the Suffering Servant is none other than Israel … the chosen people of God who were chosen by God to proclaim this God of all creation among the nations. But, through the millennia, Israel has been subjected to wars, foreign domination, anti-Judaism, antisemitism, and genocide into the 21st century. Some of this comes as a consequence of Israel’s own unfaithfulness to God, and some of it comes because of Israel’s strategic location as being a connection between three different continents. To be Jewish, as we discovered in Nazi Germany, was to be marked for persecution and death. Through the lens of an ancient worldview, Isaiah considers this the price of being chosen by God to live this exemplary life in the world.
So what is the meaning here? I think the meaning is that being the chosen of God is not an easy task, and if, as Christians, we see ourselves as belonging to God, then we will discover that being part of this universal family is hard work. It will require sacrifice, and it might lead to suffering and death.
Yet in the midst of suffering, God teaches us, by example, that we can be victorious by seeing such suffering as the very place where we meet God. In Matthew, Jesus teaches us that we discover God in the face of the poor, the disenfranchised, the disinherited, and those who suffer. The values we learn from “the least of these” siblings enrich our lives and lead us ever closer to the heart of God.
When we view this passage as a description of God’s solidarity with us, it can bring us to a deeper understanding than the notion that the Suffering Servant suffered and died for us so we don’t have to experience it.
With a deeper reflection on this image, we might just discover a God who says, “I know you are suffering. I know you experience the consequences of your frailty and your sin. I see you as you experience the hardship of human living. Don’t distress, however, because I am right here with you in the midst of it all.”
That redefines “atonement” into its parts: “at-one-ment.” May you be at one with God as we celebrate the coming of Christ into our world.
God of Solidarity: We praise you for the many ways you stand in solidarity with us in the hard places of human living. Amen.