Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!


Message preached March 24, 2002
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon  Isaiah 50:4-9, Philippians 2:6-11

Order of Worship

            How quickly the song changed! One minute, it seems, folks were full to the brim with hosannas and blessings, as they entered Jerusalem with Jesus (Matthew 21:1-11). Almost the next minute, the tune shifted. There was a harsher note in the air. Discordant music clashed within the Temple as our Lord tossed out the trash. "It is written, ĎMy house shall be called a house of prayerí," he sang out in anger, overturning the tables of those "holy" entrepreneurs one by one. "You, however, are making it a den of robbers" (Matthew 21:13).

            Indeed, the song had changed! The music became more somber. The time of confrontation had come, and as it approached the mood altered. "By what authority are you doing these things," certain religious leaders shot back in chorus. "Who gave you this authority?" (Matthew 21:23b) Plots against Jesus thickened, as those who stood to lose the most by what he had to say closed their ears to his song. They "hardened their hearts" to this servant of the Lord, as surely as Pharaoh had done toward Moses a long time before them.

            How quickly, it seems, the melody shifted. His stories had more "bite" when he told them in Jerusalem, from the tale of a vineyard and its tenants with blood on their hands (Matthew 21:33-44), to a parable of a wedding banquet whose invited guests would not come, ignoring or even abusing those who delivered their invitations (Matthew 22:1-10). Long past was that beautiful song sung on a hillside, full of blessing (Matthew 5:1-12). The refrain floating in the air was now full of curses. Instead of "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst," Jesus now belted out "Woe to you, blind guides ... fools ... hypocrites" (Matthew 23:13-36).

            "Jerusalem, Jerusalem," Jesus cried in a mournful song, "the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ĎBlessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lordí" (Matthew 23:37-39).

            Indeed, how the music changed. One minute people were singing, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!" (Matthew 21:9). Was it only "just" a song? How soon would these very same people change their tune, from "Hosanna!" to "Let him be crucified" (Matthew 27:20-23) ?

            My friends, many of you know the story as well as I do. We gather to sing the songs of Zion, and to remember. The hymns of this week can be difficult to sing.

"Go to dark Gethsemane"... shun not suffering, shame, or loss, learn of him to bear the cross (#240).

            In our hymnal that song comes right after

"Ride on, ride on in majesty" (words, music) as all the crowds ĎHosanna!í cry (#239).

            As Dorothy said in the Wizard of Oz, "I donít think weíre in Kansas any more." Indeed, some of the songs of Zion can be very hard to sing.

"Tis midnight, and on Oliveís brow" ... the suffering Savior prays alone (#241).
"Alone thou goest forth" ... in sacrifice to die (#244).
"Beneath the cross of Jesus" .. mine eyes at times can see
the very dying form of One who suffered there for me (#250).
"O sacred Head, now wounded" with grief and shame weighed down (#252).
"Alas! And did my Savior bleed?" and did my Sovereign die (#253).
"Were you there" when they crucified my Lord (#257).
And then there is,
"When I survey the wondrous cross" on which the Prince of glory died,
my richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride (#259).

            These are all songs of the suffering servant, an important part of the melody of this week -yes - but also an important part of the melody of our faith. As much as the words and the tunes are dark - depressing even - we dare not skip over this portion of the song on our way toward Easter.

            As part of their spiritual retreat from Maundy Thursday to Easter Sunday last year, our youth constructed a cross, and took turns pounding in the nails. Thatís part of the percussion behind the song, you know. Would that all of us could this week take hammer in hand and drum that very beat ourselves, entering into the song - even itís most depressing chorus. You see, as we remember the story, as we sing again the song of the suffering servant, it jumps off the page of history and becomes our story. We are the crowds who cheer and fear and jeer. We are the hypocrites who pout and doubt, and try to find a way out. We are the disciples who eat, and wash feet, and take our seat at the table, but then betray or run away. We are the soldiers who strip and whip, who hammer and stammer on Calvary. We are the women who watch and wait before this sacrifice so great. This is our story, this is our song - even though this portion of it is very downbeat. Itís dark and depressing, no two ways around it.

            When I was a teenager, it seemed I had a song for every mood. They werenít all upbeat, Iíll tell you that. Maybe some of you can relate to this - in past or present tense. I recall one which was popular at that time, a song Iíd listen to when I was depressed. There are a lot of such moments when youíre an adolescent. By the way, adulthood doesnít bring them to an end, it just (hopefully) puts them into perspective. Anyway, this song was by the "Bee Gees," before they were "Staying Alive" with upbeat disco music. Before "disco" (may it rest in peace ... please!), the songs of this "rock" group were pretty "downbeat." Anyway, the song went like this:

            "I started a joke which started the whole world crying,
but I didnít see that the joke was on me."

            Maybe some of you remember the tune, which was as mournful as the words. It went on,

"I started to cry which started the whole world laughing.
Oh, if Iíd only seen that the joke was on me."

            Now hereís where it gets a bit strange:

"I looked at the skies, running my hands over my eyes.
And I fell out of bed, hurting my head from things that Iíd said.
ĎTil I finally died which started the whole world living.
Oh, if Iíd only seen that the joke was on me."
(by Barry, Robin, & Maurice Gibb, ©1968, hear the tune)

            Now, I gotta say that - from the perspective of today - that was one of the dumbest songs I ever liked. But, you know, it made a really good "pity party" song back in my high school years. And, to be honest, I still have "pity parties" every now and then, times when I feel sorry for myself, when that song doesnít sound all that dumb.

            Letís get this straight, though - the song of the suffering servant which we are called to enter is not a "pity party." We donít sing these songs of Zion to feel sorry for Jesus or for ourselves. Granted, we may experience dark times when the melodies of rejection, of persecution, of crucifixion ring true. For some believers in the world the song of the suffering servant is very, very real as they face circumstances that we can only imagine - literally suffering and dying for the faith. Even so, these songs of Zion are not for pityís sake, whether it be pity for others or pity for ourselves.

            When Isaiah sings the song of the suffering servant, there is a purpose which goes way beyond lamentation. Please understand, itís okay to grieve, to lament, to mourn. There is a time, as Ecclesiastes says, for every purpose under heaven - even a time to feel sorry for yourself, for what you have lost. In the Bible there are songs called "laments" which try to express what this feels like - in the form of a prayer to God. Some of them may even sound a bit silly when listened to from a distance, sort of like how that song, "I started a joke," sounds really dumb to me now. Other laments are almost embarrassing, for they are filled with emotions weíd rather keep hidden. Nevertheless, Isaiahís third song of the suffering servant is not a lament, even though it (if you listened) speaks of adversaries who insult and spit upon and try to put to shame.

            There would be every reason for a "pity party" if it seemed like everyone was opposing your God-given mission, and you wondered if the joke really wasnít on you. However, as I said, this is not a lament. It is rather a song of trust in God. "The Lord God helps me, therefore I will not be disgraced ... I know that I will not be put to shame." Why? Because "he who vindicates me is near ... It is the Lord God who helps me..." (Isaiah 50:7-9).

            The song of the suffering servant is not a lament, even though it may tread through the valley of the shadow of death, even though it sounds "downbeat." Those of you who are musicians, is the "downbeat" really a depressing note? Yes, I suppose it is in a literal sense, for like tapping your foot in time to the music, it is a downward motion. When the foot touches the floor, that is the downbeat. But the downbeat, my friends, is what governs the song, even the upbeat. Without the downbeat, there would be no song.

            Think now about that hopefully familiar song we have received through the pen of the apostle Paul. Some scholars call it "the Christ Hymn," believing that the early church sang this as a song of faith and trust. We arenít blessed with the tune to which they sang it, though we can put in our own melody (as I have done). This song has a very definite downbeat. It begins with Christ Jesus in the form of God. He, however, chose the downbeat path, laying aside his "God-ness," if you will, taking the form of a servant. As a human being, then, his path of obedience led to the cross and his own death. He chose this path. He didnít fall into it. It wasnít something bad that happened to a good person who wanted something else which just didnít happen. This wasnít a lament over lost opportunities. This was the chosen opportunity on the part of Christ Jesus. His downbeat was intentional.

            This is the downbeat of the song of the suffering servant we sing in all our songs of Zion, especially in this week between Palm Sunday and Easter, but also every day of our lives as believers. Yes, if I might borrow from the Bee Gees, he "finally died which started the whole world living," but his death was on purpose, for a reason. It wasnít a joke.

            "Therefore," the song clearly rings out, "God has lifted him up high, and gave him a name above all names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend and every tongue everywhere confess that Jesus Christ is Lord." This is the upbeat, if you will, of the song of the suffering servant, a song of faith. We are called to live in it, to place our absolute and total trust in the One who raised Jesus from death, who is our very present vindicator. Are you willing to sing and to live this song? If so, letís return to where we began this day, outside the gates of Jerusalem with the crowds welcoming him in. Please turn to the back of your bulletin and letís confess our faith.

For commentaries consulted, see Isaiah and Philippians.

©2002 Peter L. Haynes

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