When Servants Suffer

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As a congregation, we have been following the Narrative Lectionary this year.  We’ve been going through Mark’s Gospel. One of the striking things about this fast-paced narrative is how so many people misunderstood who Jesus was. I suppose we’re not so different today.

Throughout Mark’s gospel account, we see the disciples chiding Jesus to “do more” or to “heal more.” My mind wanders to the eighth chapter of Mark. So far, Jesus has cast out demons, healed lepers, raised a little girl from the dead, healed a woman with a bleeding disorder, exorcized Legion, and taught some amazing things – with authority! Jesus then feeds thousands, warns about the Scribes and Pharisees and Herod, then heals a blind man. His ministry is really picking up steam! 

Then we come to Mark’s account of Peter’s confession.  

“27 Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?” 28 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”30 Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him” (Mark 8:27-30, NIV) 

It seems we’re finally getting somewhere.  The disciples, or at least Peter, are finally catching on! In this moment I imagine Jesus seeing this breakthrough occurring. He then tells them the real plan – what He came to do – and His expectations are, in a way, dashed on the little rock named Peter.

31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.” (Mark 8:31-32, NIV) 

Don’t miss what’s happened. Peter confesses Jesus as “Messiah.” Jesus refers to Himself as “Son of Man.” The two are interchangeable to us but carry vastly different meanings to the Jewish world. The Messiah would come in the spirit of David, it was believed and be more a political/military hero-king who would throw off the oppression of Rome and restore Israel to her golden-age status. He would reign on David’s throne and usher in a time of peace and restoration to the Jewish Nation.

The Son of Man (which Jesus always calls Himself in Mark), however, carried no such connotations. It comes from the seventh chapter of Daniel where we read:

13 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Dan. 7:13-14, NIV) 

There was no political fanfare, or militaristic pride in this moniker. Instead, the Son of Man is imbued with the authority, glory, and sovereign power of the Ancient of Days. All people worshiped Him in every language. His kingdom will be one that lasts forever. It is a beautiful vision. It is not a vision that Peter, and maybe even us, are ready to embrace. 

Jesus says the Son of Man must suffer and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again (Mark 8:31). At this, Peter has had enough. He rebukes Jesus. Yet, Jesus retorts with a stronger rebuke:

33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” (Mark 8:33, NIV) 

Herein, we find that we might have a little more in common with Peter than we thought. If I’m honest, I want – I need a conquering hero right about now. I want a Messiah to clean house of the Coronavirus and the tragedy we’re all living in. I want a military/economic powerhouse to lead the charge right about now. We want the happy ending. Yet, that’s not what we get.  

The back half of Isaiah’s prophecy reveals something seemingly Inconceivable about the Messiah. That He will be a suffering servant. It defies all expectations of how the Anointed One will rule and administer justice throughout this coming kingdom.

In Isaiah we read:

See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. 14 Just as there were many who were appalled at him— his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness— 15 so he will sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him. For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard, they will understand. (Is. 52:13-15, NIV)

And of course, in the next chapter:

4 Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.5 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him,and by his wounds we are healed. 6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Is. 53:4-6, NIV) 

In these chapters of Isaiah, as well as other allusions by other prophets, we find the suffering servant. My! What a difference from the grandiose visions and political hopes placed on the Anointed One. But don’t miss the point. God will use Jesus to show Peter (and us) something. That co-suffering love turns the power systems of this world on their heads and philosophically shifts everything we thought we knew about power upside-down.

This idea of co-suffering love is found on most pages of the New Testament. Jesus promises that we, just like Him, will suffer for the sake of the Kingdom. In Mark’s gospel, after Jesus’ chat with the rich man in chapter ten, the disciples grapple with just who can be saved, if the rich can’t.  Peter, as usual, chimes in reminding Jesus of how much they’ve given up following Him.  Notice what is sprinkled in Jesus’ promised reward:

29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (Mark 10:29-31, NIV) 

See what he said? That along with all the happy stuff, part of the reward is persecutions (v 30.) How I wish this were a theme that was only mentioned once or twice. This article would be five or six times longer if I put down every scripture in the New Testament that had to do with the inextricable connection between being a disciple and suffering. 

God never promises us an easy road. He never says that we won’t suffer or fall ill or experience tragedy. Instead, He promises:

33 “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33, NIV) 

Paul, a man all too familiar with suffering, writes this:

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (Rom. 5:1-5, NIV)

The Apostles teach us, just as they were taught by Christ, to rejoice in suffering.  No where is this more apparent than when Peter writes:

12 Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. (1 Pet. 4:12-14, NIV) 

We shouldn’t be surprised when suffering comes. It’s part of the deal.  You choose to follow Jesus; you lose your life to save it. You pick up your cross daily. You reject the ways of this world and embrace a cross of your own in order to glorify your Lord, Jesus Christ. You need not be taken aback by trials and troubles.  Instead, realize they are producing in you a work of God that gets you ready for the great glory that is to be revealed: the full resurrection of Creation and inauguration of the Kingdom of God. 

As James writes:

2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. (James 1:2-3, NIV) 

If our Lord, the Creator of the Universe, was not exempt from suffering, how can we expect to be?  Instead, let us take up our crosses, embrace with love those going through fiery trials, and help people realize hope is real.  Let us stop crying, “Why?” and instead walk tall with hearts ablaze by the Spirit of God who is leading us to green pastures. 

Let us realize that one day, the sufferings of the human condition and the tragedy of this world will be swallowed up and we, like our suffering servant Messiah, will be resurrected bodily into a place where God will wipe away our tears Himself. It was all made possible on the wonderful promises of Jesus and His suffering on the Cross. It all came to fruition at His resurrection. And it all was because the servant was willing to suffer. May we be willing to do the same for His name’s sake.

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