Preaching Familiar Passages

St. John the Baptist Preaching,1667 by Mattia Preti (1613-1699), Itlalian; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco California USA

St. John the Baptist Preaching,1667 by
Mattia Preti (1613-1699), Itlalian; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco California USA

Preaching on passages that are so familiar to parishioners can be tricky. On the one hand you don’t want to be novel (would you ever be “novel?”) with well-worn verses. Yet, there is the simultaneous challenge of presenting veritable “memory-verses” in a fresh and compelling way. Let’s look at a case study.

Isaiah 53:4-12, the second track in today’s readings from Year B (Revised Common Lectionary), is one of those passages. The text is frequently associated with liturgical movements in the Church, particularly in Communion contexts or during Holy Week. Yet introducing the passage outside of Holy Week allows the preacher to “open up” the passage without, necessarily, the larger narrative of the Passion.

What did it say to the people when it was first read? How did the early Church receive this passage? What is its place in a Christo-centric, redemptive worldview of preaching? How should you apply this with pastoral integrity and sensitivity to your parishioners? These are but a few of the questions before us.

One thought is to admit the challenge of familiar text and “go with it.” It is this approach that the present author takes for this resource page. Let’s work out an expository outline for the passage with this in mind.

Introduction

There are introductions that weave together both the exegetical heart of a passage with an arresting introduction of the Biblical issue raised. This is an approach available to the preacher in Isaiah 53.

Consider that the contextual issue seems to be the presence of sin, the need for atonement, and a divine response that is quite independent of human invention. God is the initiator. Moreover, God is both the sending One and the One who must suffer for His people. The preacher must consider the opposing interpretations of the “Suffering Servant” of Isaiah 53.

Exegetical Thoughts

Is this only about Israel or is it about Messiah? Can it be about both at the same time? Walter Brueggemann wrote:

“There is no doubt that Isaiah 53 is to be understood in the context of the Isaiah tradition. Insofar as the servant is Israel – a common assumption of Jewish interpretation – we see that the theme of humiliation and exaltation serves the Isaiah rendering of Israel, for Israel in this literature is exactly the humiliated (exiled) people who by the powerful intervention of Yahweh is about to become the exalted (restored) people of Zion. Thus the drama is the drama of Israel and more specifically of Jerusalem, the characteristic subject of this poetry. Second, although it is clear that this poetry does not have Jesus in any first instance on its horizon, it is equally clear that the church, from the outset, has found the poetry a poignant and generative way to consider Jesus, wherein humiliation equals crucifixion and exaltation equals resurrection and ascension.”[1]

An illustration of this might include a rabbinical reference to the Messianic revelation of Isaiah 53 and then re-framing the insights for the Christian faith. The noted rabbi, Maimonides, wrote that Isaiah 53 is about “…the mission by which Messiah will present himself.”[2] Rabbi Moses Alschech (1500-1600) wrote, “Our Rabbis with one voice accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet is speaking of the Messiah, and we shall ourselves also adhere to the same view.”[3] Beyond the overwhelming rabbinical support for the Messianic emphasis of Isaiah 53[4], the New Testament affirms its messianic nature without apology or controversy. Indeed, Peter directly links Isaiah 53 with Jesus:

“He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by His wounds you have been healed. For you were the sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:24-25).

The narrative of the evangelization of the Ethiopian eunuch by St. Philip leaves no doubt as to the Christian teaching of Isaiah 53:

Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:32-35).

Finally, listen to Jesus Himself interpret Isaiah 53:

“For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment” (Luke 22:37 ESV).

Expository Thoughts

The Proposition or Main Idea could, simply, be that “We need a Messiah.” Working off of an interrogative, stated or unstated, of “why do we need this Messiah?” We answer with our transition statement and keyword, “We need this Messiah for three reasons (“reasons” is the key word that will form our transitions from one division to another in the Argument, or body).

Argument

Reason # 1: We need healing (53:4).
Reason #2: We deserve hell (53:5).
Reason # 3: God demands justice (53:6).

Conclusion

The conclusion is a recap of the expository statement and the divisions of the argument, an illustration of embracing the expository thought, and a final charge. Therefore, a conclusion might tie together the reasons for this Suffering Servant with Jesus Himself as the identity of the Messiah, needing only to be named as such, not by a rabbi, or even the Ethiopian eunuch, but by those who hear this message today.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 143.

[2] Michael Cohen, “Rabbinical Commentaries – Isaiah 53,” Isaiah53.org, accessed April 22, 2015, http://isaiah53.org/articles/01/.

[3] Samuel Rolles Driver and Adolf Neubauer, The Fifty-third Chapter of Isaiah According to the Jewish Interpreters, vol. 1 (New York: KTAV Publ. House, 1969), 102. It is important to note that this passage of Rabbi Moses Alshesc begins with Isaiah 52, the larger periscope for Isaiah 53 for Alshich Hakadosh.

[4] For a survey of rabbinical commentary on Isaiah 53, see Alexander Benner, “Isaiah 53:How Do the Rabbis Interpret This?,” Isaiah 53 Rabbinical Commentary, accessed April 22, 2015, http://www.hearnow.org/isa_com.html.

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