23 March 2016

Isaiah 50:4-9a

“I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. The Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.” (vv. 6-7)

Psalm: Psalm 70


Sometimes, following our conscience can bring us into sharp conflict with authority. When we put God at the centre of our lives, other powers and influences end up being displaced. This is what is summed up so eloquently in today's passage.

This passage proclaims a commitment to God, and to divine truth. This is shown not just in a willingness to teach about God, but in the commitment to learning from God. The speaker has the tongue of a teacher, but the ear of one who is taught. And he listens, even when what he hears is not comfortable. In Hebrew thought, to hear is to obey; if we hear God's words for us, but rebel against them, then we are not really hearing them.

Flogging and pulling out the hairs of the beard seem to be punishments that the Persian authorities inflicted on those who rebelled in minor ways against the regime. These are the consequences of following God's teachings, where they cause conflict with the state authorities. And this isn't just mild disapproval - the description of the punishment is visceral and physical. And yet the speaker calmly remains committed to God.

Fortunately for Christians in Britain, we don't usually face physical punishment for serving God. But we may occasionally find ourselves standing against prevailing opinion, criticising governments or upsetting our families, and none of these are easy or comfortable places to be. And in some parts of the world, Christians do indeed face persecution or even death for their faith. Sometimes this is political - a faith in a loving God leads them to speak out against oppression or marginalisation. Sometimes, the very act of proclaiming a Christian faith is itself a dangerous act. Either way, the cost can be huge.

But this Holy Week, we remember and celebrate a God who paid the highest cost for love of us. We celebrate a God who accepted both human life and human death for our sake. We worship a God who faced humiliation, rejection, betrayal and torture, because God's love is stronger than fear (1 John 4:18).

To Ponder

  • Where today might we make ourselves unpopular with many, or with those in power, if we stand for the values of the kingdom of God?
  • There have been many occasions when faithfulness to God's teaching has turned into arrogance and refusal to accept that we've got it wrong. This has happened in the Church's understanding of science, its attitudes to (among many others) women, and its abuses of power and privilege. How might we avoid this happening again?
  • How might we better support Christians and others around the world, who are persecuted for their faith, their ethical or political beliefs, or aspects of their identity?

Bible notes author

The Revd Catrin Harland

Catrin Harland is the Methodist chaplain to the University of Sheffield, where she spends her time discussing life and faith with students and staff, aided by coffee and cake. She is passionate about equipping young adults to discover and live out their calling in the Church and the world.