Isaiah 50:4-9 “Sustaining the Weary” 

Read the Scripture

In this splendid poetry of the Bible the ears of a prophet are opened. He is surrounded by weary people–weary from oppression and injustice–weary from war and enslavement–weary from hopelessness and helplessness–weary from sin and death. All around him are the tear-stained faces of the weary. But he has nothing to offer them–nothing to say to them–nothing to share with them until the voice of God breaks into his life and into his world. Morning after morning God wakens him with a divine word–with a mission–with the power to accomplish divine plans for his people. Relentlessly, the word comes, day after day after day. And the prophet does what he must do. As Amos said, “When the lion roars breathing down your neck, you respond.” So, our prophet says yes to God as he accepts the call. And it is a call to sustain the weary. 

What a formidable task! To sustain the weary of the world! How can our prophet accept and fulfill such a task? Because he has received the Word. He is empowered not by any human word, natural strength, or collective energy. He is empowered by the Word of God, that active, dynamic, challenging, transforming, energizing Force which alone offers any hope to the weary of any age. And so, because his ear is open to that Word, he can sustain the weary. 

But once he accepts the call of God to sustain the weary, his ministry brings him disdain, insults, and suffering. Sustaining the weary of any age is not a rewarding ministry, at least from the standpoint of the world’s affirmation. He is insulted, spat upon, tormented, and beaten. What our prophet (referred to by biblical scholars as “the Suffering Servant”) learns is that sustaining the weary involves upsetting those who have made them weary. Casting one’s lot and declaring one’s solidarity with the weary of this world in the name of God does not win friends and influence people–at least among those who benefit from the world being divided into two camps: the comfortable and the weary. 

But our prophet will not budge an inch. He has set his face like flint as he pursues his mission. God’s Word awakens him morning after morning. He knows his task. He can do no other than sustain the weary. And because he has opened his ears to the longings of God’s heart, he is confident that he and the weary will be vindicated. Despite what may appear to be the case, before the mighty Word of God the opposition facing him is as fragile and ephemeral as cloth eaten by moths. 

The original setting for this Suffering Servant Song was the exile, that time when the people of God were prisoners of war in Babylon, weary exiles in need of hope and God’s sustaining presence. But the New Testament sees in this and other Suffering Servant Songs a prefiguring of Jesus. The Messiahship of Jesus is understood as being in terms of suffering servanthood. And Jesus himself appears to have embraced this understanding of his mission and identity. Luke’s Gospel tells us that when Jesus began his ministry in the synagogue of his hometown Nazareth. he chose for his text that day what has been called the fifth Suffering Servant Song. His inaugural message began with these words from Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And we are told that when Jesus explained what all this meant, his townspeople tried to kill him. So, from the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus identified himself with the mission of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah. 

So, what does this have to do with Palm Sunday, that day when Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey declaring his kingship of peace and justice. In that image we have the blending of Messiah and Suffering Servant. We see the mission of God acted out in a drama which defines what kind of Messiah Jesus would be. 

Matthew’s Gospel tells us that after Jesus entered the city he went to the temple and cleansed it of those who would monopolize the presence and favor of God. And immediately after the cleansing of the temple and Jesus’ accusation, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers,” Matthew writes these words: “The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them.” Jesus claims the kingship of God’s anointed, but rather than embracing the conventional trappings of power and privilege usually associated with rulers, this Messiah understands his calling in terms of ministry for the sake of others. He reaches out to those who, based on David’s instructions in II Samuel 5:8, should be denied access to the temple. And it was this persistent mission to the outcast, the lowly, the marginalized, the weary that led to his confrontation with the authorities and finally to his crucifixion. 

So, as we begin Holy Week with this Palm Sunday observance, let us be sure what Messiah we meet with our “Hosannas.” He is a king who rules without guile–whose power is used to sustain the weary, to liberate the oppressed, to heal the brokenhearted, to welcome the homeless, to embrace the outcast, to proclaim by word and deed the justice of the Gospel for the poor. Only that understanding of this Messiah will make any sense of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. And only that understanding will prepare us for the real meaning of the Easter victory. 

Our world needs this Messiah. We need this Messiah. We are all wounded–we are all weary–we are all poor, if not in goods, then is spirit. We need a Savior who is willing to embrace us and our world as we are–in all our weary pain–in all our ugly sin–in all our desperate need–in all our glorious potential made possible when love does the nurturing. 

Within the Talmud, that grand collection of Jewish teachings, there is a well-known legend about the coming of the Messiah–one perhaps you have heard before, but as with all good stories, one whose repeating returns us home. 

Rabbi Yoshua ben Levi came upon Elijah the prophet while he was standing at the entrance of Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai’ s cave. He asked Elijah, “When will the Messiah come?” Elijah replied, “Go and ask him yourself.” “Where is he?” asked Yoshua. “Sitting at the gates of the city,” said Elijah. “And how shall I know him?” “He is sitting among the poor covered with wounds. The others unbind all their wounds at the same time and then bind them up again. But he unbinds one at a time and binds it up again, saying to himself, ‘Perhaps I shall be needed: if so, I must always be ready so as not to delay for a moment.'” 

The Messiah, the story tells us, is sitting among the poor, the weary, the sick, the outcasts, binding his wounds one at a time, waiting for the moment when he will be needed. If we can see that Messiah among the palms this day, then we shall understand with our hearts this Suffering Servant who heals our wounds and even dies our death so that we might live. And if we can understand all that, then we shall know who is in our midst today, waiting for the moment when we open ourselves to his healing, liberating, sustaining presence. So as Pilate said, but with more meaning than that tyrant could ever comprehend, “Behold your King.” May God grant us the ability to see him as he really is, for his mission is for our and the world’s salvation.


The palms waved that day Jesus entered Jerusalem were very symbolic. The palm tree was the symbol of Jewish nationalism. Over a century and a half before Jesus when the Jews drove the Greeks from Jerusalem and rededicated their temple to God, coins were minted to celebrate this victory. And on these coins was displayed a palm branch representing Jewish pride and nationalism. And a century after Jesus when the Romans defeated the Jews in the third Jewish-Roman war, Roman coins were minted to celebrate another victory. Only this time the coins had the image of a Jewish slave kneeling before a Roman soldier with a broken palm branch across the top of the coin, indicating the demise of Jewish nationalism. 

So those waving the palms that day were looking for a Messiah who was a far cry from the Suffering Servant role presented in Isaiah and embraced by Jesus. Later that week Jesus would offer his own symbols demonstrating the nature of his Messiahship–broken bread and wine, symbols of a wounded Messiah not on a throne but casting his lot with the bulk of humanity, offering himself for the healing of the world’s wounds and individual lives. This week we shall move from symbol to symbol. But perhaps at this Table we can learn best the mission and the identity of this strange King. 


This week we move from symbol to symbol–from the palms of Palm Sunday to the Bread and Wine, the Towel and Basin of Maundy Thursday to the cross of Good Friday to the empty tomb of Easter morning. As we travel this holy path let us remember this strange king who is a Suffering Servant–a Wounded Healer–a Crucified Messiah. For as Abba has sent him. so now he sends us with the same mission–and the same identity, the Body of Christ. Amen. 


May Jesus Christ, the Bread of heaven broken for all, bless and keep you. 

May the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, heal and restore you. 

And may the Lord God order all your days and deeds in peace and love. Amen.

Isaiah 50:4-9 (NRSV)

4 The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.
5 The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward.
6 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.
7 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;
8 he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me.
9 It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty? All of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up.
Tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.