In his book A Grief Observed, C S Lewis talks powerfully about the experience of being forced into the position of onlooker in a situation involving the suffering of another; of what it feels like to be relegated to the sidelines while a tragedy unfolds. And in particular, he describes the particular, impotent rage which the observer in these situation experiences: the desperate desire to be somehow empowered or equipped to intervene, to be able to change the course of events so that the suffering ceases or the tragedy doesn’t occur. And Lewis also describes the terrible sense of isolation and loneliness which this situation engenders: of how one desperately cries out to God for answers and solutions; and of how, instead, in the midst of our terrible pain, it only feels as though God has slammed the door shut in our faces, and all we can hear are the bolts being driven home on the other side.
We’ve all had experiences like this, of course. For Lewis, it was the slow death by cancer of his wife, Joy Gresham. For others, it might be the terrible toll taken on their loved ones by an addiction of one sort or another. Or the struggles for financial security made all the more difficult by unemployment and the remorseless logic of the economy. Or the hidden trauma of domestic violence. Or the discrimination and stigmatisation faced by those with mental illness or physical impairment. In so many ways, life deals us blows or places us in situations in which we seem completely marginalised, unable either to act or resist. And in these situations, our helplessness and powerlessness descend upon us like hammer blows; or, to borrow from Lewis again, like the blows of the sculptor’s chisel upon a block of stone, which strike us so hard we can scarcely bear the pain.
One of my favourite rock bands is the Welsh group Stereophonics. And one of their songs which is a particular favourite of mine is called Forever. It is a lament about exactly this kind of situation: about the powerlessness of being an onlooker, of being unable to prevent a loved one from suffering. And in the chorus the song declares:
Wish I could fly away forever;
Wish I could take away your pain
And release you
Because, of course, that is exactly what helplessness is about: the inability to take away another’s pain; the inability to step into another’s shoes and relieve them of their suffering.
And for the ancient Hebrew peoples, during their exile in Babylon, this sense of helplessness and powerlessness must have been profound. What is more, they must also have experienced a deep sense of abandonment as well. All the old certainties had been destroyed: the apparent contract between God and Israel seemed to have been overthrown by the destruction of Jerusalem and the mass translation of the population to a foreign land. True, the Babylonian exile wasn’t quite like the period of slavery in Egypt: by and large, the Hebrew exiles were well treated, living in a large, cosmopolitan city in which they were able to make a living, settle down, establish roots and some sort of normality. But they were foreigners living among strangers, neither speaking the language nor participating in the culture by which they were surrounded; and their Babylonian overlords would have made perfectly clear to them the fact that, however gilded, they were living in a cage – one in which, if they didn’t behave as required, they could expect to be punished.
Moreover, as texts like Psalm 137 make painfully clear, the fact of exile from Jerusalem, the sense of being cut off from the Holy Land and from the covenant with God, cast a dark cloud over the lives of the Hebrew exiles. And the very fact of their exile reinforced their helplessness: they were the hostages of a mighty foreign power, one whose military strength could visit terrible destruction upon them without any possibility of reprieve or rescue.
And it is into this situation of helplessness that today’s reading from Isaiah speaks. Contemplating their situation, the Hebrews must have been conscious, not only of their powerlessness, but of the need to rethink their relationship with God. The loss of the old certainties was, for many, a source of despair; but for some others, it stimulated a mission to rearticulate the ancient covenant in new terms. And not merely to “update” the covenant, or make it “relevant” – but to understand how its ancient promises spoke into the unprecedented situation in which God’s People found themselves.
One of these voices was the originator of today’s text – a figure known to scholars as Deutero-Isaiah, or Second Isaiah. This is the prophet who lived and ministered during the period of the Exile, and whose message to Israel is captured within chapters 40-55 of the text we now know as Isaiah. And today’s passage reflects the theological thinking which the Exile forced upon the Hebrew people, the need for new insights sprung from old ideas.
And one of the new ideas revealed in today’s passage centres on the idea of servanthood. The ancient patriarchs of the Jewish faith – Abraham, Moses, David – were seen as the servants of God. But in today’s reading, we see the first mention of a new idea: of God as the servant of the people. In time, this personification of God’s servanthood will become known as the “suffering servant”. But in today’s reading, this figure is identified only as the chosen of God, one filled with God’s Spirit whose task it will be to bring justice to the nations.
But this justice has a particular dimension. It is not the judicial justice of laws and kingly judgements. It is the justice of compassion for the weak, of solidarity with those blinded or imprisoned by oppressive power. And this solidarity will not be the solidarity of conventional power: it will be the solidarity of one who is themselves weak, but faithful. Power and strength in the Godly servant will be the product of trust and hope, not of armies and wealth.
And this trust and hope are demonstrated in the extraordinary image of God holding the people’s hand. And you only realise what a radical image this is when you consider earlier depictions of God encountering humanity. Moses sees a burning bush and must remove his sandals and bow down. The prophet Elijah encounters God in silence and covers his face with his cloak. Jacob encounters God as a stranger whom he does not recognise. God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind. These are all images which depict the “otherness” of God, upon which humanity cannot directly gaze. But this image of God holding the people’s hand is intensely intimate and human; it is an image of presence and reassurance, even in the midst of suffering. It is an image of companioning, of travelling with, despite hardship and tragedy. It is an image of friendship and faithfulness which does not waver in the face of terrible happenings.
The ikon writers of the Orthodox Christian tradition were to later create ikons which mirrored this intimacy of friendship and companionship. They created ikons of Mary and Jesus, and also of Joseph and Jesus. And in these images of parent and child, in which the subjects are both in intimate physical contact and looking at one another, we see the affection of God, the loving friendship of solidarity and trust and hope that is subject to all the frailties and failures of the human heart. But it is also bound up with the faithfulness of God, which does not fail, and which endures for the sake of friendship.
For this is what the image of the suffering servant ultimately involves. The servanthood is practiced, not to human vanity or ego, but for the sake of human dignity in the face of the powers of dehumanisation and indignity. And the suffering is not a masochistic self-display, neither is it an alleviation from some kind of judicial punishment. Rather, it is the suffering that necessarily derives from love, from the commitment of the self to the other, even when the self is helpless to relieve the suffering of the other. It is the solidarity of powerlessness, when all we can do is journey with and companion people, precisely because we lack the means to alter their circumstances.
Second Isaiah was a prophet who accompanied the people of Israel in their suffering. And that is a prophetic function we often overlook: we mistakenly think prophets are about predicting the future, when in truth they are called to walk with the people of their time, critiquing and calling them to a better way of being, a way of faithful relationship with God. Second Isaiah was helpless to change their situation or their circumstances; no doubt, there were plenty of occasions in which he himself was filled with anguish and doubt. Perhaps he even said and did some foolish or impulsive things, acts and words which alienated people or caused him to be regarded with suspicion. But the prophetic message which is preserved as his legacy is a message of hope: not in human power and capacity, but in the companioning faithfulness of God to heal and transform – even when the times or the situations seem overwhelming.
There is a saying which I believe comes from the Hassidic tradition of Judaism: People are God’s response to suffering. And so often, when we think God has turned a blind eye on our suffering, or is indifferent to our pain, we are allowing our clamour for power, for the capacity to change the situation, to stifle God’s response: that we are called, not to alter or amend, but to love: to care, to companion, to walk alongside and engage in dialogue with. And that inevitably means that we will suffer for the sake of others: we cannot love without exposing ourselves to pain. But the desire to have the power to end another’s suffering is ultimately an expression of our desire to be free from others, to be free from paying the price which love demands of us. But were we to obtain that freedom, we would lose our humanity; and then all would be lost, for it is in our humanity that God delights.
Like all of us, C S Lewis had to learn that his commission as a Christian was not to end his wife’s suffering, nor to alter the course of her illness; instead, it was to companion her through the reality of her pain and walk with her to the very gates of death itself. Lewis realised that what he had to do was give up power, the capacity to do and to change, and instead surrender himself to the possibility of hope. Not a naïve hope that papered over stark realities; nor a sterile, intellectualised hope that emptied our experience of its human content. Rather, it was the hope that comes from powerlessness, from fragility and vulnerability; the hope that stands in solidarity with the poor, the helpless, and the frightened. This is the hope that God’s justice is not a matter of power, and God’s servanthood is not a matter of vanity; but that through the faithfulness of love, God works through the brokenness of our human life to bring healing and transformation, the possibility of new horizons and new ways of being. This was the message Second Isaiah spoke to a people in exile; and it is a message which, at the beginning of a year seemingly so full of uncertainties and fears, which this ancient prophet – who suffered alongside the people he loved – still speaks to us today.
 Wallace, Howard “Year A: Baptism of Jesus – Isaiah 42: 1-9”, located at http://hwallace.unitingchurch.org.au/WebOTcomments/EpiphanyA/Epiphany1ABaptismJesus.html, accessed 6.1.16