The Theme of the Mission of the Servant in the 15 OT Readings of Holy Saturday


Sermon preached by Andrea Popa on Sunday, March 16, 2014

During this Antiochian women's month we are continuing our Lenten journey by pointing ahead to Christ's death and resurrection at Pascha. We’ll be reflecting on today's liturgical readings and how they preview the readings from Great and Holy Saturday just a few weeks away.

As Melissa so clearly explained in her homily last week, Holy Saturday is the day on which new catechumens are traditionally baptized into the Christian faith or chrismated into Orthodoxy and this collection of readings is intended to be a reminder of the catechism truths they have learned in preparation to join themselves to the church.

This morning, we will explore the "Word of The Lord" and the mission of the unnamed servant. We’ll be focusing on four readings – two from Holy Saturday as well as today’s Epistle and Gospel passages.

I was English major in college, but ironically, not much of a reader. My three brothers collected shelves of books penned by their favorite authors, while I mastered the art of skimming stories for themes and structure, skipping irreverently to the end of books to see if the plot had wrapped up as I expected. While time does not permit us to read the books of Jonah, Isaiah, Hebrews and Mark in their entirety here together, it’s remarkable how each passage we will visit contributes to today’s central themes.

We’ll start out with Holy Saturday reading #4, looking at the story of Jonah. Later this month we will return to this passage to discuss the theme of resurrection as outlined in the first part of this story. For today, however, we will focus on Jonah's mission and message.

Jonah has already tried to run away from God’s directive. As we catch up with him now in chapter 3, we read, "Then the word of The Lord came to Jonah the second time saying, 'Arise, go to Nin'eveh, the great city, and proclaim to it the message of The Lord."

This second time, Jonah went. He entered Nin'eveh and with disdain for the people in that corrupt city prophesied their demise, saying: "Yet 40 days and Nin'eveh shall be overthrown!"

To Jonah’s surprise the people heard his message and took it seriously. By decree of the king, every noble and peasant in the kingdom put on sackcloth and ashes, fasted from food and water, and cried to GOD for mercy.

And The Lord God heard their cry

and had mercy on them

and didn't not destroy the city.

Let's backtrack for just a moment...

In verse 3:1, we have God compelling Jonah to go to Nin'eveh and proclaim the "Word of The Lord." We then have Jonah proclaiming: "Yet 40 days and Nin'eveh shall be overthrown!"

Did Jonah miss a step here? He was charged with proclaiming the "Message of The Lord" and yet he delivered a warning of destruction.

As we read on in the story, however, we see that even in the midst of Jonah's anger, he may have understood a truth about God better than it at first appears. In Chapter 4:1, we read: "but it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. 'I pray thee, LORD, is not this what I said when I was in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshsish; for I know that thou art a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repentest of evil.’ To which the LORD God responded, ‘Do you do well to be angry?’"

In this moment and this story I want us to stop and consider how we in our own lives perceive and speak to others "The Message of The Lord." Is it is a message of anger and punishment or a call to light and hope? While we ourselves have experienced God's mercy and forgiveness do we chose to message the same compassion to those we perceive to be outside of God's inner circle?

This week marks one year since Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis in the Catholic Church. In his first year as Pontiff, Pope Francis was named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” and continues to make headlines, for his humble lifestyle, his humanitarian interactions with the poor and for his challenge to the church universal to reassess our message to the world. While I am often pleased with the positive press he receives, it also saddens me that we the church aren’t as a matter of practice acting in a way that would cause others to take note, that we are so often misrepresent God’s message of love, redemption and light. 

The second Holy Saturday reading we will explore today is #11 from Isaiah 61:1-9: where the prophet foretells the coming of an unnamed servant of God. The reading begins: "The Spirit of The Lord GOD is upon me, because The Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prisons to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor..."

You may recall Christ Himself read these words in the Synagogue in Nazareth as he was beginning his public ministry. In Luke 4:18, we find Him standing before those gathered in worship on the Sabbath day, and reading from the prophet Isaiah, "The Spirit of The Lord GOD is upon me, because The Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings..."

As Jesus read the Torah that day, it was clear to those gathered that he was not simply reading the prophetic passage but proclaiming it. He said as he sat: "Today this scripture [the message] is fulfilled in your hearing."

So how do these two Holy Saturday passages tie in to today’s readings?

The liturgical reading we heard this morning begins with Hebrews 1:10 proclaiming Christ in the beginning as creator of all. He doesn’t just show up in the story in the second part, but has been present as an author all along. If we back up a few verses, Hebrews 1:1 sets the framework of the book with this insight: "God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets has in these last days spoken to us by his Son whom he has appointed heir of all things, through whom also he made all worlds... being the brightness of his glory, the express image of his person."

Just as the writer of Hebrews explains, Christ delivers the Word of The Lord as the "express image of God's person." Christ speaks the message of The Lord and is the physical embodiment of God's WORD to humankind.

In today's Gospel reading, Mark 2:1-12, Christ offends the religious faithful by telling a paralytic man that his sins are forgiven. "Blasphemy!" They cry. "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" And so as a physical demonstration of his status as Son of God, as the express Word of God, Christ commands the paralytic to take up his bed and walk. He heals him physically as a demonstration of his spiritual redemption.

Yet even as Jesus heals him, he commands the paralytic to take personal action, to rise and take his bed. As we seek healing in our lives, we may likewise be called to take a personal step in faith towards our own healing, to stand on our feet and take ownership of our past affliction.

As we look at these four passages together, let us consider: What is the Word of The Lord today? What is the embodiment of God's message to us?  

I would propose that a central theme in these four passages is as follows: The Mission of the unnamed Servant – and our Mission today – is to correctly message God’s Word and to point to Christ, the Incarnate Word.

One year ago this week I was sitting at my grandmother’s bedside during her final days, before she passed away on March 18. During her life, Mary Elizabeth Clayton Harris Hillery was a photographer and journalist for 60 years in Muncie, Indiana. She interviewed the Beatles, Alice Cooper and Billy Graham along with countless others over the span of her career. For Grandma Betty, the picture was about capturing details and the story was always about the people she spoke to. I believe this is true of God as well. The story – the big story illustrated by these four readings today – has always been about making that personal connection between God and us His children.

From the story of Nin'eveh we learn that The Lord God is more interested in repentance than destruction.  

From the Prophet Isaiah we hear that the Anointed One will bring good tidings to the afflicted, bind the broken hearted, and to set the captives free.

From Hebrews, we know that Jesus, the Anointed One, is the physical Word of God and the express image of God's person.  

And from Mark, we learn that it is through God's Word that the paralytic is healed and is forgiven his sins.

For those of you who are into reading the whole, book, I'd say, have at it! There is certainly more to each of these stories than my cursory skim.

For today, however, I would challenge you to consider that Christ calls each of us to step forward in repentance and faith toward the healing that is available to us through Himself, the Express Image of God, the Incarnate Word.

Please join us next week as we continue our catechism review. Ioana Chiriac will lead us in exploring themes of sacrifice and offering.

In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen