Our reading from the prophet Isaiah has been used to describe the vocations of Israel, of Isaiah, and of Jesus, because no one really knows who it is talking about. The subject is usually called the “suffering servant”, and depending on one’s religious or academic preference, the suffering servant is usually seen to be whomever it is that will bolster one’s opinion. It is a beautiful part of scripture, and the part we read today is only a small part of the entire “Song of the Suffering Servant”. One of the verses we read today is used to describe the human condition of falleness: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way…” That verse, as well as many other parts of scripture, are cited as examples of depraved human nature; we have gone astray, we have fallen from grace, we are bound for hell. However, it seems that if human nature was really one of depravity, then doing evil could not be conceived of as “going astray” – it could only be described as “following the correct course”, because we would be doing exactly what God made us for. If human nature were truly bad, then doing good would be going astray.
That is why, when these and other scriptures are used as a basis to claim the total depravity of human nature, those scriptures are being used wrongly. Human nature is good, because, as other scriptures tell us, God made humans, and all that God made is good. We have gone astray because we have not followed our good nature. We have instead created a second nature for ourselves: a second nature of pride, self-centeredness, and fear. This second nature is a shell we have encrusted around our true natures of joy, peace, and God-centeredness. Our nature only seems to be totally depraved because we have done such a good job at covering up our God-given good natures.
Of course, God knows this, or God would not be calling us to repentance. If we were made to be bad, then there would be no reason for God to want to save us from that, because going to hell would be our proper function. But we know that God does want us to repent from our false nature of sinfulness and return to our true natures of love. God sees through our façade of evil and into our true selves B the selves that God created in God’s image. As our second scripture reading from the letter to the Hebrews tells us: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” We are created in God’s image, and nothing we can do will change that fact, or hide that fact from God.
The embarrassing thing is that we humans have chosen to cover up that divine nature for so long that we really can’t break out of the second nature we have made for ourselves. God knows that, and so God chose to become one of us so that by refusing to be lulled into crawling into that second nature, Jesus could break it open and pull us out. As Hebrews goes on to say: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” God knows firsthand how easy and tempting it is to want to cover ourselves in a shell of pride and hatred, but he also knows how much better it is to refuse that temptation. God has done it himself, and offers us the only escape from our second nature by standing with us, holding out his hand for us to grasp so he can pull us out of our shells of corruption. We can’t do it ourselves B that is obvious. Only by accepting God’s help can we be reborn back to our true selves.
Before we accept God’s offer to pull us out of the hell we have made for ourselves, we ought to be warned about what God’s offer of heaven is like. Jesus tells us about it in our gospel reading this morning: “whoever wishes to become great must be servant, and whoever wishes to be first must be slave of all – not to be served but to serve”. That describes the opposite of our self-serving second nature, so it is difficult for us because we are not used to it. But it is who we are created to be, and in the end it will bring us eternal joy. Sometimes we slip back into our fallen state, but Jesus is always there waiting to pull us out again if we accept his help. It is our choice, and we are confronted with it every day and every moment. Will we stay in our false second nature of sin and greed, or be pulled out of it to be born again into our true nature as God’s Child? Jesus is offering his hand, but we must reach out and grab it. AMEN