I’m back from my week off. This Sunday, the fourth in Lent, is also observed as Mothering Sunday, but the theme in our series is ‘A Sacrificial Journey’ and uses Isaiah’s passage about the Suffering Servant.
If you’d like some worship material on the third Sunday in Lent from this series, I know other churches are using this material and a quick search of YouTube or Google should find you something.
In the meantime, here is this week’s video and then the text of the talk.
We come this week to one of the most extraordinary passages in the Old Testament. I can understand why many Christians view this as a direct prophecy of Jesus’ death for the sins of the world. It is the last of the so-called ‘Servant Songs’ in Isaiah. It is clear that Jesus used these as models for his ministry. And while many Jews could easily have seen the earlier Servant Songs as ones fulfilled by a prophet, this one blows the doors off that with its talk of a human being (as opposed to an animal sacrifice) taking the sins of the world. Whatever it meant at the time – and it must have meant something to its first hearers – it’s hard not to see its ultimate fulfilment in the life and death of Jesus.
And in fact that’s my first observation here: the Suffering Servant goes against the surrounding culture. Here is not the victorious warrior Messiah that Israel came to believe in. Nor is this the mighty military commander in which Babylon placed so much trust. (This prophecy belongs to the time when Israel was toward the end of her exile in Babylon.)
And nor does it sit comfortably with our culture in some ways. Due to our Christian heritage we may have come to recognise and even applaud those who give at great cost, even the cost of their own lives for the sake of others. In the last year we might think of NHS staff who put themselves at great risk for COVID-19 sufferers, caught the disease themselves, and died. However, even that is slightly different from Christian understandings of vicarious suffering, and we’ll come onto that in a little while.
No, the way in which this challenges our culture is early on in the passage, with the descriptions of Jesus’ appearance:
his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
and his form marred beyond human likeness (52:14b, c)
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. (53:2c, d)
The Suffering Servant (ultimately Jesus himself) would not fit into today’s glamorous celebrity culture. The media operators would tell him he had a face for radio, not TV.
There are sections of the Christian church where it seems important for their leaders to be photogenic. All this shows is a surrender to our shallow culture. It’s no coincidence how in those churches the attractive pastors sometimes seem to think they can take advantage of this, and a scandal ensues.
But before we get smug, we should realise how we cave in to this vacuous approach as well. I have certainly known circuits where people openly went more to church when there was a good-looking preacher. And I don’t say that out of sour grapes because the preacher in question wasn’t me! It genuinely concerns me. How prepared are we to get beyond style and appearance to substance?
My second observation, though, is this: the Suffering Servant comes alongside the culture.
Really? Yes, because despite what I’ve just said Jesus still has compassion for a sinful and suffering world.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. (53:3a, b)
‘A man of suffering, and familiar with pain.’ In older translations we may know the words ‘A man of suffering’ as ‘A man of sorrows’, as in the great hymn, ‘Man of Sorrows.’
Jesus, the man who enjoyed dinner parties and weddings became the man of suffering and sorrows. He always knew it would be so. He identified with human sin and suffering right through to an ignominious and tortuous death on the Cross.
Before I met and married Debbie, some of you know I had a broken engagement. When that happened, two friends of mine turned up on my doorstep one lunchtime and said they were taking me out to lunch. It turned out that one of them had also had a broken engagement before she met her husband. That identification and experience meant more to me than those who simply, like Job’s comforters, came up with their clever theological explanations of the hurt I was feeling.
When we suffer, Jesus, the very Son of God, knows. That’s a basis for comfort. When the world suffers, Jesus knows. That’s a basis for commending him to others.
And with him, it is more than ‘I understand what you’re going through,’ because Jesus the Suffering Servant has come through the worst of suffering to resurrection.
In our world there has been a lot of talk about the need for hope over the last year. We have placed our hope in science, and of course we are being blessed by the fruits of scientific labour in the vaccination programme. We rightly laud the scientific teams, the companies, and the universities that have produced the vaccines.
But ultimately our hope isn’t in anything human like science. It’s in the Suffering Servant risen from the dead. Science is a gift of God, but it isn’t itself divine. It will do a lot of wonderful things for us, but it can’t always save us.
On the other hand, if as we believe Jesus went through that unimaginable suffering and was raised from death, then faith in him gives us an indestructible hope. What a message we have for a troubled world!
My third and final observation is that the Suffering Servant transforms the culture.
4 Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
Israel knew where her transgressions and iniquities had landed her: in exile in Babylon. And she had no peace with God. Away from Jerusalem and the Temple which gave their lives meaning and significance, they were in a place of despair.
There is a sense in which all people are in exile from God’s presence due to our transgressions and iniquities. Some like to pretend it’s not true. Others just don’t realise. But Jesus the Suffering Servant invites us to hear the voice of his Father calling the prodigals home, because Jesus in his death has dealt with that which has sent us away from the Father’s presence.
It is what Martin Luther called ‘the divine exchange’. In terms of this passage, Jesus takes our pain, suffering, punishment, and affliction, and we receive his peace and healing. Why would anyone turn down an exchange like that?
More than once I have heard a psychiatrist say that if only their patients or clients could know they were forgiven, then many beds would be released on psychiatric wards. What Jesus offers through his suffering is totally and utterly transforming.
Imagine if that were extended across our society and we were no longer a culture where we talked about other people’s ‘unforgivable’ actions. Imagine our politics and our media having healthy disagreements without having to demonise the other side. Imagine a world where those who make honest failures are not turned into social pariahs or media villains. Imagine a nation where a broken and hurting royal family didn’t have to deal with their differences and pain through television interviews and press releases. Imagine more marriages staying together, because the forgiveness of one spouse prompts change in the other.
All this and more is why I say that Jesus the Suffering Servant can transform a culture. It begins with the forgiveness he brings us through his suffering, and as we receive that we offer it to others not just as a message but in our own actions.
This is the journey of Jesus that we mark during Lent. It’s a suffering journey. But it’s one which brings substance, hope, and transformation to the world.
How are we going to travel on that journey with him?