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Good News In Troubling Times: Jesus – The Suffering Servant, Isaiah 52:13-53:12

Jesus: The Suffering Servant
Isaiah 52:13-53:12

When was the last time something truly shocked you? Left you speechless? We’re shocked when the unexpected happens. The shocking event can be something bad, like a news story about something someone has done that we can’t believe actually happened. I was shocked by the news story last week of two people here in Michigan who tossed a puppy off a bridge, looking to get rid of it. But shocks can be good things that surprise us too. Like police officers who pull people over for speeding, and then, instead of giving a speeding ticket, they give the speeders a Thanksgiving turkey or a Christmas ham instead, probably with a warning to slow down too.

Unfortunately, when the shocking thing becomes expected or commonplace, we’re no longer shocked by it. Do you remember the shock and despair we all felt when we heard about the shooting in Columbine High School? What’s our response when we hear about a shooting like that today? Saddened? Yes. Angry? Of course. Shocked? Not any more. Why? Because we’ve become desensitized.

As we enter another season of Advent, and prepare for another celebration of Christmas, I’m struck by our over-familiarity with the Christmas story – God joining us on earth, as one of us, bringing hope and ultimately, in his death and resurrection, forgiveness and life. We’ve lost the surprise, the scandal, really, of the good news of Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us. Romans 4:5 tells us that in Jesus, God “justifies the ungodly.” Is there anything more scandalous, more shocking, than the guilty going free, unpunished?

When it’s us, we’re delighted. When it’s someone else … not so much. But that’s exactly what God, in Christ, is doing. Turn with me to Isaiah 52:13.

This is a pretty good description of a conquering hero, isn’t it? Isaiah is describing a servant of God who would come into this world as the strong “arm of God.” That’s a pretty good title for a super hero … “I am the arm of God.” It’s an image of strength, of a long arm, biceps and triceps rippling; of God flexing his muscle. Isaiah has used that image, the arm of God, leading up to this passage. Isaiah 40:10-11 says, “Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.” It’s an image of God’s saving strength and power, and Isaiah will use it again in this passage.

And not only does this servant, who will act as the arm of the Lord, as God’s power at work to save, he will “act wisely.” That doesn’t just mean that he’ll be a smart guy or say all kinds of smart things. It means he’ll act in a way that he will succeed. His ultimate victory is guaranteed. This servant comes in the strength of God himself, and his success is guaranteed. It has all the makings of a great superhero story. I mean we all know that, eventually, the superhero whose name is in the title of the movie, or IS the title of the movie, is going to win eventually. That’s why all of the Marvel fans were shocked when – spoiler alert – Iron Man died. Sorry Joanne and Chery … I know you were planning to go home and binge watch all of the Marvel movies. And I just ruined it for you.

BUT, Iron Man was just one of several superheroes in that movie. They didn’t all die. If ALL of the superheroes died in the last movie, and Thanos, which is the Greek word for “death” by the way – the whole Marvel universe is a picture of humanity’s struggle against death – if Thanos had taken over and ruled the world and the whole series ended with all the superheroes dead and Thanos victorious – that would be shocking, wouldn’t it?

So Isaiah begins by telling us that this servant of God, who comes as the arm of God, whose victory is already sure … I guess Isaiah didn’t know you aren’t supposed to give away the ending … and that this servant will be exalted before the entire cosmos. Suiting for a good superhero, wouldn’t you say? Well, Isaiah gives away the ending at the beginning because he’s about to take a hard left turn and shock us all. Look at Isaiah 52:14-53:3.

Now, every superhero has a secret identity. The lanky, nerdy Peter Parker becomes Spiderman. Bruce Wayne, the rich playboy and philanthropist, becomes Batman. Clark Kent is Superman. But when they’re in action, saving the world, they’re always recognizable. Not so with the arm of God. In fact, his appearance when he’s in action … astonishes – shocks – us. So beaten up and marred that he doesn’t even resemble anything human. We look at the pile of bleeding, bruised, pierced flesh with legs lying on the ground and ask, is this thing even human? Could it ever have been human? This servant, the arm of God, is a suffering servant.

A Franciscan University in Ohio recently posted a series of ads on Facebook to promote some of its online theology programs. But Facebook rejected one of them because it included a representation of the crucifixion. The monitors at Facebook said the reason for their rejection was that they found the depiction of the cross “shocking, sensational, and excessively violent.”

The Franciscan University of Steubenville responded with a blog post that no doubt surprised Facebook: they agreed with Facebook’s assessment! The Franciscan university posted:

Indeed, the crucifixion of Christ was all of those things. It was the most sensational action in history: man executed his God. It was shocking, yes: God deigned to take on flesh and was ‘obedient unto death, even death on a cross. ‘And it was certainly excessively violent: a man scourged to within an inch of his life, nailed naked to a cross and left to die, all the hate of all the sin in the world poured out its wrath upon his humanity.

Saviors, deliverers, are dominating, forceful, attractive people who have a personal magnetism that draws people to them and convinces us to continue to follow them. Jesus was so beaten that he barely seemed human anymore. No beauty or majesty to draw people to him. And so he was despised and rejected. The word translated as “despised” doesn’t have the same emotional meaning that we give it today. It doesn’t mean contempt so much as ignored. It means he was considered worthless and unworthy of our attention. We dismiss him as unimportant. We walk right by him and never notice.

A man named Joshua Bell emerged from the Metro and positioned himself against a wall beside a trash basket. By most measures, he was nondescript – a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt, and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money and began to play.

For the next 45 minutes, in the D.C. Metro on January 12, 2007, Bell played Mozart and Schubert as over 1,000 people streamed by, most hardly taking notice. If they had paid attention, they might have recognized the young man for the world-renowned violinist he is. They also might have noted the violin he played – a rare Stradivarius worth over $3 million. It was all part of a project arranged by The Washington Post – “an experiment in context, perception, and priorities – as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste. In a banal setting, at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”

Just three days earlier, Joshua Bell sold out Boston Symphony Hall, with ordinary seats going for $100. In the subway, Bell garnered about $32 from the 27 people who stopped long enough to give a donation.

Do we dare to stop and look at the pile of bleeding flesh that is Jesus, the Christ, the strong arm of God? Or do we hide our faced, embarrassed at his ordinariness, his lack of success by our standards. Do we stop and see, or do we hide our faces, disgusted by his self-giving and vulnerability and lack of defensiveness.

You see, these things weren’t done to him because he was overcome by a power greater than himself. He allowed these things to be done to him by those who, were he in his true, heavenly state, wouldn’t even be able to stand upright before him. Look at Vv. 4-6. The arm of God, who would bear our sin. The star-breathing God becomes the sin-bearing God.

He doesn’t just suffer because of our sin. It isn’t just that we as a sinful humanity overcame, overpowered, and tormented and then executed him. No, he suffered in our place. On our behalf. The sin that he bore on the cross wasn’t his sin, it was mine. It was yours. When the great artist Rembrandt painted his “The Raising of the Cross” in 1633, he placed himself in the scene. We know this because Rembrandt painted several self-portraits, and one of the soldiers in the scene bears a striking resemblance to his self-portraits. And the character, playing the role of the Roman soldier in charge, is wearing a turban – something Roman soldiers didn’t do that artists in Rembrandt’s day did – wrapping their heads in cloth like turbans to keep their hair out of the way and free of paint.

He was crushed. Pulverized. And he was pierced. The word translated as “pierces” is the strongest word available in the Hebrew language for a violent and excruciating death. He bore OUR griefs, carried OUR sorrows, was pierced for OUR transgressions, crushed for OUR iniquities. It wasn’t fair. It still isn’t. But it is the reason he came. He came to be our sin-bearer. And he did it intentionally. For us. And we pass by with barely a look. We despise him, reject him. If we come to him at all, we come on our terms, content with a Jesus who will be a part of our lives, but rejecting any Jesus who dares to ask us to bend our knee and call him Lord.

His suffering doesn’t compute with our sense of justice. In our minds, those who suffer deserve their suffering. And so humanity considered Jesus smitten by God, another failed false messiah who couldn’t deliver. We view success and wealth and power as signs of God’s blessing and weakness, sickness, poverty, and humiliation as signs of God’s displeasure and curse. But Jesus stands all of that on its head. He came not in Caesar’s palace in Rome, the center of the world’s political power, or in Jerusalem, the center of Israel’s political power and religious identity. He didn’t come to palace or temple, but was born in a feed trough behind a guest room in little Bethlehem. He grew up in Nazareth. The Jews of Jerusalem often joked that nothing good could come from Nazareth. His parents weren’t powerful and wealthy. They were poor and insignificant. The scandal of the gospel, of God forgiving the ungodly, was born in the midst of the scandal of a poor, young, unwed mother.

Richard Dawkins is the author of The God Delusion. He was formerly Professor for Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. He once debated John Lennox who is Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University. They debated the existence of God. At one point Dawkins says of John Lennox:

He believes that the creator of the universe, the God who devised the laws of physics, the laws of mathematics, the physical constants … that this genius of mathematics and physical science could not think of a better way to rid the world of sin than to come to this little speck of cosmic dust and have himself tortured and executed so that he could forgive.

That, says Dawkins, is profoundly unscientific. Not only is it unscientific, but it doesn’t do justice to the grandeur of the universe. Why would God bother entering into our small and broken planet? Dawkins chided Lennox and all Christians for believing in that kind of God.

God’s only and eternal Son on a Roman cross? Despised and rejected by men on this tiny planet. It’s like being blind-sided in the subway station on a Friday morning in Washington DC in a hurry to get to work and you pass by one of the most brilliant violinists in the world playing some of the most beautiful music in the world on one of the most expensive violins in the world. You don’t expect to see the master violinist performing in such a dirty, undignified place. But that is the very point. Jesus died for us while we were yet sinners.

Now, look at Vv. 7-12. Out of apparent defeat comes victory. The one who willingly allowed himself to be brought low, is glorified. The one who was tortured and murdered by his own creation, who was without any children of his own (and that in itself was viewed as one of the ultimate failures in life in his day), has children from every nation on earth, whose numbers are beyond counting. His children are you, and me. But if we walk by and never give him a second glance, if we brush him off, all that he endured, all that he accomplished amounts to nothing in our lives. He went through all of it our of love for you and for me. Yes, Dawkins is right, it doesn’t make any sense. But there’s something the brilliant Dawkins didn’t understand … love. Not fickle and transient human love. God’s love. His undying love for you and for me. A love that was willing to wade into the mess of this world and take that mess upon himself and die an excruciating death.

Our job is to accept the offering. Picture yourself standing before God in all of your sin and shortcomings and failures and mistakes. And here comes Jesus, his body pierced and crushed, and he climbs into your outstretched arms, becoming that barely recognizable as human tortured and executed lump of flesh, and he says, “Here, offer me to God as the sacrifice for your sin.” As you stand there with his blood pouring down your arms, you know you don’t deserve this gift. You know you can never earn it. You can only accept it with gratitude, or reject it.

Accept the gift, and then live the life. St. Paul, reflecting on THIS passage, instructs us to have the same mind in us that Christ had. In Philippians 2:5-8 he says, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

We cannot save humanity from sin as he did. He did that once for all. It cannot an need not be duplicated. But we are called to live on this earth as sacrificial servants, dying to ourselves, picking up our cross, and following him. Loving without condition. Relying on his resources, not our own. Wholly dependent on him to transform us, bringing beauty from the failures and sin in our lives.

In September of 1940, Witold Pilecki, a Polish army captain, did the unthinkable – he snuck into Auschwitz. That’s right, into Auschwitz. Pilecki knew that something was terribly wrong with the concentration camp and as a committed (Roman Catholic) Christian and a Polish patriot he couldn’t sit by and watch. He wanted to get information on the horrors of Auschwitz, but he knew he could only do that from the inside.

So his superiors approved a daring plan. They provided a false identity card with a Jewish name, and then Pilecki allowed the Germans to arrest him during a routine Warsaw street roundup. Pilecki was sent to Auschwitz and assigned inmate number 4859. Pilecki, a husband and father of two, later said, “I bade farewell to everything I had known on this earth.” He became just like any other prisoner – despised, beaten, and threatened with death. From inside the camp he wrote, “The game I was now playing at Auschwitz was dangerous …. In fact, I had gone far beyond what people in the real world would consider dangerous.”

But beginning in 1941, prisoner number 4859 started working on his dangerous mission. He organized the inmates into resistance units, boosting morale and documenting the war crimes. Pilecki used couriers to smuggle out detailed reports on the atrocities. By 1942, he had also helped organize a secret radio station using scrap parts. The information he supplied from inside the camp provided Western allies with key intelligence information about Auschwitz.

In the spring of 1943, Pilecki joined the camp bakery where he was able to overpower a guard and escape. Once free, he finished his report, estimating that around 2 million souls had been killed at Auschwitz. When the reports reached London, officials thought he was exaggerating. Of course today we know he was right.

Here’s how a contemporary Jewish journal summarized Pilecki’s life: “Once he set his mind to the good, he never wavered, never stopped. He crossed the great human divide that separates knowing the right thing from doing the right thing.” In his report Pilecki said, “There is always a difference between saying you will do something and actually doing it. A long time before, many years before, I had worked on myself in order to be able to fuse the two.” The current Polish Ambassador to the U.S. described Pilecki as a “diamond among Poland’s heroes.” Why did he do that? Because he loved his country? No. Because as a Roman Catholic he loved and served Jesus. Accept the gift, and live the life – that’s the call of Christmas. That’s the call of the suffering servant, the shocking, strong arm of God. Let us pray.