March 21, 2010

The Suffering Servant

All this month we have been looking at passages in the Old Testament that shaped and informed the messianic hopes of the people Israel. What this journey has proven thus far to be for us is a vehicle to understanding the path of our salvation. Two weeks ago we watched in horror as the perfection of creation crumbled when the first man and woman rebelled against their Creator. In this dire situation, though, as the consequences of our sinfulness permeated the fabric of creation, we were buoyed up with the fact that God did not abandon us to sin, but gave us hope. Last week we jumped back and forth between the misery of David and the horrors of the crucifixion of Christ. We saw that not only was the cross set in place as the method of obtaining our redemption but that the details of the Via Dolorosa were scripted nearly 1,000 years before they happened. We celebrated the fact that the victory first hinted at in Psalm 22 was proclaimed by Christ on the cross when He cried out to God, seemingly in defeat, from His agony. When we feel we have been forsaken by God and are in a place of desperation we can remember the plight of our Lord and claim the victory He announced. Our sufferings may not and even probably will not end instantaneously, but such an act of faith will set our sights on the larger picture which can give us strength to bear up under any circumstances. This week
want to take a few minutes and look at the Messiah Himself. Throughout the Old Testament, the Messiah is pictured as the person who was going to come and bring victory to Israel. He was going to provide the means for their restoration to their proper place before God. Well, the people of Israel took these romises and did with them exactly what we would have done. They formed an image in their minds of who this person would be, what He would look like, and how He was going to go about accomplishing His sacred task. And what kind of a picture do you think they formed? If you were picturing a person who was going to deliver you from the deepest peril you had ever faced in your life, what would you want this person to look like? Let.s be honest at the risk of seeming chauvinistic: most, if not all, of you are picturing a man. I don.t know about you, but I want someone big and strong. I would prefer Him to look the part as well. Someone looking like Steve Urkel just isn.t going to do it for me. I don.t think I.m alone in this. Hollywood has my back. When was the last time you saw an action movie with a sickly, unattractive hero? Furthermore, if this person is going to deliver an entire nation of people he.d better have a truly regal appeal to himself. Anyone should be able to look at this person and see a conquering hero. I.m talking Superman here.

Well, the best source in the Old Testament for descriptions of the character of the Messiah is the book of Isaiah. Starting in chapter 42, Isaiah includes five passages in his writings that are often referred to as the Servant Songs. They are bits of prophecy that talk about God.s instrument for the salvation of His people: His Servant. The most famous of these begins in Isaiah 52:13. Turn there with me if you would. What Isaiah.s words here do is paint for us a picture of the life and ministry of God.s Servant. Things start out sounding pretty good. “See, My servant will [succeed]; He will be raised and lifted up and greatly exalted.” It even ends pretty well: “Therefore I will give Him the many as a portion, and He will receive the mighty as spoil…” But things don.t go so well between these bookends. What we actually come to find in between these poles is a story of rejection, suffering, and death; none of which seem very fitting for the conquering hero. In fact, the words here are so unexpected that various interpreters have argued that this passage is really about Moses r Israel or some other unnamed person, but not the Messiah, not Jesus. Yet the orthodox interpretation of this throughout the history of Christianity has settled decidedly on the fact that this passage is unequivocally describing the person of the Messiah. Indeed, though it goes against all our expectations to the contrary, the person God chose to use as the instrument of salvation for His people was going to be a lowly, suffering servant. Yet the fruit of this Servant.s suffering is our wholeness. God’s Servant suffered to make us whole. As we go forward, let me challenge you to step out of your backgrounds and presuppositions for a few minutes. Those of us who have been raised in a church environment all know that Jesus suffered and died to bring us salvation. We know this so well that we forget just how appallingly shocking it actually is: the Creator of all things chose to bring redemption to His errant creation by taking their failings on Himself and suffering the terrible price in their place. The path the all-powerful God chose for redemption was one of humility and humiliation. God’s Servant suffered to make us whole. Let yourself experience this jarring truth in a fresh way this morning as we go forward.

As we begin, step back just a bit from this edge of reasonableness and hear the words of 52:13 again: “See, My servant will [succeed]; He will be raised and lifted up and greatly exalted.” These are the words Isaiah.s readers, and frankly we, wanted to hear. The Servant is going to succeed (a better translation of the Hebrew than “act wisely”) and be exalted. That sounds like someone we want coming to save us. And let.s be clear on something right up front that we.ve already hinted at: the Servant here is Jesus the Messiah. The Targum on Isaiah 52:13 which was essentially a Jewish commentary even adds “the Messiah” after “My servant.” The words here fit the life of Jesus so well that either the earliest Christians undertook an impossibly difficult task of trying to fit Jesus. life to this (and other) prophecies about the Messiah or Jesus really is the Messiah. Furthermore, the phrase “raised and lifted up” in the second half of the verse is used only three other times in the Old Testament, all of them in Isaiah. In every other instance they are used to describe God. While the use of a word or phrase in one context does not necessarily govern its use in another (like yeast being both a good and bad thing in the New Testament), the burden of proof is on those who argue against the phrase equating the Servant with God Himself here.

So from the first words of this fourth Servant Song we see that the Messiah is going to be exalted and successful, but in the very next verse the prophet creates this jarring contrast. “Just as many were appalled at You—His appearance was so disfigured that He did not look like a man, and His form did not resemble a human being—so He will sprinkle many nations. Kings will shut their mouths because of Him, for they will see what had not been told them, and they will understand what they had not heard.” In other words, the Messiah is going to be raised and lifted up, but He is not going to be what people expect. Think for a minute about all the images of Jesus not on a cross you.ve seen. He looks calm and peaceful, of course. But He looks outwardly attractive by the contemporary standards of the artist. Somewhere I.ve seen a picture of Jesus smiling (one of few interestingly). He is ruggedly handsome and looks like someone people would want to hang out with. The pictures of the “Buddy Jesus” looks like a cool guy who would be the life of a party. But be honest with yourself: could you really stomach an image of Jesus with advanced leprosy? What about if He had some sort of grotesque facial deformity? What about an image of Jesus with elephantiasis? What if Jesus had cerebral palsy or Down.s syndrome? Would you be attracted to this Jesus or repulsed and offended by Him? How many of you are a little uncomfortable that I.ve even put these images in your mind? From what we see right here there was going to be nothing about the Messiah that would have naturally drawn the world to Him according to physical characteristics or outward appearance. How does the world usually treat people like this? We do one of two things. We either make a spectacle of them by putting them on shows like “Extreme Facial Surgeries” where we celebrate their return to “normalcy” (thereby implying they weren.t good enough before); or we simply write them off as valueless. In reality, the first reaction reveals the disposition that they were valueless before being made to look like they should have value and so plays into the second reaction anyway. People who don.t look the part of normal for whatever reason suffer, my friends. God’s Servant suffered to make us whole.

Yet in spite of not looking the part, “Kings will shut their mouths because of Him, for they will see what had not been told them, and they will understand what they had not heard.” Earlier in Isaiah, God condemns a group of people who had eyes and didn.t see and ears and didn.t hear. Here a group of rulers—the wealthy and powerful—who might have fit into that original group close their mouths in awe of the Servant. He may not look the part, but He is going draw people to Himself nonetheless. But more on this in a little bit. You see, these first three verses are a summary of the rest. All we know now is that the Messiah is going to succeed, that He will be exalted, and that He will impress the leaders of this world without looking the part. Let us go forward to see in more detail how this is. But hang on because this isn.t going to be an easy journey. God’s Servant suffered to make us whole. That means there was something to cause His suffering.

Beginning in chapter 53, Isaiah begins to talk about the nature of the Servant.s work in more detail, but as he does this he stops before the words can even get out of his mouth and exclaims again about how unbelievable all of this is. From 53:1: “Who has believed what we have heard? And who has the arm of the Lord been revealed to?” Let.s hit this in reverse order. What does an arm accomplish? Work. The arm of the Lord will be His instrument to accomplish His purposes. The Servant is the One sent to do the Lord.s work.

The question many interpreters ask is who the “we” is here. There are several options, but the best is probably that Isaiah is speaking on behalf of Israel as a whole. They had heard over and over and over again about the Messiah and what He was going to be like and what He was going to accomplish, but who would believe it given the nature of the Servant as God had revealed it to them now. In other words, this is all a poetic way of saying, “No one is going to believe this.” And we.ve already talked about that. The question we are still waiting to have answered is why.

The answer is finally found in what comes next. Listen to these words that are so comforting to those who understand them and so puzzling to those who don.t. “He grew up before Him like a young plant and like a root out of dry ground. He had no form or splendor that we should look at Him, no appearance that we should desire Him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of suffering who knew what sickness was. He was like one people turned away from; He was despised and we didn.t value Him.” Does this sound like the description of One who is going to deliver His people? Let me take you back to that point again. When we picture a deliverer, we picture somebody like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator II. The bad guy is after John Conner and this humongous, strong, steely-eyed, attractive (or so I.m told), fearless, hero comes crashing through a wall, holds out his hand and says, “Come with me if you want to live.” We.d go with that guy. We can deal with that. There is a place in our worldviews for a deliverer that looks the part. But look at the words of the prophet here. How strong are young plants and roots out of dry ground? When I was hoeing weeds out of our garden last year when the string beans and corn were still sprouts, I probably took out half the row. And when the ground is dry, the root system withers up and becomes worthless to the rest of the plant. This is a picture of weakness as far as the world is concerned. The second half of verse 2 is often taken as an indicator that Jesus really wasn.t very physically attractive at all, and maybe He wasn.t, but at least one commentator takes the view that “the real issue is not whether this person was good-looking, but that the way in which he set about delivering his people was just as shocking and as off-putting as it would be to have the ugliest man in a group chosen „best-looking..”1 When we read the word despised in v. 3 we immediately think about people emotionally rejecting Jesus, but in the Hebrew mind, to despise something was to esteem it as without value. Indeed, look at the end of the verse. In the eyes of the culture, Jesus simply didn.t matter. Rather than the Terminator blowing down the wall to sweep us off to safety with his guns blazing just before the bad guy swallows us up, a rather unattractive, sickly guy meekly knocks on the door of the rocking party and quietly asks if we.d like to follow Him to a more fulfilling life. And when He.s thrown out for daring to interrupt the jam session, He gets back up, knocks on the door again, and asks a second time. God’s Servant suffered to make us whole.

This starts to become clear in vv. 4 and following. “Yet He Himself bore our sicknesses, and He carried out pains; but we in turn regarded Him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But He was pierced because of our transgressions, crushed because of our iniquities; punishment for our peace was on Him, and we are healed by His wounds.” Do you see the irony here? The Servant bears our sicknesses and we cast Him off as sick. Think: We are Job.s friends and He is Job. We keep telling Him that He must have done something wrong to be in the state He.s in and needs to get right with God when in fact what we see are a reflection of our frailties in Him. Looking at Jesus is like looking at a mirror with a fixed reflection in it. The image of humanity as it was always intended to be by God is there, but our failings are superimposed over the image. This is a magic mirror, though, because if we trust in what the Servant accomplished the sins stay there and we come away looking right. Because He bears our transgressions, we don.t have to. God’s Servant suffered to make us whole. And we celebrate this and feel really good about it, but I don.t think we fully grasp it. Reading these words should make anyone with a sense of justice a bit sick to their stomach. Why should He have to suffer for us? What Isaiah is describing here simply isn.t just as we.ve been taught about justice. Someone innocent doesn.t pay the price for someone guilty. That.s foolishness, not justice. Verse 6 tells us why: “We all went astray like sheep; we all have turned to our own way; and the Lord has punished Him for the iniquity of us all.” If we.re all lost, we can.t save ourselves. We needed someone else to do the job for us. We were stuck in a perpetual cycle of brokenness. We still are without Him. God’s Servant suffered to make us
whole.

Yet this isn.t the end of it. See what comes next: “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth. Like a lamb led to the slaughter and like a sheep silent before her shearers, He did not open His mouth. He was taken away because of oppression and judgment; and who considered His fate? For He was cut off from the land of the living; He was struck because of My people.s rebellion. They made His grave with the wicked, and with a rich man at His death, although He had done no violence and had not spoken deceitfully.” Last week we saw a picture of the horror of the cross yet were comforted by the victory achieved on it. Here we get the reason for the cross: us. He quietly, humble endured the travesty of the cross because of our sin. This is the weight of sin. One of the great lies of Satan which we will thoroughly deconstruct in a couple of weeks is that sin isn.t such a big deal. Our tendency is to either make light of sin or make excuses for it. On the other hand, things the Bible makes clear are the consequences of sin in the world we obsess over and call God unjust for allowing them to happen. Do you see how broken this perspective is? Our brokenness is so complete that simply covering it with the blood of an animal wasn.t really doing the trick. The root of the problem had to be addressed. Human sin demanded human suffering and death. Yet why would someone voluntarily submit to such abuse as is described here and we saw last week? Jesus knew what was coming. It was His loving submissiveness to the Father, not His ignorance that led Him to the cross. Jesus knew these words as surely as He knew those of Psalm 22. He had a clear sense of the larger purposes of God. He knew what His suffering would accomplish. God’s Servant suffered to make us whole. Jesus was truly innocent, but He died because of our rebellion. The technical term for this is substitutionary atonement: one person paying the price for another. This idea was present incompletely in the sacrificial system, but as the writer of Hebrews reminds us, an animal cannot truly pay the price for our sins with its death. But a perfect human could. God’s Servant
suffered to make us whole.

If you are not yet repulsed, perhaps it.s time to check your justice meter. Maybe the next verse will help: “Yet the Lord was pleased to crush Him, and He made Him sick.” Hear well: those unfamiliar with the story of the Gospel, or at least who are not inoculated to its power from over-exposure, see all this and react violently. “This is unjust of God!” they charge. Yet it was the only way to effect our salvation. That Jesus suffered and died in our place wasn.t just, neither is sin. But it did satisfy the justice of God. God’s Servant suffered to make us whole. Perhaps the better question for us is whether or not there is a way to honor the sacrifice of the Servant. Keep reading with me in v. 10: “When You make Him a restitution offering, He will see His seed, He will prolong His days, and the will of the Lord will succeed by His hand. He will see it out of His anguish, and He will be satisfied with His knowledge.” Do you see what I see here? Let me make this even clearer. God made Jesus an offering for sin readily available to anyone who would accept it. For us to simply leave it there untouched and unaccepted would render it worthless to us. The only proper response to the reality of what the Servant accomplished on our behalf is to adjust our lives accordingly. God’s Servant suffered to make us whole. To resist or refuse that wholeness is a dangerous underestimation of both the seriousness of sin and the enormity of the gift of grace. The next thing Isaiah writes, though, gives hope as it talks about us and all who have adjusted their lives accordingly to this great truth: “My righteous servant will justify many, and He will carry their iniquities.” Verse 12 closes the song by summarizing things just as vv. 1-3 did: “Therefore I will give Him the many as a portion, and He will receive the mighty as spoil, because He submitted Himself to death and was counted among the rebels; yet He bore the sin of many and interceded for the rebels.” God’s Servant suffered to make us whole. Let me present you a possibility in light of all this that we don.t often consider. What if sin is an entirely more seriously malady than we ever previously considered? After all, its price was the death of a truly innocent man. Pushing this a bit further: what if God really loved us enough to provide us a completely reliable way out of the mess of sin? But what if this way out came packaged in such a way that went against everything we.d ever considered or thought reasonable? Would you accept it? God’s Servant suffered to make us whole. Let us together make sure His suffering was worthwhile by giving our lives to this reality and living each day in its light.

You see, every one of those last few questions has a positive answer. Sin is far more serious than we often imagine. Sin separates us from the Creator and only real source of life in the universe. Sin isn.t just some private vice that sometimes distracts us from the better way of life. Sin is death, plain and simple. The only way to sufficiently deal with sin is through death. The good news here, though, is that God does in fact love us enough to provide a completely reliable way out of the mess of sin that doesn.t involve our physical death. This way out, as our passage this morning has gloriously proclaimed, came through God.s Servant suffering and dying on our behalf. We are healed by His stripes. It is this sacrificial offering that we celebrate this morning.
On the last night of His life, Jesus sat down with His disciples to celebrate the Passover—the remembrance of God accepting the blood of another in exchange for the life of His people. Over the course of the evening Jesus took some bread and broke it. When He did He looked at His followers and said to them that the bread symbolized His body broken for them. He also took the cup of wine, blessed it, and passed it around the room. As He did, He told them that it symbolized His blood spilled for them. You see, this dinner was the chance for Him to proclaim what was going to happen on the next day. All the sufferings Isaiah predicted in his writings were going to come true. God’s Servant suffered to make us whole. And so this morning as we take part in this eternal meal, as we look forward to sitting down at the banquet table in heaven with Jesus, we remember what He accomplished on our behalf. We all like sheep have gone astray, but the Lord has laid on Him all our iniquity. If you haven.t experienced this incredibly freeing truth, I invite you to have a little conversation with God right where you.re sitting, and then take part in this meal with us. For those of you who have, take a minute and thank God for what He has done for you. Thank Him for opening the way of salvation and life and helping you out of your mess of sin. Remember as you do though the message of the bread and the juice: sin is serious but grace is abundant. God’s Servant suffered to make us whole. Let us celebrate this wholeness together. As you have these conversations with the Creator of the universe, the deacons are going to come and serve you. Take and eat and drink when your hearts are prepared. And if you are here this morning but haven.t worshiped with us very often in the past, know well that you are welcomed to join with us in this celebration if your life belongs to Christ. Deacons come forward to serve as I pray.