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The Suffering Servant: 52:13-53:12

Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Isaiah, and today we’re in chapters 52 and 53.

For the past several weeks through this sermon series in Isaiah, we’ve been in a section of the book containing what are known as the servant songs, where Isaiah beautifully expresses the messianic hope of the people of God, hope founded in the forgiveness and love of God, himself.

And if you are in Christ, he is shaping you, spiritually forming you to be a servant like the one described in these passages. So we’ve been talking about spiritual formation, how the Holy Spirit is able to make us just and forgiving at once, fearless and wise. How he forms us into worshippers of God, humble servants of the people around us; people who are really alive, like he is, and dependent upon him to sustain us and vindicate us.

This morning we’re in a passage which may be familiar to you—it’s a beautiful passage describing the sufferings of the servant of God for the sake of his people.

Read with me, Isaiah 52, and we’re going to start in v.13. [Isaiah 52:13-53:12] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me.

The passage is a contradiction. The first thing we know about the servant is that he is high and exalted. High and exalted—exalted just means lifted up. In ancient times, and still today, height equals power and renown. The high priest, high king, high holy days. To be high was to be important. Powerful people would travel on animals or in chariots, in cities, they would be lifted up on platforms called palanquins on the shoulders of their servants instead of walking through the streets. The palaces of kings and rulers would always be at the highest point in the city because it was the most defensible and the most visible. Herod, for example in Jesus’s day, built his palace as a fortress right next to the temple, his house next to God’s. Still today, our most powerful and most celebrated people are up on stages if they’re in the room, so everyone can see them, everyone can hear them. To be lifted up is to be powerful and renowned.

In ancient times, too, it was widely believed that high places were holy places, near the gods. All through the ancient world, people would worship their gods on the tops of mountains, and the steep climb up the mountain was seen as a pilgrimage, part of the sacrifice to the god. To be high and exalted was to be something more than human, god-like. So we see this servant of God is of great importance, high and exalted, powerful, god-like, and yet…

Isaiah tells us the servant will also be beaten to a point of astonishment. You never want people to be astonished about you. When I was in eighth grade, I had a series of medical issues that were kind of baffling. I remember once going to a doctor, a specialist, and he’s monitoring a test they were having me do and all of the sudden he says, “Oh, wow, that’s interesting,” and walks out of the room. He comes back in with two more doctors. That’s not what you want. You don’t want to be the guy that gathers a crowd in the hospital.

But that’s what the passage says, his appearance is so damaged, he doesn’t even look human. People are astonished, yet he’s also exalted. That’s the contradiction: high and exalted, oppressed and afflicted, both at the same time. Not many people are high and exalted and yet still suffer the way the rest of humanity suffers. Usually we use any kind of height we manage to gain to get out of suffering.

We know this on a deep level in New Orleans, here where literal height can lift you above suffering. In this past hurricane, my brother’s neighborhood flooded about a foot and a half, but his house was undamaged, why? Because it was high and lifted up. We just got through a process of buying a house, and the whole time we’re looking at houses, that was our first question—what’s the flood zone? How high is it? Does it flood? Will we suffer, or is it high enough that we will escape that kind of suffering?

In New Orleans, literal height can allow you to escape suffering. Literal height, and metaphorical height, too. Important people in our city don’t go about usually in palanquins, but they do find ways of avoiding some of our city’s deepest problems. Our struggling schools, hurricanes, poverty, and violence. There are ways to climb above each of those. You can send your child to private school, or homeschool, and buy a generator for the next storm, get a security system, work hard to make sure you always have that job that keeps the money flowing; it’s like climbing a mountain. And I’m not knocking these things—I don’t want people to suffer—hear what I’m saying:

Being high and exalted usually keeps you from suffering, but not God’s servant. He is high and exalted, and yet Isaiah tells his exiled and conquered people, yes, my servant is high and exalted, but he suffered violence at the hands of the abuser, oppressed and afflicted, just like you. Cut off from his friends and family, beaten, humiliated. High and exalted, and yet he still suffered, intentionally, of his own accord, according to the will and pleasure of God; and here we’ve arrived at a very important question—why does the servant in this passage suffer? Why does the servant in this passage suffer?

As Christians we affirm Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of this messianic promise. Christ is the servant who was high and exalted and yet chose willingly to come suffer in our midst, so the question I’m asking is also, why did Christ suffer, and should we imitate him in his suffering?

Most of the time when we see someone suffering we assume the person is suffering because of their own wrongdoing—we just do—and people thought that of Jesus. They said he was an insurrectionist, trying to overthrow Rome, or that he was a blasphemer and deserved to die. People assumed, if he was on a cross, it was for cause. We assume the same kinds of things. We see a poor person and we assume they’re either lazy or stupid. And not just one person, we assume this of whole groups of people, whole nations and races. We see someone suffering from mental illness, and we ask the same question the disciples do to Jesus: who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born this way?

We assume this because people do suffer from their own wrongdoing. Sometimes rich, powerful people, high people commit crimes and they fall from their height into the suffering that once was beneath them. Think of Harvey Weinstein, he went from movie mogul to nationally disgraced inmate, because of his own sins. But that’s not why the servant in this passage suffers, and it wasn’t why Christ suffered. The servant is disgraced, he is suffering, but not because he’s done anything wrong. He’s suffering from our wrongdoing, Isaiah says.

And a closer look at suffering in our world will reveal that this is often the case. People often suffer in the place of others, for things other people have done wrong. We suffer for other people’s wrongdoing all the time. Everyone who lives in New Orleans, for example, suffers because of the wrongdoing of the sewerage and water board. Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt personally victimized by the sewerage and water board. I’ma raise two hands. One month a few years ago they dug up my street, filled it with sand and then charged me a thousand dollars. It was almost like being mugged. When we moved Annie put her name on our new account so they can’t find me.

A lot of people suffer from the sin of others. After having taught in public schools here in New Orleans, now when I look and see a person mired in generational destitution I usually think—not, he’s lazy, but—we’re failing them. They’re smothered under the weight of a thousand people trying to step on them and get high-up above the suffering. Anyone who’s ever been attacked, the victim of violence, knows what it is to suffer for the sins of others. And Christ does suffer for the sins of others, but not in this way. No one can overpower God, or trick him. He could destroy the sewerage and water board with a word, and repave the streets with gold, and I pray that day comes soon.

The servant in our passage, and Christ Jesus himself, has done nothing wrong, and he isn’t forced to suffer for other people against his will. He enters into our suffering willingly, to bear part of the burden, to make it lighter, and to be with us. When I say that Jesus suffered in your place, the remarkable part of that sentence is not that someone would suffer for the things you’ve done wrong. I’m sure we’ve all hurt people in our lives, and they’ve suffered for our sins. The remarkable thing is that someone so high would, of his own accord, come into that suffering, stand in the place of those people we’ve hurt, and still speak forgiveness over us.

I think we misunderstand this passage if our conclusion is, from this, that we need to seek suffering as Christians because Christ suffered. I hear this teaching a lot—real Christians, real servants of God are those who suffer the most. If your life is not filled with suffering, you’re in sin, and the more suffering you intentionally bring upon yourself in his name, the more like Christ you become. That’s a lie. God does not want his children to suffer—what father would—he allows it though, but then only with great purpose. I think of a man I knew in seminary who was determined to die for his faith. He had a whole plan about how he was going to get into a particularly hostile area of the world and preach on the street corner until he was killed. Some people thought he was brave; I thought he was proud, and was throwing his life away without effect, without any real purpose.

It’s proud to think you could possibly suffer the way Christ suffered, and to the effect of his sufferings. We look at his sufferings with the same kind of pride with which we look at his righteousness when we think we can do the same. Do you really think you could pray forgiveness over the men crucifying you—that if you had Jesus’s power and his armies, you would suffer like he did? We need to conclude from this passage, not that we should try to suffer like Christ. We should read this passage and be astounded at the sufferings of Christ, that he was able to bear them; floored, praising God that he “is able to do abundantly more than all we ask or think.”

The remarkable part of Christ’s suffering is not the suffering itself, it’s his power together with his suffering—the one who is high and lifted up, yet still suffers. It’s not remarkable that he descended into hell. People do that every day—it’s remarkable that he was able to rise out of it and still he stayed for three days. It’s remarkable that he was able to bring a train of captives with him. We look at his sufferings and try to imitate him—we see Christ descending into hell and in our pride we think we should try to do the same, without any regard for our own weaknesses and limitations. If we, in our power, were to do the same, we would remain in hell.

When I first started seminary it was with the goal of being an international missionary, leaving my home, going to a people group who didn’t have a gospel witness, learning their language, and spending my life in obscurity in some far-flung, deeply impoverished part of the world meeting needs and preaching the gospel in word and deed day by day. That had been my dream. As I was nearing the end of my seminary training when I applied for the International Mission Board and got rejected. I was devastated. People always talk about God opening and closing doors in our lives; this door broke my nose as it slammed shut. I couldn’t possibly understand why God wouldn’t let me pursue what in my mind was a life lived sold out to him and his work in the world.

A year later, Annie and I moved to Boston to finish my schoolwork. It was about a two-hour flight home. We struggled with finding jobs at first, and we were poor in the American sense of being on some social assistance programs. We felt out of place as Southerners, and people looked down on us. We struggled with that. We had three meals a day, spoke the language, and saw our parents twice a year. We were there for two years and we came home.

I think if I had worked as an international missionary I would have failed. I’m too weak. Maybe one day by God’s grace I can sell my life like that, but I think part of us being rejected from the IMB is just God sparing us from becoming victims of my own pride—a pride that looks at the sufferings of Christ and says, confidently, “I got this, let’s do it.”

If Christ calls you to follow him into a place of suffering, you need to meet the suffering clinging desperately to Christ, himself, because he’s the only one strong enough to bear with the suffering of this world and destroy it, instead of it destroying him. We shouldn’t seek out suffering to be more like Christ. We should seek out Christ, knowing that he will be among the suffering, knowing that his road ends in a cross, and counting that cost before beginning to follow him, then working out our calling in fear and trembling knowing that we are not as righteous as he is, and we can’t bear the suffering of the world as he does.

Going back to my question, why does the servant in this passage suffer, why did Jesus suffer? He suffered, he bore the weight of weight of our sin, because we weren’t ever going to be able to bear our sin and shame and suffering. He suffered and died to give us life, bore our suffering because we couldn’t, left his high place so we could be lifted up.

And yes we should imitate him in this kind of co-suffering, just as we should imitate him in all things, but we should imitate the sufferings of Christ in the same way we imitate his righteousness. When we imitate the righteousness of Christ, we do so knowing we will fail to live up to his standard—which is why we include confessions in our liturgies each week. So I would encourage you to enter into suffering confessing that you can’t bear it, and that your sufferings will not be as redeeming as his. All of a Christian’s life is one of confession and repentance. Have you ever considered that confession isn’t in imitation of Christ—yet it’s central to our spiritual formation. Christ was able to tell us of our sins; he was able to teach us to pray for forgiveness admitting our own sinfulness, but he, himself, had nothing, personally, to confess.

All through this servant song, there is allusion to the day of atonement, which was a day each year when the people would gather to seek forgiveness from the Lord for the things they had done wrong. They would ritually place their sins on two goats. One would be slaughtered, and the other sent into the wilderness—this is where we get the word scapegoat—a creature that bears sins which should be ours. Isaiah says the suffering of the servant is like that. He suffers in our place so that we can be forgiven; he is exiled so we can be welcomed into redemption.

We need to follow Christ on his road to the people who are suffering, but be careful, friends. I was chuckling to myself writing this at how differently I would preach this passage at basically any other church I’ve been a part of. This church is so good at seeking out the hurting, mourning and caring for them. Every other church, I’d be preaching about following Christ into suffering. Here, I want you to know that you can’t suffer as well as he suffered. You can’t bear it. It would break you, and that’s ok. You don’t have to bear the weight of the world—he did.

Yet still my invitation to you today is to be a servant of God, even if in your service of him he calls you to suffer alongside someone who’s hurting. The way of Christ is a via dolorosa, a path of suffering, of becoming lower so as to raise someone else up. And praise God, that when we were not able to bear the suffering of the world, when we were not strong enough, he sent his son to suffer and die in our place.