From the beginning, God’s plan has been to rescue the whole world. He chose a man, Abraham, and gave him a family, which would become a nation to worship him and honor his name. At least, that was the idea—that Israel would be a light to the nations to draw them to the worship of the one true God. But there was one small problem: Israel didn’t live like that, and didn’t really want to; and if they didn’t, who had more reason than anyone else to trust God, what hope was there for the rest of the world? Why would the other nations be drawn to worship God if even his own people wouldn’t stay faithful?
In the place of his servant Israel, then, to carry out the task they had refused, God raised up a new Servant, to be his covenant to his people and a light to the nations, that he might be God’s salvation to the very ends of the earth, establishing justice in the world and freeing those held captive in the darkness of sin. He was to be God’s answer to the problem of the evil and sin in this world, not by explaining it or overpowering it—which are the sort of answers the world thinks it wants—but by an entirely different way. God chose to offer us, not the answer for which we were looking, but the answer we actually needed: he offered us himself. He came down to live our life, to identify with us, to endure the darkness of our fallen world with us, and to defeat that darkness, not with its own weapons, but with light.
People sometimes ask, “Where’s God when it hurts—in the tragedies we see so often, and the large-scale injustices of this world?” and often they assume the answer must be “Nowhere”; after all, if there really is a God out there, and he actually heard our suffering, wouldn’t he do something about it? But the truth is, as Easter shows us, God has heard our suffering—he has heard every cry of anguish, felt every blow and every betrayal, and caught every tear in the palm of his hand—and in Jesus Christ, he has done everything about it. In Jesus, he came down to share our suffering with us, drinking that cup to the very dregs. He took the weight of all our sin on his shoulders—the entirety of human evil and human suffering, of all the brokenness and wrongness of the world—and he carried it to the cross, its cruel thorns digging into his forehead, its sharp splinters shredding his back; and there, for the guilt of all the crimes he never committed, he died.
He died for us. He died to pay the price for all the sins we’ve ever committed and ever will commit, for all the pain we’ve endured and all the pain we’ve caused, for all the darkness and brokenness and agony and grief in our poor misshapen world. Our sins deserved death, and more—even our death wouldn’t be enough punishment; not only could we never do enough in this life to make up for them, we couldn’t even die enough to even the balance. Morally, we were in the same position as so many mortgages these days: we were under water, owing more than we were worth. Only Jesus’ death—the death of one whose life was of infinite value and infinite goodness, the life of God himself—only his death could be enough to pay that price, to satisfy the demands of justice for the sins of the world, so that salvation could come to all the nations.
But if his death was sufficient to pay the price of redemption, it still wasn’t enough to accomplish the work; nor was it enough to satisfy God’s promise to his servant. “See my servant,” God says in Isaiah 52: “he shall accomplish his purpose; he will rise and be lifted up, and be exalted most high.” And again in chapter 53, “If you make his life an offering for sin, then he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days; . . . Because of his anguish, he shall see and be satisfied. . . . Therefore I will give him the many, and he shall divide the strong as the spoils of his victory.” Justice for the Servant, the fulfillment of God’s promises to him, demanded that his death not be the end; and indeed, for his great work to end in victory at all rather than defeat required something more. If his story had come to its conclusion in that tomb, if he had died and stayed dead like any other man, then in the end, it would have been just another victory for the powers of evil; the price would have been paid for our redemption, but there would have been no redeemer left to complete the deal, and the sacrifice would have been for nothing.
And so, though the powers of evil capered and celebrated across that black, black Saturday, thinking they had won—thinking they had tricked the God of the universe into taking a bridge too far—God’s resounding answer to evil came on Easter morning. The Creed tells us Jesus descended into Hell, and I believe it; and after spending a couple nights there, that morning he got up, reached out his hands, and tore the gates of Hell from their very hinges. He stretched out his carpenter’s hands, those hands that could be so gentle to the weak and the suffering, and his shoulders flexed, and he tore the wall of Death apart. He heaved, and the grave burst open in a soundless explosion that shook the universe from one end to the other, a blinding flash of light that lit the sky from horizon to horizon; and he who had been dead got up, and was dead no more, never again to die.
And in that, you see, is the victory; in that, and nothing else. In that moment, the price that had been paid for our redemption was realized, and we were stripped from the power and control of the prince of darkness. That’s why Isaiah bursts out into song, calling out to his people that their redemption has been accomplished, that God’s salvation has come. God in his love has chosen to direct his anger at sin against his Servant—which is to say, against himself—and to take on himself the punishment that justice demanded; all that remains is for his people to accept the gift and revel in the love of God.
Isaiah 54 uses two different images to express this. In verses 1-10, the prophet pictures the people of God as a childless woman, abandoned by her husband; verses 11-17 portray them as a city that needs to be rebuilt. In both cases, he addresses them in the midst of difficult circumstances—poor, desolate, lonely, wracked by the storms of life—with the promise that the Servant’s victory has been won, and that the fruits of that victory are coming. With the first image, we see the fruits of restored relationships, beginning with the healing of their relationship with God. The exile of the people of Israel was the political realization of their spiritual reality—they had been alienated from the land God gave them to reflect the deeper truth that their sin, their rebellious disobedience, had alienated them from him spiritually, had broken their relationship with him.
That’s why Jewish leaders of later years have taught that the exile didn’t really end with the return to Israel, because their hardness of heart, their spiritual exile, continued; and it’s why the words of the prophets are as relevant today as they were in their own time, because while we no longer share the physical circumstances of the Israelite exiles in Babylon, their spiritual circumstances are our own. All of us begin life estranged from God; just growing up in the church, or even formally joining the church and being active in it, isn’t enough to change that, either. There are many in the church in this country, and perhaps even here this morning, who are still in exile and don’t know it, because they have no real relationship with God; like the people of Isaiah’s time, all the outward conformity is there, but the inner reality of faith is absent. What God wants from us is not good works, be it church attendance, volunteering, giving money, or any of that; those are all good things, but in and of themselves they aren’t enough. What he wants is for us to love him and trust him, to put him first in our hearts and minds.
This is the reason for the language we see in verses 7-10: “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will gather you; in a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but out of my hesed—my everlasting kindness, my unchanging faithful love, my covenant commitment to you—I have had compassion on you. . . . Though the mountains be shaken and the hills disappear, my hesed, my unfailing love, will not be shaken, nor will my covenant of peace disappear.” It’s a promise of enduring love, and an enduring close relationship, founded on the committed faithfulness of God; this is the fundamental promise from which all the others flow.
Thus the one who has been shamed and humiliated before the world will be set free from her humiliation. To understand this, you need to remember that in that time, not having kids wasn’t a lifestyle choice; the common view in that day and age, as Asbury Seminary’s John Oswalt sums it up, was that “a childless woman was a failure, someone who had apparently committed some sin, or had been at least judged unworthy of bearing a child.” Thus being childless brought terrible shame and humiliation. It also meant economic difficulties—back then, you didn’t have a 401(k) or Social Security; your retirement plan was that your children would take care of you in your old age, as you had done for your parents—and the certainty that your influence would end with your death. Similarly, Israel had been shamed and humiliated before the nations by the failure of her God to deliver her, and left with no apparent future; but God says, “Don’t fear, and don’t be humiliated, because I have wiped away your shame. Shout for joy, sing songs of praise, because I’m going to undo your disaster; step out in faith, because I’m going to give you a future—and a brighter one than you ever imagined.”
Thus as well God promises his people peace, prosperity, and security. He will rebuild his city out of precious stones, so that its walls will be not merely strong but also beautiful. Incidentally, where the NIV has “I will build you with stones of turquoise,” the literal reading there is “I will lay your stones in mascara”; the NIV translators apparently weren’t sure what to make of that, but I suspect it means that even the mortar used to lay the stones will be beautifully colored, to highlight the colors in the stones. The point is, God will make his people glorious; the outer glory of the walls will reflect the inner glory of their character and spiritual life. “All your children will be disciples of the LORD, and great will be their peace.” You could preach an entire sermon on that, on God’s concern that our children are not merely kept quiet and happy while the adults do the business of the church, but are seriously discipled as members of the people of God. “You will be established in righteousness, and so you will have nothing to fear; yes, there will be those who will attack you, but it won’t be my doing, and you will prevail against them.”
And then look at verse 17—this is the victory of the Servant of the Lord extended to his people. “No weapon forged against you will prevail, and no charge raised against you will be sustained”; this goes back to what we talked about a couple weeks ago, that God has both the might and the right to deliver his people. This is not to say that there won’t be attacks on his people—we know that God doesn’t insulate us from the troubles of this world—but it is to say that they will always fail of their purpose in the end. There is no one who has the power to overcome God’s protection over us; even the destroyers of our world were created by God, and even their weapons are the work of his hands, and so even they must ultimately serve his purpose. They may be able to harm us along the way, but only as he allows. And there is no argument that can stand against him, because there is no one who can sustain a claim that he is unjust; if we’re following him, there will be times that we’ll be accused of injustice by those who reject his ways, but we’ll always be vindicated in the end.
Why? Because this is the inheritance of the servants of the Lord. This is the promise of God to his Servant and the victory he has won, which he has passed on to us. Notice the progression: first Israel was the servant, then God raised up his perfect Servant, who brought many from the nations into his people, and now all of us are his servants, disciples and followers of his great Servant; as his followers, we share in his victory. All we have to do is trust him for it and accept it with gratitude, to celebrate his victory and his gift of that victory to us, and then to live in his victory. That’s all the Christian life is, really: you’ve been redeemed, you have the victory in Jesus—now go live that, live like you believe it. Live out the truth of what we celebrate this morning, that we serve a living Savior who has forever shattered the power of sin and death by dying for our sin and rising again from the dead for our redemption. Christ is risen!