(Note: this sermon was delivered in sections over the course of our Good Friday service, as a series of brief reflections.)
Isaiah builds to this point with a crescendo of commands, like a mighty surge in the ocean building toward the shore, rising as the land rises: “Listen, look, listen, hear me, awake, awake.” “Listen, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the Lord; hear me, you who have my law in your hearts. Awake, awake—rise up, O Jerusalem; awake, awake, and put on your strength.” Something has happened, something has changed—wake up, listen, and pay attention. But listen to what—look at what? What has happened? And then the crescendo reaches its climax, the great wave crashes on the shore: “See. See my servant.”
See my servant who was so disfigured, people were devastated at his appearance and wondered if he was even human; see my servant who sprinkled many nations with his blood to purify them from their sin. See my servant, who shall act wisely, and because of his wisdom shall prosper—despite everything that happens to him, through everything they do to him, he will accomplish his purpose, and for that he will be honored; he shall rise, he shall be carried up, and he shall be exalted most high. This is language which belongs to God himself—how does this make sense? Even the kings of the earth will be stopped in their tracks, dumbfounded and speechless, by this bizarre turn of fortune, confronted by a reality they never saw coming, and never could have seen coming. How can this be? How can this possibly be? What on Earth is God doing here?
And yet, they should have believed—they’d been told, they’d been warned, they should have seen it coming. But who did? Did anyone? . . . No, no one did—not even us; not even us.
The arm of the LORD? We’d heard the promises—“The LORD has bared his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God”—and his justice, too, don’t forget that. We knew what that would mean: God would reveal his power and glory and bring down his justice on the world to obliterate evil and sweep away the unrighteous. He would crush our enemies, and we would be vindicated in the eyes of the whole world.
But this . . . who saw this coming? When the arm of the LORD was revealed, who would ever have thought it would look like that? We expected his arm to be revealed in power, and instead it was revealed in weakness; we expected it to be impressive, and instead, we were unimpressed. The Lord himself came in all his power and authority—as nobody special, a mere ordinary man, nothing more. There wasn’t even anything impressive about him—he wasn’t handsome or imposing—no sense of majesty about him at all. He was just . . . ordinary. If he had won dazzling victories, achieved stunning successes, we could have respected that, but no—he had no great achievements, no great triumphs, only great suffering, which he took and bore with all the patient acceptance of a slave; he didn’t show us mighty strength, he showed us weakness. His life was meaningless, of no value, or so we thought—how could he be the Servant of God? How could we possibly have gotten it so wrong? How far from God must we be to look at his chosen one, whose life was worth everything, and think he was worth nothing? What does this say about us? If we could miss what God was doing that badly, there’s no hope for us. Not on our own, anyway.
What we didn’t realize is that his sorrows, his griefs, his pains, his weakness, weren’t his own—they were ours. We stood back and watched him suffer, we watched him die, and we didn’t lift a finger even to help, let alone to save him, nor did we utter even the smallest sound in protest, because we figured he must have had it coming. We left him alone in his agony, never even realizing that everything he suffered was for us; never realizing that we were the ones causing his suffering, for it was our sins crushing him under their weight. We just watched, and we let him die alone.
He took our sorrows, and he loaded our suffering on his back, and he carried them. He took all our guilt and all our shame, he took everything that’s wrong and twisted and distorted and broken in us, and he carried it all. Was he disfigured? Was he marred? Was he cracked and striped and scarred by our abuse, by the blows we gave him? Yes, and it was nothing more than our disfigurement, the marred state of our souls, visible on his face. He took all our darkness, and he paid the price for it. We didn’t have to bear the punishment for our sins—he did. We didn’t have to pay the penalty for all we’ve done wrong—he paid it. He dealt with everything that’s wrong in our lives so that we could have peace with God, and so that we could be healed.
All of us turned away from God, wandering off like sheep to seek our own paths; and by God’s will, he paid the price for all our wandering, for all our wrong thoughts and deeds. Each of our sins was like an arrow aimed at his heart; and they all found their mark, and he bore them all. He was the voluntary sacrifice for our sin—for all of it—so that we might be, truly, well.
It was all by his choice. It was all his decision. The authorities thought they were in control, the soldiers thought he was in their power, they all thought they were imposing their will on him, but they were all wrong. He did nothing, he said nothing, he made no protest and put up no resistance—but he could have; he could have stopped it, at any time, and he didn’t. He chose everything that happened to him, it happened only because he allowed it; he accepted the injustice, he willingly submitted to suffering and death, so that he might bring us life. The sacrifice of animals could never be enough because they couldn’t really substitute for a person; they couldn’t willingly choose to die on our behalf. Only another person, only someone like us, who was truly one of us, could do that.
Don’t you see? It’s the essence of our sin that it’s willful. It’s not just that we fail in what we try to do—we’re limited beings, God never made us able to do everything; even if we didn’t sin, we’d probably still fail at things. It’s not just that we’re flawed; we are, certainly, but we didn’t choose our flaws, and you could argue that we aren’t responsible for what weaknesses we have. But what we do about them—ah! that’s another matter. Granted our limitations, granted that we’re all tempted differently and in different ways, that we have different weaknesses, the bottom line is that we sin because, at some level, we want to. We wander away from God because we want to make our own way—just because he tells us that he leads us to the best pastures, beside quiet streams, doesn’t mean we believe it; like any sheep, we remain convinced that the grass must be greener on the other side of that hill over there. And that willfulness is the thing God can’t just overlook; it requires punishment.
Which means that either we have to bear that punishment ourselves, or someone has to bear it for us; and to bear it for us, it must be a completely voluntary self-sacrifice. What’s more, no ordinary human being could offer it; any of us would simply be voluntarily accepting the punishment we’re already due for our own sins. It had to be someone who didn’t deserve to die, but willingly accepted death anyway for us, without once objecting or resisting; but no one thought of this. He died for us, and no one understood.
But though he suffered for us freely, he didn’t do it on his own—he suffered as the Servant of the LORD; God did this through him. All of this happened because it was the LORD’s idea, because it was the LORD’s will. He gave up his life as an offering for sin, and God accepted it, because he was completely blameless, completely without sin, and because he offered his life freely for us. And so, despite his suffering—no, because of his suffering—he shall prosper, for he has accomplished his purpose; though he was of no value in human eyes, yet he shall rise, he shall be lifted up, and he shall be exalted as high as it is possible to be. Even kings, even the mighty of this earth, shall stand speechless in awe before him, as they see his glory; the one they thought they had crushed, they shall see rise up in triumph over them, taking them as the fruits of his conquest, and they will struggle to understand how this happened.
They will struggle because they don’t understand that God doesn’t do things the way they do, or they way they would have expected; he doesn’t do things the way we would have expected. He doesn’t use his power to crush the unrighteous—he reaches out in love to win them back. The Servant didn’t use his power to defeat anyone, but rather to surrender, to give himself up as an offering for our sin; in so doing, he made us right-eous, he gave us his righteousness, and so he won us as his children, as his people. He voluntarily identified himself with us and gave up his life for us so that we might live for him.