For those who want a change from the Gospel
Trinity 20 – Isaiah 53:4-12 (Related)
There’s a probably apocryphal story of a vicar giving a children’s address at an All-age service. ‘What’s got big ears, eats hay, and goes “hee-haw”?’ she asks. Immediately a young child sticks up her hand and answers, ‘Well I know the answer must be Jesus, but it sounds like a donkey to me!’ When we believe that Jesus is the answer, its very easy to see him as the answer to everything, and this passage, which is traditionally used on Good Friday, is perhaps the most classic example. But would a preacher today construct a sermon which would only have any relevance in the year 2601? Unlikely. Surely he would address his contemporary situation. We therefore have to ask about this passage in the context of its original hearers, and not as the NT writers came to see it as being fulfilled in Christ. What is it really about?
Well, it’s an example of the ‘Servant Songs’ found in Deutero-Isaiah (Is 40 – 55), and is in fact the last and longest of four. It is about the Servant, perhaps an unidentified individual or perhaps the nation as a whole, or at least the faithful remnant of that nation. The servant is undergoing great suffering, apparently at the hand of God, but somehow through that suffering the rest of the people find redemption and forgiveness. Of course this does make Christian sense, and Paul in his letter to the[LJ1] Romans, which I have just finished working through in my podcasts here, obviously makes great use of this text in the formation of his theology of salvation. But there are deeper questions, which the passage raises for people 600 years before anyone had ever heard of Jesus.
The Bible is in fact ambivalent about undeserved punishment. Ex 20:4-6 tells us clearly that several generations will suffer for their ancestors’ sins, while both Ezekiel (18:4) and Jeremiah (31:30) assure us that it is the people who sinned who will suffer, and no-one else. The first seems harsh, but the later texts simply do not tie in with reality. So are people punished because of the sins of others, and if so what are we to make of our own particular and personal suffering? And is it really God doing the smiting? Let’s try to pick these questions to bits.
First of all, it clearly is the case that people do suffer because of others’ sin. Ask anyone who has lost a loved one to a drunk driver. But not all suffering comes into this category. Accidents do happen. This passage, however, is not primarily an exploration of innocent suffering: we need to look to Job to find that kind of material. The Servant here may have suffering inflicted on him, but he accepts it willingly, without fighting, without protest. In that sense, the key verse here might be v.7. and if so, this becomes a passage not about why we suffer, but about how. That insight changes everything. Perhaps the passage was written to encourage those who felt they were being treated unfairly by God and others. A good Jew should face hardship like this, the author might be saying, and so of course Jesus, the perfect Jew, exemplifies its teaching perfectly. That’s why it is so easy to see him ‘prophesied about’ or ‘predicted’ by the author.
But when we look at how the servant suffers, we gain an incredibly difficult but amazingly inspiring insight. He sees his suffering as redemptive: good will come from it in the end. Of course the Bible doesn’t teach that all suffering is redemptive: much of it is purely destructive. But the point is that it can be. Secondly he suffers with dignity. Some of those old paintings of Ecce homo ‘Behold the Man!’ portray a quiet and dignified authority in the battered body of Jesus. Thirdly, he sees God’s hand in it. Again, not all punishment, according to the Bible, comes directly from the hand of God, although of course at the time of this passage any doctrine of Satan would have been very undeveloped: he comes onto the stage much later, so for now anything which happened could only come from God, particularly in such a strictly monotheistic faith as Judaism. But the Servant does recognise that through it all God is at work, and will bring his purposes out in the wash. Fourthly, he can see the other side, and holds on to the hope of future blessing to come. And finally, and perhaps this is the most startling of all, he actively intercedes for those who are responsible for his pain. What a way to suffer! No wallowing in it, no ‘poor me’, no trying to find someone to blame.
Can suffering be redemptive? The answer, I think, is that it can be if we choose to make it so. History is full of people who chose to use their suffering for others, from Maximillian Kolbe to Marcus Rashford. I’m very aware that there are people who have known, and know on a daily basis, suffering the like of which I cannot imagine, and far be it from me to load guilt onto pain by telling you how to deal with it. But this passage, I believe, sets us an example to which to aspire. Only Jesus has ever achieved it perfectly, but that doesn’t stop us from trying to follow him, through the pain and into the resurrection beyond.