- Read Isaiah 53
Probably many of you don’t know me from Adam, but I didn’t grow up in the church. As a child, when I thought of Easter I thought about baskets and plastic grass and boiled eggs. For probably many of you Easter is first and foremost a day about family, but I want to just admit to you today that until I was around 23 or so, when I thought about Easter, the last thing I thought about was the gospel story of God’s love for us. I got clean and sober around 16 years ago, and early on in my sobriety I started attending church with my parents. I had no idea what to expect, but what I found were people who had no clue what to do with a guy like me, but they loved me.
The first time I heard the gospel it seemed so foreign, so strange and confusing. I rode a pew for that first year, listening and not really asking too many questions; and I did see some positive changes in my life just under the surface. I began to see that religious people weren’t all hypocrites who looked down on others from a high horse, many were courageous people sincerely trying to follow God and seeking lives of virtue. Some were giants of faith, some founts of wisdom. Some had marriages bearing the fruit of having Jesus at the center. I saw people who had found many of the things I wanted in my heart of hearts. But I still had no clue where to even start for some of this stuff…
Now smoking is bad for you, but back then I still smoked and I remember one day as my brother and I left church to have a cigarette, we actually started discussing the sermon. It was around Easter time, and it was very much a gospel story message. My brother was asking about whether or not I REALLY thought Jesus rose from the dead, and after thinking about if for a while I was surprised to hear myself saying yes. The sermon was challenging, but somehow my brother’s question was what broke through to me. It called me to either accept or reject the gospel, and I finally acknowledged where my heart stood.
I think it is easy to kind of float through life and never really stand for anything, to play it safe and worry so much about possibly offending another person that we never really have deep conversations like that; conversations where we question our assumptions and beliefs. But after nearly overdosing on drugs and walking a new path, a lot of the arrogance and denial in my life started to break away, a lot of the anger in my heart started to cool. I had finally wrestled through enough of my baggage to wrestle through what I believed and what I would stand for in this second chance at life.
This Lent we have been looking at the justice of God. In my reading of the gospel story, Jesus’ death on the cross is the final answer to the injustice of this world. The gospel reveals for us the love of God in Jesus taking the form of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. As Christians we believe that God, became incarnated; that he took on flesh and made himself human to come and be with us; to experience life as we experience it. He came to undo the curse Adam and Eve had brought upon us by living a sinless life and choosing to lay his life down as a sacrifice for our sake. Unlike any other religion in the planet we have the audacity to believe that God suffered for us; that we all experience brokenness in this life, but the crazy thing about Jesus is that he came and experienced brokenness too. He entered into the messiness of this life. He made himself like us to show us how to become like him. Jesus suffered through the injustice of our world and instead of offering justice as “an eye for an eye” he showed the world a justice brought through mercy and grace.
Jesus as the Suffering Servant is a hard picture to grasp. We know we are not worthy of God suffering for us. We know we are not worthy of God serving us. If we had the chance, our pride might have us tell Jesus no. But the truth is we need it, even if we might be ashamed to ask for it. He didn’t let us simply say no and slink off into oblivion. And the thing about the justice of God is that we now get to see it in connection with the love of God. God so loved the world—so loved us—that he came on an all-out rescue mission to save us. God experienced pain for us, but it was redemptive pain.
On the cross Jesus experienced redemptive pain, purposeful pain. He answered the charge of injustice with his own body broken for us. We might naturally think that Jesus dying on the cross is the ultimate act of injustice, and for our part it was. But for Jesus’ part it was the path to victory. Jesus took the sin of the world upon himself and absorbed it. He erased it. Rather than us making Jesus dirty he made us clean. Like a new mother suffering for the sake of a new baby, God chose a painful path to bring us new life. But it was the only way.
Isaiah 53:11 shows that this was purposeful suffering, victorious
suffering. Isaiah writes:
After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be
satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.
God suffered for our sake, not out of duty or pity for us, but out of love. Just like a mother suffers as her body is broken to make room for a new child to enter the world. The suffering is real, and excruciating. But the point is not the pain, it is what is on the other side of the pain: a child brought to life and a love to share.
The gospel is a simple story, but where people find faith and live into that story, God’s power is released. The darkness of this world is shaken to the core. Isaiah 53 paints such a captivating picture of the spiritual realities underneath the story of Jesus’ work on the cross and resurrection. It doesn’t tell the whole story, but it shows Jesus’ motivations, the way he saw his own death.
The gospel is, in a nutshell is “Christ died for you,” but the actual story is:
Jesus came in the flesh.
He lived a sinless life among us.
He was falsely accused and arrested.
Had numerous mock trials.
He suffered and died for our sin, making
atonement for our sins and the sins of Adam.
He rose from the grave 3 days later
showing the world that Jesus was
worthy of our trust, that God accepted
his sacrifice on our behalf, and we are
In Isaiah we see Jesus coming in the flesh, but not attracting too much attention. Isaiah says Jesus was a plain and humble looking man. He came from the dry ground: a humble backwater village called Nazereth where many rejected his message. Jesus lived a sinless life, no small task especially as a man so rejected and so well acquainted with suffering. He was falsely accused, and endured numerous mockeries of a trial. As Isaiah puts it:
7 He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was
Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the
living; for the transgression of my people he
And He suffered and died for our sin, making atonement for our sins and the sins of Adam. This wasn’t just a tragic mistake, it was part of God’s plan. Jesus chose to lay down his life. Jesus become one of us, and his victory is won for us as a human … but he was also fully God. No human had the power to grant us salvation. Jesus could have died a sinless life for his sake, but he died for our sake. As the incarnate God he had the authority to extend that grace to us. As Isaiah puts it:
5 But he was pierced for our
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace
was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
Isaiah goes on to write :
by his knowledge my righteous servant
will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will give him a portion
among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the
strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the
transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
Isaiah sees Jesus identifying with us and our sins. He was numbered with the transgressors, he was counted as one of us. And in bearing our sin we are now counted with him. Jesus bought our freedom through this sacrificial love. Jesus answered back, with his life, that the injustice of the world would not get the final say. Jesus offered love in the midst of his pain, and his love would win the day. The seeds of the transformation of our world leapt to life as Jesus rose from the grave. Jesus conquered sin and death, and made a way for us back to come before God.
In the church today many of us are taught these truths in a way that comes across as a threat, and yet the good news is far more than just whether or not we will get to heaven. The good news is not that we are saved from the fury of hell. The good news is not just some other-worldy “pie in the sky when we die.” The good news is the “steak on the plate while we wait.” We get to taste some of our salvation now.
When our chains are broken we have some work to do, we have a part to play. We become witnesses of what God is doing in us. We become ambassadors who reveal to people that the power of God is still at work. We get to join in with God as he keeps setting people free. We do have the hope of heaven and the hope of resurrection, but we get to share a wonderful life with God now. We find meaning and purpose, something worth living for and worth dying for, an adventure to be lived.
The Christian faith is a living faith, it is not like joining the rotary club where you lift your arm and say a pledge and have a couple meetings once in a while and plan out some good deeds here or there to feel better about your life. As great as the rotary club is this is the church of the living God, where you are invited into a deep relationship of life transforming power and a daily walk with God. Faith isn’t mental assent, like there is some checklist that you just agree with and you’re done. Faith has to be lived, it has to have fruits. It has to come out and show the world the love of God at work in your heart.
Christ died for our sins, He was buried, and He was raised again on the third day. That is the cornerstone, the foundation of our faith. But these are truths that call us to response, they call us to a deep relationship with God; one where he starts to meddle with our lives. What matters most is not what score we would get on some theological final exam as much as that we become obedient to let God make us alive again.
There was a nobleman named Count Zinzendorf who felt this radical call of God as he was doing a tour of his land, something traditional in that day for noblemen to do. While visiting an art museum he saw this painting, a painting called “Behold the Man” by Domenico Feti. Written below the painting are the words, “This I have suffered for you. Now what will you do for Me?” These words penetrated Zinzendorf’s heart deeply. He just stood before this painting having a mystical encounter with God. He thought of this question for weeks afterward, and eventually vowed to respond by dedicating his life to the service to Christ. Later he would use his landed status to take in some persecuted followers of Jesus and help form the Herrnhut community, which sent out more missionaries on fire for God than had been sent out for nearly a thousand years before that and to nearly every corner of the globe.
Head knowledge is important but what is more important is the response of our hearts to the call of Christ. God uses anyone, from Counts, on down the line to former heroin addicts like me. God will use anyone willing to give God their heart, anyone willing to earnestly answer that question Zinzendorf wrestled with, “This have I done for you, now what will you do for me?” We do not earn our salvation and we could never pay it back, but that doesn’t mean God doesn’t have a role for you to play in His work of sharing His love with the world. God’s love for us calls each of us to response.
On Easter we celebrate the love of God, a love lived out in suffering. A love lived out in service to you and to me. Jesus came as a suffering servant, but God calls us to more than simply being grateful for Jesus’ “job well-done,” he calls us to become like him. To let God meddle with our lives and change our hearts so that we too will take up our cross; we too will take up the role of witnesses to the resurrection at work in us. We do find strength and the hope of heaven, but we also find that God doesn’t just leave us where we are in our comforts, He stretches us out beyond ourselves. His love starts to work on us and we find ourselves changing.
This Easter may you be haunted by the question Zinzendorf wrestled with, “This I have suffered for you. Now what will you do for Me?…for love calls us to action. Love must be shared. Jesus was numbered with the transgressors for us, so that we could be numbered with the righteous through him. Jesus died and rose again to birth something new in us, to make us new creations and children of God. And we are called to shape our lives to this act of love in response. How will you?