Salvation through suffering (Is. 52)

[Sermon audio here.]
Most of us have at some point in our lives been shocked and appalled at the suffering in this world.  You drive past the mangled body on the side of the road.  Your neighbour is beaten to near death for his cell-phone.  Another helpless girl is gang-raped.  Many people in this country live in shacks and have no jobs.  Compounding the shock-factor is the readily available news and images on the internet, and the sensational journalism that comes with it.  The world’s verdict on the revolting nature of suffering is that surely that nothing good can come of it.
It is because of our natural aversion to suffering that humankind is disturbed and all too often repelled by God’s way of bringing salvation to his people.  The thing is, God does not think or act like we would expect.  In Is. 55:8-9, the Lord declares: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways declares the Lord.  For as the heavens are higher that the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
This is the God who spoke to the prophet Isaiah, who in turn spoke to the nation of Israel about the hope of salvation that lay ahead for the people of God.  By the time one gets to chapter 40 of the book of Isaiah, Israel has been defeated by pagan nations and finds herself in captivity in exile under cruel Babylonian rule.  Like the rest of the world, Israel was a suffering and rejected people. How would God keep his promise of salvation now?
In Isaiah 52, we find the answer.
What I would like to do this morning is focus on the person and mission of God’s servant set forth for us in verses 13-15.  It is through this servant figure that God’s promises future deliverance for his people, but in a way that would stun the world and still does.  As we shall see from our passage, God has liberated his people through the humiliating suffering of his servant, Jesus Christ.  God has surprised us all by granting eternal life through the death of his Son, which has secured the forgiveness of our sins.
    God’s promise of salvation
Try and put yourselves in the shoes of the original audience of the book of Isaiah for a moment.  Imagine what it must have been like to be OT Israel.  They were a people with an incredible history.  God had chosen them from among all the nations of the earth.  God redeemed them from slavery in Egypt, led through the wilderness and brought them into the Promised Land of Canaan.  But now they are on the verge of being blotted out and destroyed as a people…  Then comes God’s promise of future restoration and salvation in Is. 52.1-12, which has already been alluded to in various places in the book so far.
The prophetic words that we find here are brimming with hope and certainty.  We read in verse 3 that God will redeem his people without money.  Verse 6: “Therefore my people shall know my name.  Therefore in that day they shall know that it is I who speak; here am I.”  God announces the future and it will come to pass.  God declares that one day he will do something new.  In verses 7-10, Isaiah prophesies that the Lord will vindicate himself before the eyes of the nations by saving his people.  Verse 10: “The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.
By verse 12 of Is. 52, the Israelites could not be faulted had they expected that God would one day deliver his people through overwhelmingly visible acts of power and might.  They were likely recalling the great Exodus from Egypt where God flexed his muscles in very tangible ways in performing miraculous signs and wonders.
The theme of certainty of God’s deliverance continues in the final portion of our passage, in verses 13-15, where the last of the four Servant Songs found in the book of Isaiah is introduced.  The fourth song or poem that runs through Is. 53.12 is an answer to the open question posed in the third Servant Song in Is. 50.4-9, which is: What will happen to God’s servant before the eyes of a watching world?  The answer given in Is. 52.13 is that “he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.”  God’s victory and deliverance will be manifest through his servant.
But who is God’s servant and how will he triumph?
    The servant of God
I think that it is reasonable to suggest that the Holy Spirit had two people in mind when he inspired Isaiah to write about the “Servant of the Lord.”  On the more immediate historical horizon, it seems fair to say that Isaiah’s prophecy about God’s Servant was partially fulfilled in the remnant of national Israel.  From the books of Ezra and Nehemiah we learn that Israel was delivered from exile and did in fact return to Jerusalem, where the temple was rebuilt.  In this sense there was a kind of vindication and restoration for God’s people who had suffered humiliation as outcasts and endured the judgment of exile.  But Israel’s redemption was not complete during the days of Ezra and Nehemiah.  They still lived under foreign, Persian, rule, and, more importantly, they had yet to receive full and final atonement for their sins.
This is where the second person described as the servant of the Lord in Isaiah comes into view, which is the promised Messiah of the OT, Jesus Christ.
In Matthew 12:18, Jesus is confirmed as the servant of the Lord spoken of in Isaiah where Matthew quotes directly from Isaiah 42 with the words: “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.”  Jesus is the fulfillment of the long-awaited Messiah, the Son of Man and the Servant of the Lord prophesied in the OT.  He is the incarnate Son of God who came down to earth bringing salvation to both Jew and Gentile.  He is the one whom God has lifted up and exalted to his right hand in triumph over all of his enemies.  But how did Jesus triumph?  How did he fulfill his mission as the Saviour of the world?
    The suffering servant of God
It is at this point where the world turns away in disgust.  Notice that after Isaiah speaks of the triumph and exaltation of the servant in verse 13, he then makes the jarring prediction in verses 14-15: “As many were astonished at you – his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind – so shall he sprinkle the nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which has not been told them they see, and that which they have not heard they understand.”  The unsettling prediction is that God’s deliverer – Messiah – Jesus – will be the suffering servant; a theme that is continued into Isaiah 53.  In Is. 53:2, Isaiah writes: “[H]e had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we would desire him.  He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”
The prophesy of Isaiah is that Jesus would one day fulfill God’s mission in vindicating his name by saving his people in a way that the world did not expect.  Jesus would come in a way that astonishes the world.  Instead of receiving the praise and adulation of the world – like you would expect of a king – Jesus was held in contempt and subject to humiliating judgment by the powers of this age.
Isaiah tells us that this Messiah and deliverer had an appearance so disfigured that he did not even look human.  He did not even resemble the most humble peasant or child, let alone the majesty and regal form of king. People will barely be able to look at him, but will nevertheless be so mesmerized they cannot take their eyes off him.  Messiah will be a gory spectacle, like a gladiator mangled by lions in the Coliseum – something so repulsive but yet irresistible to look at.
In Is. 52:15, Isaiah tells us: “kings will shut their mouths because of him.”  Those holding the highest positions of power and authority on earth will be speechless by depths of humiliation to which the Messiah of the OT will fall.  For that which they had never considered possible, they will see and understand in the suffering servant of God.  God’s deliverer will come with no outward show of power and might, but rather in weakness and brokenness.  In doing so he confounds the world and its expectations.  How can something good possibly come out of suffering?  How can suffering be the way of salvation?
These are the kinds of questions that the disciples struggled with as they followed Jesus on the road to Jerusalem.  In Mark 8 we read about Peter’s great confession of Jesus as the Christ – the anointed one of God.  To this point in the book of Mark, Peter had “done well” as one would say.  But then Mark writes concerning the mission of Jesus in verse 31: “And he began to teach them that the Song of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be filled, and after three days be raised again.”  And immediately thereafter, what happens?  Peter rebukes Jesus for speaking about his impending suffering at the cross.  Even the highly esteemed Apostle Peter could not fathom and did not want a Saviour of suffering and humiliation.
Nevertheless, despite the resistance from his own disciples and in spite of the scorn of the world at large, Jesus set his face like flint toward Jerusalem.  There his life of pain and sorrow culminated in being lifted up on a Roman cross and being crucified.  But, why?  Why the suffering and the death?
    The suffering servant for sin
The answer is alluded to in the prophecy of Isaiah 52, made plain in Isaiah 53 and confirmed in the NT.  Isaiah writes with veiled words in Is. 52:15, “so shall he sprinkle many nations.”  Christ had to suffer.  In order to satisfy God’s just wrath toward us because of our sin, Jesus had to have his blood splattered on the ground and on a wooden cross, and die – in order to wash away our sins, as well as those of others from every tongue, tribe and nation.  Isaiah 53: “[H]e was wounded for our transgressions; he was chastised for our iniquities… the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all… it was the will of the Lord to crush him… he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.”
Jesus did what no Israelite could ever do, not even the mighty king David or king Solomon, in that he kept the law perfectly and wiped away the sins of the world through his sufferings and ultimate crucifixion.
Beloved, the good news of the gospel is that God has put an end to the fatal disease of sin that we all suffer from.  He has done so by maiming, disabling and finally putting to death his only begotten Son.  This was the mission of the sinless and innocent Jesus; one born a beautiful child to Joseph and Mary, and yet by the end of his life someone who did not even resemble a human being because of his violent abuse at the hands of wicked men.  And on the inside, even worse: for Jesus endured the inner torments of God’s wrath for our sins.
All of this was so that we might have life beyond death.
For brothers and sisters, and children, Jesus endured the sufferings of this life and overcame death by being raised and exalted to the right hand of the Father.  By raising Jesus from the dead and glorifying him, God has granted us salvation and vindicated his name in this world.
This is the gospel of Isaiah and the gospel of Mark.  This is the gospel that in the end made martyrs of the disciples.  It is also God’s call upon us to count the cost and follow Jesus in the pathway of suffering as well.  Thanks be to God that like the OT saints and the early NT disciples our sufferings are not in vain.  For it is through our sufferings that we come to trust in our Saviour, Jesus, who suffered once and for all to take away our sins and deliver us from all our enemies.  And in doing so vindicated God’s name in this world.  Amen.
Simon Jooste, RCSS morning service, April 21, 2013

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