The following is the sermon that was preached this past Sunday at the morning service of Cape Town Reformed Church in the city bowl. For other examples of Reformed sermons and resources, please look here.
Salvation hidden in suffering
Life is rather predictable and ordinary, at least most of the time. We are creatures of habit. Most days we eat, work, play and sleep. What we normally expect from the cycle of life is: first school; then university; then a job; then marriage; and then kids, and so on. Life is predictable in that most of the time the guilty get punished and innocent get rewarded in some way. It is not surprising to find that usually beautiful and confident people get ahead in this life. But every now and then, the predictable and ordinary are replaced with the surprising, and even shocking. The murderer walks free. The high-school dropout becomes a billionaire. The taxi headed for the city lies in a hundred pieces on the side of the highway. A tyrant is overthrown with the help of youngsters on cell phones.
The Bible is full of surprises. The greatest surprise of them all is found in our passage this morning from Is. 52. It has to do with God’s plan of salvation for sinful mankind, which defies human reason and imagination. Later, 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.” God’s Words are fitting here when one considers what he has revealed earlier in the book of Isaiah. By the time one gets to Is. 40, which signals the beginning of the second half of the book, Israel is in exile under Babylonian rule. They are a rejected people who were no doubt wondering what God was doing. Would he still keep his promise of redemption? How would God save his people now? What did the future hold?
It is perhaps helpful for us to reflect for a moment on the way in which God’s ways, in the time leading up to Israel’s exile, routinely defied human wisdom. There are many instances in which God acted contrary to the way one might expect. For example, early in Genesis God promised to build a nation through a “nobody” sojourner called Abraham. Later in Genesis we read of God’s power at work through a man called Joseph, who was left for dead in a pit by his brothers. By the end of Genesis, God’s people are in slavery in Egypt. And whom does he choose to deliver them? Through an obscure baby plucked from the river Nile by Pharoah’s daughter; a hesitant leader called Moses. And then there was Israel’s wilderness experience, which would ultimately lead to the Promised Land. And the story goes on…
Time and time again, God acted contrary to conventional worldly wisdom. And time and time again, God’s people responded… with unbelief and disobedience. Sarah laughed at God’s promise of a child. Abraham repeatedly lied instead of trusting God. Moses wanted to give his job to another person. And Israel had a bad habit of complaining and making idols when God did not act the way they wanted him to.
It should, therefore, come as no surprise that sinful mankind would have difficulty making sense of the way in which God would accomplish salvation. * In Is. 52, God reveals his promise of salvation that will come through suffering. As we shall see this morning, not only is Christ’s suffering crucial to a proper understanding of the gospel, but suffering defines the nature of Christ’s church and the Christian life as well. *
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 had redeemed them out of slavery in Egypt, led through the wilderness and eventually brought them into the Promised Land of Canaan. But now they are on the verge of being blotted out and destroyed as a people… And then comes God’s promise of future restoration and salvation in Is. 52.1-12.
The prophetic words that we find here are brimming with hope and certainty. We read, v.3, God will redeem his people without money. V.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 vv.7-10, Isaiah prophesies that the Lord will vindicate himself before the eyes of the nations by saving his people. V.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 the time one gets to v.12 of Is. 52, the Israelites could not be faulted for expecting 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 through signs and wonders.
The theme of the certainty of God’s deliverance continues in the final portion of our passage, in vv.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, in Is. 52.13, is that “he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.” God’s victory and triumph shall be manifest through his Servant. But who is God’s Servant and how will he triumph?
Salvation through suffering
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 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 achieve final and full atonement for their sins. In other words, the nation of Israel could not finally free themselves from the consequences of their sin to secure eternal life. They desperately needed someone who could.
This is where the second person described as the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah comes into view, which is our Lord Jesus Christ… All very well. But notice the jarring prediction that follows the anticipation of his certain triumph in v.13. In v.14, Isaiah writes: “As many were astonished at you – his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind.” Here we get a window into the way God would triumph; how God would redeem his people. Here is where the normal, the predictable, the conventional, the world’s wisdom, are turned upside down. God will triumph and God will redeem his people through suffering. Salvation will come through the humiliation of Jesus. God would have to disable and demolish his Son. In Is. 53, we are told that he had no physical beauty or majesty. He was despised and rejected by men. He was stricken, smitten and afflicted by God. He was crushed and chastised. He was like a lamb led to the slaughter.
God would make beauty through ugliness. God would win through losing. God would vindicate through judgment.
But why did God have to do it this way? Why salvation through suffering? Because of God’s justice and our sin. Because God is holy and cannot let sin go unpunished, someone needed to suffer; someone needed to be judged; someone needed to be put to death to atone for the wickedness of mankind. Israel could not pay the penalty for her sin through suffering and neither can we. This is why God had to send his Son, born a Jew and born under the law, to fulfill his plan of salvation. Jesus did what Israel could not do. Jesus endured the wilderness of separation from God without murmuring and complaining. Jesus obeyed God’s law perfectly. And Jesus offered up his sinless body – like a spotless lamb – to be broken as the perfect substitute for our sins. As Isaiah tells us in 53.5, “… he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.”
Conclusion: the scandal of the cross
Brothers and sisters, this is the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: redemption through suffering, which is foolishness to the world, but unto us the power of God unto salvation. God has hidden his way of salvation in suffering. Just when Israel was expecting a grand political conqueror and liberator, God sent his Son into the world in frailty and weakness. The first-century Greco-Roman world was appalled and astonished at him during his earthly ministry of suffering and death. And many people continue to respond to Christ and his gospel in a similar way today: especially the healthy, the wealthy and the prosperous. The message of the gospel continues to be scorned by the world for its claims about sin, suffering and judgment.
This means that the church suffers as well. The church is ridiculed for being so seemingly unspectacular and irrelevant. What could God possibly do through preaching, water, bread and wine, fellowship and prayer? Where is the outward manifestation of power? We too as Christians must endure the insults and rejection of a world that despises God. The world wants self-help; a fix-it-program; a feel-good experience; a therapeutic makeover. And what does the Christian life offer instead? Suffering. The world laughs at us while we cry. While the world grows fat and comfortable, we carry our cross of suffering as we follow in the footsteps of Jesus.
Brothers and sisters, let us not think or act like the world. Let us see the suffering found in the gospel, as well as the church and our own Christian lives, for what it truly is: God’s gateway to salvation. And be thankful. Let us praise God that we are not like those who have turned away from Jesus in disgust, but have been surprised by the hope found in both his humiliation for sin and his exaltation unto eternal life. Let us give God the glory for enabling us to comprehend and believe that which we would never have thought up ourselves or been naturally attracted to. Let us offer up gratitude to God for bringing the message of good news to the nations, to us Gentiles, so that we too might have certain hope of eternal life. Amen.
Cape Town Reformed Church, morning service, October 7, 2012