Sermon for Good Friday – Isaiah 52:13-15
See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. Just as there were many who were astonished at him — so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals — so he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.
This is one of our lectionary texts for Good Friday, though we didn’t read it this year. But I’ve been reading a lot of Isaiah lately, and something about this text won’t let me go. And it’s also a really strange vision of God and servanthood, and maybe that’s why we need to hear it right now, because Good Friday is really strange. When did we ever dress all in black for anything good?
This is the vision that God grants to Isaiah, the vision of the suffering servant of God. But, it’s really a very strange vision. Throughout the Old Testament, the whole story of God’s people – who are God’s chosen servants – it’s a repeating cycle. The people of God are faithful for a while, then they rebel. They disobey. Every time God sets before them the way of life, but they inevitably choose death. They wage wars against each other, they neglect the widow and orphan, they even profane the name of God. Over and over again. And when they finally suffer and agonize because of it all – you know they will – only THEN do they remember the God of their ancestors. Yet, this God is faithful to them ANYWAY. God restores them, they return to faith, and then the cycle repeats. That’s quite a heritage. No one ever seems to learn anything. Nothing really changes.
And right there, we admit just how easily we judge them. We question – just what kinds of servants are these? Yet, they never get what we think they deserve, do they? Somehow God always restores them in one way or another, and we grab onto that. We build up major expectations for God. When we suffer, we expect God to do something about it, because isn’t that what we deserve for being faithful? Sure, we know we’re not perfect. But we try, and even imperfect faith counts for something, doesn’t it? We remember that Isaiah said, “my servant shall propser; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high,” Perhaps we think of our own struggles and we wait for God to vindicate us.
But what about Jesus, the son of God, the perfect servant? Where is God’s justice when Jesus is mocked and beaten and crucified by the very people who he came to save? Those who should be God’s servants? This man Jesus has done no wrong. Shouldn’t the truth be abundantly clear to everyone? Pilate doesn’t know Jesus from Adam, but even he knows this is all wrong (38, 4, 6). We’re going to hear him testify THREE times – “I find no case against him.” Pilate will keep trying to distance himself from everything, and even try to let Jesus go. We don’t really know his motive, but it doesn’t matter. Fear wins, because Jesus’ accusers have whipped the crowd into a blood-thirty mob. We’ll hear them roar – “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.” To think that Isaiah himself dared to call God “our Father.” Twice. But whose crucifixion do we witness?
So what do we make of this? Servants who forsake God are never forsaken by God, only to forsake God again. And Jesus is the one perfect servant whose only reward is death. Well, maybe servanthood and forsakenness don’t mean what we thought they did. We remember that Isaiah said, “my servant shall propser; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.” But we don’t see Jesus in glory. We see Jesus lifted above us, dead on a cross inscribed with the title of “king”. Such a throne. Isaiah said “many were astounded at him.” Pilate was astounded – that Jesus refused to save himself. Isaiah promised that “kings shall shut their mouths because of him; they shall see; they shall contemplate.” When? We’ve been waiting 2000 years and have yet to witness the mighty shut their mouths. When will they contemplate anything but their own power? What if this is all there is? Maybe that’s exactly what Jesus is thinking in these final moments. Could he be any more like us? He cries out “My God, why have you forsaken me?” And he dies. And we just behold the cross with a sigh of relief that it’s Jesus and not us. Don’t you wonder, who’s really forsaken after all?
Well, we know the answer. Not Jesus. Jesus is anything BUT forsaken, because it could not be more obvious to us that Jesus is the true, perfect servant. His entire life has driven him right to this place of blood and utter death, this place of total self-sacrifice. But this is no mere sacrifice. This is also about the power of God. Because in three days he will be raised, released from the power of death, and only this can reveal the true power of the God who grants life. The God who created all that was, and is, and will be, all by a word. Jesus is that living word. We know what it sounds like. We recognize it immediately – “I forgive you all your sins.” And that’s exactly how Jesus raises us too, out of death into life. Out of all our regrets and neglect and the ways we’ve hurt others. Even out of our suffering and lament. Because for as much as we know real pain, now we KNOW this is not all there is. There’s another way, and by God every last one of us is going to see it.
This is the unwavering confession of our hope, through God in Jesus Christ. But it’s more than hope. It’s every time we look through the cross to the empty tomb. It’s our conviction only by faith that causes us to see what others may not. And that’s exactly when we realize that we were never forsaken either, in spite of everything and everyone who tries to tell us otherwise. We don’t have to avoid the cross, or pretend like it’s some kind of disguised glory or victory. We can call it what it is – death – and we don’t fear it anymore. It no longer has power over Jesus or over us. Isaiah said – See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. Now, he’s not predicting Jesus, but don’t you hear his words and immediately recognize Jesus? Don’t we even recognize ourselves? Because Jesus has given us everything he has and is and didn’t even have the decency to ask us if we wanted it.
But though we know all of this by the assurance of our faith, for now we wait. We wait with the apostles and disciples who wept and hid and waited for something that must have seemed like an eternity. As we relive the unfolding passion of Jesus, we’ll suffer and lament with them that Jesus should suffer and die. Could they have ever imagined such a thing? Us here now, sitting with them? Truly, we are. But all the same, we won’t pull Jesus out of the tomb yet. Jesus must do this, for them and us and the countless disciples who will come after us. We all go through the cross together. It’s the whole point of everything that we embody as the body of Christ. It’s the only way to Easter morning. And even in our bones, we know it’s the only way to resurrection. Thanks be to God.