The Suffering Servant: Out of Anguish

Good Friday   April 3, 2015   Isaiah 52: 13 – 53: 12

Rev. Catherine Purves


     Three crosses stood on the hill known as Golgotha, the Place of the Skull.  One was the cross of Jesus.  On either side of him two criminals were crucified.  They all suffered and died together.  One went to his death deriding Jesus as a powerless Messiah.  The other turned to Jesus, repenting of his sin, and begged Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom.  Three men endured unbelievable pain and anguish.  And, as Leander Keck pointedly observes, “All three men were equally dead by sundown.”  So what made Jesus’ death different?

     The long poem from the book of Isaiah known as the 4th Suffering Servant Song touches upon that mystery.  This is a very difficult piece of writing to understand.  We cannot take it apart and analyze it as we might some other piece of Scripture.  It defies dissection.  It changes voices and alters its perspective several times in a swirl of vivid images depicting a tragic death that is somehow redemptive.  This piece of writing is unlike anything that came before it in the Old Testament.  And it could be argued that it was never really understood until after those three crosses stood on that hill, and a new understanding of the saving power of God was witnessed in the death of Jesus.

     Of course, the words of Isaiah belong to a time many centuries before Jesus.  It was a time of suffering and exile for Israel.  It was an ‘unhinged’ time (perhaps not unlike our own) when everything was in flux, and there was an apparent disconnect between the promises of the past and the experience of the present.  But out of national cataclysm and utter confusion and loss came the possibility of a new vision.  This 4th Suffering Servant Song is trying to grasp that illusive vision and hope which would be bigger and deeper and more profound than anything before imagined, and yet it would be the surprising fulfillment of everything that went before.  In this poem the purpose of God was realized in a completely new way, but it was recognized as the abiding purpose that had been revealed from the beginning.  That is the mystery of it.

     Three crosses stood on a hill, and all the world watched.  One man died a sinner.  Adding to the physical pain of Jesus, he taunted and rebuked him.  This man was unrepentant and belligerent, rebellious even as he died, and rejecting God’s Suffering Servant.  Isaiah wrote in his poem, “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.”  How deeply engrained was that sin!  Surely, it is the human condition to live somehow in opposition to God, heaping sin on top of sin until the weight of it all is beyond bearing, and the long road back to the Father is beyond our imagining.  From the cross of his own sin, then, that criminal decided to curse God and die.  Yet, even then, Jesus, the Suffering Servant, whispered, “Father forgive.” 

     Three crosses stood on a hill, and all the world watched.  One man died looking to Jesus in hope.  He knew that he was a sinner, and punishment was what he deserved.  But somehow a glimmer of hope had sparked in his tattered spirit as he watched the death of the Suffering Servant, Jesus.  The words of Isaiah suddenly spoke to him, “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases…But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”  Through the fog of his own blood and pain, that criminal somehow felt the unbearable weight of his own guilt lifted from him.  As he gazed at the Suffering Servant, he cried, “Jesus, remember me…”  And Jesus replied, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

     Three crosses stood on a hill and all the world watched.  One man who died was innocent.  He gave up his life for the two criminals crucified with him.  He gave his life for the world.  It was, as Isaiah said, “a perversion of justice,” and yet it was the embodiment of God’s grace which has the power to put all things right.  The mystery of it is astounding.  Never before was such a saving death imagined, a death that would break the power of death and sin.  Yet out of his anguish would come hope and salvation.  So, Isaiah wrote, “The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.”  As he breathed his last, Jesus said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

     Three crosses stood on a hill and all the world watched.  The onlookers were amazed.  Some wept, some prayed, some held their breath.  Some shouted abuse, some gambled for his clothing, some stood impassive and unmoved.  Crucifixions happened every day.  Death was not rare.  Injustice was expected.  And yet…and yet…somehow this was different.  This was not just another Jew on a cross.  This was God at work in ways that would astound the world.  Kings and nations would be speechless as they contemplated the death of the Suffering Servant, Jesus.  Isaiah wrote, “Who has believed what we have heard?  And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”  As the world watched, darkness came over the whole land and the curtain in the temple was torn in two, the earth shook and rocks were split.  And a Roman centurion who stood looking at Jesus said, “Truly, this man was the Son of God.”

     Three crosses stood on a hill and all the world watched.  The Suffering Servant, Jesus, was dead.  Isaiah wrote, “he was cut off from the land of the living,” and “They made his grave with the wicked.”  What would come out of his anguish?  What might be born from his sorrow?  What could be gained by his death?  Out of anguish…life!  All three men were equally dead by sundown, but one would rise again.  And in his rising, his exaltation, he would draw all the world to himself.    Isaiah wrote, “so he shall startle many nations…for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.”  It was beyond thinking.  It was a new revelation, in fact, a new reality that would change the world.  Out of anguish…life!  This was the work of the Suffering Servant.  Three crosses stood on a hill, and as all the world watched, Jesus said, “It is finished.”  Thanks be to God.