Week of January 30: Healed by His bruises
Rev. Teresa Edwards
Lesson scripture: Isaiah 53:4-6, 10-12
Many years ago, my husband and I took a trip to Washington, D.C. Among all the historic sites and museums, one experience stood out for me. I will never forget the Holocaust Museum. Upon entering the museum, you were given the identity of a man or woman who experienced those atrocities firsthand. Throughout the museum, you checked in to see what was happening in your life at that point in the war. In the end you found out if you survived or died at the hand of the Nazis. You walked through an actual train car used to transport the Jews to concentration camps. You stood in a room full of shoes that belonged to people who needlessly suffered and died. At the end of the experience, I found myself overwhelmed with the suffering of far too many innocent people. How can one take in that kind of suffering and sin without buckling under its heavy burden? Only the suffering servant that we meet in the final servant song from Isaiah can answer such a question.
Responses to the suffering servant
The suffering servant passages in Isaiah stand apart from the rest of the prophetic words we read there. This final suffering servant song speaks powerfully about one who sacrifices his life for others, willingly and without regret. Even today, scholars cannot specifically identify this suffering servant. Some schools of thought see this suffering servant as an individual man whose identity is unknown, others as the nation Israel and still others look at Jesus as the fulfillment of this prophetic word. Each point of view is valid and important, and one does not deny the validity of the others. What we do know is that God provides redemption for the people through one who suffers and dies on their behalf.
How are we to respond to this suffering servant? Such a mix of emotions rises up in us as we read this moving and powerful text. How do the original hearers respond? In the larger text beginning at Isaiah 52:13, the prophet Isaiah proclaims that “many were amazed when they saw him, his face was so disfigured he seemed hardly human … he will startle many nations. Kings will stand speechless in his presence. For they will see what they had not been told; they will understand what they had not heard before.” (Isaiah 52:14-15, NLT) The exiles stand amazed and astonished by a servant with a disfigured appearance who reveals God’s grace through his sacrifice. Still today, the church stands amazed and astonished at Jesus, one who startled many leaders, who left the wisest of men speechless and opened the understanding of all peoples through His sacrificial life and death.
Later Isaiah tells us that this servant “was despised and rejected, a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised and we did not care.” (Isaiah 53:3 NLT) God’s people turned away from the suffering servant who came to save them. Seeing him was too difficult, too painful. They, like us, cared more for themselves than for this one who suffered on their behalf. How often do we find ourselves turning away from the painful places in life, turning off the news or steering the conversation toward a lighter topic when something difficult and ugly demands our response? When actually facing these giants, we discover the suffering servant at our side, holding us up when our strength fails. Because the servant took our pain, grief and sin on himself, he brings healing to all who see and know pain, grief, and sin today.
“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.”(Isaiah 53:5)
Suffering as redemption
In animal sacrifice, the lamb takes on the sin of its owner. In the offering of the valuable lamb, the family seeks forgiveness and renewal. For believers today, animal sacrifice is a foreign concept we find difficult to comprehend. How much more difficult is it to understand the idea of a person taking on the sin of others and offering up his life unto death? With the exiles, we shake our heads with astonishment that anyone would willingly die to pay the price of our sin. During the season of Lent, which is almost upon us, the question rises again in my soul: how could Jesus die on the cross for me – for I am so unworthy?
Yet “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:6) The one we ignored, despised, cast down and even killed raises us up through his sacrifice. Because of this servant, “the people paused and saw themselves differently … as if their lives were somehow deeply connected to the servant’s life.” (“New International Lesson Annual,” Duerling) Considering the cost that the servant paid on their behalf, they began to consider their own lives in light of that sacrifice. His death meant a new and transformed existence for those who followed in his path.
For Christians, “we need only look upon Jesus on the cross. There we see the awful cost of the ministry that is offered in the life, nature and spirit of Jesus. The cost is awful indeed.” (“A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God,” Shawchuck and Job) The cross that many of us wear around our necks symbolizes Jesus’ sacrifice, which gives us new life every day. Through His death, Jesus forgives our sins and invites us to truly live, now and forever. As Christ followers, it is our desire that this incredible truth is reflected in the decisions and choices we make daily. May our witness point to His sacrifice.
Some ideas are just too big to get our heads around. So maybe our hearts need to take the lead. My favorite Lenten hymn, in all its terrible beauty, allows Jesus’ sacrifice to sink deep within my spirit: “What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul that caused the Lord of bliss to bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul.” (UMH) The love of a God who sends a suffering servant to redeem us is wondrous love indeed!
Rev. Teresa Edwards is the associate pastor at Forest Hills UMC in Macon. E-mail her at email@example.com.