meditations on Isaiah 52:13-53:12, my homily for Palm Sunday, 2019
Scripture quotes in bold are my own paraphrases, combining four different translations.
13 Behold, my servant will act with wisdom; he will be lifted up and exalted.
The Servant of the Lord is Jesus. In his divine wisdom he will go to the Cross – be lifted up – and yet in that crucifixion he will be exalted. We who have come to know just what he did there have learned to glory in the Cross of Christ!
14 Many were astonished at the sight: his appearance was horrifyingly marred beyond human semblance.
On the Cross he faced a gruesome and dehumanizing death. The initial reaction for any observer is horror.
15 He shall sprinkle [purify] many nations; kings shall be shocked into silence as they see what was unannounced, and understand what was not foretold to them.
In contrast to the dehumanizing shock of Christ’s death on the Cross to the immediate observers, the news of it will send shockwaves around the world. Those who never received the Old Covenant, or even heard of the Law of Moses, will be impacted by this Gospel.
1 Who has believed our report, and to whom has God’s power been revealed?
This is sort of an expression of disbelief at the spread of the Gospel – who would believe that such a terrible death would have such a religious impact across the globe? The unlikelihood of this Gospel is explored further:
2 For he grew up before God like a young plant rooted in dry ground; he had no majestic appearance or beauty that should garner our attention.
Jesus had an unimpressive childhood: living as a refugee in his early years, raised by a carpenter in Nowhereville, Galilee, without any sign of royal majesty.
3 He was despised and rejected by men, he lived a life of sorrow and grief; he was the sort people turn their face away from; he was despised, and people deemed him insignificant.
Jesus’ adulthood was hardly any more attractive than his childhood. Once he began his ministry he had no home, no base of operations, no center of power, and his followers had a high turnover rate. Despite his miracles and great teachings, the general public ignored him like he was just another crazy religious nut on the street corner.
4 But actually he has born our griefs and carried our sorrows, even though we considered him stricken and smitten by God in his affliction.
Despite his apparent insignificance, Jesus’ death on the Cross was of the greatest significance. There, he took upon himself the full scope of human pain, and he suffered for us.
5 He was wounded because of our transgressions; he was crushed because of our sins. Upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and because of his wounds we are healed.
It was on account of our sinfulness and disobedience to God that Jesus died. In identifying with our own sin-sickness, Jesus brought peace to the endless war between man and God. We can now find healing because of his wounds.
6 All we, like sheep, have gone astray; we’ve all turned to our own ways. And the Lord delivered him over for our sins.
Everybody sins, we all have “done what is right in our own eyes.” So it is on account of everyone’s iniquity that Jesus went to the Cross.
7 He was oppressed and he was afflicted, but he did not open his mouth [to object]. He was led as a lamb to the slaughter. Like a sheep silent [helpless] before the shearer, he did not open his mouth.
Sheep can be noisy, and they’re big enough to knock you over if they try; but once you wrangle one over onto its back or its bum, it’s surprisingly helpless and easy to control. A little lamb will happily follow its shepherd to the slaughterhouse out of sheer ignorance of the situation. Jesus behaved and responded in much the same way: he refused to defend himself in trial, and went to the Cross without putting up a fight.
8 He was taken away in oppression and judgment. None considered that he was cut off from the land of the living, much less that he was stricken for the transgression of my people.
The earthly fate of Jesus looked unremarkable – it was a crucifixion like any other. Nobody really understood what was going on, what the true divine judgment was, that Jesus was dying for the sin of the world. Instead, it appeared a simple matter of Roman justice, or injustice.
9 They prepared his grave with the wicked, but with a rich man in his death [was he lain], for he had done no violence, neither was there any deceit in his mouth.
Crucified alongside two criminals, Jesus would have been buried with them. But in God’s appointment an intervention took place and Jesus was lain the tomb of a rich man by people who understood that he was an innocent man who only spoke the truth.
10 It was the will of the Lord to crush him, and put him to grief. And once his soul makes an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, his days shall be prolonged, and the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
Some people hear the beginning of this verse and gawk – how could God be so cruel as to want to crush and grieve his own Son? It must first be remembered that Jesus has already been described to have gone to his death willingly, without a fight. Then added here is the purpose for the Father and the Son to choose this death: it is a sin offering that will bring about new life, a new age, and accomplish God’s plan for the redemption of the world!
11 Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge the righteous servant make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.
The motif of acting in wisdom, where this text began, returns here in modified form. In that intentional death on the Cross, Jesus will see the fruit of his labor; indeed, he already knew that “when the Son of Man is lifted up, I will draw all men unto myself.” He would not literally see the nations falling in repentance while he was physically on the Cross, but in his divine knowledge Jesus knew what he was doing and what would result. Like an exchange of coats, he took our sins upon himself, and handed us his perfect righteousness.
12 Therefore I will assign him a portion with the many, and he will divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.
Jesus’ death upon the Cross, finally, can be described as a victory. He wins righteousness for others, and will dwell with his redeemed people forever! He could only have done this – have saved us – by pouring himself out in death and being numbered among the sinners. Their sins, and the punishment for those sins, Jesus bore himself, and to this day he continues to make intercession for sinners. He stands before the judgment throne of the Father wearing the rags of our sins, interceding, standing between him and us, such that our due punishment of eternal death may never reach us.
When we, the human race, fell into sin and death, God saw to it, in the person of Jesus Christ, that he should take the fall for us. His righteousness, his perfection, his holiness, is greater than all our sin together, and out of love he stepped down from on high to bring us back to life. We broke the covenant, we violated the law, we cheated on our divine husband, yet he took the blame upon himself to mend his creation and win and woo us back. Thanks be to God.