The Suffering Servant

Today’s Scripture: Isaiah 52:13-53:12

53:4 Surely he has borne our infirmities
   and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
   struck down by God, and afflicted. 
5 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. (NRSV)
Artwork by Jessica Baker Verse

Artwork by Jessica Baker
“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
~ Isaiah 53:6

The reading for today was written at the time of Israel’s Babylonian captivity. What the Israelite captives expected to hear was that God’s glory and power will be revealed in the defeat of the oppressive forces of evil and victory for the righteous. However, Isaiah’s description of divine glory and power was so unexpected that the author describes kings as falling silent upon hearing the news. Exactly what would it take to quiet all these politicians? Just this: a depiction of glory as identification with suffering, shame, sorrow, and vulnerability. The prophet himself asks, “Who has believed what we have heard?” (53:1). The Suffering Servant of Isaiah is described as despised, rejected, ugly, diseased, and wounded. Isaiah defines divine glory, not in terms of regal and militaristic triumph, but with images of suffering, disability, and defeat. God’s glory is seen in the description of one who comes to suffer with all humanity as Isaiah redefines divine glory in terms of humility.

In the same fashion, Isaiah provides an entirely different perspective on divine power. In contrast to our popular models of status, prestige, and success, the divine use of power is described as the ability to alleviate the suffering of others. The Suffering Servant of God is pictured as one who has “borne our infirmities, carried our diseases, … was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities … and by his bruises we are healed” (53:4-5). In these verses, Isaiah has revolutionized our interpretation of God’s glory and strength. Glory is seen as humility; power is viewed as suffering service.

The Suffering Servant poetry of Isaiah provides the needed background to understand both the ministry of Jesus and his death. Jesus chooses this image of the Suffering Servant to define his own ministry as seen in his sermon at Nazareth in Luke 4. The words of Jesus at the Last Supper can only be understood in light of the Suffering Servant. Most importantly, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ can best be interpreted in keeping with Isaiah’s Suffering Servant.  Our text from Isaiah 52-53 is central to any meaningful understanding of the Lenten season.

What Isaiah has done in this passage is a redefinition of divine power and glory. Great God Almighty comes to us during Lent, not in terms of raw power and massive force, but in weakness and vulnerability proclaiming that God would rather die than stop loving us. This passage from Isaiah leads us not only to reflect on the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, but also to ask about our own lifestyle and ministry. It is not just a description of our Savior, it is also meant to be a description of our call to care for all those who are suffering in our world today.

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