It may not seem like it just yet, but we are rapidly approaching Easter. Easter is April 9 this year. And as Christian celebrations go, Easter Sunday is perhaps the most important of all days because all of Christianity hinges on the Easter resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul put it this way to the church in Corinth. “14 If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:14-19).
Everything about the Christian faith and the promises we hold dear depend upon the resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday morning. It might surprise us to learn that the early church never celebrated Easter Sunday. Why not? Because to the early church every Sunday was resurrection Sunday. Every gathering was about the resurrection of Jesus because the resurrection, Jesus coming back to life from the dead, was viewed as the singular event that proved who Jesus was and what had promised of him and by Him in the Hebrew Scriptures.
The Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, were essential to the early church and remain essential to us in understanding the significance of Jesus and the events of Easter Sunday. Through the Old Testament, the people had been prepared, or should have been prepared, to recognize Jesus when He came to earth. Of the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah, through the book bearing his name, written 700 years before the birth of Jesus is quoted more times in the New Testament than any other prophet. Chapter 53 of Isaiah, in particular, foresaw the Jesus’ story and spoke poetically of it. Why does it matter that the Old Testament would contain the prophecy of what was to come? It is this: One of the greatest proofs of the divine inspiration of the Bible is prophecy. How could anybody know the future? Nobody knows the future. The devil does not know the future. Angels do not know the future. You and I do not know the future. But God knows the future – perfectly. One of the greatest proofs of Jesus is the Old Testament. If the people did not know from the Old Testament who to expect as Messiah, how would they, how would we, know the New Testament is truth as well? We can be sure of our Christian beliefs in large measure because of what we learn through the Old Testament.
Isaiah 53 is a story in which the suffering servant comes and wins despite seemingly impossible odds. Although ancient Jewish writers saw this chapter as being about the promised Messiah, modern Jewish writers are less inclined to see it that way. Christians see Isaiah 53 as a story of Jesus. It is a story in which Jesus wins against skepticism, spiritual blindness, dysfunctional relationships, temptation and sin, and ultimately the grave. Jesus was undefeated against all opponents including death. Jesus being undefeated, especially against death, is what we celebrate on Easter Sunday. But we do not celebrate Jesus’ victories so much for Him, as we celebrate the victories for ourselves. I would like to make use of the Isaiah 53 as a guide to lead us on toward Easter Sunday morning as we rediscover who Jesus was, is, and what had been promised of him and by Him, and that in all things we share in Jesus’ undefeated record.
Let’s begin with the opening words to Isaiah’s story of the person of history we call by many names to include Jesus of Nazareth (Matthew 21:11), the Man of Sorrows (Isaiah 53:3), and the resurrection and the Life (John 11:25). Isaiah wrote, “1 Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” Isaiah begins the story of the coming Messiah with a question that wonders aloud as to who has been paying attention? Who has been paying attention to words offered in so many ancient sermons and so many ancient prayers that God would send someone to deliver the people of Israel from the bonds of sin, doubt, and of defeat at the hands of its enemies? One would expect that answer to this question would be that the nation of Israel had been paying attention and was attentive to the Messiah’s coming. All of Israel had heard those messages and sermons that God would send to them their Messiah.
To whom had the arm of the Lord been revealed? Here the arm of the Lord means the paradox of the strength of God’s power and the gentleness of His touch. One would expect that answer to this question would be the nation of Israel was looking for these signs of God working among them. They had seen acts of God in the past and read about them from Genesis and Exodus. They were looking for more.
But Isaiah’s words were words of prophecy, meaning a foreseeing of the future. In and of that future was Jesus. And so, we must see Isaiah’s questions in light of Jesus. “1 Who has believed our message [of Jesus] and to whom has the arm of the Lord [Jesus’ mighty works] been revealed?” We read earlier from the opening of the Apostle’ John’s Gospel, “11 He [Jesus] came to that which was his own [the nation of Israel], but his own did not receive him” (John 1:11). John witnessed Jesus give the message of hope and life among the Jewish people and their leaders. John witnessed Jesus perform a great many miracles. But the people did not believe Jesus was their Messiah. And in many ways, Jesus was not their Messiah. He was God’s Messiah. John observed that, “37 Even after Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. 38 This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet:
“Lord, who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” (John 12:37-38). Isaiah foresaw and Jesus experienced that neither Jesus’ message nor his works were accepted by the Jews. But Jesus was not defeated by the lack of response and skepticism.
Jesus pressed on and when it was evident to Jesus that his death was only hours away, Jesus told his own disciples “11 Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me [that is the message]; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves [the evidence of the arm of the Lord] (John 14:11). Jesus encouraged his disciples not to be overcome by the skepticism of the world and the Jews, but to hang onto the message of hope and the signs of wonder from God’s own Messiah Jesus.
Why did the Jews reject Jesus despite the evidence of God’s presence revealed in Christ? I have today referred to it as skepticism. Now skepticism, having a questioning attitude and wanting to know why is not inherently bad unless we honor our own skepticism and allow ourselves not to learn. That type of skepticism that resists learning is outright disbelief, suspicion, distrust, and cynicism. That is the type of skepticism the Jews expressed toward Jesus. They did not learn the message of Christ, they did not learn from the miracles of Christ, because they did not allow themselves to feel. One Christian author put it this way, “I learned because I felt it.” We need to let that thought sink in for a moment. “I learned because I felt it.”
It is not enough that we learn the facts or see an event, to believe a profound spiritual truth, we must foremost feel it. We cannot learn Jesus as though he was a subject of study as in mathematics as much as we must open ourselves up to feel the wonder of God evident in the teaching and actions of Jesus. Learning on that level comes from experience. When I think of high points in my learning of Jesus, everyone of them was in context to a profoundly emotional moment in which I had allowed myself to feel. But that the experience of feeling the presence of God can be blocked by unreasonable skepticism, cynicism, suspicion, envy, and prejudice.
Isaiah foresaw such self-defeating behaviors towards Jesus by the Jews. Isaiah wrote, “2 He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). Isaiah foresaw that the Messiah would come in an inconspicuous manner, much like a tender shoot out of a dry ground. He would be someone easily missed. In fact, the Israelites believed that God’s Messiah would be born in Bethlehem but that the appearance as the Messiah would be hidden by God and then brought out of concealment with a suddenness. He would be at first easily overlooked and then suddenly appear.
After Jesus’ birth, a few shepherds took notice of him at the direction of angels and two people at the temple took notice of Jesus upon his dedication. Otherwise, Jesus was virtually unknown to anyone but his family until Jesus reached the age 30, the age that men were considered old enough to have rabbinical status. Suddenly, Jesus was on the scene. He moved rapidly throughout Israel from along the River Jordan, to Cana, to Galilee, Jerusalem, Jericho, Samaria, and many other locales. But of Jesus’ appearance, Isaiah said, “3 He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem” (Isaiah 53:3).
Jesus did not fit the picture of the Messiah and so people hide their faces from him and shunned him. One time, Jesus went to his hometown of Nazareth. There, in the synagogue, Jesus preached these words from Isaiah, Chapter 61: “’The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ 20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’” (Luke 4:19-21). The people asked, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” Then within a few minutes, 29 They [The townspeople] got up, drove him [Jesus] out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff” (Luke 4:29). The skepticism of the people had blown up and now they despised Jesus wanting him dead.
There would be at least seven other times in which the skepticism of the people or the religious leaders toward Jesus swelled so much that they sought to kill Jesus because he did not fit the image of who they wanted. They despised Jesus. They rejected him and his message. People turned their backs on him and hid their faces from him. They plotted against Jesus in secret. They looked for the right opportunity to seize him and were overjoyed when one of Jesus’ own disciples offered to betray him. Isaiah saw this coming and made clear to those who were attentive that the Messiah would be among those who are rejected, scorned, and ridiculed.
Despite the repeated rejections and scorn, Jesus never once waivered from being with those who suffered and those who were in pain. Jesus healed and gave comfort. He forgave sin and set those in bondage to sin free. Yes, Jesus would become well acquainted with his own suffering and pain but not before he first entered the suffering and pain of others.
Jesus healed the blind who all had thought were blind because of sin by them or the blind person’s parents. Jesus healed them and removed the social rejection that they had endured. Jesus healed the lepers and removed the rejection and the pain it caused upon the person so made ill. Those who were healed and those who opened their hearts to Jesus learned that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, because they felt it. They learned because they felt it.
Let’s think of it this way. A person can play musical notes as prescribed to them on a sheet of music. People can be trained to play an instrument. But a person trained to play an instrument is not a musician, and does not make music, unless that person also feels the music. A musician feels the music and becomes united with the notes and the instrument they are playing. Many people heard Jesus’ words and saw Jesus’ miracles and took them is as merely notes on a sheet of music. Many were indifferent to Jesus and others esteemed him not because they never felt the power, the rhythm, meaning of Jesus. It was only a few men and women who truly learned who Jesus was because they allowed themselves to feel who he was.
Jesus’ Apostle Peter felt the sensation of Jesus early in his time with Jesus. One time, Jesus got into Peter’s boat and told Peter to move into deeper waters and cast out his net. Peter was tired and reluctant to cast the net. In a word, Peter was skeptical about doing what Jesus asked. Peter had reason to feel this way. Peter had been defeated because he and his partners had worked all night and had caught absolutely no fish. Nevertheless, Peter did as Jesus asked. Within moments, Peter’s net was full of fish, so many that the nets were at their breaking point. Peter summoned his partners to come and help. Together they brought the fish into their boats. They had so many fish that the boats nearly sank. Luke wrote, “When Simon Peter saw it [the boatload of fish], he [Peter] fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me for I am a sinful man’” (Luke 5:8). Peter felt it. Peter felt what it is was like to know Jesus and be in the presence of holiness. And Peter felt what it was like to go from defeated to being undefeated. Peter was not sure what to do with his sensations except to acknowledge Jesus as holy and that he himself as not.
Here is some good news. Jesus did not depart from Peter as had been asked of him. Instead, Jesus said to Peter come and be with me always. Come and instead of being a simple fisherman, come a be a fisher of men. Peter did as Jesus asked and joined Jesus for the rest of his life on earth and for all eternity. Peter learned more about this man, this Son of God, Jesus, as Peter continually allowed himself to feel the presence of Christ. In the time Peter spent with Jesus, Peter came to see and experience that the prophesy of Isaiah. And Peter came to see and experience that ultimately Jesus was undefeated by skepticism that became outright disbelief, suspicion, distrust, cynicism, being despised, and ultimately rejected. Though many would hide their faces from Jesus and despise him, Jesus was never defeated. Peter also bore witness to the ultimate act of being undefeated in that he saw Jesus risen from the dead.
Everyone here today has at some time in their life, to include perhaps at this moment, has received from others skepticism of your abilities, suspicion of your motives, distrust of your gifts, cynicism about your integrity, to include perhaps even being despised, and rejected. This is what Christ felt as well. We may also have felt at times in our life defeat like Peter. “What is the point? What is the purpose in casting the net one more time? I know it will only come back to me empty.” But. Isaiah pointed out to us that God would send you and me an anointed Messiah, a savior, who himself would be despised and rejected, a man familiar with our suffering and pain. But he would be a man who was undefeated. And he would be a man who would invite you and me to join with him and God, into the presence of divine life and divine love. This man of suffering and pain would invite each of us into a life and love with new brothers and sisters, the church, who would love and not despise, who would carry one another’s burdens and not reject. This man, Jesus, who would be undefeated is calling you and me to be undefeated with him, to learn from him by feeling the love he has for us. This is the man and the invitation Isaiah saw. This is the man and the invitation Peter received upon his knees in a boat full of fish. This is the man and the invitation you and I have received this day. Let’s not be overcome but let us be undefeated in Christ. Amen and Amen.