A Danish theologian and philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, once observed, “Life is lived forward but can only be understood backward.” By this he meant, we live in the present taking each day as it comes to us, doing the work, enjoying the pleasantries of the moment, and bearing the pain that comes with living, sometimes getting through that minute by minute. But if we want to make want to make sense of our present situation, we can only do that by looking backward to see where we had been, to see who had influenced our lives, to see events that changed the direction of our forward progress, and ultimately to see who we are on track to becoming.
In many ways, our Bible, organized as it is into the New Testament and the Old Testament serves us in a similar manner. We live our life in the present as New Testament people, living as it were under the grace of God, experiencing transformation of our life as we are shaped more and more into the image of Jesus Christ. The shaping of that image is occurring as we cooperate with the Holy Spirit living within us. Sometimes that shaping occurs through the work we are doing in and through the church. Sometimes that reshaping comes through the pleasantries of life with fellow believers. And sometimes by the suffering our sense of becoming more like Christ takes form.
But we cannot truly make sense of spiritual standing in life today unless from time to time we look backward over the arc of our life. We look backward not because we intend to return to something we once knew so much as we look backward to understand. As New Testament people we look backward into the Old Testament to understand life lived not under grace but under the law and life lived in anticipation of what God was about to do. In many ways, the Old Testament is about what God was doing and was about to do to bring about new life for all people. The Old Testament describes the coming of one from God who would set things right but the vision of that coming presented through the Old Testament can seem as are though the images of what was to come is being seen through a sheer curtain. In contrast, the New Testament is about what God has done, the completed work, to bring about new life for all people. In the New Testament the sheer curtain is drawn back, and the images can be plainly seen. We see clearly the one sent by God to complete the work is Jesus, God’s own son. In going back to the Old Testament, we can make better sense of where we are today as New Testament people.
Last Sunday and again today, we began our look back into the Old Testament with the prophet Isaiah to bring understanding to our life today. Isaiah was not a mythical person but a real person who lived in Jerusalem about 2,700 years ago. Isaiah was a prophet of God which meant that God spoke to the people of Israel through Isaiah. As a prophet, Isaiah spoke powerfully, with convicting words, about sin, rebellion against God, trusting in our own understanding and not in God, worshipping things instead of God, and ignoring the need for justice. Isaiah, like all prophets, warned the people in the present so that the people could have a future. That is what prophets did and as a result, prophets were generally not well received people. Last week, we read the opening words of Chapter 53 of Isaiah in which Isaiah was beginning to tell the story of a man, a suffering servant, who was coming to the people. We read then, “1 Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? 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. 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 53:1-3).
God had revealed to Isaiah, and Isaiah to the people, that the person God would send to make things right would be humble and unassuming, resembling a servant, not a majestic king. This servant would not be found among the elites or the “beautiful people.” Instead, God’s servant would be found among the commoners. Moreover, once found, once discovered, once experienced, most people, especially those who should have known better, would reject God’s servant. In fact, they would despise the existence of God’s servant and would seek to hide themselves from him. The people, particularly the elites and “beautiful people”, wanted Jesus to be seen no longer and to be soon forgotten.
Verse 3 of Isaiah ended with these words, “We held him in low esteem” (Isaiah 53:3b). “We looked down upon him as a fool and as a nobody. He was someone who we thought worthy to be mocked and set up for ridicule.” And so, this servant of God, was played for a fool, he was mocked, and ridiculed. If we fast forward for a moment to the New Testament, we would see God’s servant Jesus made fun of. I want to share some of those scenes Jesus experienced. As you listen to the words, I want to encourage you to try to feel the scene. I invite you to close your eyes, open your hands, place them with your palms up, and feel the experience of Jesus as he was mocked. As we feel, we will learn.
- Jesus was summoned to heal a young girl who was deathly ill. As Jesus neared the home of the little girl, word came to her father and Jesus, “Do not trouble yourself, the girl is dead.” Jesus pressed on and entered the little girl’s home. As he did, “Jesus said [to those gathered with the girl in her room], ‘Leave; for the girl has not died, but is asleep.’ And they [those who gathered in the little girl’s room] began laughing at Him” (Matthew 9:24).
- Many months later, now under a trial by the Sanhedrin, the best and brightest of Israel, convicted Jesus of blaspheme. Upon his conviction, “67 They spit in his [Jesus’} face and struck him with their fists. Others slapped him [Jesus] 68 and said, “Prophesy to us [Tell us], Messiah. Who hit you?” (Matthew 26:67-68).
- Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor's headquarters, and they gathered the whole battalion before him [Jesus]. And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put [pushed] it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they spit on him and took the reed and struck him on the head. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him and led him away to crucify him” (Matthew 27:27-31).
You can open your eyes again. They all had their fun at Jesus’ expense, just as Isaiah foresaw. They esteemed him not and we felt it.
And then Isaiah saw something else coming. Something that seems unexpected. Isaiah foresaw a dramatic change of events, an awakening had occurred. Many of those who mocked Jesus, who held Jesus in such low esteem, felt the experience they had put God’s servant through. They felt and thus they learned. They felt the unrighteousness of their own behavior and the righteousness of Jesus. They saw the passion of Jesus and his unyielding desire to pray from them, his tormentors. They saw something and felt something and they learned. There was something Jesus said and did as he was being mocked, treated cruelly, and being crucified that the people felt. What was it? It was these words, “Father, forgive them they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). These tormentors and bystanders must have wondered how could Jesus say such a thing. In this moment of being mocked and ridiculed literally to death, Jesus forgave all those who mocked, ridiculed, kill, and held him a nobody, a nothing.
Jesus’ words were convicting words causing people to come to realize that they had rejected the very source of the healing they so desperately desired. This is where people found themselves. And looking backward to Isaiah to understand this moment, they and we come to realize that Isaiah foresaw this moment of transformation. Those who formerly despised God’s servant now began to confess that Jesus’ sufferings rather than being done to put an end to him and warn others to get in line, were sufferings of a different character than they had supposed. The sufferings of Jesus were for the benefit of his tormentors.
Isaiah wrote of this transformation moment this way, “4 Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. 5 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:4-5). Those who committed the abuse or witnessed the abuse of God’s servant thought at first that the suffering heaped upon him was God’s doing to punish him most cruelly. But then they, the abusers and bystanders, felt the experience of Christ and the felt the forgiveness of Christ amid his torture, they learned that the punishment upon Jesus was necessary, was done, to heal them and bring them peace. The pain Jesus experienced in being pierced by the hardness of iron nails and spear was caused by their own transgressions against God.
What Isaiah foresaw and what these people were experiencing was the paradox of God’s grace. God’s righteous servant, Jesus, was condemned by the unrighteous to suffering and die upon the cross so that through God’s grace the unrighteous could be made cleansed and righteous before God. Jesus chose to go to the cross. Jesus chose to take the abuse and the suffering. Jesus chose to die so that are sins of his tormentors, including you and me, could be taken away and we could be right with God by God’s grace. This is a paradox of God’s grace. The sinless man died to save the sinners.
Those who had not known the true Jesus, Isaiah described as sheep who came to believe they did not need a shepherd. Isaiah said these people would come to say of themselves, “6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). We’re all like sheep who’ve wandered off and gotten lost. We’ve all done our own thing, gone our own way. We were on the way to perish without hope. But then God piled all our sins, everything we’ve done wrong, and placed it upon his suffering servant, God’s own son, on him, on him, and in doing so saved the lost sheep one by one.
The transformation of sinners is part of the Jesus story. It is a story that Isaiah was coming. Isaiah did not know when or the name of God’s servant, but Isaiah felt the passion and pain of that servant. Hundreds of years later, God’s servant, his own Son, Jesus, came to complete God’s plan of salvation and to complete God’s plan of bringing his sheep home. Jesus came to complete God’s plan of giving everyone a path and place in His kingdom. Jesus did as God asked. People had at first seen Jesus looking through the lens of the world. They despised him and they threw the worst of the world at Jesus. They mocked him and Jesus continued on. They spit in Jesus’ face, and he refused to retaliate. They punched and slapped him, and still Jesus would not change places with anyone. They stripped him, flogged him, and jammed a crown of thorns on his head, and still Jesus would not be deterred from being God’s servant. Then they drove nails into his hands and feet to pin him to a cross. A righteous man who never did anything wrong. Surely having nailed him to the cross, he would cry out against such abuse. Instead, of crying out against his tormentors, Jesus said in a soft breathy voice, “Father, forgive them.” And in that pray, the paradox of grace was initiated. Those who sinned were forgiven. Those who deserved death were given life. He who had not sinned and deserved no punishment, died for the sinner.
The Apostle Paul, a former tormentor, would write, “16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:16-21). We longer need to be astray from God, no longer his tormentors. All is forgiven. All is healed.
In a moment, we will come to the Lord’s Table to partake of the bread and the cup. The bread serves as a symbol of Jesus’ body that was, indeed, pierced for our transgressions. The cup serves as a symbol of Jesus’ blood, a sign of Jesus’ suffering on our behalf, and a sign that grace has been poured into our lives. Come. Let us take the bread and the cup and experience the prophesy of Isaiah and the reality of Jesus. Come. Let us take the bread and cup and feel the forgiveness of God and learn of his grace and love. Amen.