This is our fourth and final week in our journey through the story of Jesus as foretold in the Old Testament Book of Isaiah, Chapter 53.
We like a good story. And for most people, we like a story with a happy ending. We inherited this desire for a happy ending to a story from our ancient ancestors.
Our exploration today of Jesus’ story through the prophesies of Isaiah give us a pause as to whether the story will end happily. We have seen over the past four weeks through Isaiah that God’s anointed Messiah was at first, “3 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). Then later people came to realize that they were wrong about Jesus. The people came to see that Jesus bore their sorrows and sufferings. They saw that Jesus was subjected to injustice and yet did not cry out against the injustice. Jesus spoke only to affirm the truth. None of this sounds much like a good story, particularly for Jesus.
But mixed within the sadness of Jesus’ story, is the good news story for us. For Isaiah said the people would come to see that “the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5b). There was the good news. He brought us peace and he brought us healing. Somehow in the plan and power of God, the Messiah, Jesus, being subjected to injustice brought us mercy. In Jesus’ sufferings, we are brought peace. In Jesus’ wounding prior to and upon the cross, we are healed. As we talked about a couple of weeks ago, what Isaiah saw coming and what Jesus lived out was the paradox of God’s grace. Human injustice, suffering for another, and wounds inflicted upon Jesus translated through God’s grace is transformed into mercy, peace, and healing from God to humanity.
As wonderful and surprising as the paradox of God’s grace is, Isaiah saw more coming. Isaiah saw that for humanity to have the ultimate assurance in life, the Messiah would have to also confront death. Death is a hard topic for us to talk about because grief from death can strike within us many strong negative emotions. Noted Christian writer, C. S. Lewis, said, ““No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times it feels like being mildly drunk or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me.”
Isaiah foresaw the death of the Messiah and grieving. Isaiah wrote, “8a By oppression and judgment he was taken away…9a He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death” (Isaiah 53:8a, 9a).
The idea of the Messiah dying was not acceptable to the Jews awaiting the Messiah. In their minds, the Messiah was to be an invincible human being ushering in the glorious rule of God and the restoration of Israel. To have the Messiah suffer on the cross, pierced by iron nails and spear, and die without putting up a fight was and is unacceptable. But Isaiah had foreseen that the Messiah, the true Messiah, must die, the Messiah must go to the grave. This was all necessary for the Messiah to fight humanity’s truly one unbeatable foe, death itself.
The thinking in the days of Isaiah was that death ended all relationships, human and divine. The people then did not have a conception of heaven and hell as has been revealed to us. The people of Isaiah’s time, and even in Jesus’ time, and even some today, believed and still believe that God was and is only to be found among the living. That upon death, the body was put in the ground and the spirit of the person went to Sheol, a place of nothingness. They believed from the depth of Sheol one cannot praise God and one cannot hope for the truth of God. (Isaiah 38). Death into a shadowy underworld of nothingness was the destiny for all. No one escaped death. It was the unbeatable foe, the frightening idea of all people
Isaiah foresaw the Messiah would die and be assigned a grave among the wicked and the rich. How did Isaiah’s vision play out in the life of Jesus? Our Gospel writer Mark told the story this way. “37 With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. 38 The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God!’ 40 Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome. 41 In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there” (Mark 15:37-41). Jesus, the Messiah, was dead and grief came in place of his life and his spirit. Upon Jesus’ death, the Apostles began to grieve. The woman standing nearby the cross began to grieve. Mary, the mother of Jesus, began to grieve. They believed from now on they would be forever separated from Jesus, their Lord, Teacher, and friend. All was hopeless and dark. They could not reach Jesus and he could not reach them. Isaiah said, “8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away…For he was cut off from the land of the living” (Isaiah 53:8a).
Mark continued, “42 It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath). So as evening approached, 43 Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. 44 Pilate was surprised to hear that he [Jesus] was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he [Pilate] asked him [the Centurion] if Jesus had already died. 45 When he [Pilate] learned from the centurion that it was so, he [Pilate] gave the body [of Jesus] to Joseph. 46 So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body [of Jesus], wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he [Joseph] rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. 47 Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph saw where he [Jesus] was laid” (Mark 15:42-47).
Jesus was dead. Joseph of Arimathea a member of the Council asked for the body of Jesus. Joseph, we are told was a member of the Council, the same Council that had met in secret, put Jesus on trial, and sentenced Jesus to death. Isaiah had foreseen that, 8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested?” (Isaiah 53:8). Apparently, Joseph did not protest. Other Gospel accounts have another member of the Council, Nicodemus, helping Joseph collect Jesus’ body. There is no indication Nicodemus protested at Jesus’ trial. But something happened to Joseph and Nicodemus along the way. Somewhere between convicting Jesus and witnessing Jesus’ death just hours later, something changed within these men. Something changed that drew them out of the shadows of belief in Jesus and into an open desire to care for his body. Grief can do that to us. Suddenly, in grief, we do not much care what people thinking about us. There is a purity of thought, there is an unashamed truthfulness that comes over a grieving person. Grieving people want the world to know who they loved and still love. Mark said that Joseph who apparently had been silent at Jesus’ trial now went boldly to Pilate to seek Jesus body to bury it in Joseph’s own unused tomb. Joseph would have many questions to answer later from the Council for showing compassion toward Jesus. But that did not matter. What mattered now for Joseph was to express his love for Jesus in the only way that he thought he could do. And so, Joseph placed Jesus’ body in the tomb and rolled a stone to seal the opening.
There is much mystery to what happened after Jesus’ died and placed in that tomb. We know only bits and pieces about the disciples’ actions and next to nothing about Jesus’ actions. Even our dear friend Isaiah could not pierce the denseness of the death and describe for us the specific activities of the Messiah after death. But Isaiah was able to share with us the purpose and the result of the Messiah’s death. Isaiah said, “10 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand” (Isaiah 53:10). Isaiah had revealed something shocking here. The Messiah was a sin offering for all the people. Lambs used in sin offerings were put to death. But Isaiah saw that through he was a sin offering, through death, the Messiah would give life to many, and the Messiah would become prosperous. How could one give life to others and become prosperous after death? There was only one way. To give life and be prosperous on any terms was possible if and only if the Messiah had life himself. Isaiah said, “11 After he has suffered, he will see the light of life” (Isaiah 53:11a).
Isaiah may not have been given insight to the spiritual battle the Messiah would undertake while dead, nevertheless, God gave Isaiah insight in knowing that the impossible had been accomplished in and through the Messiah. The Messiah would overcome death and see life again.
As I was thinking about Isaiah’s vision of the Messiah’s battle against death, doing so for the benefit of others, and returning to life, I was struck by the words of a modern era song that speaks of such a quest. The words come from the musical, Man of La Mancha, in the epic song, The Impossible Dream. The song writer there described the quest this way and I find the emotions of this song express much about the work of Jesus:
To dream the impossible dream,
To fight the unbeatable foe,
To bear with unbearable sorrow,
To run where the brave dare not go.
To right the unrightable wrong,
To love pure and chaste from afar,
To try when your arms are too weary,
To reach the unreachable star.
This is my quest,
To follow that star
No matter how hopeless,
No matter how far.
To fight for the right
Without question or pause,
To be willing to march
Into hell for a heavenly cause.
And I know if I'll only be true
To this glorious quest
That my heart will be peaceful and calm
When I'm laid to my rest.
And the world will be better for this,
That one man scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage.
To fight the unbeatable foe.
To reach the unreachable star.
Isaiah’s vision, h dream-like revelation of the Messiah being scared, scorned, entering the grave, fighting against death, and returning was not just a happy ending to a story, it was quite frankly an impossible ending. People do not overcome death. Yet Jesus took on that fight with that unbeatable foe of death. Jesus bore the unbearable sorrows of sin and ran in the direction of death, a place where even the brave do not even go. Jesus did so to right the unrightable wrongs without question or pause. He was willing to march into hell, into Sheol itself, to this heavenly cause. And the world isl be better for this, that one man, scorned and covered with scars, still strove with his last ounce of courage, to reach the unreachable, to die and overcome death.
We do not know what happened on the Sabbath following Jesus’ death. But we are certain what happened when the Sabbath had ended. Jesus rose from the dead and was restored to life. The resurrection of Jesus altered our understanding of God and life itself. The resurrection of Jesus ended all questions about what happens when we die in the body. Jesus’ resurrection means we have life in him, and therefore, those who die in Christ, should have no fear of death. To have life in Jesus means they, and we, have continuous life in God. We are not separated from others, we are not separated from God, and we are not confined to some place of nothingness or to a place of fiery torment.
The resurrection of Jesus transformed the lives of his disciples. The disciples had been in grief, devastated by the loss of their friend Jesus. Seeing and knowing Jesus lived changed the disciples by giving them unquenchable joy. While we will still grieve when our loved one’s die, it is our loved ones who celebrate the inexpressible joy of knowing that they have full and abundant life.
This will be the same for us. We will in this life experience devastating grief when those we love die. There is no shame or loss of faith in grieving the death of a loved one. We will feel aloneness and despair. We cannot help but experience grief. But that grief, as awful as it is, is also a terrible and wonderful preparation for unquenchable joy. On the day we come to be joined with Jesus through our own death we will also be reunited with those who we love who died before us. The joy we will experience in that moment that breaks the backs of our words and our lived experiences. This joy we will experience will overwhelm us and I believe will never leave us. This joy comes because one man, scorned and covered with scars who strove with his last ounce of courage to reach the unreachable, fought the unbeatable foe and won. Jesus’ resurrection is the winning victory over death. Jesus was undefeated by death. Our loved ones in Christ who have died are undefeated by death. And we who are in Christ will be undefeated in death. This is the happy ending to the story. This is the triumphal victory parade for which the people shouted, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!” Amen and Amen.