I have very mixed feelings about Good Friday. Feelings of guilt, shame, and thankfulness. All those mixed together. Perhaps you share these feelings.
1 Appearance beyond human semblance
Throughout the Gospels we meet with a Jesus who was attractive to be in touch with; people came to him by day and by night, men, women, children, educated and non-educated.
But …. on this Good Friday, we remember Him as the one no-one wanted to look at anymore. A man whipped and beaten and spit at; deeply humiliated, laughed at, scorned.
Who wants to be seen in such company?
Isaiah describes in four different passages the Servant of the Lord; today we have read the fourth of those “servant of the Lord’ passages [Isaiah 52:13-53:12]. The early followers of Jesus realised that these four descriptions of the Servant of the Lord were actually prophecies of Jesus Christ. This fourth description that Isaiah gives us, presents to us our Lord Jesus in his lowliness:
His appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind. (Isaiah 52:14)
Isaiah uses other striking words about the Servant of the Lord. He has ‘no form or majesty that we should look at him’, he is ‘despised and we esteemed him not’, he is ‘rejected’. He is also called a ‘man of sorrows’. ‘One from whom men hide their faces.’ What happened to him was too awful to watch. How he was treated was too ugly and the brutal torture on his last day made him look awful. We prefer to look away.
Our apostles regularly quoted from Isaiah 52 and 53 to show that Jesus was truly the Messiah – this prophecy of Isaiah had been fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
For the Jewish religious leaders in those days, this created a problem of course. They could not accept that Jesus was the promised Messiah, as they believed his coming would be glorious, not one of humiliation. So Jewish interpretations of Isaiah insist that the Servant of the Lord is not a prophecy of the Messiah – but of the fate of Israel. “Israel”, they say, “is the Servant of the Lord, and all you read in Isaiah is about how Israel as a nation throughout the centuries suffered for being a light to the world, for presenting Holy Scriptures, and the laws of God, to humankind.”
But if you read critically, there are many moments where you have to say – this is it not about a nation, but about a single person. How can Isaiah for instance say, ‘he was wounded for our transgressions’, (Isa 53:5) if the Servant is Israel? One person was wounded for the sins of Israel, that is the logical way to understand this.
But the confusion – are these passages about Israel or about Jesus Christ, is in a way good. Because in the misery of our Saviour, his suffering, his rejection, we do recognize much that also applies to Israel before the coming of Jesus and to our experiences as Christians.
Look at the misery this week for the church in Egypt. Good servants of God suffer.
2 Shall sprinkle many nations
In his life and death, Jesus was the true Israel; what Israel failed to do, that is: love God and love each other – Jesus did perfectly well. In life and death, Jesus is the Church; he does was God asks from us. What we fail to do – love God, love each other – Jesus did so well. That is exactly why he is called the ultimate Servant of the Lord.
And God in heaven rejoiced. Finally a human being who truly loved him and who lived the life he intended all people to live. God had been so dishonored by humankind, by us. But now, in Jesus, God received the glory due his name. Finally, the name of God was hallowed.
Jesus glorified the name of God in his life and in his death; that made him the perfect High Priest for all of us, human beings. Even when he died, he continued to love and forgive, even his executioners. Because he loved till the end, he is our perfect Saviour.
This is why Isaiah says that by him, many nations “shall be sprinkled.” The word ‘sprinkle’ is used about 20 times in the Hebrew Bible. It means to sprinkle with blood, as the high priest in the Jewish cult would do, for the forgiveness of the sins of the people. Or it points to sprinkling with water, to purify. In Ezekiel 36:25 we read this promise for Israel:
I will sprinkle clean water on you and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness and from all idols I will cleanse you.
I think Isaiah thinks about the sprinkling with blood, or water, for forgiveness and cleansing. That was an act of the High Priest in Israel’s liturgy.
We need this forgiveness and cleansing. Isaiah says that we all like sheep have gone astray. Look in the world around us. Look in our families. Look in our lives. We must confess our sins each week.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have every one turned to his own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isa 53:6)
This is the gospel message of Isaiah.
This seems actually a reference to the habit in Israel on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The great annual feast of Reconciliation and Forgiveness. All of Israel would, to receive God’s forgiveness, send one blameless lamb into the desert, carrying their sins away. The lamb would suffer and die. And the people would be right with God again.
Surely the blood of animals cannot satisfy the great God – these sacrifices in Israel’s worship service prefigure the great sacrifice of the true Lamb, Jesus Christ. All the bloody sacrifices in the Old Testament, in Israel’s worship, are pointers to Good Friday when He died for us, once and for all.
Jesus is our mediator as the great High Priest; he is also the lamb that is slaughtered for us. So that God, fully satisfied, can now embrace you as his child. Forgiven, guiltless, free. United with your heavenly Father.
3 High and lifted up
But how is this possible! How can a mere man do all this for us! How can one perfect man be the salvation for all of humankind. How can one man satisfy God, forgive the sins of the world, renew our lives, bring us back to God.
Isaiah began his passage about the Servant of the Lord with strange words. He said, of the Servant of the Lord, “He shall be high and lifted up and shall be exalted”, and those are astonishing words. High and lifted up… do you remember when Isaiah used exactly those same words? Yes, in Isaiah 6, when Isaiah had a vision of JWHW – God himself.
In the year that king Uzziah died, I saw the LORD sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up. […] The whole earth is full of his glory.
When Isaiah describes JHWH, he describes him as ‘high and lifted up’. When he describes the Servant of JHWH, he uses – in Hebrew – the very same words. He is ‘high and lifted up’.
What does this mean?
Well, imagine you see God. You are totally overwhelmed, and then you describe him… “I saw God, and he is utterly utterly glorious and high and lifted up…” And then you see a servant of God, say father David… and you use exactly the same words to describe him.. “Father David is utterly utterly glorious and high and lifted up…” This is impossible, is it not? Because this is blasphemy. Either you lower God with such a statement, comparing him with David or you lift David up to the levels of God, and though he is nice, that is also blasphemy.
When Isaiah carefully chooses his words about the Servant of the Lord, by calling him ‘high and lifted up’, he purposely lifts him up to the same heights as the Lord God himself. This is blasphemy – or, the other option, Jesus is indeed equal to God.
The Servant of the Lord is in fact part of God in a way that may be hard to describe or understand, but that is very true nonetheless. And this makes us see the description of the Servant of the Lord who is too aweful to watch, to ugly when crucified, into something totally unexpected and amazing.
Isaiah begins by underlining: The Servant of the Lord is divine, of the same height and elevation as God himself. And then he tells us that his appearance as the Crucified one, was awful. That is such an incredible contradiction.
But it is exactly because God himself lived his life among us, and because God gave his life for us, that this life and death can have cosmic impact. And the impact is: forgivenes for us. The one wounded and crucified is our Lord God himself. Only He – our incarnated Lord – could lead a perfect life and make things right for us. He did what mere humans could never do.
So – we are ashamed and we stand guilty. As humankind we messed up, and when the author of life came to this world, we messed up even more by killing him.
But here we have the mystery of God’s love for us. God paid a high price for bringing us back into his arms. For leading Adam and Eve back into paradise. For love he died.
And he asks of us us – especially on this day – to also make our own lives a sacrifice for him. A living sacrifice, to love God and to love others, even when that hurts.