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Enduring the Pain
March 16, 1975

St. Paul's United Methodist Church

ISAIAH 53:1-7

One of the most beautiful and influential poems of all time is the 53rd chapter of Isaiah, our Old Testament lesson this morning. The heart of the poem is inscribed on window XX, “He was wounded for our transgressions. He was bruised for our iniquities. The chastisement of our peace was upon him. And with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray.” Isaiah is writing about a servant of the Lord, a servant who bears sorrows, carries griefs, suffers for others, and through the suffering brings redemption to people. 

We have been tracing the history of the Old Testament. In the last few sermons, we have looked at the great prophets who tried to hold the nations of Israel and Judah together. But Assyria conquered Israel and Babylon conquered Judah. Jeremiah, the man who cried, lived during the conquest of Judah. He, along with leaders of the nation, was carried into exile. 

Two other prophets lived during the exile—Ezekiel and the one whose prophecies are found in Isaiah, chapters 40-55. We don’t know his name, but scholars refer to him as Second Isaiah. He was the most poetic, the deepest of the prophets, and had a tremendous effect upon the New Testament and Jesus’ understanding of himself and his mission. 

Picture the situation. The temple had been destroyed—the center, focus of their national life, the temple which was loved almost like a person, the temple where God resided. The nation had been destroyed, and now they were captives in a foreign land. The people asked, “Why?” They dreamed and yearned for hope. Isaiah sought to find meaning in the catastrophe. He wrote about the Servant of the Lord, the one who willingly suffered on behalf of others. 

The servant suffered. He endured pain. “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised, and we esteemed him not. He was oppressed and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.” And the servant in him­self was innocent. Isaiah wrote, “He had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.” Yet he willingly, loyally endured the pain. Why did he suffer humiliation and pain? Why was he mute like a lamb led to slaughter? Why did he endure the pain?

Isaiah goes on. Because he suffered for us. He endured the pain on behalf of us, vicariously on our account. Isaiah wrote, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” 

Isaiah is saying that the suffering of an innocent servant, a good servant, on behalf of others, becomes redemptive. How does it work? How does it help? If you are suffering and an innocent party is willing to suffer for you, how does it help? 

The key words seem to be sharing and participating. The one who volun­teers —the servant—shares, participates in the suffering. If you are suffering the consequences of a bad choice—remember, that judgment means that every act has a reaction, every choice has a consequence-­-and someone voluntarily wants to help you in the suffering, to stand by you, to share your griefs and sorrows, you will discover the love of God, the power of God. 

One of the greatest servants of this century who brought redemption to millions of people through suffering voluntarily was Mahatma Ghandi who almost single-handedly freed India from British rule, lifted the heavy burden off the backs of the untouchables, brought rights to women. He used the method of non-violence—boycotts, strikes, marches and suffering—suffering beatings, fasting, going to prison. He spent 2,089 days in prison, a total of six years. Bishop Armstrong has written, “One of the most momentous miracles in the history of the human race has taken place. A tiny, ugly little man, dressed like the lowest of the low, who prayed and fasted and scorned any form of vio­lence, brought the mighty British Empire to its knees.” A man who suf­fered that others might be free. 

According to Second Isaiah, this is the most effective force in the world; suffering love on behalf of someone else brings redemption. This vicarious suffering is participative, it is not substitutionary. 

The innocent one enduring the pain, not instead of the other party, but on his account, on behalf of. In the last analysis, no one can take your place. When we say “Jesus died for us”, we do not mean instead of, or in my place, or as my substitute, for each of us will die. Each of us is responsible for our choices. Each of us will face judg­ment and are being judged every day. Jesus is not our substitute, but in his dying, his willingness to endure the pain of the cross for us, we see the tremendous love of God. We see a God who understands what we go through. He knows what it is to cry. He knows what it is to be alone. He knows what it is to see a loved one die, for his own son died. We see in the life and death of Jesus a God who is willing to suffer with us, walk with us, help us endure the pain. In the willing­ness to suffer with us, we find redemption. In the willingness of the servant to bear the griefs and sorrows of others, entire nations, even the world can hope for redemption.

Who is the servant? Who was Isaiah writing about in this 53rd chapter? Some scholars feel he perhaps was referring to Jeremiah, the prophet who voluntarily gave up his station in life and suffered on behalf of his people. Certainly, the love of God was revealed through Jeremiah’s suffering, and the people had hope for redemption because Jeremiah was willing to suffer. But most of the Bible scholars seem to feel that Isaiah was referring to the nation itself, to the Jewish people, those remnants of Judah who were existing in exile. The people were searching for meaning.

Why did this happen? What is our future? What happened to our calling as the people of God? Isaiah gave them hope as he pointed out to them the great blessing that could come to the world if an entire nation voluntarily suffered on behalf of the world. But Isaiah was too optimistic. The nation, rather than opening up to the world, turned the other way, and we see in subsequent prophets, the nation became inward, ingrown, concerned more with their Jewishness than with the salvation of the world. Isaiah’s hope for the nation to assume the role of suffering servant was not realized. 

When we come to the New Testament, we see this chapter applied to Jesus. As the nation failed to assume the role, we see the son of God himself—a person— assuming the role of suffering servant. Christians now see the entire chapter being fulfilled in Jesus Christ. For certainly through his vicarious suffering, his willingness to suf­fer, multitudes have found the love of God, and have been redeemed. “When I survey the wondrous cross on which my Lord died, my richest gain I count but loss and pour contempt on my pride. I give him my life, my all.” Those who believe in Jesus Christ have experienced through his suffering, the sharing of God in our own experiences, and have come to trust and commit our lives to him, all because of what Jesus did willing­ly and lovingly. 

But the challenge to accept the role of servant does not end with Jesus. For Jesus called his church to be his body, to be the servant willing to suffer on behalf of the world. The challenge to us is two-fold: First, have you discovered through Jesus Christ the love of God and have you committed your life to him? Secondly, are you willing to be his church, his body, his servant on behalf of the world? Isaiah is firm. The world will only know the justice, peace, love, redemption of God when his church will suffer on behalf, will care enough, will be concerned enough. As hope came to the untouchables, rights for women in India, and freedom for Indian people through the willingness of Mahatma Ghandi to suffer, so will redemption come to the world through the willingness of you and me to care. 

But too many of us fit this modern adaption of the Last Judgment, by William Duckworh, 

When I was hungry, you were obese,
Thirsty and you were watering your lawn,
A stranger and you called the police and were glad to see me taken away,
Naked and you were saying “l don’t have a thing to wear—I must get some new clothes tomorrow. “

Ill and you asked “ Is it contagious?
ln prison and you said, “That’s where your kind belong.” 

Isaiah saw that change, hope, love only comes about when people are willing to suffer, to suffer as Jesus did for you and for me.  Georgia Harkness, the great Mother of our faith, a United Methodist teacher and theologian who died last year, wrote, “The Agony of God.” 

I listen to the agony of God-­ 

Who am fed, 

Who never went hungry for a day.
l see the dead—
The children starved for lack of bread-­ 

I see, and try to pray. 

I listen to the agony of God— 

I who am warm, 

Who never yet have laced a sheltering home. 

ln dull alarm
The dispossessed of hut and farm,
Aimless and “transient” roam. 

l listen to the agony of God-­ 

I who am strong,  

With health, and love, and laughter in my soul. 

I see a throng
Of stunted children reared in wrong,
And wish to make them whole. 

I listen to the agony of God-­ 

But know full well 

That not until 1 share their bitter cry-­- 

Earth’s pain and hell—
Can God within my spirit dwell 

To bring his kingdom nigh. 

© 1975 Douglas I. Norris