Friday, April 14, 2017

Sermon: Isaiah 52:13 - 53:12 Scripture Fulfilled - The Suffering Servant

It’s an assignment I would have failed - my mission impossible. But it’s one that Philip passed with flying colours. One day, he was minding his own business, when an angel told him to go down to the desert road from Jerusalem to Gaza. When he got there, he saw a Rolls Royce chariot, heading south. The Spirit told him to ‘go to that chariot and stay near it.’

That’s where I probably would have failed miserably! But Philip runs along beside it, and as he does, he hears the man inside reading aloud; words that were very familiar. So Philip asks him, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ ‘How can I, unless someone explains it to me?’ comes the answer.

Philip is invited to come up and sit with the owner of the chariot - I’m sure he was glad to get his breath again! As he did so, the Ethiopian eunuch read out these words: ‘He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.’

So who is the prophet speaking about, the eunuch asks. Himself, or someone else? ‘Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news of Jesus.’ (Acts 8:35) From this passage we read tonight, Philip told him the good news of Jesus. Who is it all about? Jesus. Always Jesus. Only Jesus.

That episode from Acts chapter 8 helps us to see the idea we’ve been thinking about all through this Holy Week - that the Old Testament scriptures point forward to the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. Long before the first Good Friday, the cross was already in view, in types and shadows and patterns - the serpent crusher in Genesis 3 who would defeat the devil; the Passover in Exodus 12, with safety under the blood of the Lamb; the forsaken suffering Saviour in Psalm 22; the substitute that the Lord will provide in Genesis 22.

Tonight we come to what is perhaps the clearest Old Testament description of the cross. Indeed, Isaiah 53 portrays the cross so clearly that some have spoken of Isaiah as the fifth evangelist, an extra gospel writer. John Stott, points out that every verse (apart from v 2) of Isaiah 53 is quoted in the New Testament. But these words were written seven hundred years before the events of the first Good Friday.

Towards the end of Isaiah’s gospel, there are a number of ‘servant songs’ - songs either sung by or about the Lord’s servant, the one who would come to serve and redeem. (Isaiah 42, 44, 49, 53, 61). This servant song (indicated by the opening words of 52:13) has five verses (stanzas), each with three Bible verses.

And those stanzas are arranged like a sandwich. So if you were making a sandwich, you have some bread, then a slice of ham, then some cheese, then another slice of ham, and another bit of bread. Bread on either outside, then ham, and right at the centre, the cheese. Our passage tonight is like that ham and cheese sandwich. The two outside passages are what God says about the servant; inside that are how people treated the servant; and right in the middle is what the servant achieved.

Section 1 - the wise servant. ‘See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.’ Even in the first line of this servant song, God says what the end will be. ‘He will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.’ This isn’t just the lifting up of the cross, but already we see the very end, highly exalted in heaven. More than that, he will sprinkle many nations - make them clean, by sprinkling them - yet it isn’t going to be all plain sailing, in verse 14 there’s the hint of what is to come - the many who were appalled at him and his disfigured appearance, and form marred beyond human likeness. The sprinkling and the shock come together - the one flows from the other.

Next section (like the ham), we hear the voices of others, describing this servant. But there’s a question: ‘Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?’ That’s the question John asks in chapter 12 of his gospel. The answer? No one, but the disciples. Everyone else had seen the signs, the miracles, and had rejected him.

Verses 2 and 3 are the description of the Lord Jesus’ life. A few years ago there was a BBC programme called ‘Son of God.’ They tried to piece together what Jesus would have looked like. Here’s what they came up with - a broad face and large nose... olive-coloured, swarthy skin, short, curly hair and a short cropped beard. Or in other words, just like every other Jewish man of the time.

Forget the images of Jesus with a halo around his head, so everyone knew who he was. He looked like everyone else, nothing special. No beauty or majesty to attract us to him. It wasn’t that he was the 1st century equivalent of a movie star or pop star that everyone wanted to look at and be like. Rather, he was despised and rejected; a man of sorrows, familiar with suffering. Despised, and we esteemed him not.

Think of someone you try not to see as you walk up the town in Enniskillen. Someone you try to avoid. That’s how people thought of Jesus. They didn’t want to know him.

And then we get to the centre (the cheese section of the sandwich). Here we have the heart of the cross. Do you see the initial misunderstanding of verse 4?

‘Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him and afflicted.’ Jesus took up our infirmities, he was carrying our sorrows. That’s what he was doing, hearing our burdens. But that’s not what the people saw that day. They instead thought that he was stricken by God, smitten and afflicted. They could only see the God-forsaken cursed one.

But. But look - do you see why Jesus died on the cross? ‘But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.’ Why did Jesus die? For us.

Do you see what Jesus died for? It was our transgressions and our iniquities. Those are two words for sin - the wrong things we’ve done, and the right things we haven’t done. To return to the Garden of Eden again - when Adam and Eve sinned, they didn’t die that day, but one day they would die. But what their sin brought immediately was separation from God. They were removed from the Garden. They were cut off from God.

Jesus takes our sins, and was pierced for them. He was crushed for our iniquities. He didn’t deserve to die, but he died in our place, for our sins. He gives us peace because he took the punishment; by his wounds we are healed.

It’s like being out for a meal, and you go to pay. But someone has already settled your account. The bill has been paid in full. You can’t pay any more. Someone else has made the payment on your behalf. So is this true of you?
Are you included in this ‘our’? Can you truly say tonight that he was pierced for MY transgressions? If you can, rejoice! The price is paid. If not, then please don’t leave tonight without speaking to Colin or myself, and making sure that your sins are covered, forgiven, the price paid.

Maybe you think that you’re not really that bad. Or at least, not as bad as Mr So-and-so. Verse 6 pictures us as sheep. As I arrived at one house to do a Home Communion this week, I had to say, did you know there are a couple of lambs out on the lane? We’re sheep because, we all have gone astray. We’ve wandered from the fold, and turned to our own way. (Isn’t that the heart of sin, going our own way, rather than God’s way?).

We might be like sheep but Jesus is the lamb who has taken our iniquity. More than that, as we go into the next section, back out the other side, Jesus is the lamb led to the slaughter, silent, uncomplaining, willing. Even when he was oppressed and afflicted, he didn’t retaliate, didn’t answer back, he took it.

Who can speak of his descendants? Well, it seems no one, because he was cut off from the land of the living. He was stricken. Put in an early grave, a borrowed grave - died with the wicked, buried in a rich man’s tomb. The Lord Jesus deserved none of this. He had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth. So why did it happen?

Well, as we come to the final section, we discover what the cross achieved, as we hear again from God. First of all, God’s will - ‘Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer...’ The cross wasn’t just a plan concocted by Pilate and the Jewish religious leaders. They had a hand in it, they acted freely to try to destroy Jesus, they certainly opposed him. But alongside, and through their evil actions, God’s will was also being accomplished.

As the believers say in Acts 4 ‘Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus... They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.’ (Acts 4:27-28). They did it, but they were bringing about God’s will for Jesus to die. Why? ‘And though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.’

This sacrificial death of the suffering servant isn’t the end of the story. Earlier we asked, Who can speak of his descendants? Look around you! He will see his offspring. Even here, the promise of the resurrection is included. The sufferings and the subsequent glories (as Peter said).

Verse 11: ‘After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.’ It’s in knowing Christ that we are justified by him, our iniquities borne away.

And it’s because Jesus has done these things, that verse 12 comes. Again, it’s God speaking. ‘Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.’

A portion among the great - the highest place that heaven affords is his, is his by right. Just as verse 13 had already said - ‘he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.’

This morning an American pastor tweeted a cartoon strip. There are two men in it. One says, ‘I hate the term Good Friday.’ The other asks, why? So the first says, ‘My Lord was hanged on a tree that day.’ The other says, ‘If you were going to be hanged on that day, and he volunteered to take your place, how would you feel?’ The first thinks, and says, ‘Good.’ ‘Have a nice day’ is the other’s reply.

What’s so good about Good Friday? Jesus died for our transgressions. In my place condemned he stood. But Good Friday is not the end of the story. It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming. Jesus has fulfilled the scripture - not just in his cross, but also in his resurrection. That’s why this is Good Friday.

This sermon was preached in Brookeborough Methodist Church on Good Friday 14th April 2017 in the Scripture Fulfilled series.

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