“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” This is a saying that apparently goes back to the 1860’s when it first appeared in George Eliot’s novel, The Mill on the Floss. We know this expression means that appearances can be deceiving. You can’t make an evaluation purely based on how things look. Instead, one must dig deeper into the substance of the matter in order to arrive at an accurate assessment.
Our text from Isaiah chapters 52 and 53 makes this point and emphasizes it in a dramatic way. It begins by telling us about the Servant as it says, “Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.” This is not the first time that Isaiah has spoken about the Servant, and the more he does, the more puzzled we become about his identity.
At first, the Servant is clearly the nation of Israel. In chapter 41 the prophet writes, “But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, "You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off"; fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
Yet then in chapter 42 Isaiah turns around and speaks about the Servant in a way that makes us wonder – in a way that suggests that perhaps the Servant is an individual. He writes, “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.”
And then in chapter 49 the prophet makes us wonder even more as he states, “And now the LORD says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him-- for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD, and my God has become my strength-- he says: ‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’”
It sounds like perhaps the Servant is not Israel, since he is going to help rescue Israel, and even be a light for the nations so that Yahweh’s salvation may reach to the ends of the earth. The Servant sounds like a big deal, and we certainly get that impression in the first verse of our text as Isaiah says, “Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.”
But then, suddenly it doesn’t appear so. For Isaiah goes on to state, “As many were astonished at you-- his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind-- so shall he sprinkle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which has not been told them they see, and that which they have not heard they understand.”
We learn that the Servant’s appearance is astonishing, because it is marred. And then Isaiah continues by sharing some shocking details He says, “Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. 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.”
This Servant is compared to a root out of dry ground. He is one who has no form, majesty or beauty that we should want to look at him and desire him. Instead, we learn that he is a man of sorrows and grief. He is despised and there is no reason to think anything of him.
So who is the Servant? It’s confusing. He is Israel, but he also seems to be an individual. The Spirit is upon him, yet He is despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.
The clues for the answer to the question have already been given to us by the lectionary during the seasons of Christmas and Epiphany. On the Second Sunday of Christmas we learned in the Gospel reading from Matthew that an angel warned Joseph to take the child Jesus and his mother to Egypt in order to escape Herod the Great’s murderous plans. Then Matthew tells us, “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’” This verse from the prophet Hosea spoke about the nation of Israel which was called God’s son. Yet we learn that like all the kings descended from David, Jesus the Son of David is also God’s son. He is “Israel reduced to one.” He is Israel, and faithfully fulfills what Israel was supposed to be.
And at the Baptism of our Lord during the season of Epiphany, we heard God the Father speak words based on Isaiah 42 as he said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus submitted to a baptism of repentance, even though as the holy Son of God he had no sin. God the Father identified Jesus as the Servant of the Lord – the Servant who came to take the place of sinners.
“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” The prophet has just said, “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.” Isaiah says that we esteemed him not because he was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
But then comes the shocker! Yes, the Servant has sorrows and grief. But they are not his own. Instead the prophet reveals, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.” When we have been looking at the Servant, we have really been looking at ourselves! Well, to be more accurate, we have been looking at everything that is wrong about us in God’s eyes. The prophet adds, “But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.”
Jesus Christ was identified as the Servant of the Lord at his baptism. There he submitted to a baptism of repentance in order to take our place. He took our transgressions and iniquities – he took our sins as his own in order to receive God’s wrath and punishment against that sin.
We do indeed have many transgressions and iniquities. We have all kinds of sin. Isaiah confesses in our text, “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.” In thought, word, and deed we wander from God’s ways. We choose to do things our way because it seems easier and better for us.
Yet this amounts to thumbing our nose at the almighty Creator of the universe. Sin is not merely the breaking of abstract rules. Sin is always sin against God. And the holy and just God punishes sinners who sin. They receive his judgment and wrath. They receive his damnation.
Left to ourselves, this is the outcome that face all of us. But on Good Friday, God sent his Son to die on the cross. Conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary, Jesus Christ lived as true God and true man in order to suffer and die for us. As Isaiah has said, “But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.”
God did this to Jesus Christ as he hung on the cross in order to give us forgiveness and salvation. Isaiah goes on to say, “Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.” Our text describes Jesus as a guilt offering that was offered for our sin.
And then Isaiah goes on to add: “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.” Jesus hung on the cross bearing out sins. He, the righteous One who had no sin, received the punishment that our sin deserved. And because he has done this we are now accounted righteous before God. We are justified. This is the status that we already possess now. It is the status that will be declared on the Last Day when we appear before the judgment seat of Christ. As St. Paul told the Romans, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”
Good Friday is about the suffering and death of Jesus Christ for us. At 9:00 a.m. Jesus was nailed to the cross bearing our sin. At 3:00 p.m. he died. Before sun down, he was buried in a tomb. Yet while our text focuses on Jesus’ sacrificial death for us, its structure indicates that this is not the end.
The first verse of our text states: “Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.” The last verse that brackets this section then adds: “Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.”
We learn that death was not the final word for the Servant of the Lord - Jesus Christ. Instead, the cross led to exaltation for our Lord. It led to his role of intercessor on our behalf. Yet as Jesus had already told the disciples, that had to wait for the third day, or as we will see, for the first day of the new week.