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Good Friday A 1st Reading

Isaiah 52:13-53:12

Brannon Hancock

See, my servant shall prosper;

he shall be exalted and lifted up,

and shall be very high. (52:13)

About 500 years ago, around the eve of Protestant Reformation, a new altarpiece was unveiled at the Monastery of St. Anthony in north-eastern France. The monks of St. Anthony’s ran a hospital that cared for victims of plague and other diseases of the day. According to usual telling, the artist commissioned to paint the altarpiece, Matthias Grünewald, agreed to do the work only upon the condition that he could be locked away to paint and that no one would see the finished work until the day of its consecration.

When the massive and now-iconic Isenheim Altarpiece was revealed, everyone was horrified, including the bishop. Central to the main panel, an emaciated, jaundiced Jesus dangles precariously from the cross, its smooth beams starkly contrasting his own rough and ravaged limbs. Blood oozes from the nails in his hands and feet and the punctures in his brow and side. Thorns eviscerate his head as well as his sallow skin, stretched taut, almost translucent, over ribs and musculature. At the end of elongated, sinewy arms, godforsaken fingers writhe and distort in agony, reaching toward a seemingly indifferent or possibly vacant Heaven. A ragged cloth conceals his genitals.

His eyes are closed in death. His colorless mouth droops open and his head falls nearly horizontal against his right breast. Though depicted by Grünewald in agonizing, life-size detail, these are common features of crucifixion paintings. But upon closer look, we also see lesions covering Christ’s skin – the sorts of sores symptomatic not of 1st century crucifixion but of many of the diseases that plagued the patients of St. Anthony’s hospital – an artistic liberty chosen to trace a clear line of connection between the sufferings of Christ and the suffering patients who would gaze upon this altarpiece.

Just as there were many who were astonished at him

—so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance,

and his form beyond that of mortals—

so he shall startle many nations (Isaiah 52:14-15a)

The prophet Isaiah must have glimpsed a vision similar to Grünewald’s “suffering servant” when he was given these words from the Lord. It is indeed startling to consider this mutilated one as the King of Glory. Although Isaiah’s original audience might have associated these references to the servant of the Lord with Israel’s suffering while in exile, the New Testament (where it is cited multiple times) and Christian tradition treats this passage as messianic prophecy, looking ahead to the One through whom Yahweh will deliver his people and become a light to the nations.

Yet the images keep reversing, paradoxically, confounding expectations. “Prosper… exalted… very high,” and yet, “marred… despised… rejected.” This is “prospering”? This one who “had no form or majesty…nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (53:2)? This is what “exaltation” looks like? Like this “one from whom others hide their faces” (53:3), disfigured even beyond recognition as human?

And yet, See!: this is our God – the God we meet particularly on Good Friday. Not a dispassionate God who is indifferent to suffering, or a squeamish God who hides his face in horror (cf. Psalm 22:24). Rather, a Father whose love for his Son runs so deep that he feels what the Son feels, and suffers what the Son suffers – which is to say, what all broken humanity feels and suffers.

He was despised and rejected by others;

a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity (53:3a)

This is our God, “embracing our weakness,” in the words of one contemporary worship song: “…suffering and dying…love sacrificing all that is holy, accepting our cross.”[1] The God of the philosophers is perfect, not infirm. He certainly doesn’t suffer. The God of the philosophers is a disinterested, sovereign judge, who metes out justice with omniscient objectivity.

And yet, See!: the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus is a God who confounds all expectations of what a God is and how a God acts. The prophet calls this what it is: a “perversion of justice” (53:8). Risking his own reputation as a just and righteous judge, Yahweh unites himself, through the Suffering Servant, with our suffering.

Surely he has borne our infirmities

and carried our diseases;

yet we accounted him stricken,

struck down by God, and afflicted.

But he was wounded for our transgressions,

crushed for our iniquities;

upon him was the punishment that made us whole,

and by his bruises we are healed. (53:4-5)

In our modern, scientific understanding, we see wounds and bruises as a sign of injury, a mark of bodily weakness. But in the ancient world, bruises and welts were seen as the body’s healing reactions to trauma, drawing the injury or infection away from the “site” of the wound and into itself (cf. 1 Peter 2:24).[2] John Wesley looked to these verses from the prophet Isaiah and saw the heart of the gospel. “Believe this,” he preached, “and the kingdom of God is thine” (Sermon 7, “The Way to the Kingdom?”).

All we like sheep have gone astray;

we have all turned to our own way,

and the Lord has laid on him

the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,

yet he did not open his mouth;

like a lamb that is led to the slaughter… (53:4-7a)

As Pastor Jon Middendorf recently reminded me, in the end, the hero of John’s Revelation turns out to be the slaughtered Lamb (cf. Rev. 5)… hardly a symbol of power or might or deity.

And yet, See!: this is our God. This compassionate (com-, with, + passio, to suffer) God who, in Christ, has allowed himself to become entangled with human flesh, and the suffering that goes with it. This God who rushes with abandon toward the diseased, the broken, the outcast – even, in the words of theologian Craig Keen, to “the weak, the lowly, the poor, the sick, the sinner, the dying, the dead, and the damned.” [3]

See! This is our God, who suffers with us, and comforts us with the gift of presence. And so it is fitting that we might sing on Good Friday:

See! from his head, his hands, his feet

Sorrow and love flow mingled down.

Did e’re such love and sorrow meet

Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

(“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” Isaac Watts, 1707)

See! This is our God, opening toward us in love, emptying himself (cf. Phil. 2:7) to make room to allow us in. God, in Christ, has accomplished this – for us.

for the transgression of my people he was punished. (53:8)

my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. (53:11)

he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. (53:12)

See! This is our God, becoming “numbered with the transgressors,” becoming accursed (cf. Gal. 3:13-14) for our sake, so that all who are cursed might not be left alone.

And so we it is fitting that we should pray on Good Friday, the day we remember the passion of our Lord: “Gracious God, the comfort of all who sorrow, the strength of all who suffer: Let the cry of those in misery and need come to you, that they may find your mercy present with them in all their afflictions; and give us, we pray, the strength to serve them for the sake of him who suffered for us, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.” (1979 Book of Common Prayer, p. 279)