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Isaiah 52:13-53:12

This first reading for Good Friday provides interesting opportunities for both preaching or liturgical use. In my experience, congregations tend to be shocked at the length of this reading. Our minds fill with the sounds of Handel’s Messiah as we read, “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. 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.” Less familiar are the words of the text for a piece for tenor from verse 8b: “For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.” Since the rest of the passage is unfamiliar, it seems to fall oddly on the ear for those gathered for Good Friday worship.

This is the final of the suffering servant songs in Isaiah. The Hebrew of the passage is tricky. Before discussing the mutilation the servant will go through, the song says that we should look and see how God’s servant will prosper, for “he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.” That sounds good but it goes quickly downhill in verse 14: “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-“ This is what those already-mentioned verses used for the libretto of Handel’s Messiah are talking about—what obedience to God looks like for the suffering servant is having his body mutilated beyond recognition.

This flies directly in the face of modern-day prosperity gospel preaching, doesn’t it? It is this mutilation that Isaiah is calling prosperity. In the language of being exalted, lifted up, and very high, we see allusions to the crucifixion. As Jesus said in John 3:14, just as the bronze snake was lifted up by Moses in the desert in order that the Hebrews could be healed, so the Son of Man will be lifted up. As those who know the rest of the story, we realize that Jesus is talking about his death upon a cross.

Interestingly, our Jewish brothers and sisters read this suffering servant song as being self-referential. Rather than pointing to Christ and the cross, as Christians see it, they see the suffering Jewish people have endured throughout history. It is important in thinking about Holy Week, and Good Friday in particular, that we do not make Jews the villain of the story. This is increasingly important in an age when nationalism and anti-Semitism are seemingly on the rise. Remember, brother and sister preacher, that even while there were Jews that were plotting for the death of Jesus, there were many Jews who supported Jesus and Jesus was a Jew himself. I know that is obvious information but it is important for us to be careful with our language and characterizations in such a divisive time.

Verse 5 ends with a paradox: “by his bruises we are healed.” This is the paradox of the crucifixion. It is the mutilation of the body of Jesus that brings healing to us. What might the cross be wanting to heal in your life or in the life of your congregation this Good Friday? My late uncle was also an ordained elder and pastor in the Church of the Nazarene, and though he was not particularly sacramental or liturgical, it became his custom to lead his local congregation in a Tenebrae service for Good Friday. For several years, he would ask my grandfather, an excellent amateur woodworker, to make a cross for the service. Those who attended the service were given a piece of paper upon their arrival to the church and later in the service, they were given the opportunity to write something on that piece of paper, perhaps a besetting sin or a grudge they were having trouble forgiving, and were invited to come forward and nail that piece of paper to the cross. This practice or another liturgical similar element offers our congregations opportunities to consider what places in their own lives where they might need to experience the healing offered by the cross and empty tomb.

Before drawing this commentary to a close, let me offer a general observation about preaching on the atonement. The doctrine of atonement can be one of the stickier theological points on which to preach because of the multiplicity of theories of the atonement. This is where I would offer a word of caution to my fellow preachers: when preaching on the atonement, try to stick to one theory at a time, unless you are being intentional in presenting multiple views. Otherwise, we run a serious risk of confusing our congregation, particularly those newer to the faith. Considering the themes of healing present in this text from Isaiah, I would commend to you Andrew Sung Park’s Triune Atonement: Christ’s Healing for Sinners, Victims, and the Whole Creation.[1]

It has become my habit to watch Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ” every Good Friday. Normally, this happens after leading my local congregation in a Tenebrae service. While the movie has its issues and problems, it always serves as a poignant reminder that “surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases…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.” Let’s not skip too quickly over Good Friday in order to get to Easter but instead let us pause and gaze at the glory of the mutilated body of the suffering servant, Jesus Christ.

[1] Park, Andrew Sung. Triune Atonement: Christ’s Healing for Sinners, Victims, and the Whole Creation. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

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