God's Gift of a Suffering Servant: A Sermon for Christmas

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When we think of Christmas, we may not immediately think of the cross. We probably think about important doctrines like the virgin birth of Christ and the Incarnation. We think of the joy surrounding the coming of the Son of God into this world as our Immanuel. But the importance of Christmas is not so much that Christ came into the world, but why he came into the world and what he actually accomplished. If we do not make that connection, it becomes very difficult to avoid sentimentalizing and misinterpreting this holiday. Many people see a manger scene on a Christmas card or on the front lawn of a home and interpret it to mean that once upon a time there lived a holy man who was truly a great moral teacher, and if we would simply follow his example a little more, the world would be a better place. Others see the manger scene during the Christmas season and to them it represents one of the many paths that are available to spiritual enlightenment and self-improvement. For some, that path might be Christianity, for others Islam, or Buddhism, or Yoga, or whatever. In this line of thinking, the religions of world are all basically the same thing at the end of the day: we are all one; humanity is one; religions are one; the universe is one; each of us is merely making an attempt to understand our own god-experience and god-consciousness. To these folks, Christmas can be very appealing, for they see in it nothing more than a sweet little baby Jesus who is very tolerant and not judgmental of others.

The problem with these interpretations of Christmas is that they ultimately make the claim that what we believe about Jesus does not really matter, so long as we apply what he taught us and try to imitate his life. But that is not the Christian message. The significance of Christmas is that God sent his eternal Son into this world – just as he promised – in order to be our Savior and Substitute, sparing us from the holy wrath of God. The Incarnate God-man did not come on a mission to be a moral example to the world. He did not come on a mission to be our cosmic therapist or occupy a little area of our lives called “spirituality.” He came on a mission to redeem his people from sin, death and hell through his life, death and resurrection. And in order to accomplish his mission, the Messiah had to suffer. It is that suffering that Isaiah describes in this chapter. This is an appropriate text for us to meditate upon at Christmas, because apart from what Christ accomplished in the gloom and darkness of the cross, the manger is meaningless.

This passage is actually a song with five stanzas, each stanza comprising three verses. It foretells, some 700 years before his coming, of the Suffering Servant whom God would send to be our substitute. Let’s think about these five stanzas and how Isaiah tells us that: 1) He will be Scandalous to many; 2) He will be Sorrowful in his life; 3) He will be Stricken by God; 4) He will be Silent before his oppressors; 5) He will be Successful in his mission.

I. He Will Be Scandalous to Many

This prophetic song begins in 52.13. Verses 13-15 make up the first stanza. Isaiah starts his song by saying, “Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.” But in the very next verse, Isaiah goes from describing the exaltation of this promised Servant to describing his humiliation. His words plunge from glory to suffering, and keep plunging deeper and deeper as his song progresses. He says in v.14: “As many were astonished at you – his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind.” As Edmund Clowney once put it, “God’s plan thrusts the zenith of his glory down into the abyss of iniquity. The curtain opens on the drama of the ages.”

But this drama of redemption comes like an enigma. Who can understand God’s purpose? The Lord’s servant who will come is wise and glorious, he is high and lifted up and exalted. Isaiah has said earlier in his oracles that he will be the exalted King who will bring peace to earth and cause Zion to be raised above all mountains, and all nations will flow into the temple of the Lord. He will be the shoot from the stump of Jesse, who will come as the true Son of David, whose kingdom shall never end. But then Isaiah says that this exalted King’s appearance will be gruesome, that he will be inhumanely disfigured. Of course, that is exactly what happened to the Messiah. Christ suffered a grisly and horrific death of Roman crucifixion. Even though he was the King of kings and the true Son of David, he was treated like a criminal and a monster. He was physically beaten and whipped within an inch of his life, before being nailed to a cross and shamefully lifted up to spend his last hours as a public spectacle.

The notion that the Messiah should suffer in such a way was particularly offensive and scandalous to the Jews. They expected a king who would come in glory, one who would be physically and politically triumphant. The idea that he should be beaten and killed upon a cross was difficult to understand, for in the Law of Moses, to be hung on a tree was to suffer a curse from God. Why in the world would Jehovah send his promised Messiah to suffer a curse?

But in v.15 Isaiah shows us the meaning of the enigma. Through his horrible suffering, the Servant will carry out his priestly work. He is not only a King, but also a Priest. He will sprinkle many nations. He will atone for sins. He will bring Gentiles into the covenant people of God. Yes, the promised Messiah would be glorious. But when he came to Israel, his glory would be hidden under his humiliation and suffering. Before he was to be crowned, he was to be crucified.

This is precisely why Christ is still scandalous to so many. It is why Paul said to the Corinthians: “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles.” The unbeliever still finds this message of Christ and him crucified offensive. The unbeliever does not want to think of God like that. He wants to think of God appearing only in the happy moments of life, in things that appear glorious and exalted in this age, not in the blood and violence of the cross. He does not want to think of God requiring this type of suffering in order for God to receive us into his favor. The unbeliever is confident in his own righteousness and does not think that all this blood, death, and suffering of a Savior is really that necessary.

In the next stanza, Isaiah laments the fact that many will not believe this message. He points out that the suffering Servant will not only be scandalous to some, but will be sorrowful in his life.

II. He Will Be Sorrowful in His Life

The sufferings of Christ would not be limited to the blows he took from the Roman soldiers, the crown of thorns pushed into his skull, or the nails hammered into his hands and feet. We read the testimony of many martyrs who suffered gruesome deaths yet went to their deaths singing psalms and even rejoicing in many cases. During the seventeenth century, the French Hugonauts were so renowned for singing psalms while they were being burned at the stake, that at one point the Roman Catholic state ordered their tongues to be cut out before the fire was lit. There are many cases like that from church history; people who went to their deaths singing praises to God.

But not in the case of Jesus. He did not go to his death singing. When he prayed the night before his death, he said to his disciples, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death.” The weight upon Jesus was more than any man has ever endured. As Isaiah says, “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.”

As human beings, we do not like it when others despise us or reject us. It does not matter how stouthearted and thick-skinned we are in our own estimation, the truth is, no one finds rejection to be a pleasant experience. This is only natural, because God has created us as social creatures. We have been made in the image of the Triune God, who lives in perfect relationship and love between the persons of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Because we have been made to reflect God, we are naturally dependent upon others and live in relationship to others. That is why being despised and rejected by others is so painful; it not just a blow to our pride, it also goes against the natural order of God’s creation.

The level of rejection that Jesus suffered in his life, however, was something that virtually no other human has ever experienced. He came as the light of the world, and he was rejected. The world was made through him, and yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own did not receive him. The world looks for heroes and messiahs that look glorious and magnificent. We look for people that look like movie stars or sports celebrities. We are deceived by the superficial glitz and glamour of this present evil age. But the suffering Servant looked nothing like that. He looked insignificant in his birth. He was not born in a palace or even a hospital, but in what was probably a cave converted into a stable. And upon the cross, he looked abandoned and deserted. He is someone from whom we would just look the other way. And most who did look, did so with mocking and jeering, despising him like the scum of the earth.

We should remember this in our worst moments of disappointment or loneliness. No one suffered more disappointment or loneliness than our Lord did. No one was ever sadder than he was. He is truly our merciful High Priest who is able to identify with our sorrows and sympathize with our weaknesses. We are probably tempted at times to think, “But that’s Jesus. He is the Son of God, after all! He knew communion with his Father and the Holy Spirit better than anyone ever has. He couldn’t have felt too much alone.” But you see, that is the very thing in which his sorrow culminated. As he faced the cross, he was horribly troubled in his soul because he knew what he was about to face. Isaiah describes this in the third stanza of his song, in vv.4-6.

III. He Will Be Stricken by God

This is really the heart of the song. The glory of Christmas is nowhere seen better than right here: Christ was given to be our substitute. “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. 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.”

Because God is just, he cannot allow our sin to go unpunished. There must be payment. And that is very, very bad news for us, for we have all sinned against God and rightly deserve his just judgment and wrath. The good news, however, is not that God has a wonderful plan for your life and wants to make you happy, healthy and wealthy. The good news is not that God sent Jesus to be your spiritual therapist or moral example leading you into a life of self-improvement. Rather, the good news is that God sent his eternal, beloved Son to be stricken, smitten and afflicted for us; to be wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities, so that through his suffering, we might be reconciled to God and no longer be his enemies.

Our culture might find that message hard to swallow, but that is the true message of Christmas nonetheless. God has announced that he is both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in the suffering Servant. The message of Christmas is not, “Behave and you’ll get a present.” God is not a cosmic Santa Claus who is “making a list and checking twice,” and “gonna find out whose been naughty or nice.” The message of Christmas is not, “He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!” Rather, the message of Christmas is an announcement to those who are naughty and bad that says, “The only truly good Person suffered and died for sinners.” It is a message to sheep who have gone astray, who like disobedient Adam and rebellious Israel, “have turned everyone to his own way.” This message says that salvation is by God’s grace alone, because it has been merited by Christ alone!

If you are clothed in the perfect righteousness of the suffering Servant, then you need never worry that God’s wrath and anger will be turned upon you. Christ was stricken by God for you, so it is not possible that your sins can stand against you. If you think that they can, then you have not yet understood what the Servant suffered for you. When your conscience accuses you and you find yourself tempted to think that God is angry with you, remember these words in Isaiah’s song: “the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Upon the cross, he had our sins imputed to him. He was judged for murders, adulteries, sexual immorality, covetousness, envy, lying, idolatry, impurity, gossip…every sin we ever committed in word, thought or deed.

He became in his Father’s sight a hideous and repulsive lawbreaker, so that we might be made acceptable and perfect in the Father’s sight! He had our sins imputed to him so that we might have his righteousness imputed to us. He was abandoned by the favor and loving presence of God as he cried out, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That is the suffering the Servant suffered for us, so that we could never be separated from God’s love!

IV. He Will Be Silent before His Oppressors

Verses 7-9 is the fourth stanza, which describes Jesus’ silence before his oppressors. Of course, during his life, Jesus was often anything but silent before his oppressors. When he encountered the hypocrisy and legalism of the Pharisees, he minced no words at all. Jesus found it necessary to argue with his oppressors and point out their false teaching. He had no trouble telling them that they did not know the Father; that they were of the world, that they were liars, enemies of God and sons of the devil, and would die in their sins unless they repented and put their trust in him alone.

But when his hour came to be delivered up, he went to his death like a lamb led to its slaughter. Here was truth Incarnate, and yet he did not open his mouth to defend himself with the truth when he was being falsely accused with lies. Here was the One with the power and authority to call more than twelve legions of angels to come to his rescue, but he remained silent. Peter tells us in his epistle that “When [Jesus] was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”

Thank God that Christ did remain silent! Thank God that he did not open his mouth! Thank God that he was not disobedient like Adam, or rebellious like Israel! This suffering Servant was the Second Adam and true Israel who remained obedient to the will of his Father and remained silent, allowing himself to be treated like a guilty man, even though it was clear to people like Pontius Pilate that he had done no crime. Thank God that the prophecy of the fourth stanza was fulfilled, that he “was cut off from the land of the living,” and had his grave assigned with the wicked and with a rich man, “although he had done no violence and their was no deceit in his mouth.”

Because in so doing, the Scriptures were fulfilled and his mission was accomplished.

V. He Will Be Successful in His Mission

Verses 10-12 is the last stanza of the song. Isaiah now tells us that the suffering and death of the Servant would not be a tragedy to human history. On the contrary, this would be the climax of the greatest drama ever staged. “It was the will of the LORD to crush him.” This was all according to Christ’s plan to redeem those whom the Father had given him before the foundation of the world. “Out of the anguish of his soul [or we could translate it, out of the labor of his soul] he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous.”

Christ did not come to give us a new method for self-improvement or a new program for politics. If Christ had come for something like that, then the world would have readily accepted him and would appreciate the gospel. But the gospel – and the joy of Christmas – is something much more foreign to us. And because the Servant was successful in his mission, we are provided with righteousness and a new nature, and promised a bodily resurrection and a new heaven and new earth.

As those who live between the two Advents of Christ and have believed Isaiah’s report, we are able to rejoice in Isaiah’s song this Christmas. His report has been fulfilled through the Person and Work of Christ in history. May we give God thanks for his great gift of his suffering Servant! May we lift up our heart and give God glory for sending One who, through his death and resurrection, has reconciled us to God and conquered death for us! And may we look with anticipation and confidence to his return as the exalted King, when his glory will not be hidden, but will be open and visible to all! Amen.