Date: 18 December 2022
Speaker: Ps Luwin Wong
Sermon Text: Isaiah 52:13–53:12
I came across a tweet recently, which read: “My biggest fear is that Santa Claus is actually real, and I’ve been on the naughty list for a long time.”
We can resonate with that, because everyone of us, when we consider all the things we have said and thought and done in the year gone by, would have to admit that some of them will fall into column A, some into column B.
All we need is the self-awareness of an 8 yr old to figure out that it’s not accurate to say we have been “nice” this year. “Decent” is probably closer to the truth.
In fact, the kind of people who reflect on the year and actually arrive at the conclusion that they are “nice” people, are likely to be anything but nice people. Odds are, they are the insufferable, self-righteous, holier-than-thou types, who, at every Christmas party they attend, have other people asking under their breath, “goodness, who invited them?”
Well, perhaps all of this is moot, because Santa Claus isn’t real. But what if the fiction we attribute to him is true on the most profound level of reality?
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss psychiatrist, a pioneer in near-death studies. You may be familiar with her model she created, known as the “5 stages of grief”.
Her primary field of research is on death and dying, and she said this: “I believe that we are solely responsible for our choices, and we have to accept the consequences of every deed, word, and thought throughout our lifetime.”
On one level, I think we call accept the truth of this statement. But how if the consequence does not end with our lifetime?
In other words, what if death doesn’t absolve us of our guilt and shame, and the cumulative consequences of our every naughty deed, word and thought throughout our lifetime?
The bible presents us with a ratcheted-up reality of the Santa Claus fiction. That there a God who sees all that we do, and there is a two categories into which all of humanity will be ushered into. It will be not be either naughty or nice, but “perfect” or “imperfect”. And the rewards and punishment will not be a present or a coal in our Christmas stocking, but an eternal destination of either heaven or hell.
What happens then? Where will you be found when the day of reckoning comes? For imperfect human beings, it’s an uncomfortable question to answer, and it’s a question we may simply want to dismiss. And we can dismiss the question by simply dismissing Christianity itself By believing that message of Christianity is no different from the story of Santa Claus, they are both just fairy tales.
But that won’t do. We all know that Santa Claus is made up, but no credible historian or New Testament scholar, religious or otherwise, would say the same about Jesus Christ. He’s not made up, he lived and breathed and died, that much is certain. Where the disagreement lies, is on who he actually is, and the things he actually did.
The Christian worldview poses this problem for humanity. There is a God who just and will mete out justice. He is completely holy and even the smallest sin, one mean thought, one bad word, one wrong act, is sufficient to separate us from him. Therefore, only the perfect will be saved, and the imperfect will be condemned. And we can agree that no one is perfect; we are all imperfect.
Which poses the problem of “How then will anyone be saved”?
About 700 years before the first Christmas day, the prophet Isaiah saw into the future and gave us the answer.
The answer to how imperfect, sinful men and women like you and I can be saved, is found in a person Isaiah calls the Servant.
He is the subject our of text this morning, so let us find out about him.
There are 5 things Isaiah reveals to us about this servant.
First, he is the Marred Majesty.
13 Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted. 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— 15 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.
Isaiah opens with a paradox. He calls him a “servant”, and then says, he shall be “high and lifted up” and shall be exalted.
Which is not the way you describe servants. Servants are not known as an exalted class. And it gets more intriguing, because this servant will be “high and lifted up”, which is descriptor that Isaiah uses earlier in his book. In Isaiah 6.
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”
The one who is “high and lifted up” is none other that God himself. The holy, holy, holy Lord of Hosts.
What does this mean? It means that this servant is the Lord upon the throne. He’s a servant God, and servant King.
And the picture Isaiah paints of this servant gets more astonishing.
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— 15 so shall he sprinkle many nations.
His appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind…
Something has happened to this majesty. Something has marred him to an astonishing degree. He has become so decimated, that he can hardly be recognised as a person anymore.
What took place? What happened to him?
The clue is in verse 15 – so shall he sprinkle many nations.
The original readers would have been familiar with the language of sprinkling. It’s what you do on the Day of Atonement. Sprinkling is what the high priest of Israel did on the altar and the people to cleanse them of their sins. But sprinkle what exactly?
The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. 14 How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!
It’s the servants blood that sprinkles the nations. This king is bleeding. This majesty is marred, Isaiah notes, because he is blood is shed for the forgiveness of the nations.
Friends, this is the answer the bible offers to the problem of human sin. A marred majesty. Have you ever heard of such a scandal? Have you ever heard of a religion that proclaims and praises and professes hope in a bleeding Lord, a wounded God?
So wrote the poet Edward Shillito
The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak; They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne; But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak, And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.
This is the first thing we learn about this servant. He is a marred majesty.
Second, this Servant is the Rejected Redeemer.
1Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
This servant is the arm of the Lord revealed, which means he acts for God, he reveals the power of God.
But Isaiah says, you probably won’t even look his way. You don’t give him the time of day. Why?
2 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. 3 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.
If this servant lived on earth today, his Instagram account would be utterly unimpressive. He has no chance of being an influencer.
He will not attract followers because he does not possess the qualities that society admires. He is not instagrammable. He doesn’t wear designer labels, he doesn’t drive flashy cars, he doesn’t holiday in scenic destinations, and feast in fancy restaurants, he wasn’t born into wealth or fame power. He’s no hunk either; no chiseled jawline, no bulging biceps, no six pack abs.
In short, he has so little of what the world finds attractive. Why follow him? He’s poor, he’s humble, he’s weak, he’s despised, often suffering, often in anguish, has no resume to speak of, no degrees, no titles, and his career by all accounts is wholly mediocre. Why follow him?
And that’s a good question. It’s a question Jesus himself asks: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Are you sure you want to follow me?
So why follow him? Why entrust ourselves and seek to be like a servant such as this?
Because his humility, his abasement, his rejection is purposeful, and it has a redemptive end. The rejection of this servant is ultimately redemptive – it serves our redemption.
This servant is the rejected Redeemer.
But how does he redeem? He redeems us by being a substitute for us.
Which brings us to our third point: This servant is our substitutionary Saviour.
4 Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. 5 But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.
We have seen that this servant is marred, he’s bleeding, and he’s rejected. But why?
Because he is smitten by God, his suffering is a punishment from God. What did he do to be punished by God?
The answer is nothing. He did nothing. He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities.
How does imperfect sinners like you and I escape the punishment we deserve?
This servant takes our punishment on himself. He saves us by taking our place at the judgement, by substituting himself for us.
He has borne our grief, he has carried our sorrows.
The words used here borne and carried here is used to describe a ritual on the day of atonement.
On Yom Yippur, the Day of Atonement, a pair of goats are taken up. One is slaughtered as a sin offering and its blood sprinkled in the holy place. The high priest then takes the other goat, alive, places both his hands on the head of the goat, confesses the sins of the nation, transfers the sin onto the goat. This goat bears on itself the sins of the people and is set loose into the wilderness, where it carries the sins of the people far away, never to be seen again.
It's how the term, scapegoat. The scapegoat is not the culprit, the scapegoat assumes the guilt and punishment for the crimes of another, who gets away scot free as a result.
Jesus bears our sin, upon himself. He is punished in our stead, so that we do not have bear the consequences of our own sins.
How does imperfect sinners like you and I, escape judgment and receive reward? This servant bears our judgment, he carries away our sin. So we have no wrongs to answer for, no guilt to shoulder, our slate is wiped clean, our record is made pristine. Because of the servant who is our substitutionary saviour.
Friends, this servant sacrificed himself for you and I. It is our sins that he carried away. It is your transgressions for which he was pierced, someone else’s. Your iniquities for which he was crushed. Not someone else’s.
6 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.
Fourth, this servant is the silent Sacrifice.
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. 8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.
When I was the army, I had a platoon mate, whose nickname was sotong. Because blur like sotong. I once, when we were walking to the showers late at night, I told him, “Eh, go turn on the heater leh, tonight super cold man”. After a while, when I was nearly done washing up, he came in and said, “Luwin, I couldn’t find the switch”. I said, “Dude, I was kidding. We’ve been here for 6 months, the shower literally has one knob, there is no hot water.”
Never seemed to know anything, never seemed to do anything right. Most of the time, when he messes up, he lands himself in trouble. So be it. But one time, during an outfield exercise, he lost a signal antenna in the jungle. So while every other platoon got to rest and recover in their bunks after the exercise concluded, my platoon had to return to the jungle, to cover every blade of grass in a one kilometre radius in search of the antenna our dear friend had lost.
The whole time we were searching, under the heat surrounded by mosquitos, all you hear are army boys cursing and swearing and grumbling. Because why did we have to suffer for the mistakes of another? We didn’t like it. It’s not fair.
This servant didn’t grumble. He opened not his mouth. He was silent, Isaiah emphasises. He opened not his mouth.
Because he wasn’t disgruntled. He was willing. He willingly took our place at the judgment. Cut off from the living, stricken for the transgressions of the people. To the point of death, he silently bore our sins, willingly took on our judgment.
This servant sacrificed his life for our mistakes without a word of complain. Not because we deserve it, but because it’s in his nature to serve others. He is called the servant. This servant is the silent sacrifice.
Finally, this servant is the vindicated Victor.
9 And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. 10 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,
Isaiah once again underscores the innocence of the servant. Yes, it was the will of the Lord to punish him, to crush him, and to put him to grief. Because a just God cannot allow sin to go unpunished. But this servant is not punished for his sins. He is substitute for us, a scape goat who carries our sins upon himself, an unblemished sacrifice whose blood was sprinkled to cleanse us. He himself is innocent. He had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.
But something surprising happens to this servant.
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
He shall prolong his days? It was the will of the Lord to crush him, but now the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand?
What does this mean? Just a few lines ago, we witnessed the death of the servant. They made his grave with the wicked, and with a rich man in his death. And how Isaiah says his days will be prolonged, literally, that he will live a long time?
What can this mean? It means that this servant has overcome death. If you die, and then you live for a long time, it can only mean you overcome death, you have come back from the grave you have resurrected from the dead. This servant has overcome death.
11 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.
That’s not all, he will be satisfied. How will he be satisfied, why will he be satisfied? This servant will be satisfied when the many – sinful men and women – come to know him, come to know him as the marred majesty, as the substitute saviour, as the silent sinless sacrifice, who has come to bear their iniquities and make them righteous.
Friends, this is the will of the Lord prospering in the servant’s hand. The salvation of sinners through his substitutionary sacrifice. Don’t miss this incredible truth: the satisfaction of the servant is bound up with the salvation of sinners.
He is satisfied, not by seeing you and I punished, but by saving you and I from punishment, as we come to know and trust in who he is, and what he has done, in bearing our sin, in taking our guilt, so that our names can be written down in the column labelled “perfect”.
12 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.
And there is more, this servant will emerge victorious from the grave, he will receive the spoils of war, he has suffered for our sins, but his righteous sacrifice will be vindicated.
This servant is the vindicated servant.
On the first Christmas day, this servant was born to us. In a humble manger, was born Jesus Christ the Lord. He is the answer to our problem of sin, which consequence leads to death. He is the Saviour of imperfect humanity.
So goes the Christ hymn:
Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
On the cross at calvary, in our place he stood condemned. This then is the divine gift exchange of Christmas. At the cross, God sacrificed his Son Jesus Christ, in exchange for our lives. At the cross, Jesus exchanged his perfect righteousness for our utter sinfulness.
6 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.
The good news of Christmas is not that the good people are rewarded, it is that the bad are redeemed.
Christmas is for the underserving, the unfaithful, the broken, the weak, the weary. Christmas is good news for the sinner. Christ has come to fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah; he has come to save sinners through his sacrificial death on the cross.
So come, this Christmas season, and see what the Lord has done, Christ is born for you.
Come to know him, and his salvation, for that is the will of God, and his satisfaction.