Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12
We were talking after the Good Friday service. The lady in question had participated in the passion liturgy and was obviously moved by it. The she said something that was unexpected. “Reading that reading I realise that if I had sinned less Jesus would not have had to stay on the cross as long as he did. He would have suffered less!” She had appropriated the suffering Jesus as being her responsibility and began to take on the guilt associated with it.
I thought, how bizarre! Yet it is not bizarre. How many of our Easter liturgies major on the blood and gore of the cross and on Jesus dying for me, me personally, because it is me that put him there. We contemplate nails, we even hammer them into a cross, we carry the cross, and we do all this with a sense of all this being our fault. In the movie, Jesus of Nazareth, a brutal portrayal of Jesus last days, the hand that nailed Jesus to the cross was Mel Gibson’s hand, the point being, we are all responsible for this ugly event.
God’s initiative in redeeming the world and opening up the possibility of a new way of being in it through the politically and religiously conspired death of Jesus, is some how spread across each of us in the form of guilt.
Much of the rest of this sermon is from the pen of John C Holbreck, the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX
I do not presume to speak for you, but all of that sounds nothing less than insane to me, or if not insane in itself, then a way to make us insane when we think too hard about it! This kind of atonement, where God trades Jesus for my sin, and then I profess that I have helped to murder Jesus in order to have my sin forgiven by his death, makes my theological head spin. Is there no other way to fathom this event of Good Friday than that?
Perhaps Isaiah 52-53
can help. I readily admit that this fourth servant song of the exilic prophet of the mid-6th century B.C.E. has been determinative in developing precisely the warped theology I have described above. After all, here the servant of Isaiah was “marred in his appearance” (Is 52:14
), was “despised and rejected by others” (Is 53:3
), “was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities” (Is 53:5
), and “bore the sin of many” (Is 53:12
The early Christian community took a look at those words and found in them a purpose for the terrible events of what they later called Holy Week. The monstrous torture and death of their Lord had to have some meaning beyond the horror and the pain, and the meaning they found was that in his death their and our sins were somehow covered over. As they witnessed Jesus’ agony on the cross, they were in fact witnessing God’s ultimate forgiveness of them. As Jesus died, so their sin died with him, and God’s rejection of him led directly to God’s desire never to reject them again.
Isaiah focuses like a laser beam on the fact of the death of the servant as a death that was for others. Isaiah says nothing about my or our suffering in relationship to this death. Quite the contrary! Because of this innocent death for others exclusively, we have now a fresh way to view our own lives and that life in relationship to God. Too often we Christians forget that the suffering servant has also done his work; it is not now up to us to suffer with him. We leave that work to him. And so Isaiah thought.
Note how he begins his poem: “Look! My servant shall be successful,” using the word that denotes favour with God and humanity. “He shall be exalted, lifted up, shall be very high” (Is 52:13
). The actions of the servant, the deeds of his suffering, shall lead to success; his suffering shall be crucial to the way I now can see my own life in a new way. Because he suffers, I need not suffer.
Note, too, how the poem ends: “Out of his trouble, his life will see (clearly?); he shall be filled to the full with his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous by carrying their evils” (Is 53:11
). As a result of the death of the servant, God will “give him a portion with the great; he shall divide the spoil with the strong” (Is 53:12
). The role of the servant is to make many righteous, because he is righteous in his suffering and death.
It is obvious that the church has focused its liturgical energies too much on the middle of this poem, rather than on its beginning and end. The suffering of the servant has been maximised while the work of that suffering, its efficacious work of righteousness, has been minimised. As a result, we have worshipped in the ways I described, pounding nails in darkened sanctuaries, flagellating ourselves hymnically and psychologically, trying to join Jesus in his death rather than receive from him our new life. For Christians there is only one Suffering Servant. One need not apply for that job, because it has been filled for all time.
So then how should we worship on Good Friday? Suffering and death are sad things, and chastened liturgy and hymn are surely not out of place. But the goal of Good Friday is not to suffer with Jesus, to become like him on his cross. As the servant of Isaiah, who is apparently a portion of the people Israel, now cleansed and purified by exile, has suffered for the whole people, so for Christians Jesus has suffered for them, offering to them new life, opening up for them new hope of joy and peace. And for Christians that offering will take on fresh power and joy in two days’ time at Easter.
Like Holbreck, I urge you to think carefully about just what you are doing this Good Friday. Like Holbreck, I shudder to remember those dark Fridays of my liturgical past. Remember this year that “the righteous one will make many righteous,” not “the suffering one will make many suffer.”
 John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.