Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted – Sermon on Isaiah 53

I’ve stated before, and I’ll state briefly again now, that we must think of sin in broader terms than simply the bad things we do or the good things we fail to do. Sinfulness is a kind of shorthand—not to downplay or mitigate its severity. In fact, broadening our understanding of sin helps us understand just how reliant and fully dependent on the mercy of God we are. Sin is anything and everything that takes us, or anyone or anything in all creation, for that matter, from the blessed peace of “goodness” that God first designed in creation. What God made was good, and sin is whatever is not good in God’s creation. Death is the consequence, and the power of death is the fear it holds over us. The fear that death means separation, in the midst of the unknown.

But whatever the case, suffice it to say for us today that sin is just as much something that we do as something that is done to us. Those who suffer injustice at the hands of others are sinners—only in a different way than those who do evil toward them. They are sinners in that they are need in God’s merciful redemption to change the way of the world, to undo the bounds of injustice. And so as we go into the sermon, I challenge you to think of sin, not narrowly as the bad things you do or the good you fail to do, but everything and anything that stands in the way of good relationship with you and God, and with God and his whole creation.

Let us pray. May only God’s Word be spoken and may only God’s Word be heard; in the name of Jesus. Amen.

Who here knows what a scapegoat is? Put your hand up. A scapegoat is somebody that gets blamed for something. Normally it’s somebody that takes the blame for something that they aren’t responsible for, but they get to carry the blame because somebody else doesn’t want to be held responsible for whatever went wrong. According to the dictionary, we’re told “especially for reasons of expediency”—because it’s convenient or practical, despite being improper.

But the word “scapegoat” is itself kind of odd, don’t you think? What’s a goat have to do with blaming somebody, and what exactly is this scape-goat? What’s scape mean?

The idea of a scapegoat is actually quite ancient, perhaps dating back to the 24th century before Jesus. And it’s something that wasn’t at all unfamiliar to the ancient Hebrews, going all the way back to the priesthood of Aaron, the brother of Moses. Leviticus 16 talks about the provision for a scapegoat, although not named as such. “Aaron shall take the two goats,” God dictates, as recorded in Leviticus, “and set them before the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting; and Aaron shall cast lots on the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for atonement. The goat on which the lot for atonement falls shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness.”

And so a scapegoat was literally a goat that was sent out into the wilderness having been essentially cursed with the sins of the people. Their sins were sent out into the wilderness upon this goat, out into the godforsaken nothingness away from any sort of civilization, away from the people. Quite literally, in this ritualistic way, the sins of the people were carried out of their midst on this cursed, godforsaken goat.

We have the word “scapegoat” from an early English translation of the Bible from William Tyndale, from this very passage in Leviticus, where he translates the Latin as “scapegoat,” an archaic way of saying the “escape goat.” For Tyndale it was not so much the goat who escaped as the goat who went out, away from the people bearing their sin. Just like an escape route is, strictly speaking, the route you take to go out of a place in the time of emergency, the escape goat, or “scapegoat” was the goat that went out cursed with the sin of the people upon it. There was nothing in particular about the goat, the particular goat, that would make it worthy of bearing the curse of the people’s sin, to be sent out into the nothingness of the wilderness, and so overtime in the same way someone who came to bear the blame of wrongdoing or some sort of shortcoming on behalf of somebody else—for the sake of expediency—has come to mean, metaphorically speaking, that they are a scapegoat. They are someone who bears the burden of blame, of wrongdoing, of shortcoming, perhaps we might even say, of “sin.”

Today’s first reading from the prophet Isaiah confronts us with someone who has come to called the Suffering Servant. The prophet paints a plaintive picture of one who is stricken, smitten, and afflicted with all the suffering of the people. “Surely he has borne our infirmities,” Isaiah proclaims, “and carried our diseases. He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities. We accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice, he was taken away, his life an offering for sin.” This one who is before us, is contemptible, not to be prized, despised. Before us in anguish, this Suffering Servant bears the load of sin.

And remember, we must not just think of sin as wrongdoing, but sin is everything and anything that takes away from the fullness of life as God first designed at the beginning of time. Quite literally sin is anything that disrupts God’s order of peace, God’s order for shalom. This Suffering Servant that Isaiah describes is one who bears within himself and upon himself, in the very midst of the people, in the very midst of our lives, so that we might behold him in all his torment—this Suffering Servant bears within himself and upon himself the fullness of the our sinfulness, of our brokenness, of our wrongdoing, of our inadequacy, of our anxiety, of our complacency, of everything and anything that takes us away from fullness of relationship with ourselves, with one another, with creation, and ultimately with God. This Suffering Servant is stricken, smitten, and afflicted, and in all of that, laid bare for the world to see who he is. He is the one who bears every ounce of burden for the world’s iniquity and imperfection—“cut off from the land of the living,” Isaiah tells us.

It’s easy enough for us to make the connection between the Suffering Servant and Jesus. After all, Jesus “came not to be served,” St. Matthew tells us, “but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Jesus is the Suffering Servant. Jesus is the one who is stricken, smitten, and afflicted, and in all of that laid bare for the world to see who he is—God’s Son, the beloved, the eternal Word of life come down from heaven, enfleshed as a human being, a helpless human at that. So helpless that in his stricken, smitten, and afflicted anguish he cries out at the moment of his death, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus is the Suffering Servant who pours himself out to death…who takes upon himself everything and anything that stands in the way of the fullness of shalom, the abundance of peace that God intended from the beginning of time.

And Jesus does this as the one who it would seem doesn’t deserve the blame for all our shortcomings, our inadequacies, our anxieties, our wrongdoing, our sin. Jesus bears the burden as one who, for all intents and purposes, is the last one who should be considered worthy of blame, worthy of the curse of sin. And yet it is precisely this one, this Jesus, whom God choses to be the stricken, smitten, and afflicted servant to suffer the reproach and scorn of sin—to bear within and upon himself the consequence of broken relationship within ourselves, with each other, with the world, and ultimately with God.

And so it would seem that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Levitical provision for the scapegoat. But is he really? Is that who the Suffering Servant is? Is the Suffering Servant a scapegoat upon whom we cast everything and anything that would take us away from the fullness of life that God designs for us, to be sent out into the nothingness of the wilderness, away from us, to be cut off from the land of the living? Is that who Jesus is? Is Jesus our scapegoat?

No. Jesus is the exact opposite of the scapegoat. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world—among the living. Unlike the scapegoat who takes away the sin of the people by escaping to the wilderness, by running off into godforsaken nothingness, Jesus the Lamb of God comes into the very midst of our lives as one like us, indeed one of us. Jesus, our Emanuel, our God with us—Jesus, whose name means “God saves,” is the one stricken, smitten, and afflicted in our very midst.

We behold with our own eyes, with our own hearts who he is. He is the one who in complete and utter devotion to the obedience of God to love completely does love us completely, to the uttermost. To the point of death. And we behold in that his glory. We behold the truth of God’s promise never to forsake us, even at the hour of our deepest, darkest anguish, God nonetheless is there with us. Even as we cry out, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” we behold that God is nonetheless faithful and does not abandon us. Jesus, the Lamb of God, takes away the sin of the world, takes away our sin, takes away whatever separates us from full and abundant life within ourselves, with each other, with creation, and ultimately with God—not by carrying it away into the wilderness of nothingness, not by escaping from us, but by coming into the our very midst and bearing along with us everything it means to live life with us.

Whatever strikes us, that strikes Jesus. Whatever smites us, that smites Jesus. Whatever afflicts us, that afflicts Jesus. Jesus bears our loneliness with us. Jesus bears our fears with us. Concerns about your children, your spouse, or your parents? Jesus shares them completely with you. Anxiety about your home? Jesus is just as anxious as you. Beaten yet again for the umpteenth time by cards that always seem stacked against you in prejudicial favor of others? Jesus cries out in frustration at the injustice with you. Jesus is right in the thick of it all with us. He doesn’t carry away our sinfulness to someplace and leave us alone, but he vanquishes sin by suffering with us in the midst of our own suffering, in the land of the living. And by his suffering, we are made whole. “Upon him,” Isaiah declares, “is the sentence that makes us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”

We are brought into deeper understanding, deeper appreciation of not only who we are, but for who God is. God is the one who comes into our lives, lives with us, and never abandons us. Whatever we face, we face it with God with us.

This is the message of the cross. By any standard that the world would set, a true savior wouldn’t be one who suffers along with us, but instead breaks the chains of suffering wrapped around us and liberates us with fireworks and fanfare. But that’s not the way God works. God doesn’t escape troubles, but rather faces them. God not only faces troubles, but assesses them for what they are, what they truly are, and makes wholeness to arise from brokenness, understanding from confusion, peace from chaos, love from hate. This is the message of the cross.

It doesn’t make sense by the standards set by the world, but it’s the standard God chooses to prove just how foolish the so-called wisdom of the world is.

For what solace does the way of the world provide in the face of anxiety, brokenness, and inadequacy? Faster. Harder. More. Pick yourself up. Brush yourself off. Try again. If you don’t succeed, die trying.

And yet the message of the cross is this—the labor isn’t about our own vanity, but is in the peace of creation. We don’t strive for ourselves, but like Jesus, we whose brokenness, hardships, fears, deepest longings, we whose sin is hung up for us to see who we truly are—we with Jesus are stricken, smitten, and afflicted on the cross with him, so that just as God offered him up as a servant for all, God might raise us up with Christ as servants acquainted with what it means to be truly human yet truly beloved.

And raised up to this newness of life—for in the face of the world’s way of things, that’s definitely newness of life—God offers us up as Suffering Servants, who like our Lord and friend Jesus, are instruments of God’s people, not sent away from the world’s problems, but to confront them with the unshakable conviction that nothing can separate us or anyone God loves from full, abundant life with him.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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