If you’ve heard this passage before, then it was probably in the context of the Messiah. It is quoted in Handel’s Messiah, which is one of the most famous pieces of music in the church, or you might have heard it in readings in Advent or leading up to Easter. You probably heard about it or read it as a reference to Jesus. But it was not originally about Jesus.
When I was a teenager we moved to Texas, and I didn’t like it. I missed my friends, I missed my home, and everything in Texas was strange and different. I was complaining about this to my Dad, and he offered up some words of comfort. He said, “I read an article that says that teenagers take about 12-18 months to adjust to a new place. You’ll be fine in 12-18 months.” That was the end of that pep-talk. It was true. 12-18 months later, I was fine. But that was very little comfort to me.
Isaiah was completed at the end of the exile, 500 years before Jesus. That’s a lot longer than 12-18 months. To tell a people whose lives have been destroyed and who have been living in oppression ever since that they only have 500 more years to wait is no comfort. It is cruelty. If Isaiah was originally talking about Jesus, then God is willing to ignore the cries of God’s people for half a millennium. No, Scripture was written to address its own time and place, but the truth that is in it addresses every time and place. Isaiah was originally talking to the people of his time, promising not some distant future redemption, but healing and peace for them in their time.
Isaiah is responding to a pattern found in Scripture and history. The pattern runs through much of the Old Testament, and our Judges reading sums it up well. Things are going well and the people stray from God’s way, so God punishes them. Then they cry out to God for relief, and God sends a deliverer, who helps them stay faithful for some time until they forget God and are at it again. This pattern of disloyalty-rebellion-redemption dominates much of the Old Testament, as if the people are locked in a cycle of destruction. Even in Judges, we can see that God is already tired of it.
This isn’t just a Scripture pattern, it is a human pattern, one almost all of us have lived or seen. Have you ever found yourself in that cycle, thinking everything was going fine until you’re sitting in a hospital bed going “Why me?” and realizing how much you depend on God. Suddenly in the light of suffering you realize how you’d lost focus on what was important? (Ever notice that people who have endured a lot have very strong faith? It’s because they are never tempted to believe that anyone is in charge but God.) This is the pattern of humanity – call on God when you need to, then forget about God once your problems are solved.
This pattern in the Bible is at its worst in the narratives of the kings, and it culminates in destruction. The kings are anointed ones, Messiahs, who are supposed to lead the nation in faithfulness and righteousness. But the stories in the book of Kings are stories of corrupt monarchs who conflate their own desires with the desires of God who ignore God’s justice and using the nation to enrich themselves, who follow gods of their own creation. It gets worse and worse and worse (with a few bright spots in Hezekiah and Josiah), until God’s frustration boils over and God sends the Babylonians to wipe the nation off the face of the earth, and they destroy Jerusalem and force march the court to Babylon.
This brings on an existential crisis for the nation of Judah. Can God even hear them all the way in Babylon, far from God’s home in Zion? Is there a future for God’s people? Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel are all parts of God’s response to that existential crisis, trying to find where God is in the midst of their misery.
This is the pattern that Isaiah is speaking to, of disloyalty, punishment, and rescue, that got worse and worse and worse until everything fell apart. It fell apart because this pattern of sinfulness and disloyalty always falls apart. It is a path that leads to destruction, for the nation of Israel and for our own lives.
Isaiah responds to the pattern of sinful humanity by revealing and reimagining the power of God for the people of God. Isaiah reveals the pattern of God. You will find this pattern running through the Old Testament too. God chooses the weak, the lowly, the suffering and lifts them up. God chooses the younger brother over the old one, God lifts the slave out of Pharaoh’s grasp, God sends small David to defeat the giant Goliath. This is God’s way of working in the world, not through the might of kings, but through obedience to God’s will, regardless of station. Instead of a mighty deliverer, instead of relying on the strength of kings, which has always led them astray, Isaiah draws on this pattern of God and imagines a lowly servant as their redeemer. This servant has no armies, no strength of arm, but is clothed in humility and gentleness, “a bruised reed he will not break” (Isaiah 42:3). The strength of the servant is not the power of humanity, but instead a willingness to suffer for the people, to humbly obey God even to the point of death. And because he has taken on the suffering of others, he is lifted up by God above all. Isaiah envisions a people who do not demonstrate their holiness in worldly riches, with thousands of animal sacrifices, with their own self-satisfying luxury, but instead a people who make themselves a living sacrifice, going willingly to the altar in obedience to God, knowing that they are fulfilling the will of God.
Here is where it gets hard, right. How does suffering do what Kings could not? But to suffer with someone, to suffer for someone, it unique in its power. There is nothing like a friend who will do anything for you. When you listen to someone in pain, and truly listen, when you empathize and take on their pain as your pain, you lift their burden some small amount, and that is an act of love. When you take on the work that someone else would not do or could not do, you take their suffering from them and relieve it with the strength of your arm and the sweat of your brow, that is an act of love. When you put yourself on the line for someone, and risk life and limb to protect some When you pour yourself out for someone else in love, somehow you are the one who is filled.
This is the power of God. This is the wisdom in the folly of the cross. This is the pearl of great price. This is the treasure buried in a field. The pursuit of power does not deliver us from suffering and oppression. Only love can redeem our suffering. And that love culminates in Jesus Christ, who is God-come-down to turn our suffering into love. To empty Godself so that we might be filled. I told you that this was not originally about Jesus, but when the disciples were gathered, following the reports of the empty tomb and rumors of resurrection, they could not help but see how well it fits into the pattern of God. They looked to Scripture and tradition for guidance, and here they see from 500 years earlier a promise that the lowly servant will be exalted, because he chose to suffer for others in obedience to God. Jesus fits perfectly into that promise. Jesus fits perfectly into the pattern of God.
In Jesus we are invited to let our pattern of humanity be overcome by God’s pattern of love. In Jesus we are invited to break the pattern of disloyalty and disobedience and be restored through the grace of God. In Jesus we are invited to make ourselves lowly servants for each other, and there find ourselves lifted up, filled with God’s power of love.
The way we find redemption is by choosing the pattern of God over the pattern of humanity. As Paul Hanson puts it, “God’s will is done where a human being …finds the highest expression of human dignity in expressing solidarity with fellow human beings through a love that acknowledges no bounds because its source is God.” Our ability to redeem is in our willingness to turn the suffering of others into love by sharing it.
The power that can break the cycle of sinfulness and rejection of God’s grace is not the power wielded by kings. It is the power that causes kings to shut their mouths. It is the power wielded by servants, those who would place God’s will above their own, even to the point of suffering for another, and becoming instruments of God’s healing. The work of redemption is not accomplished in battle, but in the adoption of someone else’s suffering as our own, thus turning it to love. This power is given to you. Will you put your trust in it? Will you use it?