Uniform Lesson for April 4, 2021
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Isaiah 53:4-11a
Up to this point in our study of the Hebrew prophets, we have witnessed the ways that prophets can confirm the decisions of “good” kings, or go head to head against the recalcitrance and oppression of “bad” ones. In the Deuteronomistic History, good kings win blessings, while bad kings accrue curses. But what about the suffering that bad kings impose on true prophets? And, even more troubling, how do good prophets sometimes suffer for the wrongs of others? Think of Moses, and Huldah, and Obadiah. During and following the experience of exile, the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures deepened and expanded their ruminations on the mystery of vicarious suffering: can a righteous person/prophet/king/community sometimes suffer for the sake of others? It’s appropriate that we ask this question as we ponder the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection on Easter Sunday.
Isaiah 53:4 — The experience of exile
Most of the stories we find in Joshua through 2 Kings (as well as the teachings of Deuteronomy) have helped God’s people understand why we find ourselves in exile. While God delivered us from slavery, led us through the wilderness and brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, we forgot the words and ways of our God and chased after other gods and goods. We deserved the judgment that came upon us, as God’s prophets made clear.
But as the weeks of exile turned into years, then decades, the question began to arise: Is there any hope for us moving forward? If God is a God of mercy as well as judgment, could there not only be some turning in God’s heart, but could our suffering and the suffering of others lead to some redemptive outcome? And thus, the hope of a Suffering Servant was born, the possibility that God might raise up a prophet, a people, or a king/messiah whose sufferings might lead to the healing of others: “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases.”
It would be unwise to limit this mystery to a single king or prophet or people — though countless scholars and believers have tried. This vision and dream rests somehow in the very person and character of our God (read Hosea 11). Nevertheless, the experience of exile forced God’s people to re-examine any too-easy solution to suffering, where those who are good receive blessing and those who are bad receive punishment and curse. Not only do the later prophecies of Isaiah reflect such deep rethinking, but books like Job and the Psalms join in.
Isaiah 53:5-6 — The ministry of Jesus
And so, while it seems easy to understand and join in the disciples’ confusion when Jesus announces his intent to turn toward Jerusalem to suffer and die (Mark 8:31-33), they and we should have seen this coming — if we had read and pondered and processed the words of the prophets and the Psalms as Jesus did. There is a way of God in Scripture that runs deeper than a simple equation of sin with suffering, and righteousness with blessing. Such “prosperity theology” is as old as Job’s friends and as new as the most recent television evangelist. But God’s prophet Isaiah saw and spoke about a vision of a way where one person’s or people’s suffering can lead toward the healing of others. It’s a dangerous way. It’s a way that can be misinterpreted and misapplied, sadistically and oppressively. But it is a way that runs deep in the Bible — from the suffering of Moses and Jeremiah, of Miriam and Mary, toward the suffering of the Messiah we Christians recognize in Christ.
Isaiah 53:7-11a — The miracle of the resurrection
Many scholars trace stories of resurrection to traditions and cultures other than Israel’s. But there is a path toward resurrection in the words of the prophets we are studying. As more and more of God’s true prophets suffered and died under the jurisdiction of recalcitrant and oppressive kings (read the books of the Maccabees), God’s people began to wonder where and how there’s a way forward. Could there be a turning in the heart of God that’s embodied in a turning toward the way of life out of death? “They made his grave with the wicked. … Yet … he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days. … Out of his anguish he shall see light.” Yes, there is something decidedly new in the good news of Easter: “He is risen; he is risen indeed!” But this new thing has been a long, long time coming!
For discussion: My former Old Testament professor, Patrick Miller, used to say: “There’s nothing new in the New Testament!” Is there some truth in that — even this Sunday?
RICHARD BOYCE is the dean of the Charlotte campus of Union Presbyterian Seminary, and associate professor of preaching and pastoral leadership. He is a minister member of the Presbytery of Western North Carolina.
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