Isaiah’s Great Discovery
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
“…We accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted….[yet] Upon him was the punishment that made us whole.” “By his bruises, we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:4-5).
This is no prosperity gospel. The prophet Isaiah offers hard-won wisdom, born of exile and slavery in Nineveh and Babylon. The people of Israel used to measure their righteousness before God in the value and number of their possessions. But five hundred years before Christ they began to sing a new song—like the servant song we read today. They began to see that righteous suffering could become part of God’s ongoing work by contributing to the healing and well-being of the nations that enslaved them.
I know. It sounds like crazy talk. Yet, the prophet Isaiah claims to have glimpsed a path that leads us past our own pain. First, we must dispel a common myth about suffering. In his classic book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner writes, “The conventional explanation, that God sends us the burden because [God] knows that we are strong enough to handle it, has it all wrong. Fate, not God, sends us the problem. When we try to deal with it, we find out that we are not strong. We are weak; we get tired, we get angry, overwhelmed. . . . But when we reach the limits of our own strength and courage, something unexpected happens. We find reinforcement coming from a source outside of ourselves. And in the knowledge that we are not alone, that God is on our side, we manage to go on. . . .” (Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (Avon Books: 1983), 129, 131.)
Isaiah’s discovery is not talking about carrying on in an abusive relationship. It’s not about keeping deadly painful secrets out of loyalty to those we love. It’s not about suffering out of fear and intimidation. Instead, it’s about the pain we endure for the sake of grace, truth, hope, and justice.
Knowing and naming brokenness is essential in the journey toward wholeness. As the 12thcentury German Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, and Christian mystic, Hildegard of Bingen [1098–1179] once said, we need two wings with which to fly. One is the “knowledge of good,” and the other is the “knowledge of evil.” If we lack one or the other, we will be like an eagle with only one wing. We will fall to the ground instead of rising to the heights of vision. . . . (Hildegard of Bingen, Letter to Wibert of Gembloux. See Hildegard of Bingen’s Book of Divine Works with Letters and Songs, ed. Matthew Fox (Bear & Company: 1987), 350.)
The great discovery our ancestors in faith pass down to us, the insight born of suffering, slavery, and oppression, is that we discover people around us, and God beside us, and strength within us to help us survive the accidents, tragedies, and traumas of life. Taste and see the Lord is good. Eventually, this hypothesis is tested in every human life.
Many people rightly question how God can be good or just in the presence of so much evil and suffering in the world—about which God appears to do nothing. Statisticians reassure us, the number of people living in poverty is going down in the world. But advances in communications, radio, television, and now the internet, has also brought more awareness of the suffering endured by people around the globe than ever before.
In answer to this, we proclaim in Jesus. Jesus reveals that God is suffering love. If we are created in God’s image, and if there is so much suffering in the world, then God must also be suffering. How else can we understand the revelation of the cross? Why else would the Christian logo be a naked, bleeding, suffering divine-human being? Jesus reveals God doesn’t just watch human suffering from a safe distance up in heaven; God is somehow at the center of human suffering, with us and for us. The triune God—creator, redeemer, and sanctifier—includes our suffering in the co-redemption of the world, as “all creation groans in one great act of giving birth” (Romans 8:22).
Jesus picked up and amplifies Isaiah’s great discovery in our gospel today. By now the disciples have heard Jesus say not once but twice, “whoever wishes to be first among you must be last and servant of all” (Mark 10:31). They’ve heard Jesus say three times that in Jerusalem he will be condemned, mocked, rejected, spit upon, flogged and executed.
But something about this idea doesn’t compute. We hear but do not listen. We look but do not see. In some type of fever-dream, we imagine our faith, church and religion will put us on a path to greatness. James and John envisioned themselves seated in glory beside Jesus, one at his right and one at his left, elevated above the rest of the disciples, as they drove the Roman armies out, ruled all of Israel, perhaps even the whole world.
But God does not glory in greatness. God shows no partiality between us; makes no distinction between those inside and those outside. God does not call us owners, but stewards of our lives. Our ancestors in faith offer this surprising message. God calls us out of places of security, privilege, and comfort to meet the suffering and pain within ourselves, and in people around us. Strangely, wonderfully, unbelievably, in this, we discover we are not alone. We are not victims, but in sharing our weaknesses we are made stronger. In shared foolishness we find wisdom. In sharing our lives, we find true shelter. We become a living sanctuary of hope and grace. This is not only Immanuel’s tagline but also a lifeline.
Opening ourselves to pain and suffering mirrors God’s work of grace upon entering the world to live among us. In this way, we open ourselves to hard-won truths beyond regular knowing. We tap into the wisdom of God operating deeply in with and under all things.
In recognition of the St. Luke, the physician, we take extra time in our service today for prayers and anointing for healing. During the prayers of the people, along with thanksgiving and supplication, members our church stationed throughout the sanctuary, will offer personal prayers of healing for you. May God somehow transform our pain into compassion and wisdom so that rather than transmit or project our suffering onto others we may instead become wounded healers working with Christ to reconcile the world.
Isaiah saw that healthy religion shows you what to do with your pain, with the absurd, the tragic, the nonsensical, the unjust and the undeserved—all of which eventually come into every lifetime. Likewise, Jesus now calls and leads into wholeness by way of his life-giving cross.