Love’s Austere and Lonely Office
Preached by Pastor Jason Abbott
When I was teaching poetry, there were always certain poems I loved best. They were typically those that captured some beautiful and humble truth about life. This morning I’m going to share one of them in way of introduction to the sermon. Its title is fitting, and its content (I believe) is instructive.
This is a poem by Robert Hayden called:
Sundays too my father got up early
And put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
Then with cracked hands that ached
From labor in the weekday weather made
Banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
And slowly I would rise and dress,
Fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
Who had driven out the cold
And polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
Of love’s austere and lonely offices?
I’ve always found something very profound and beautiful in the reflections, by the poem’s narrator, about his father’s austere or simplistic sacrifices for him. This is clearly a love which he—in his adulthood—is only now beginning to grasp. His father’s loving actions are only now, in all their beauty, being revealed.
Well, today, rather than looking back on love’s austere and lonely offices, the prophet Isaiah will be looking forward to the coming loving activities of God. Yet, as in the poem, he will reflect upon an individual’s unadorned and lonely life of sacrifice for those who would initially misunderstand his loving activity.
Let’s read the passage together then pray for God to be our teacher.
13 Behold, my servant shall act wisely;
he shall be high and lifted up,
and shall be exalted.
14 As many were astonished at you—
his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of the children of mankind—
15 so shall he sprinkle many nations;
kings shall shut their mouths because of him;
for that which has not been told them they see,
and that which they have not heard they understand.
53 1 Who has believed what he has heard from us?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
2 For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
4 Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
9 And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
11 Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors.
So, how will we move forward in order to better understand this passage? Well, we will ask two questions: (1) How do we initially see this Servant-Savior? and (2) How does God ultimately see this Servant-Savior?
1. How do “we” see him (53:1-9)?
In the text’s original context, “we” most likely refers to God’s people, Israel. And, what’s being revealed to them here is the “arm” or means of God’s salvation for them and for the nations (cf. Isaiah 40:10; 48:14; 51:5; 52:10).
Consequently, when God begins to show them his Savior, they’re shocked. His “arm” of salvation—his plan of redemption—leaves them shaking their heads. This doesn’t make sense to them; thus, we see these truths slowly dawn on them. They slowly come to terms with what God’s salvation really looks like:
At first, they reject this Savior. He doesn’t look like a winner! They say:
- He’s like a weed to us. Nothing particularly sets him apart in a positive way; he looks pretty darn average to us (53:2).
- He’s easy to forget in our eyes. He won’t be voted most likely to succeed. When you see him coming, you might want to duck out (53:3).
Next, they begin to recognize that all those things they didn’t like about him are actually true about them, with respect to God.
- Oh, gosh! We didn’t think he was much of anything—even under a curse, but, rather, he was carrying our curse—our grief and our sorrow (53:4).
- None of us thought he was much of a savior. Yet, he took our punishments and, by doing so, brought us peace (53:5).
- We thought he was the sinful one. Yet, all along, it was each and every one of us who had sinned. All along, he was carrying our sins for us (53:6).
At this point, a shocked question is surely forming on the lips of the people. How can this be so? How does this work? How can this Savior save us from sin? So, finally, God—through Isaiah—breaks in, at this point, and explains:
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, / yet he opened not his mouth; / like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, / and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, / so he opened not his mouth. / By oppression and judgment he was taken away; / and as for his generation, who considered / that he was cut off out of the land of the living, / stricken for the transgression of my people? / And they made his grave with the wicked / and with a rich man in his death, / although he had done no violence, / and there was no deceit in his mouth (53:7-9).
To this, the people would have certainly been amazed: Who can this be? He’s not like us! After all, the people already confessed: “We have done violence; we have deceitful mouths; we’ve sinned.” So, what kind of a man can this be?!
As I studied this passage, it struck me that these nine verses (Isaiah 53:1-9) are a kind of shorthand sketch of being saved—or, at least, my experience of it. When I first began to consider Jesus as God’s Savior, I thought it pretty ridiculous. Jesus, I assumed, was for those weak-minded people of this world—a meme.2 Thus, Jesus (along with his followers) was to be avoided if I could help it.
However, in college, I somehow got into a Bible study where we examined the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), and I was challenged by Jesus’ teaching. Slowly it dawned on me that I didn’t have it all together as I’d previously assumed. I was owned by some habits; I was mastered by some desires; I was not in control! I realized I was what the Bible calls a slave to sin.
Once I saw who I really was, Jesus began to look drastically different to me. Once I saw the bad news about me, Jesus began to seem a lot more like good news. Like it began to dawn on the people in today’s passage so it began to dawn on me: I truly need Jesus to bear my curse; I completely need him to take my punishment; I need him to carry my sins and put them to death for me!
These truths are slowly dawning on those represented by the “we” in Isaiah as they slowly dawned on me when I was in that Bible study some 20 years ago. And so I must ask: Are they dawning on you now?
If you wonder who this Savior is and how God saves people through him, please come and see me after the service; don’t leave without seeking that answer. Be like the curious Ethiopian official in Acts, who read this very text in Isaiah 53, and wasn’t too proud to ask for help in understanding the words of the prophecy. He found understanding and, then, “went on his way rejoicing” (Acts 8:39).
Well, we could doubtlessly spend much more time in these 3 little poems, but let’s move on to consider our second question:
2. How does God see this Servant-Savior (52:13-15, 53:10-12)?
In short, God sees him as the ultimate hero and as an absolute success. However, this strangely means that he is both the object of God’s crushing wrath and the object of his eternal reward.
Look at these two bookend poems placed next to each other:
Behold, my servant shall act wisely; / he shall be high and lifted up, / and shall be exalted. / As many were astonished at you— / his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, / and his form beyond that of the children of mankind— / so shall he sprinkle many nations; / kings shall shut their mouths because of him; / for that which has not been told them they see, / and that which they have not heard they understand (52:13-15).
Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; / he has put him to grief; / when his soul makes an offering for guilt, / he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; / the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. / Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; / by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, / make many to be accounted righteous, / and he shall bear their iniquities. / Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, / and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, / because he poured out his soul to death / and was numbered with the transgressors; / yet he bore the sin of many, / and makes intercession for the transgressors (53:10-12).
So very much could be said about these two poems, but here are two things. Notice intermingled together both the language of the Savior’s exaltation by God and the language of his condemnation by God.
Language of Exaltation:
- …he shall be high and lifted up / and shall be exalted (52:13)
- …kings shall shut their mouths because of him (52:15)
- …he shall see and be satisfied (53:11)
- …I will divide him a portion with the many, / and he shall divide the spoil with the strong (53:12)
Language of Condemnation:
- …his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, / and his form beyond that of the children of mankind (52:14)
- …it was the will of the Lord to crush him; / he has put him to grief (53:10)
- …he poured out his soul to death / and was numbered with the transgressors (53:12)
What’s going on here? The gospel is! Let me explain with a story:
In college, I was driving one day and found myself behind a municipal truck. We both came to a stop sign; the utility truck was going left, and I was going right. I was in a hurry to get around the massive and slow-moving vehicle so I attempted to sneak past on the right in order to make my turn while he waited to make his. The result was that I totally rear-ended the truck with the Honda that I was driving. My Honda fought the truck and the truck won.
When the two of us got out to take a look at the damage that had been done, the utility truck driver told me that he didn’t think my car had even scratched his; but, then, he mentioned that it was policy to call the police to write-up all accidents and that he could lose his job if he didn’t get a police report.
In the end, I was left with an expensive car repair, a ticket, and a court date, under these regulations, because of my negligent driving.
Now for a relatively poor college student that was bad, bad news indeed. However, what made if far worse news was the fact that the car wasn’t really mine; it was a loaner from my dad while my car, which was a graduation gift from him, was being repaired after I had hit multiple deer in it a few weeks before this crash. Yet, what made if even worse news still was that the car (in which I hit the truck) was actually the second loaner I had received from my father after I hit the deer. The first loaner was also being repaired after getting battered (to the tune of $7000) by a tornado that rolled over my neighborhood between my collision with the deer and my collision with the truck.
So, this was the reality of my situation, and I had a choice before me. Either:
- I could try and wrangle up enough money to make the repairs, pay the ticket, and get a lawyer to make the citation go away on my own.
- I could be truthful and confess what I’d done to my father and ask for help (from him) in order to pay that which I could not pay on my own.
See, there was a penalty which the law required (even demanded!) be paid, and that legal demand wasn’t going away until it was met. But, I couldn’t satisfy it! Only someone with far greater resources, than I, could satisfy the law’s demands by paying the price for me. When I called my dad, after those many car wrecks, that was precisely what he lovingly and sacrificially did for me.
So too, God in the person of Jesus, offers to willing stand under our penalty. Our sin places us under the legal condemnation of God’s perfect and righteous law. The law’s demands—on us—must be satisfied; they will not simply disappear. Either we bear the penalty—which, on our own, we could never hope to satisfy—or we wisely humble ourselves and call on Jesus to bear it for us.
Sometimes—like the boy in the poem I read at the sermon’s introduction—we’re slow to recognize how this activity of our heavenly Father is truly loving. We assume that our sins should just disappear—without any sacrifice or penalty—like the boy (in Those Winter Sundays) assumes morning fires should just appear—without any sacrificial work by his father.
However (on the contrary!) by providing Jesus to be our substitute sacrifice, God shows us incredible love—a love that should change the way we live! How?
- When you despise your in-laws as if they were out-laws this Christmas, you’ve likely forgotten that Jesus became sin for you (2 Corinthians 5:21).
- When you feel like cursing rather than singing as you prepare for Christmas, you’ve likely forgotten that Jesus Christ suffered for your sins, the righteous for the unrighteous (1 Peter 3:18).
How are you forgetting the austere and lonely office Jesus occupied for you? Let’s pray that, as we move forward, we would no longer fail to do so.