A Lenten meditation on Isaiah 53:10-12
This is the fifth and final in our series of Wednesday Lenten liturgies, over the course of which we have read our way through the fourth of Isaiah’s songs of the suffering servant. Just three verses each week, and yet each time I’ve been really quite struck by the evocative richness of these texts; by how much material they provide for reflection and prayer.
As Isaiah brings his song to its close, he again affirms his central insight, namely that this suffering is neither arbitrary nor pointless. Somehow the pain of this servant is in line with the will of God—a hard thing to ponder, when you stop and think about it—and somehow it will be a source of blessing, light, and righteousness for others. And in the end this servant will be given “a portion with the great,” precisely because “he poured out himself to death,” “bore the sin of many,” and “made intercession for the transgressors.”
As I’ve said in my earlier reflections in this series, it is impossible to know who or what Isaiah had in view when he wrote his song, but from its earliest days the Christian tradition has heard in it rumours of Jesus. He is the one whose suffering and self-sacrifice was neither arbitrary nor pointless, but instead somehow transformative for the world. And the suffering of Christ does not originate in something merely mechanistic or coldly dispassionate, but rather in the love of God. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son,” and in a faith that takes seriously the idea of the Trinity this really means that in love God gave Godself for the sake of us. We are the beloved, in spite of our also being the transgressors, the lost sheep, and the prodigal ones. Through God’s self-giving and suffering, we are claimed as children.
As followers of Jesus, we are called to love “because he first loved us,” (1 John 4:19) and as we all know that is a risky proposition. Whether the intimate and intense love for a partner or the deep and loyal love of friendship, to put yourself out there for another human person means risk. And yet as John writes in his 1st epistle, “Whoever does not love remains in death.” (1 John 3:14) To avoid the risk for the sake of protecting the self is a dead end.
Those of us who are parents have a very particular experience here. I’d like to read to you some reflections from Frederick Buechner’s book Now and Then, on what he came to discover about risk, vulnerability, and suffering in his own love for his children.
To love another, as you love a child, is to become vulnerable in a whole new way. It is no longer only through what happens to yourself that the world can hurt you but through what happens to the one you love also… When it comes to your own hurt, there are always things you can do…. But when it comes to the hurt of a child you love, you are all but helpless. The child makes terrible mistakes, and there is very little you can do to ease his pain, especially when you are so often a part of his pain as the child is also part of yours.
That’s maybe the most humbling and difficult moment for any parent; when you have to admit to yourself that not only is there “very little you can do,” but also that “you are so often a part of his [or her] pain.” And so Buechner continues: