Jesus the Suffering Servant

Scripture:  Isaiah 52:13-53:12

Chances are we have all been there at one time or another.   We have all had times where the smallest of inconvenience becomes the last straw.  Perhaps we are at the grocery store and someone talking too loudly on their phone, completely inconsiderate of others gets us seeing red or maybe the store being somehow out of the cream cheese we needed for a recipe puts us on the verge of tears and a full on ugly cry.   In those instances it is never about the thing that sets us off.  It is also about the dozens of other little things throughout the day that got us to that point, and chances are it is about the big thing, whatever that might have been for us, that is in the background overshadowing everything.   Again, chances are we have all been there at one time or another in our lives.   In 2003, writer Christine Miserandino came up with a way to articulate to describe when we reach that point.  We have run out of spoons.

Miserandino, who suffers from lupus, was trying to explain what it was like living with a chronic illness to a group of friends at dinner.  She grabbed all of the spoons and said to imagine the spoons represent the limited amount of energy she had during the day, each event and task, can require spoons and when she runs out of spoons she has to be done for the day.  While she was explaining chronic illness over the past twenty years people have found the visual metaphor of spoons to be helpful to explain a variety of things.  People with mental health issues, neurodivergencies, and other disabilities have also found it helpful to frame their day in the terms of spoons.  That way they can plan ahead and no how many spoons they need to save for certain tasks.  Spoon theory has also been applied to dealing with stress.  People who do not live with chronic factors tend to have enough spoons available that running out is not an issue, but that is not always the case.  From time to time we will likely all go through seasons where the stress of life, the weight of anxiousness, or the lingering illness will leave us with a drawer short of spoons.  All of us can find ourselves in places when we run out of spoons.

Spoon theory has been a helpful metaphor for a lot of people in articulating how they are feeling and understanding their own limitations.   I also think the lens of spoon theory shines a lot of light on the events of Holy week.  I think a case could be made that Jesus was really short on spoons for most of that week.  That thought sheds some light on some of the events recorded in the gospels.  For instance the gospels of Matthew and Mark record an incident that week when Jesus is hungry, sees a fig tree, find it is not bearing fruit, so he curses it and it withers away.    Likewise, the gospels of Matthew and Luke record that when Jesus is approaching Jerusalem one of those days, he kind of breaks down and cries over the city.  Cursing the fig tree does feel out of character for Jesus, and the gospels only record Jesus weeping two times.  Yet, when we think about it in terms of spoon theory both event make a lot of sense.  Jesus did not have enough spoons. Being fully human, Jesus faced a lot of the same feelings and limitations that we face.  There are times when we just do not have the emotional or physical energy to deal with what life throws at us and that could have been the case for Jesus as well.

This morning’s scripture from Isiah reveals just what was weighing on Jesus so much during Holy week.   Jesus may have entered the temple triumphantly and then emerged from the tomb in final victory a week later, but there was a journey to get from one point to the other and much of it was not a pleasant trip.  For all of lent we have explored some of the various aspects of Jesus that we see in scripture.  Today, as we begin our remembrance of Jesus’ last week we focus on Jesus as the suffering servant.

This morning’s scripture from Isaiah was written around 700 years before Jesus kicked off Holy week by riding a donkey into the temple.   In the context of Isaiah this morning’s scripture reading is the final of the four servant songs found in Isaiah.  All four of these scripture sections are highly poetic in nature, but of the four this morning’s reading is the one most closely associated with Jesus.  Christians have understood this scripture to be referring to Jesus from the very beginning and that is not an exaggeration.  Isaiah 53 is quoted six times in the New Testament, always in reference to Jesus.   Non-biblical writings also show this viewpoint.  Clement of Rome was the bishop of Rome in the last decade of the first century.   During this time he wrote a letter to the church of Corinth.  This epistle, often dated around 96 AD, is the oldest Christian writing not included in the bible, and in this epistle Clement quotes this morning’s scripture as an illustration of how Jesus lived.   The understanding that this morning’s scripture reveals Jesus has been consistent throughout the centuries.   In the 1700’s John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, preached his sermon entitled the Way to the Kingdom.  In that sermon he preached “The gospel is that . .  .He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” From the authors of the New Testament all the way up to our modern era, Christian tradition has understood the suffering servant of Isaiah to be Jesus of Nazareth.

Given the strong testimony that understands this scripture to speak to Jesus, I have to wonder what Jesus himself thought about this morning’s scripture.  The gospel of Luke records that at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when we went to the synagogue in Nazareth he read a different portion of Isaiah and stated that the scripture had been fulfilled in their hearing.  Jesus believed that the part of Isaiah that talked about the recovering of sight to the blind, freedom from oppression, and the year of the Lord’s favor applied to him.  It would seem likely that Jesus also would have understood this morning’s scripture, the song of the suffering servant, to apply to him.

Look over some of the words and phrases we find in this portion of scripture from Isaiah.  Phrases like “despise and rejected”; a man of suffering and familiar with pain”; punished by God, stricken and afflicted”; “pierced”; “crushed”; “oppressed’; and “poured out his life unto death.”  As Jesus got on top of the donkey that would carry him into the temple, surrounded by people shouting Hosanna and waving palm branches, were all of those phrases swirling around in his head?   On the night that Jesus gave himself up for us, were these phrases that were at the forefront of his mind when he went to the garden of Gethsemane and fervently prayed “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.  Yet not as I will, but as you will?”    We then know what happens next:  Jesus fulfills not only God’s will but the scripture from Isaiah.   He is arrested, he is rejected, he is humiliated, he is bruised, he is punished, and he is killed.   Jesus is the suffering servant.

On this day that marks the beginning of our holy week observances I think there are two considerations about what understanding Jesus as the suffering servant means for us.  First it means Jesus knows our suffering.   It means Jesus gets us.  For some people it is a constant, for others it is just a season, but everybody, every single person, goes through times of suffering.   Life can be hard and we all go through it one time or another.  We all struggle and the struggle is real.   Jesus, as the suffering servant, knows our struggle.  He knows what it feels like to carry a heavy weight that others cannot see.  He knows what it is like to have days where we are about to run out of spoons.  He knows what we are going through because he also went through some heavy stuff.   Jesus is not just a divine being sitting at the right hand of God the Father.  Jesus also walked a mile in our shoes.  He is one of us and that is what makes him such a wonderful savior.  This is why in 1855 Canadian poet Joseph Scriven wrote “Have we trials and temptations?  Is there trouble anywhere?  We should never be discouraged take it to the Lord in prayer.  Can we find a friend so faithful who will all our sorrows share?  Jesus knows our every weakness; take it to the Lord in prayer.”

I think the second understanding we can take away from this scripture is that while Jesus may be the suffering servant, suffering does not define Jesus.  Over the past six weeks we have talked about a variety of aspects of who Jesus is found in the gospels.   Like all people ever, Jesus is complex and multi-faceted.   This morning’s scripture reminds us with extraordinarily vivid imagery that Jesus suffered, but that is not all he did.   Even during holy week, even while the weight of what was coming weighed heavy upon him there were still times of celebration and triumph like when he rode into the temple.  There were times of deep friendship like at the last supper.  So even in the events that led up the crucifixion, suffering was not the only thing that defined Jesus’ life.  The same is true for us.  Just as his suffering did not define Jesus, so our suffering does not define us.   I know it does not always feel like it, especially when we are in the middle of going through some things, but whatever we are going through is no the total of our lives.   Just like Jesus experienced during Holy Week, we also have moments of levity, of victory, and of friendship in our daily lives.   We might be suffering a lot, but there is more to our lives than that and in the midst of the “more” we can find joy, gratitude, and hope.

Suffering did not define Jesus, and it was also not the end of his story.   Yes he suffered, he was afflicted, he was oppressed, and he poured out his life unto death but we know the good news is that the story does not end then, and there is a reason why the cross is empty today.  In the same way, suffering-whatever you are struggling with- is not the end of your story.  For all of us there is more to be written.  In fact, for those who have salvation in faith through Jesus Christ, ours is a never ending story, where the best chapters are yet to come.  We can ultimate confidence in that because as the scripture states “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities, the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.”

Palm Sunday is typically a day that we sing about children waving palm branches as we celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry.  In a week from now we gather again to celebrate Jesus’ ultimate triumph.   If our only engagement with our faith is On Sundays over this next week, then we will miss out on just how Jesus truly embodies the suffering servant.  This week may we be willing to walk alongside Jesus through the midst of his suffering on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.  In better understanding the suffering of Christ, we can have confidence that Jesus understands our suffering and Jesus walks alongside us with whatever we are going through.  Eventually everyone goes through something that drains and takes a lot from them.  For some it is a season, and for some it is a chronic condition.   If you are currently suffering through something, then may you know with all of your heart that Jesus is a savior who get us and is always there for us.   If getting here today took about all of the spoons you can handle to give out, then may the rest of today be a day of rest because your presence is more than enough.  And may you know that the stuff we go through, the hardships of life, the suffering we endure is not the end of our stories.  Thanks be to God, that because of his son Jesus-the suffering servant- the story we all have to tell is one of victory and triumph.


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