The Triumphal Journey - Isaiah 53

He was despised and rejected by others;
    a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him of no account.
Surely he has borne our infirmities
    and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
    struck down by God, and afflicted.
But 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.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
    we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
    yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
    and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
    so he did not open his mouth.
Isaiah 53 (NRSV)

What’s your most triumphant moment?  

As many of you know, I’m an avid runner.  When I think about personal triumph I’m apt to go straight to my racing resume.  But it’s not the blue ribbons that remind me of triumph.  It’s actually failure.  I have failed as a runner five times as often as I’ve triumphed.  And when you heap those failures, those injustices of fate, on top of one another you build a mountain of intimate motivation.[1] The next big race has little or nothing to do with the race itself, least of all the other people who’ll be running.  The race becomes a symbol of scaling the peak; a hope for personal vindication; proof that the failures do not have the defining say on who you are. The thing about running in such a way as to win this prize is that you have to lean into the pain.  You have to be willing to hurt like crazy.  It feels like you have to relive all the suffering of the past in the midst of the race . . . you have to run through the pain of your failures.  It’s a pain that permeates, it ventures into nerve centers that seem to normally not exist; as if your body becomes one big ball of suffering.  What’s worse, everything about your physiology is designed to tell you to not hurt like that—so your brain ceaselessly sends electrical signals that roughly translate to “STOP!!!!!!” And so you must overcome your failure and even your own body.

Triumph in running is when you’ve taken that pain and weakness upon yourself all the way to the line.  You’ve scaled the mountain of failure and it oddly leaves you weak: on your knees, in tears, and miffed by what you’ve done.  This sort of thing doesn’t happen very often. And it wouldn’t happen at all without years of opposition, struggle, and failure. 

So what if you couldn’t run the race to overcome your failure? What if that mountain was simply too high? That’s where Israel finds itself at this point in Isaiah.  Their centuries-old penchant for oppression, proclivity for idolatry, and political scheming have left theme homeless in Babylon.  They are pawns of the Babylonian state. Their legs are far too weak to carry them out of the consequences of their sins.  

We too, I’d say.  We cannot overcome our failure toward God.  We cannot overcome our failure toward people or creation.  Our legs can barely begin such an ascent. 

By all accounts, the people of Israel must have hoped for an anointed warrior to crush the Babylonians (or Romans).  But defeating their enemy isn’t the task; what needs defeating is their sinfulness, their failures.[2]  For me, also, defeating my competitors is ancillary; I have to outrace only the failure in my own soul. The only path to victory and liberation is through internal suffering.  

So too, we often wait on a God of snatch-n-burn rescue operations. We paint a picture of the Almighty in the colors of military might or mystic grandeur.  We believe in and hope for a God who overcomes our enemies, when what we eternally need is a God who overcomes us. Too often, we hide our faces from this God of redemption and turn frantically to find a god of destruction.

The vision here is not of an armor-clad king on a warhorse.  It’s a vision of a humble servant—perhaps on a colt, the foal of a donkey.  It is not of a Babylonian-crusher, but a bruised redeemer.  This coming servant will actually engage in the battle that Israel (and the world) needs.  He’ll humbly subject himself to the intense agony of our failures.  He’ll feel the permeating pain of our broken and iniquitous self-narratives. He’ll bear away our sorrow.  He’ll swallow up our death. He’ll climb our mountain. 

His suffering will be our triumph.

[1] If you ever hear me say that I keep running for my health slap me.  I run as much as I do because inside me there is a mountain to be scaled; a deep challenge woven into my soul that I cannot escape.
[2] This is, of course, one of the greatest human temptations, to pit ourselves against someone else.  If only, _____ wasn’t in power.  If only, _____ was defeated.  If only I could outdo ______.  If only ______ stopped doing this to me. To be sure, there are real conflicts in the world between people, but the greatest resolutions to those conflicts come from soul searching on both sides.  Too often we march into battle without ever struggling with the underlying causes; the only thing we see is, us vs. them.


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