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. Isaiah 53:6
In his song “Imagine” John Lennon asks us to envision a better world. What might a better world look like, according to the gospel? Imagine a world where work is plentiful and rewarding, where every child is safe and loved, where every marriage is gentle and happy, where every book is fascinating and true, where every human body is healthy and vibrant. Imagine a world where every nation guards the security of every other nation, where every business advertises the strengths of other businesses, where you walk up the check-out line to pay for your groceries and the person says to you, “That’ll be $49.95, please,” and you say, “No way. How can you stay in business charging so little? You deserve more. How about $59.95?” And the other person says, “You gotta be kidding. You’re sending your kids to college, and you want to pay $59.95? Like that’s going to happen. In fact, I won’t take a cent over $35.00,” and back and forth and back and forth, each of you trying to outdo the other in kindness and generosity. Imagine a world without fear, without hatred, without depression, without regret. Imagine a world fully humane. Imagine the world we have never been able create, a world only God could create. That world is coming. But it will come through our pride. That world will come through this humble one Isaiah calls the servant of the Lord.
The four servant songs of Isaiah promise that new world. It began in suffering 2000 years ago. It will be completed in power when Christ returns. But in this fourth servant song, in Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Isaiah finally answers a question. Here is the question. Why will God keep his promises to people like us? Why should God give us a place in a redeemed world? We’re the ones who wrecked this world. Why should God give us a new one? Why should God do anything for us? And the answer is, God will be faithful to us, because he put our disqualifying unfaithfulness on the cross of Christ.
It’s hard for us to face ourselves. It’s painful to see what we have cost God. We think so well of ourselves. I got a speeding ticket a few years ago, so I went to traffic school. The teacher polled this group of criminals on our driving skills. We rated ourselves on a scale of 1 to 10. The class average was 7. Then she polled us on all the other drivers on the road, and the average was around 4. And we were there because we’d gotten tickets. Denial and evasion and transference are how we manage our anxiety and shame. We are always looking for a scapegoat, because we know we can’t bear our own guilt. If we have to answer for what we’ve done, we’re damned. No way can we expect a place in God’s new world. The Book of Common Prayer understands the weight that sin is:
Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, Judge of all men, we acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed, by thought, word and deed, against thy Divine Majesty, provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings. The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; the burden of them is intolerable.
That old language is in close touch with what we are before God and with our own deepest feelings every day. In these verses, God tells us how our grievous memories and intolerable burdens go away – without our hypocritical strategies: “By his stripes we are healed.” It is the only way that works. In these verses, God is saying, “Yes, you do need a scapegoat. How about me? I came into your broken world as your servant, because I heal broken people. Come to me.” If you wish you could trade in your record for a better one, you can. God is saying, “You don’t have to dump your sadness on some other poor sinner and keep making the world angrier. You don’t have to be better any more. I have borne your guilt. Believe it. Receive it.”
Let’s read these verses closely. Each one makes a point. Verse 4 shows us our natural blindness to Christ:
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
We are morally clueless. We even blame God. We were there at the cross, you know. As we stood there, we weren’t cheering Jesus on or comforting him. We thought he was getting exactly what he deserved. But the truth was – Isaiah highlights it with the word “surely” – the truth was, he was getting what we deserved.
He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows. Our sin is not just bad; it is wearisome. But Christ entered into our brokenness. He bore it all and spared himself nothing. The apostle Matthew makes it clear. When Jesus was healing sick people, Matthew quotes this verse from Isaiah to explain the life-renewing service of Christ (Matthew 8:14-17). The death of Christ was the death of death and the beginning of new life for dying people.
When Jesus hung on the cross, we stood aloof, so sure of ourselves. We thought he was a failure. But in fact, he was going down to the deepest root of all our miseries:
But he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed.
Jesus was wounded (literally, pierced), crushed, chastised, whipped until his back was striped red. He bore it all, so that we wouldn’t have to. We struggle with this. We don’t want to see ourselves as responsible. We have to brace ourselves, to endure the sight of Christ crucified for us. But seeing him, and accepting him – it’s how our proud hearts finally break and crack open and his love flows in. If there had been an easier way than the cross, God would have found it. But, in fact, he did not trivialize our sin; he faced it, and his remedy was deep and thorough. If you are in Christ, this life is all the hell you will ever know, because Jesus experienced your damnation in your place at the cross.
In verse 6, we see the Lord opening the way to a wonderful new world for people like us:
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.
The metaphor of ourselves as sheep gone astray, wandering around, thinking no further than the next clump of grass – it is not a flattering picture. It isn’t meant to be. It alerts us to our danger without a shepherd. But we don’t feel endangered. Turning to our own ways feels natural. At the end of the chaotic period of the Judges, the biblical author sums up the tragedy this way: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). They didn’t wreck their world by doing what was wrong in their own eyes but what was right. But they had no king, no shepherd, to save them from their good intentions.
What has the Lord done for people like us, born with a bent against him? “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Isaiah is using the language of Old Testament sacrifice. On the Day of Atonement, the priest laid his hands on the head of a goat and confessed over it all the sins of the people, the guilt of the people, their objective guilt before God. It went onto the goat. Then that goat was led out into the wilderness, to a remote place, and was abandoned there (Leviticus 16:20-22). The Bible says, “The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself.” That is Jesus Christ, the servant of the Lord, our willing scapegoat. And it wasn’t a human priest who laid it all on him. The Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all, and Jesus carried it away to a remote place, far from us. Now God is saying to us, “Here’s your part. Stop bearing your guilt. Stop blaming others. Turn to Christ, and your guilt will go far away, never to return.”
Some people think we come to church finally to get serious about bearing our guilt. The truth is, we come to church to stop bearing our guilt and finally get free. The gospel is not about what we do. It’s about what God has done for us in Christ. He took our real moral guilt far away, so far it is no longer a barrier to us entering into his eternal kingdom. He went to the cross as our substitute, because substitution is the meaning of love. In A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens, Sydney Carton takes another man’s place at the guillotine. As he’s about to die, a young girl also condemned realizes that Carton is substituting himself for another. She tells him, “I think you were sent to me by Heaven.” Dying love, real love, comes from God. Our part is to see in Jesus the love of God for us sinners in all our ruin, and say to him, “I think you were sent to me by Heaven.”
Here is what God wants you to do right now. Stop bearing your sins. The Lord laid on Christ the iniquity of us all. Believe it. Receive it. Let it go. Live free again. This is God’s good and holy will for you today.