The Suffering Servant
Written by Hungsu Lim, Associate Pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Richmond, VA.
Isaiah proclaims a profound message to the people in exile. This prophet sings a new song of hope and speaks comfort to the people, and his message is unique and powerful, written for a people who experience devastation and have to live in despair in a foreign country. The series of his messages called “Servant Songs” (Isaiah 42:1-4, 49:1-6, 50:4-7, 52:13-53:12) offers hope and envisions a new possibility for the future.
“But here is my servant, the one I uphold; my chosen, who brings me delight. I’ve put my spirit upon him; he will bring justice to the nations.” (42:1)
Isaiah identifies the servant as the one God has chosen and put the spirit to carry on God’s mission. The servant is called to bring justice to the nations. The people who are in exile and suffering might have expected to hear a message of retaliation or retributive justice through the military messiah (anointed one). But this kind of servant is called to bring light to the nation so that God’s salvation may reach to the end of the earth (49:6). This mission is not nationalistic but universal. The image of the servant repeats the way that God calls and blesses Abraham and Sarah, “In you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:3) God’s chosen ones should not live for their own sake or their own benefit, but should be a light for the nations.
Thus, Isaiah gives us a critical message because we, as human beings, tend to put ourselves first. If we are exploited or abused, we want retribution as justice. Of course, God confronts those who exploit the poor and advocates justice for them. But the mission that the servant is called to do is for all the families on earth, not for her/himself. Furthermore, the lifestyle of the servant is stunning because it may lead to times of suffering and humiliation. Being a light for the nations is not easy and requires sacrifice.
“I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.” (50:6)
How could the servant tolerate humiliation and confront this injustice? How could the servant have been living as the suffering one? Suffering has been a deep issue in human history, and there is no easy answer to these questions of why. But the servant has found meaning in suffering. The one who is willing to suffer for the sake of God’s mission will make redemption and wholeness available for all. Suffering is not the end of the story because it can be redemptive and bring light to the nations. That does not answer the serious questions of why, but suffering can mean and make a difference beyond what the servant willingly embraces.
“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.” (53:5)
The image of the suffering servant is both an image of the community in exile and an image of how the early church understands Jesus Christ’s death on the cross. Jesus is the perfect example of the suffering servant who dies to save all. So, these texts become meaningful once the community of faith claims its belief and faith through them. They offer a meaningful way to follow what they are called to do.
We enter into a time of self-denial and repentance in Lent. Lent offers an excellent opportunity to reflect on the lifestyle of the suffering servant. It is a crucial time for us to identify who we are as God’s servants. When we also claim ourselves as God’s servants, we may be able to follow the examples of Jesus Christ, who lived as the suffering servant on earth and loved all unconditionally. Lent invites us to be a light and bring justice to the nations, even though we may undergo a time of humiliation and suffering. We have hope because God may use our sacrifices, suffering, and pains to bring redemption and restoration for others. Then, we can follow Jesus and his loving ways because Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.