OPEN: I once read about an evening chapel service at Christian summer camp. The preacher was forcefully telling the 4th & 5th graders how Jesus had been betrayed, arrested, beaten and ultimately died on the cross. His message was so powerful, that a hushed silence fell across the young audience. And then – in the stillness of what followed – a boy’s shocked voice could be heard… “Someone killed God?” (Steve Higginbotham, MercEmail)
Someone killed God. He couldn’t understand that, and he didn’t like it!
ILLUS: Legend has it that when Marco Polo's traveled to the Orient – he was taken before the great Genghis Khan. Most people would have been intimidated. This was a dangerous man. But Marco Polo stood before this pagan conqueror and told him all about Jesus. He talked for a long time about Christianity… and told the Gospel story of Jesus life, death, burial and resurrection. But as he described Jesus' betrayal, his trial, his scourging and His crucifixion, it was obvious that Genghis Khan was becoming more and more engrossed and agitated by what he heard. Then - when Marco Polo pronounced the words “Jesus bowed his head and yielded up his spirit” - Genghis Khan literally came to feet in rage. “No! No! That cannot be! What did the Christian God do then? Did he send 1000s of angels from heaven to destroy those who killed his Son?" (John M. Braaten, The Greatest Wonder of All, C.S.S Publishing Co., 1991)
Of course, we know the answer to that question don’t we? God didn’t do that. It wasn’t part of his plan. And God WASN’T taken by surprise by the angry mob. He KNEW exactly what was going to happen, and He went to the cross voluntarily.
All the world’s religions speak of what we should do for God. But only the Bible speaks of what God did for us.
The story (of God dying for man) is so moving that it can touch the heart of a child. And it’s so powerful that it can shake the heart of even the most hardened pagan.
But nobody really seems to be comfortable with that Bible truth. It defies the imagination that God would do that VOLUNTARILY that God would step down from heaven and knowingly allow Himself to be nailed to the cross. But that’s what Isaiah prophesied over 500 years before Jesus was born. The passage we just read from Isaiah 53 was THAT prophecy… and it was a prophecy of HOW and WHY God died for us.
1st - HOW did Isaiah 53 say God was going to die for us? Isaiah says:
He would be “despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (vs 3)
He would be “pierced… crushed… chastised and “wounded” (vs 5)
He would be “oppressed… afflicted… led to the slaughter” (vs. 7)
“By oppression and judgment he was taken away cut off out of the land of the living” (vs. 8)
“He poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors” (vs. 12)
Now, the Jews have always understood that Isaiah was THE prophet when it came to foretelling the coming of the Messiah. And yet, when Jewish people get to Isaiah 53, they seem to be baffled.
ILLUS: A preacher told of the time he stopped in a book store, and - as was his habit - he “went right over to the Religion section. Looking through the books he found a Jewish Study Bible. He’d never seen one before, and as he leafed through the pages he wondered: "I wonder what they have to say about Isaiah 53." So he thumbed through the pages, and he found Isaiah 53. And the notes at the bottom said, "This is a very difficult passage." (Marc Axelrod sermoncentral.com)
Difficult? Why would it be so difficult? Because the Jews have never been comfortable with the idea of a suffering Messiah. It doesn’t fit their theology. And that’s always been the problem with this part of the story. There’s a lot of people are uncomfortable with the Cross. They like the baby in the manger thing - he's cute, he's cuddly - but this Cross thing is something else. As Paul wrote: “… the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” 1 Corinthians 1:18
Foolish? Why would the cross be Foolish?
ILLUS: One person described it this way: “Other world religions are known for their brightly painted images & gilded statues. But at the center of Christianity rests a cross - simple, stark and solitary. What possessed Christians to seize upon this execution device as a symbol for faith? Why not do everything within our power to squelch the memory of this scandalous injustice? Why make it the centerpiece of our faith? Of all the symbols of hope and triumph, the cross is indeed the most ironic. It’s understandable how someone just considering Christ might be confused by the cross. The cross’ message confronts our most cherished notions of success and self-assurance. (Pause) It helps to be reminded of how fundamentally offensive the cross is and how it symbolizes everything in life we most want to avoid: weakness, defeat, betrayal, powerlessness. (“Talking Foolishness” by Paula Reinhart in Discipleship Journal March 99 quoting from Philip Yancey in his book “The Jesus I Never Knew”)
You see, the cross speaks of weakness, powerlessness and death. So, it’s no wonder its message is foolishness to those that are perishing. So then… WHY would God use the cross? Well, because that was precisely the message He wanted us to hear – and the message was: He loved us SO much that He was willing to do that for us He was willing to be weak. He was willing to be powerless and He was willing to die so we could live.
That was the message of Jesus from the manger to the cross. The imagery of baby was exactly what God wanted us to see. Nothing is quite as weak, powerless or fragile as a little child. And that was the message of Christ all through His ministry. Once He’d been mighty, majestic and impervious to danger. But Jesus stripped Himself of all that so that He might become one of us and allow Himself to be crucified.
That brings us to the WHY of Isaiah 53. Why did the Messiah have to suffer and die for us? Isaiah tells us:
He bore “our griefs and carried our sorrows” (vs. 4)
“He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” (vs. 5)
“The LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (vs. 6)
“He poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.” (vs.12)
Did you catch that? Jesus went through all that for you (and me). He suffered and died for OUR sorrows and sins. Everything you or I have ever done wrong was placed on Jesus so that He would be pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities and bare our sins.
ILLUS: Years ago I spent a couple years at a secular university. While I was there I was hoping to take classes that would help me be a better preacher, and so some of the classes I took were in philosophy. Unbeknownst to me, many philosophy professors worked at undermined the faith many students had in Christ (I think it has to do with the idea that these teachers believed they couldn’t mold our minds in their likeness as long God held our affections).
So I was caught by surprise when a professor focused on attacking our faith in Christ. He boldly stated that Jesus didn’t die on the cross… and he could prove it. He explained that when person dies, their heart stops pumping. And when the heart stops pumping, gravity takes over. So, if you (the audience) were to die in your seats right now, your blood would settle in your waist and below.
That shook me. So when I returned to my dorm I had a talk with God. I explained to God that if He couldn’t answer this challenge that I would go sell insurance or something. I had to time for a God who couldn’t answer a criticism like this (just for the record, I wouldn’t suggest being rude to God like this). I didn’t even go to a preacher or to the Campus House to get help with the problem. I just figured, if God was God, He’d give me His answer directly.
And He did. The very next month I was in another philosophy class. The class was over and the professor was at his desk, surrounded by 5 or 6 students. I wondered what they were talking about, so I joined the group. As I stepped up to the desk the teacher was saying “I learned the most intriguing thing this past weekend. Do you remember in the Bible where it says that Jesus died on the cross?” (He suddenly had my interest). Do you remember where it says that a Roman soldier pierced His side and blood and water came out? (Now he really did have my attention).
He explained that there was a condition known as “Cardiac Tamponade.” It is a rare thing, but it is possible for a person to endure so much stress and pressure that their heart can literally burst. Around the heart is a sac called the Pericardium. The liquid in that sac has the appearance of water. If the heart burst and blood mingled with the liquid of the Pericardium – and you were to pierce that sac – what you’d see come out would have the appearance of blood and water.
That makes sense for 2 reasons. 1st – if I were to cut your arm, blood and water would not come out… only blood. 2nd – the Bible tells us that Jesus didn’t die from the cross. He literally gave up control of the body… and He died. Since the Scriptures teach us that all the sins of mankind – with all of the guilt and sorrow and heartache that accompanied those sins – were placed on that one man, at that one time, on that one cross… once Jesus gave up control of the mortal body, the stresses on that human heart would have been unimaginable. Of course His heart would break.
It’s in the blood of Christ that we receive the blessings that God wants to give us. Acts 20:28 tells us we were bought with His blood. Romans 3:25 says we are forgiven through His blood. Romans 5:9 declares we are justified by His blood. Ephesians 1:7 - We have redemption through His blood. Ephesians 2:12-15 - We have a peace that was made through His blood. Hebrews 9:14 - We are cleansed by His blood. Hebrews 13:11-12 - We are made holy through His blood. I John 1:7 - We are purified from all sin through His blood. And Revelation 12:11 - We overcome Satan through His blood. (research done by Allen Webster)
In other words, without the blood of Jesus, we’d have nothing. But because Jesus WILLINGLY gave of His blood for our sins, we have everything God could possibly give us. In fact, Romans 8:32 takes it one step further: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”
At this point in my sermon preparation… something occurred to me. Isaiah 53 tells us about His suffering and death but it says little with regard to His resurrection. That doesn’t seem quite right. Was that an accident that the Messiah’s rising from the dead wasn’t part of this chapter? Did God forget to put it in there somehow? No… I don’t think so.
In fact, every Sunday, when we take communion, the message of the bread and the cup is entirely focused on Jesus’ death. There’s no reference there about His raising from the dead! It’s the death of Christ that seems to get all the press…so what’s the deal?
ILLUS: They say that Michelangelo was frustrated with his fellow artists: "Why do you keep filling gallery after gallery with endless pictures on the one theme of Christ in weakness, Christ on the cross, and most of all, Christ hanging dead? Why do you concentrate on the passing episode as if it were the last work, as if the curtain dropped down there on disaster and defeat? That dreadful scene lasted only a few hours. But to the unending eternity Christ is alive; Christ rules and reigns and triumphs!"
Even the great artist Michelangelo saw the strangeness of this. But it’s not just in art that this has happened. It even shows up in the Gospels. I went through the Gospels and counted the verses that spoke of Jesus trials/torture/death (beginning with the betrayal by Judas). Then I compared the number of verses that spoke of Christ’s resurrection. I was shocked to find that there were somewhere between 2 and 3 times more verses that dealt with His suffering and death than with His resurrection.
So, what’s the deal? Why is there more emphasis on the cross than on the empty tomb? I admit that I’m only guessing here… but here’s my thoughts: The resurrection wasn’t hard for God. He created the world in 6 days by just… speaking things into existence. He flooded the world, parted the Sea, humbled kings and destroyed vast armies. Rising up from the dead would be like getting up out of bed for Him. It would be child’s play.
But the cross … the cross was something else again. The cross was painful. The cross cost God something. And that’s why communion is centered around Jesus’ death. This was the one part of the story where God did something that hurt Him. This was the one part of the story where God paid a price. And it’s the one part of the story where God changed who we are.
CLOSE: Max Lucado shared true story of something that happened at Disney World. It took place at a location called Cinderella’s castle. The place was packed with kids and parents all waiting to see the princess. And then… Cinderella entered the room. She was beautiful. Each hair in place, flawless skin, and a beaming smile. She stood waist-deep in a garden of kids, each wanting to touch and be touched.
A few feet away from the crowd of children there was a boy holding the hand of his elder brother. He was maybe seven or eight years old. He was disfigured. His face deformed. And he stood watching quietly and longingly.
You know what he wanted, don’t you? He wanted to be with the other children. He longed to be in the middle of the kids reaching for Cinderella, calling her name. Touching her and enjoying her attention. But he was afraid. Afraid of rejection. Afraid of being taunted and mocked.
Then Cinderella looked up and saw him. Immediately she began walking in his direction. Politely but firmly inching thru the crowd of children, she finally broke free. She walked quickly across the floor, knelt at eye level with the stunned little boy, and placed a kiss on his face.
It was a beautiful moment. It was touching in ways that shook those present.
Then Lucado noted: “And yet Cinderella couldn’t do anything more than give him a kiss. When she stood to leave, she took her beauty with her. The boy was still deformed.”
The Bible tells us that Jesus took off his majesty and power and might and stepped down from heaven to become like us. Jesus allowed Himself to become like us so He could fix what was deformed in us. Isaiah 53 tells us our sins disfigured Him: “He had no beauty that we should desire him…. He was despised and rejected by men… He was pierced… He was crushed for our iniquities…” Our sins … deformed Him. Essentially, Jesus sacrificed His beauty so that we might be healed of sins’ deformity and that we might be remade in the image of God.