A sermon by Rev Richard Keith on Isaiah 53:1-6 on Good Friday 2020
Richard Jewell was the security guard at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games who found a suspicious backpack containing three pipe bombs in a crowded park near the Olympic stadium. He rang the police and started evacuating people, before the bombs went off, killing one person and injuring a hundred.
Richard Jewell was initially hailed as a hero, but three days later the FBI leaked to the media that he had become their main suspect. His home was besieged by cameramen and journalists. His house was searched twice. His background was checked. His friends were questioned. The FBI”s suspicions fit the narrative. I mean, what was the more likely story? That Richard Jewell just happened to stumble on the bombs not long before they went off or that he found them because he made them to make himself a celebrity?
The sad truth is that he fit the profile. As a working class single man, who’d never achieved his dream of being a policeman, of being someone important in the community, he was widely suspected of being the kind of loser who finds a way to punish the people who overlooked him, while taking all the credit. The FBI only backed off when his lawyer arranged for him to do a lie detector test, which he passed easily.
In 1997 the United State Attorney General took the unusual step of admitting that the FBI had made a mistake and owed Richard Jewell an apology. In 2005 another man was sentenced to four life sentences for the Atlanta bombing and three other bombings. In 2007 Richard Jewell himself died, an innocent man and a hero who saved the lives of scores of people. He was 44 years old.
Of course, I’m telling you his story today because of its similarity to the life of Jesus. Jesus too was a hero of the people, an innocent man whose life was destroyed by the powerful who felt threatened by him, but who was vindicated and saved the lives of many.
This is the message of Isaiah chapter 53. Written 800 years before Jesus, it practically reads like a script for Jesus’ life. It begins with the question,
Who has believed our message?
People say that the truth is stranger than fiction, because the fiction is often more easy to believe. I mean how likely is it that an uneducated man from Nazareth could be a great spiritual teacher, that a carpenter from Galilee could be God’s chosen king, that the son of Mary could be the Son of God? Wasn’t it far more likely that such a lowly man was deluded for thinking he was great, that a man born without power would try to grab it for himself with the help of the mob. Indeed, as Isaiah said,
he grew up like a root out of dry ground.
Surprising and unlikely, yet vulnerable. Even one of his disciples was heard to say, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
I know that pictures of Jesus usually make him look handsome and noble and suspiciously Anglo-Saxon, but isn’t it more likely that he would have been a bit more, I don’t know, Jewish? Perhaps from an ancient royal line, but surely diluted over the centuries with more common blood.
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering.
Judas betrayed him, Peter denied him and his other followers abandoned him. The religious leaders condemned him and Pilate, well Pilate firstly flogged him, then secondly said, “I find no basis for a charge against him” and then thirdly paraded him in purple as their king and finally handed him over to be crucified. Pilate bought peace in his province at the cost of the life of Jesus and considered it a bargain at that price.
Like one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised and we esteemed him not.
Like the homeless people we hurry past in the big city like those we are afraid to look in the eye so that we do not see our common humanity, so was Jesus carrying the cross beam to the place of execution. The soldiers gambled for his clothes. His enemies made fun of him. Only his mother and a few other women had the courage to be near him.
We considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted.
It’s typical victim blaming, isn’t it? Someone who suffers like that must deserve it. It’s the only explanation that makes sense, isn’t it? That a man hanging on a cross must be being punished by God. Surely a good man would have been spared that cruelty. Surely a man of faith would have been protected by his God. In fact, the religious leaders played on that assumption. “He saved others,” they crowed, “let him save himself, if he is God’s Messiah, the chosen one.” “He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him.” The fact that God didn’t rescue him confirmed their suspicions. It fit the narrative. It was consistent with the more likely story, that Jesus was a fraud who tried to grab power but lost, that he was not a man of God, but a sinner playing on the gullibility of the masses.
But the truth is stranger than fiction.
Surely he took our infirmities and carried our sorrows.
It could be written as the motto of Jesus’ life. A man who shared all our weakness. A man who became hungry and thirsty and tired. A man who craved companionship even when he knew he had to suffer alone. A man who helped others, who took their sickness and made them better, who brought the dead to life, who had great power, but never used it for himself. An innocent man put to death with thieves and bandits, a king who wore a crown of thorns.
But if the story that Jesus was one of life’s losers was fiction, what is the truth that is even stranger?
He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities.
The guilt was ours, not his. The sentence was ours, not his. The cross was ours, not his. The sin was ours, not his. Like the stunt man who faces the danger, like the body guard who dives in front of the bullet, Jesus put himself in harm’s way by taking our place.
We all like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Of course, the story of the cross doesn’t make sense until we are confronted by the truth of our own failings. Sure, we like to think that all our mistakes are someone else’s fault. That we are the victims of a grand conspiracy against us. That our own faults are excusable but the faults of others are unforgiveable. But we will never redeem our future until we make peace with our past and admit the truth that some of our problems are our own stupid fault and that we are the problem that some other people have. We demonise our opponents and make ourselves out to be the heroes of our own story. But the truth is that we are all human, both abused and abusing, like sheep going their own and butting their heads as they go. We all must make peace with our past before we can redeem our future, and it is Jesus who make it possible.
For the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
God is our creator. He gave us life and made us for himself. To turn away from him and go our own way is to choose death, a living death meaning nothing which is sealed by an eternal death in the grave. But Jesus chose that death in our place so that it would no longer be an option. Jesus chose death so that we could choose life and find life.
This wonderful exchange is arranged by having the courage to admit our mistakes, and by trusting in Jesus who took our sin and selfishness and apathy and died our death so that they might no longer hang over us and define us, but that instead we might be set free and have life, life that means something now and will last forever. So that
by his wounds we are healed.
Don’t miss this chance to live today and to live forever. Because the saddest thing is not that people refuse life after death, but that they refuse to life before they die.
The truth they say is stranger than fiction. And the truth is that today’s story also doesn’t make any sense without its sequel on Sunday. At Easter. But if you take anything away today, please take a fresh look at Jesus. Forget the pin up boy of the stained glass windows, who to me looks too often like a girl with a beard. Instead, see the man of sorrows, the man familiar with suffering. The man whom many walk past without realising that he is the one who could save their life. He is the Lord who is with us in our sorrows the one we can turn to in our distress and suffering. The one who can redeem our future because he has made peace with our past. The one who went into harm’s way to save our life. Because why put up with a living death when you can turn to Jesus and truly live?