“An Exchange Prompted by Grace” – Isaiah 53:4-6
This amazing Old Testament prophecy features a profound image of the Suffering Servant of God and an exchange prompted by grace. Most often exchanges take place between people with respect to items of a perceived equal value. In the olden days it was the bartering system – “I’ll give you a turkey for Thanksgiving, if you give me a dozen eggs a week for two months.” In modern times, it’s more like “I’ll give you these multi-coloured pieces of paper with numbers on them, and you – Sport Chek – you give me that new pair of running shoes.” OR “I’ll pour you a new concrete driveway and you give me a month’s wages.”
Isaiah 53 tells of an exchange that doesn’t seem just or fair or equal at all. It’s about one person – that Suffering Servant of God – receiving a lot of… well, suffering, while others (that’s us) receive good and a blessing. The sermon today will come in the form of stories that convey a message of similar seemingly unjust exchanges.
But before we get to the stories, let me give you a little bit of moral and spiritual context.
We are all sinners – by what we do and say, and even more significantly by who we are. It’s in our very nature to sin. Normally, it isn’t long after one sin that the trap of sin and evil clamps shut, and we find ourselves trapped, held tight in its deadly jaws, and unable to escape.
Many try to cover their sin. This can involve more serious offenses to cover the first trespass. It may not escalate to the level of murder, but the results are usually similar: a snowball becomes an avalanche of deception and destruction. Some attempt to cover their sin by acting as if there’s no such thing, that what they happen to be doing is perfectly natural and completely harmless, whether that’s a seemingly inoffensive “white” lie, a growing addiction of some kind, an adulterous affair, a petty embezzlement or theft of money from your place of work, or the taking of the life of an unborn child. Excuses are inevitably made in an attempt to rationalize and whitewash the ugly reality of what we’ve done. But this is merely a temporary smoke screen that quickly blows away and exposes who and what we really are.
We can easily deceive ourselves by thinking we’re not such bad sinners after all. We’re not as bad as some of the criminals, despots, and perverts who make today’s headlines, not even as bad as some of our neighbours or co-workers… or family members.
The result of covering our sin is an evil conscience. God is seen as stern Judge instead of loving Father. An evil conscience results in physical, emotional, and spiritual struggle. Ancient King David described such a time in his life in this way: “For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.” So often, we engage in sin or cover sin because we somehow think this will make us happy or feel good or bring us fulfillment. But it is a delusion that only makes things worse. OK… with that context let’s consider these stories.
A literary example is seen in Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. The book tells of a young man named Dorian Gray, the subject of a painting by artist Basil Hallward. Basil is impressed by Dorian’s youth and beauty and personality, and becomes infatuated with him, believing his beauty is responsible for a new mode in his art. At one point, Basil says, “As long as I live, the personality of Dorian Gray will dominate me.” About the same time, Dorian meets Lord Henry Wotton, a rich and influential friend of Basil’s, and Dorian becomes enthralled by Lord Henry’s world view. That world view suggested that the only things worth pursuing in life are beauty and fulfillment of the senses. Lord Henry captures his view in two sentences: “Youth is the one thing worth having,” and “When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it.” Realizing that one day his beauty will fade, Dorian comments on Basil’s portrait of him, “How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young… If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old!… I would give my soul for that!” Dorian’s wish is fulfilled, and when he subsequently pursues a life of carelessness and evil, the portrait then displays the effect that each act has upon his soul. Each sin is displayed as a disfigurement of his form or through a sign of aging on the painting. When Dorian snubs a young actress that he had intended to marry, the painting shows a sign of cruelty in the mouth – a visible symbol of the decline of his morality. The next day, that actress is found dead by suicide, a direct result of Dorian’s rejection of her. Eventually, Dorian resorts to murdering the artist Basil. On the painting, Dorian’s hands become red with blood. He uses opium to try and assuage his conscience, but that is impossible. Years later, the painting has become full of the flaws of Dorian’s life, while Dorian, himself, retains his youth and beauty. Finally, after carrying out a good deed, he wondered if the portrait would change for the better. But it didn’t. People still loved him and thought he was handsome. The only evidence of the evils in his life was the portrait. Despairing, Dorian takes the knife he used to kill Basil and stabs the painting of himself. The next day, the police find an aged and grotesquely deformed Dorian Gray lying on the floor of his living room with a knife in his heart, while the painting on the easel was that of the original young and beautiful Dorian Gray.
Interestingly, in Oscar Wilde’s novel, the picture of Dorian Gray took up all of the griefs and sorrows and transgressions of Dorian, himself, while the appearance of Dorian remained unscathed. That was the exchange that Wilde imagined in the plot of his book. Until the very final page of the book when the aged Dorian lay dead, the painting was a symbol of Jesus taking on Himself the flaws of not just one person, but the flaws and sins of every person who ever lived. Can you imagine what a human being would look like if the sins of every person who ever lived was reflected in his appearance? Jesus taking on our sins is truly an exchange of grace. The one monumental difference between Wilde’s novel and the Bible’s truth is that when Jesus was restored to His beauty and holiness on Easter Sunday, we did not receive the ugliness of our sinfulness back again. We still radiate the very grace and love of God.
In the book, ultimately, Dorian’s evil conscience results in his own death—spiritual, physical, and finally eternal death. But in our reality, God is faithful. He does not forsake us to our fallen state, but paints us with the beauty and forgiveness of Jesus.
Let’s consider another story… Martin Luther tells this one in a sermon from John 1, written in the late 1530’s. I have added some detail to his story, but I haven’t changed the intent. Luther writes about a prince – the son of a king – coming to the home of a sick peasant person to care for him in a time of illness. Let’s imagine how sick this person is… maybe COVID sick, maybe even more than COVID sick – bleeding sores, aches and pains all over, headaches, food goes in but comes back out again, wheezing, coughing, spitting, can’t even get up to go to the bathroom, his body is repulsively stinky. The prince has to clean all that up, and care for the sick peasant like a 24/7 personal nurse. But, it begins to work – the patient slowly, but surely begins to improve. The wheezing begins to go away. The sores begin to heal. The aches and pains subside. Food is digested properly. One day, thanks to the prince, the peasant is able to get back to his family and his daily routine – fully recovered and healthy. The prince gives the peasant back to his waiting family and as he turns around to wave a last goodbye, the family notices that the prince is full of bleeding sores, he is wheezing and coughing, with all the symptoms of their own loved one. In short, the prince has literally taken on all the aches and pains and sicknesses that their relative once had. That, too, is an exchange of grace. The prince, of course, represents Jesus, the Son of God, the King, and we are the shameful, sinful, spiritually sick peasants who benefit both temporally and eternally from the presence of and the healing of Jesus. Luther’s illustration truly is an exchange prompted by the love of the King and the Prince.
Speaking of princes, oh, and princesses, there is a true story about a perfectly typecast Cinderella at Disney World. This young woman had flawless skin, a beaming smile, and each hair was perfectly in place. She enters the castle room, and it’s full of children of various ages. As soon as she comes in, there is a buzz in the air and excitement fills the room. All the children move eagerly toward her, wanting to touch her and talk to her. Only one boy – dwarfed and disfigured – stands alone on the other side of the room. Cinderella notices him and makes her way over toward him with the crowd of children moving along with her like a mass amoeba. Cinderella looks the boy in the eye, kneels down, and kisses him on the cheek. In that moment, his whole appearance is transformed and an ear-to-ear smile lights up his face. She gave him an undeserved and unexpected gift – recognition, acceptance, grace, love. This wasn’t an exchange, for Cinderella didn’t take on any of the unwelcome characteristics of the boy. That would have been a true exchange of grace, if she had taken on the boy’s disfigurement, while giving him her beauty. But I don’t think Disney World would have appreciated such an exchange.
But there is one more true story… about the thief on the cross. Someone has coined the phrase: Three men died: one died in sin; one died to sin; one died for sin. The thief on the cross who mocked and slandered Jesus died in his sin. We’ll come back in a moment to Jesus who died for sin. But let’s consider the thief who died to sin, the man who, while he was being crucified for his own sins, turned to Jesus with the request: “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” And let’s look at heaven’s perspective rather than what people on earth would have witnessed below the cross. This is how Max Lucado describes it in his book, A Gentle Thunder.
“The sins of the thief… leave him and go to Jesus. Tiny specks at first, then large flakes, and finally layers of filth. Every evil thought. Each vile deed. The thief’s ravings. His cursings. His greed. His sin. All now covering Jesus Christ. What nauseated God now covers his son.
At the same instant, the purity of Jesus lifts and covers the dying thief. A sheet of radiance is wrapped around his soul. As the father robed the prodigal [son], so now Christ robes the thief. Not just with a clean coat but with Jesus himself!… The one with no sin becomes sin-filled. The one sin-filled becomes sinless. It is eternity’s most bizarre exchange.”
On this Good Friday, Jesus – who we hailed as the Prince of Peace just 3 months ago during the Christmas season, and who we hailed 5 days ago as King riding into Jerusalem triumphantly on a donkey amid waving palm branches – this Jesus turns around, like the prince in Luther’s story, and is full of the aches and pains and sickness, full of the sins and guilt and moral wickedness that afflict our own lives. To Dorian Gray, Basil’s portrait – a tribute to Dorian’s youthful beauty – ended up being not a gift but a curse. Jesus’ taking on our sin is a curse for Him but a gift for us. There He is, hanging on the cross – full of the whole world’s repulsiveness in God’s eyes, full of YOUR repulsiveness in God’s eyes. And we… walk away, whole, holy, guilt-free. That’s the message of Good Friday! That’s the beauty of Good Friday! That’s the exchange of grace of Good Friday!
Now, let’s go back to the words of the prophet, Isaiah, and remind ourselves of God’s explanation of that exchange prompted by grace. (Oh, and be aware that the “He” and the “Him” in this passage is referring to Jesus, the Saviour, who would come several hundred years after Isaiah was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write these words. I have highlighted the words that illustrate the exchange. )
Surely HE has borne OUR griefs and carried OUR sorrows;
yet WE esteemed HIM stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
But 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.
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.
That makes the exchange plain:
Jesus bears our griefs, our sorrows, our “stricken, smitten, and afflicted,” our transgressions, our iniquities, our chastisement, our wounds, our going astray.
We receive His peace, His healing, which really means His forgiveness and His salvation.
It truly is an exchange prompted by grace, by God’s unfathomable love for us.
Just one more thing… In a moment or so, we are going to hear Jesus speak seven times while He was hanging on the cross. In those seven words from the cross, we hear the exchange of grace for those who were there that day, but those words, that exchange, were also meant for us, it’s personal for us. Listen to the exchange of grace:
When Jesus said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” the exchange was “Why have you forsaken me, instead of forsaking those deserving sinners?’
When Jesus said, “Father, forgive them,” the exchange was spoken from a heart of grace, “Forgive them instead of punishing them.”
When Jesus said, “Mary, take John for your son,” He was saying, “Take him for your son instead of me.”
When Jesus said, “I thirst,” He was truly quenching our spiritual thirst, not His own physical thirst.
When Jesus said, “It is finished,” His life was ending, but our life in Him was beginning.
When Jesus said, “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit,” He was genuinely committing our spirits into the hands and will of a loving and gracious Heavenly Father.
When Jesus said to the thief on the cross, “Today, you will be with me in paradise,” He was welcoming that man into the heaven which he didn’t deserve, instead of the hell, which he did deserve. In the same way, He welcomes us into the heaven which we don’t deserve.
Good Friday is all about an exchange prompted by grace, by God’s grace! – and you are the recipient of that grace, thanks to Jesus! Amen.