As our series of “Sermons by Request” continues, I had an opportunity this week to explore Isaiah 53:1-6 and do some theological reflection of my own on theories of atonement. Thanks for reading.
I can remember the last time that I sought to directly evangelize a person to Christianity– I was 20 years old and serving as a summer mission intern with Son Servants, a Presbyterian youth camp organization. No one in this ministry organization told me to evangelize directly to the children with phrases like “If you died tonight do you know if you’d go to heaven?” but I was the evangelical Southern Baptist in the group– and witnessing was just what I thought I needed to do. I was a perfectly pious leader sadly at the time. Sigh.
One week of this particular summer’s experience, after the team of youth volunteers and I led a group of children on the Indian reservation in South Dakota in a series of art and craft projects, we took them out to the playground near a lake.
One girl in particular, I’ll call her Ana, became very attached to me quickly. She wanted me to push her and push her on the swings on the playground and climb with her on the monkey bars. For the entire playtime, Ana would not leave my side. Maybe it was because I had given out the juice and cookies only minutes earlier and she looked like she hadn’t had a good meal in days. But, regardless, feeling good about the connection I’d made to this 9-year-old girl, I felt convicted about the next thing I should do– I needed to tell her about the great divide her sins had caused between her and God and that Jesus paid the price on the cross so that she could live forever with the Lord. I did not want to have her lack of opportunities to receive the gospel to be my fault.
I don’t remember much about the rest of the conversation or even if she prayed the 1, 2, 3 step “I am a sinner, Jesus died for my sins, and I’m so thankful God that I can now go to heaven” prayer I offered her. But I do remember being stopped in my tracks internally as the group prepared to go back to the campsite where we were staying, wondering what in the world I had just done? Though such a practice wasn’t new to me (I’d been through the same routine countless times before with other kids in summer programs– trying to lead them to faith), this time I really began to think about the theology behind my words.
Was this, I wondered, what the gospel were really all about? Was the gospel something that can be melted down into a 5 step plan that makes children feel sorry for their sins knowing the Jesus replaced their punishment on the cross? All I knew in that moment was that I needed to think some more about what all of this evangelism I’d been so interested in was really all about before I tried it again.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been the instigator or recipient of a “let me tell you about the atonement for sins that Jesus offers you” conversation (I’m sure you’ve at least seen one example like this on tv), but often our Old Testament lesson for today is among the most quoted scripture passages on this topic. It’s a passage that is often read at Good Friday services meant to explain what the crucifixion of Jesus means for those of us who seek to know and follow him today. It’s a passage that centuries and centuries of Christians have claimed as among their favorite– and was among the favorite passages submitted among the congregation last month.
And, with all of this true, I’m going to stop at this juncture and give you a mini-commercial on how reading Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures are best read (which applies to our sermon for this morning and all other times when our focus text comes from this part of the Bible).
Always, always, always, do not interpret scripture out of its original context. And I repeat: always, always, always do not interpret scripture out of its original context.
It would be very easy for us at this juncture to read Isaiah 53:1-6 into story of Jesus– to say that the Isaiah writer was actually giving us a prophetic message for what would happen in the incarnation of Christ thousands of years later. And, while yes, we can’t help but understand our reading of anything from Isaiah (and the other prophetic books for that matter) in light of the WHOLE story of the Bible as we read it cover to cover which includes the formation of a new Christian community, we can’t forget the context of the original hearers.
We can’t forget those who first received these words: the people of Israel who would soon be asked to return home from exile in Babylon.
We can’t forget what upheaval and change they would be asked to embrace as they returned home. We can’t forget the pain and suffering the leadership would face, in particular, for being obedient to God’s plans for their lives.
We can’t forget that a particular message to a particular people was being prescribed– a message that had a lot to say about suffering. What was the point of suffering after all? Did participating in it actually have any redemptive value?
I think, though with all of this being true about the importance of paying attention to the context of the original Isaiah hearers, we can’t have a discussion about this passage without talking about Jesus. For tradition has dictated through the years that Isaiah 53 is indeed directly talking about Jesus. And if you look at the front cover of our bulletin for this morning, you’ll notice it’s a picture of person’s back tattoo with this verse of scripture on it. And it is in the shape of a cross. You don’t have to go far until you realize for traditional Christians, Isaiah 53 has become a playbook for Christians seeking to explain atonement– what Jesus dying on the cross really meant and means.
But, to answer the question placed before us in the sermon for this morning: “The suffering of Jesus means what?” we must be stay with the crucifixion of Jesus more than just one day every year– if that at all (for in fact, the Good Friday service is one of the most poorly attended worship services globally in fact. . . But that’s a whole other sermon). We must learn to stick with the hard questions of faith– even if they make us squirm in our pews a little bit more this morning. Hard words like “atonement.”
If I say the word atonement– a most basic theological definition of this word is Christ’s work of redemption on behalf of humanity.
I want to share with you two camps of atonement theory– not to just to help your theological education and understanding of the text before us today– but because so much of how we explain our faith to our neighbors (via evangelism or not) has a lot to do with how we describe atonement. And, it is so much a part of popular rhetoric about Christianity.
Realize this morning for sake of time and our brains not exploding, I’m painting with some broad strokes here. There are indeed more than two camps of atonement theories, but I believe in light of Isaiah 53, these are the two we should most understand. I don’t always say this, but feel free to take notes if this helps you follow me.
The first camp of the theories is that of substitutionary atonement or in more basic terms the phrase, “Jesus died for our sins.”
It’s the camp that says that what Jesus did on the cross was to right many wrongs committed by all humanity. And there is a wide spectrum to this belief of atonement. There are some who believe in substitutionary atonement who say that Jesus had to die as a payment for our sins; Christ suffered for us so that we didn’t have to.
And at then at the other end of the spectrum there are those who say that the substitution Jesus made was more because God demanded it. God took the life of Jesus as a payment for our sins.
But in either case, the phrase, “Jesus died for our sins” boils down to our being asked to simply believe in Jesus as Savior so that the substitution of our unrighteousness for Jesus’ righteousness can take place.
This camp is the most popular of the theories of atonement through Christ tradition. Just pick up any hymn book and turn to the “death of Jesus” section and what you will find are statements about how Jesus paid it all, how we’ve been washed clean in the blood of the lamb or Jesus took our place on the old rugged cross.
But problems with this theory arise when you take a step back and see the larger picture of what was going in the suffering of Jesus from this perspective. The largest problem is that if you say, “Jesus died for my sins” then you also profess that God set up the crucifixion of Jesus. God brought suffering on Jesus.
Or as Phyllis Tickle once said, “It’s a huge example of divine child abuse.” And for many of us stomaching following a God like this is too much to bear. In fact, Sojourners magazine just this week, published an article about how seeking to convert someone by starting the conversation with “Jesus died for your sins”[i] can be the scariest thing you could say– and should be avoided.
However, there is another camp of the atonement theories and this is the representory or exemplar perspective.
In this camp, Jesus was sent to earth to represent God to us. We who were living in sin, we who had fallen short of God’s best for us, we who had gone off course of God’s original intentions for humanity, were given Jesus so that through him, we could find our way back home to the right path. Jesus showed us a different way to God– a perfect way.
However, as this theory goes, Jesus did such a great job of showing us God that those with power in his world during his time did not like him. They didn’t like him so much that they had him killed.
Therefore, this leads us to recognize that if we follow Jesus and the path he set out for us to know God better, we should not be surprised if we are killed too. For in fact didn’t Jesus say to his followers, “whoever loses his life will find it?”
It’s a theory in the end that takes the focus off Jesus as the recipient of divine punishment and instead directs us to the cost of discipleship. If we want to follow Jesus, this theory says, then, we must be prepared to suffer.
And it is here at this point that we arrive again at a great point to sit with our Isaiah passage yet again. A passage which speaks of a servant (though undefined who) which suffers. We read of a servant who in verse three “was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity . . . has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases.”
It’s not a type of suffering that we read is just in vain. It’s not a suffering just for suffering’s sake– because the Divine is mean and trying to bully his subjects into submission. Rather, it is suffering that makes a difference because God is revealed in it.
For as the servant forged a new path of righteousness and integrity, even in the face of evil, the onlookers of the person going through the suffering saw God.
The onlookers saw God’s grace.
The onlookers saw God’s message to the world that even though we’ve all messed up, we’ve all made some not so good choices in our lives, the Divine says back to us, “You are ok. And I love you.”
When I think back to those days of seeking to convert the children on the playground in South Dakota (with some shame of course of my misguided approach), what I most wish I could go back and tell Ana, my young friend with mad skills on the monkey bars is: get to know Jesus.
Get to know this man who loved you even before you were able to love him. Get to know this man who wanted you to know your heavenly parents– your always loving parents, always forgiving, always providing parents more than anything, so badly that he gave up everything so that you could have this chance.
And come and learn of Jesus’ suffering too– how he was rejected for doing the right thing. For you, Ana will suffer much in your life (if you haven’t already), and you’ll need to know that someone has been there too. Jesus suffered to the point of death so that in his life, he could show us the way to God. And the God you’d learn more about through Jesus is the God who loves you already more than you could ever imagine!
Because atonement theories or not, isn’t this what all of us long to hear? That we are loved. That God sees us, especially in our moments of deep pain.
That Jesus not only offered us through his life (which included suffering) a way to be in deep relationship with God.
And that as we suffer in this life, our pain, as we give it back to God for God to use for divine purposes in this world can be redemptive too?