COVID-19 has brought suffering and death to many people around the world. Suffering is something we often try to put out of our mind with distractions and not think about until we are forced to do so. But Christianity puts suffering front and center. The biblical witness does not hide the reality that this is a disordered and sinful world that includes suffering, nor does it gloss over the pain and gruesome difficulty of dealing with suffering.
I recently preached a sermon from the fourth Servant Song (Isaiah 52:13-53:12). Preaching that section of God’s word felt like trying to give my congregation the ocean, and the best I could do was scoop a bucket of water out of that ocean of truth and offer it to them as a sample. The Servant Songs are the high point of Isaiah, and the fourth Servant Song is the high point of the high point.
Jesus is the Servant of the Lord described in Isaiah 52:13-53:12 as the suffering Servant. He alone can ultimately fulfill the description of the Servant. The fourth Servant Song immediately presents us with an enigma in the first of its five stanzas:
How can such exaltation as described (52:13) arise out of such suffering (52:14)?
Success through Suffering
Exaltation and Success
Isaiah 52:13 shouts triumphantly, “Behold, my servant will succeed; he shall be exalted, and he shall be lifted up, and he shall be very high.” We get this part. We gravitate to it and take comfort from it.
Humiliation and Suffering
But then we read in Isaiah 52:14, “Just as many were appalled at you—such was his appearance beyond human disfigurement, and his form beyond the sons of mankind.” The Servant will suffer to the point of being repulsive, he will be hard to look at, prompting the question, “is this human?” We have a hard time squaring Isaiah 52:13 with Isaiah 52:14.
Mission and Purpose
The key to our understanding is to recognize that there was purpose in the Servant’s humiliation and suffering, sovereign purpose. “So he shall sprinkle many nations; because of him, kings shall shut their mouths. For they shall see what has not been told them, and they shall consider with full attention what they have not heard” (Isaiah 52:15). The gracious sprinkling of atonement blood is for “many nations.” This is how he will succeed and “be satisfied” (Isaiah 53:11).
The Scripture teaches us that unwanted different- including suffering- is hard, but it is often the path to better, the way to success. Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, an evil act, but we read in Genesis 50:20, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” Joseph ended up in a position to bless many, including his brothers, and they were humbled.
In Acts 2:23-24, we read of the ultimate, you meant it for evil but God meant it for good event, the fulfillment of the Suffering Servant: “this man [Jesus], delivered up by the determined plan and foreknowledge of God, you executed by nailing to a cross through the hand of lawless men. God raised him up, having brought to an end the pains of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.” What was meant for evil, God means for the eternal good and salvation of his people.
But notice that the way to experience success through suffering is Jesus Christ. As believers, we are to be on mission for Christ because he is where purpose is found. We never know this success when we focus on ourselves, wallowing in self-pity. Paul, in Romans 8:28, does not say “all things are good.” That would be wicked. It is sin to call evil good and good evil. But he does say, emphatically, that “all things work together for good for those who love God,” and this is “for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Do you want to see success through COVID-19 suffering? Love God. Be on mission for Christ. When we are on mission for Christ we will grieve what needs to be grieved in this fallen world but we will also rejoice in the hope of the gospel no matter what, knowing that we will share but God meant it for good stories for all eternity.
The children of our congregation have been isolated at home, like all of us, and I noticed on social media that many of them were writing Bible verses and gospel declarations in chalk art at their home for all their neighbors to see. Doing so does not seem like a big deal. But there is a sense in which it is a symbol of how we must all fight against the darkness in the midst of a world of pain and sorrow. I saw it as a small success in the midst of this suffering. My next thought was, we may not use chalk art, but let’s follow their lead by responding to this crisis with gospel truth for all to see.
COVID-19 is not good but God is good. He has given us good news. Suffering and death will not have the last word, Christ will. In a world of despair declarations of hope are an act of defiance, even if they are written in chalk.