(This is an edited version of the sermon this morning in the Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge)
The man in our New Testament reading from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 8v26-40) was excluded from something he desperately wanted to be part of. But then he found himself wonderfully included and our passage from the book of Isaiah (52v13-53v12) this morning was right at the heart of his life-changing experience.
In Acts chapter 8, we heard how Philip the evangelist, a bringer of God’s good news, drew alongside the chariot of an important Ethiopian official who was returning home from Jerusalem. This man in the stretch limousine was in effect the Queen of Ethiopia’s George Osborne – her Chancellor of the Exchequer; he was in charge of her treasury.
He had gone to Jerusalem to worship. Though himself a Gentile, a non-Jew, he was a God-fearer. He believed in the God of Israel, the God of the Jews and wanted to worship the Lord God at his Temple in Jerusalem. But because of his personal situation he had had to do that on his own away from the Temple. He was completely excluded from the Temple precincts.
Why? Because he was a eunuch, a very common requirement in those days for male officials working for a female ruler. But for him that meant exclusion from where he wanted to be, in the Temple worshipping the Lord with the Lord’s people. He was excluded because the Old Testament Law – Deuteronomy chapter 23v1 – was crystal clear that an emasculated man, a eunuch, should not enter the assembly of the Lord.
So this man was excluded from the worshipping community of the Lord, in which he was desperate to be included. When Philip the evangelist drew alongside him, this excluded man was reading the Bible from a scroll, reading aloud Isaiah chapter 53v7&8, words quoted in Acts chpt 8 – ‘he was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak for his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth’ (NIV).
The excluded eunuch then asked Philip about whom the prophet was saying this, – about himself or someone else? (Acts 8v34)
Now a few weeks ago in our summer series in the latter part of the book of Isaiah we met the man the Ethiopian eunuch was reading about – the Lord’s Servant and we met him in Isaiah chapter 42. We saw that the Lord’s Servant is the Messiah, the perfect Israelite King God was going to send to save his people. The Lord’s Servant would be a very different kind of king from the military invaders the Jewish people were used to in the ancient near-East in the 8th and 7th centuries BC.
He would not be an aggressive, conquering King like Sennacherib the King of Assyria, who had recently invaded the tiny Kingdom of Judah, destroyed its fortified cities and almost captured Jerusalem. The Lord’s Servant would be a Servant King – ‘a bruised reed he will not break and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice’.
And we saw how Isaiah’s prophecy of the Lord’s Servant is perfectly fulfilled in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. We saw how going with the flow of Isaiah’s messianic prophecy the Gospel of Matthew applies this prediction about the Lord’s Servant directly to our Lord Jesus in his people-loving healing ministry in Galilee and Judea.
Today from Isaiah 53 we see that the Lord’s Servant, the Messiah, serves the Lord by suffering and dying for God’s people. The Lord’s Servant is the Suffering Servant, who obeys God by suffering for his chosen people and thus saving them.
Please look at verses 4-6 of Isaiah 53: ‘Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. 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.’
We should make no mistake – those for whom the Lord’s Servant suffers and dies are in a very bad state indeed. They desperately need that good news of deliverance we focused on last week in Isaiah chapter 52. These people have gone astray from God like wandering, vulnerable sheep scattered all over the hills; they are under God’s condemnation and judgement. They are not at peace with God; they have gone their own way.
But he was wounded for their transgressions; he was crushed for their iniquities; upon him was the punishment that brought them peace.
A substitutionary death has taken place. The sins of the people have been laid upon the Suffering Servant and he has borne the punishment they deserve.
He has taken upon himself the wrath of a holy God against a sinful people, who unless something is done about their sin will face exclusion from the presence of the Lord God Almighty.
The Suffering Servant has done something wonderful and the New Testament witness is clear that that Suffering Servant is the Man who breathed his last hanging from a cross between two thieves just outside Jerusalem around 3pm on the first Good Friday. When asked by the eunuch who the prophet was talking about, Philip explained to him the good news of Jesus and he was baptised (Acts 8v35).
Excluded people have been included because of the Lord’s Suffering Servant and that includes you – Christian people in this church family, this assembly of the Lord’s people, here this morning. A wonderful thing has been happened to us because of the Lord’s Suffering Servant. Our soul-destroying exclusion has been turned into our soul-saving inclusion because of what the Lord’s Suffering Servant has done for us. We are beneficiaries of his suffering and death. We are his spiritual descendants. We who were excluded are included because of him.
(Image: Lorna Mitchell)