This sermon is part of the sermon series "More Than a Holiday". See series.
This sermon is part of the “More Than a Holiday” sermon series. See the whole series here.
Isaiah 53, a very familiar chapter for some, and it’s going to be our text today for the third week of our Advent Series that we’ve called “More Than a Holiday.” The title of today’s message may surprise you. It doesn’t sound all that Christmasy: “Persevering Through Suffering.” But this is exactly why Christmas is much more than a holiday. It’s more than a season during the year where we decorate the tree, send cards, and give gifts. The truth of the Incarnation has important implications for our everyday lives. We’re going to see how the Incarnation, how God becoming a man, helps us to persevere through suffering.
All of us here live in a beautiful world. It’s a wonderful world, but it’s also a world of great suffering, pain, sorrow, and loss. What I want us to consider together today is how to face suffering where we’re not just surviving it but persevering through it with faith and joy in our hearts. Is that even possible? The Bible teaches us that it is. So how do we do it?
[Read Isaiah 53]
Suffering is a normal part of life. It’s not an illusion. It’s an unfortunate everyday reality. From the common cold to terminal cancer, from losing your keys to losing a loved one, we all face various forms of suffering in life. What is suffering? Suffering comes to us primarily in two ways—losing something you had (having something you loved be taken away from you) or missing out on something you wanted. And as I said, we all face various forms of these in our lives.
The question is how will we get through it? How will we face it? How do we persevere through suffering with peace in our hearts? That’s what we’re seeking to answer. No matter where you are at in life today, we all need to be reminded of these truths. No captain of a ship sets out on a long voyage anticipating all calm waters. No, he prepares his boat for the storm, to make it through the storm, so how do we prepare the boat of our lives to make it through the storms of life? Well, how you relate to the sufferings that you face in life has everything do with your view of God. And there’s two things that this passage teaches us about God that helps us to persevere through suffering—the suffering of God and the sovereignty of God.
The suffering of God
We see here that when God became a man, he became a man of sorrows, a man who suffered greatly. This is very important in helping us persevere through suffering because there’s two things that make times of suffering so hard to go through. The first is to think that nobody understands what you’re going through. In times of suffering, you often feel like you’re all alone, that no one at all can feel your pain. But what this passage teaches us is that actually, the most important person in the world does feel your pain because he’s already felt it.
We read in verse 2 that Jesus didn’t walk this earth as the popular prom king. For most of his life, he wasn’t popular. No, it says, “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him.” See we’re used to paintings of a glamorous-looking Jesus, but it says here he had “no beauty that we should desire him.” And so people looked at him, but they quickly turned away because he wasn’t much to look at. We read in verse 3 that Jesus was not only despised by men, but he was rejected. He was always the last picked on the team; he was cast aside as a nobody. So God became a man of sorrows in every sense of the word. He didn’t just feel the full weight of physical sorrows but emotional sorrows, relational sorrows, financial sorrows. Jesus lived a rough life. He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Why? So that in the midst of every type of sorrow, you and I could know we have someone to turn to who understands.
Lindsay and I have noticed that our three-year-old, Hannah, has gotten into the “why” phase. Every question is “Why?” “Why do we wear shoes? Why do we eat dinner? Why is my name Hannah?” Recently, I was putting her down to sleep and the last thing she wanted was to go bed. She starts bawling, crying, and I’m not giving in. It’s time for bed, so I say, “Honey, I’m sorry but you need to go to bed.” Well, she’s weeping and looking at me like I’m torturing her, and she says in the midst of her tears, “Why Daddy? Why Daddy? Why?” Now my heart was just breaking for her in that moment. How come? Because I remember what it was like to be a kid and not fully understand all that my parents were asking me to do. You see, I could sympathize with her because I am not immune to her pain, but you see, I know what it’s like to be a child, but she has no idea what it’s like to be a parent. It’s the same with our relationship with God. We don’t know what it’s like to be God, but the God of Christianity, the true God, knows what it’s like to be us. So he can sympathize with us. He can feel our pain.
It’s in times of great suffering that the shortest verse in the Bible becomes one of the most important: “Jesus wept.” It teaches us that God became a man of sorrows. He didn’t distance himself from the painful realities of life. He entered in. This means that when you weep, he weeps, just as he wept with Mary and Martha at their brother’s grave. In your pain, he too is pained. The God of Christianity is not an impersonal concept that is immune to the emotions of life. God weeps, God grieves, and God knows and understands what you’re going through. The God of Christianity is the only God who knows what it’s like to suffer and can completely sympathize with us.
John Stott, the British author and pastor, once wrote, “In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God that’s immune to it?” You couldn’t. Look at verse 4. It says, “Surely he has born our griefs and carried our sorrows.” He has felt what we feel and more, because we learn that he wasn’t just mistreated; he was completely misunderstood. It says, “Yet we esteemed him smitten by God and afflicted.” The people of Jesus’ day thought that Jesus’ sufferings and eventual death on the cross were simply what he had coming. That it was God’s judgment upon him.
Not only for the things that he taught, but you have to remember that he was born to a woman who got pregnant outside of marriage and her answer was literally that the Holy Spirit did it. Can you imagine trying to explain that to people? For most, she couldn’t, and so in a culture where honor was everything, Jesus lived with the humiliation of being the result of a child out of wedlock, even though he wasn’t. But that’s what they thought. From his birth all the way to his death, Jesus was completely misunderstood. Do you ever feel misunderstood? Jesus knows what it’s like.
His suffering means that he can sympathize with our sufferings. God is not a spectator in the stands of suffering. No, he’s become a full participant. God didn’t see our pain and remain at a distance and just send us a “get well soon” card to us in the hospital. He didn’t just send flowers. No, he showed up to the hospital, he entered our room, and he continues to come to our bedside of suffering and grab our hand. He whispers in our ears, “I’m here. I know what you’re going through and I’m with you.”
This is how we get through. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” not “I will experience no evil,” but “I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” God is always with us as our sympathetic, suffering Savior. Remember the Book of Daniel, “Look,” they shouted, “didn’t we throw only three men in the fire, but there is now a fourth in the fire.” Who is this? It’s the God who stands with us in the furnace of affliction. This is Christianity’s answer to the problem of suffering. Not a scientific explanation but a personal presence to cheer and to guide.
In times of great suffering, I not only want to know that there is someone who understands, I want to know that my suffering is worth it, that someone is in control, that what seems like chaos is actually part of greater plan. In verse 5, we begin to see and understand this suffering of Jesus is being governed by the Sovereign God, that it’s not meaningless and it has a great purpose.
The sovereignty of God
The second thing that makes it impossible for us to persevere through suffering with any type of peace and joy is to believe that the pain you are going through is senseless, that it’s pointless, that it has no rhyme or reason to it. Yet this is how many of us feel when tragedy strikes. Put yourselves in Mary’s shoes. The disciples’ shoes. There you are with frustration, with a sense of meaningless. Why this? Why to him? It all looks so senseless. But look at verse 5. Notice the transition in verse 5. Now here’s the purpose behind the suffering—“But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; his chastisement brought us peace, by his wounds we are healed.”
What we see here is that there was a great design and a great purpose behind this great suffering, and this is why we celebrate it. His death brought us life; his wounds brought us healing because “all we like sheep have gone astray, but the Lord has laid upon him the iniquity of us all.” The wages of sin is death, but he took the death in our place. He has paid the price for our sins so that we can be forgiven by God and healed.
But I can hear someone say, “That’s all well and good and I’m glad for it, but how does that help me through my sufferings today? How does this help me persevere through cancer, through the loss of my job, my child? The cross brings me heaven, but what about my problems today?” Here’s God’s answer: The cross is not just something we look at for our forgiveness, for our reconciliation with God, but is it the lens by which we look at our sufferings through.
We can see this is the answer to the problem. Here is evil at its worst, and there was a great purpose behind it. What this tells me is that if that is true with the cross Jesus had to bear, then it is true with every cross I have to bear. This is how we can walk through suffering as Jesus did—with faith and trust in our hearts that there’s not just a reason for it but a great reason for it, and one day I will see it.
When I’m confronted with suffering, I tend to ask the wrong question. The wrong question is this: “How could God bring any good out of this?” The truth is that I don’t know. If I did, I’d be God. But I don’t need to know; all I need to know is that he knows. Just because it seems pointless to me doesn’t mean that it’s pointless to God. Just because you and I can’t see how God could tie up all the loose ends like that doesn’t mean he can’t. After all, remember the Bible calls God “The Potter.” What does a potter do? He takes a mess and turns it into a masterpiece. I can have peace in my heart knowing that he knows.
That’s what we see in verses 7–9: the perfect submission of Jesus, as Peter said. He entrusted his soul to the one who judges justly. He knew that God was in control and so must we. And just in case there is someone left who refuses to see the sovereign plan of God in the midst of suffering , we read in verse 10, “it was the will of the Lord to crush him. He has put him to grief.” There it is for all to see. The sovereignty of God. This is talking about God’s providential will. God is not the author of evil, he doesn’t directly cause it, but he does ordain it and govern it and what is the end result? The end result is always victory and joy! Look at the end of verse 10 and 11. “He shall see his offspring” (that’s us, the church); “he shall prolong his days” (that’s his resurrection). Now watch this: “The will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.” That’s victory! Verse 11: “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied.”
Remember when Jesus was speaking of the sorrow and suffering of his death in the Upper Room and he compared it to a woman giving birth. What was his point? That her sorrow and pain actually turns into victory and joy. The pain is real, her sorrow is real, but in a woman’s labor, there’s something that happens that changes everything: The baby is presented to her, and she sees the outcome of the pain. The purpose of the pain. The pain is not exchanged for joy, the pain is literally transformed into joy because the mother sees that the pain is worth it. This is why Jesus says, “Your sorrow will turn into joy”—not “your sorrow will be exchanged for joy,” one thing for another, but “your sorrow will turn into joy.”
Here we have the answer to the problem of pain. Here’s the key to the great mystery of suffering and how to persevere through it. Be assured that one day you will see that every form of suffering has been worth it. That none of it was pointless.
Here are the disciples and their boat is tossed and almost breaking on the raging sea, and what was troubling them? It was the sea, and here comes Jesus walking on the sea. What’s troubling them? The sea? What is literally under Jesus’ feet? The sea! You see, he’s not just with them, but he’s completely in control of what’s troubling them. Friend, whatever is troubling you is under Jesus’ feet, and you can know that’s it’s going to work out for good.
Think of it this way, if you’re following a hard training program at the gym, and the trainer is bringing into your life all kinds of exercises that you’d never try, you not only want to know that he understands what you’re going through, you want to know that the difficult exercises are going to be worth it. And how do you know that it’s going to pay off? Because it’s causing you to sweat and your muscles to become sore. You see, the difficulty is the sign that it’s working and that it’s going to be worth it. God is the perfect trainer; he’s the perfect teacher; he’s going to show us one day that these momentary afflictions won’t compare to the glory that will be revealed to us.
Have you ever watched a movie or read a book that you got really into and the main character that you’re rooting for is going through tremendous suffering? You almost can’t bear to watch and you want to turn it off, but you know everything works out in the end. You know that somehow the author is going to bring it all together. That’s your life. Friend, God specializes in happy endings. And that’s what he’s going to bring about. You can be assured of it, and that’s how you can persevere through the suffering. This doesn’t remove the pain but helps you persevere through it.
William Cowper was a Christian man who lived in the 1700s and struggled through many types of suffering. There was a time where he experienced great depression, and one night he decided that was it. He was going to commit suicide by drowning himself in the Thames River in London. So he walked out his front door, and he called a cab and told the driver to take him to the river. However, out of nowhere, a storm came through and a fog came down upon the city that was so thick that the driver could not see at all where he was going. Well, Cowper insisted. So the driver kept on driving, but finally after driving around lost for a while, the cabby finally stopped and said, “I’ve got to let you out. I can’t see where I’m going.” So he let Cowper out and to Cowper’s surprise, he found himself exactly in front of his own doorstep, and he looked back and the cab was gone. God had sent the blackest storm and fog to keep him from killing himself. And he saw that even in our blackest moments, God is with us and in control. Cowper went into his house and penned this hymn:
God moves in a mysterious way / His wonders to perform; / He plants His footsteps in the sea, / And rides upon the storm.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; / The clouds ye so much dread, / Are big with mercy and shall break / In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, / But trust Him for His grace; / Behind a frowning providence / He hides a smiling face.
No matter what you are going through or will go through, the Bible says that there is a friend that sticks closer than a brother. Who could that be? That friend is God. The Bible presents God as the perfect friend, who is both crushed by your suffering and at the same time in control of it. He both grieves over it and governs over it. He’s sympathetic and sovereign. God’s sovereignty never excludes his sympathy. And understanding these two things in times of suffering will help us persevere.
Jeremy A. McKeen is the Senior Pastor of the First Congregational Church of Hamilton, MA.