Grief and Glory
“He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief . . .” (Isaiah 53:3).
Isaiah’s great description of the Messiah is one who is smitten and despised. It has long been debated as to whether he was thinking of a person or of his nation. The main point, however, is clear enough. The Messiah will not be regarded as success and victory, but as defeat and sorrow. Our Lord filled that ancient word with such profound meaning that, whenever we read the words of Isaiah, we think of Jesus.
We ought to note, in the beginning, something of the sorrow and sadness of Christ. The medieval artists all labored this to such an extent that their portraits of him are nearly always a pain-drenched figure in anguish. This is the realism of the Bible and of our religion. We begin with the worst; we start with defeat and sorrow. An institution that cannot face bad times will not last very long. The cause that cannot stand defeat is not worthy of our loyalty. A leader whose appeal is only in success will not endure.
Yet we must find something more than sorrow for men. Life demands joy. The church must be more than lugubrious. A person whose life exhibits only the grayness of failure has not become truly human. Yet, this is the place we have to start and ask what happens to us or to our purposes in the midst of defeat. Remember that H.G. Wells wrote a small book with the title, Mind at the End of Its Tether. A prophet of the hopeful dawn had become a prophet of the gloomy twilight and of death.
The second thing we ought to note is the happiness and joy of Christ. Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles shows pictures of him smiling, for this is the impression that institution wants to give to those who sorrow. There is much to be said for this, and the ministry ought to be ready with a word of encouragement for those in trouble. The revival songs are all full of hope and optimism.
But woe unto us if this is the only mood that we can create. The sects of our time sometimes try to make a religion out of happiness and joy. They endeavor to establish a proposition that to follow their way is to know only laughter. There is no realism here. The one who can be only sentimental stands on no real foundation that can endure.
Let us look at a third point: these two seeming opposites must come together. The Christ who is the man of sorrows is also the Christ of victory. He is the one the Book of Revelation refers to as “the bright and morning star.” He is the one the crusader’s hymn describes as “Fairest Lord Jesus.” If we look at suffering in the world, we are overwhelmed, for everybody seems to be having a very difficult time. Life is not easy. Yet there runs through it sudden bursts of joy and hope. The Frenchman, Claudel, says that, when he heard Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, he knew there was joy at the heart of the universe. In some strange way, out of the suffering, there comes the joy.
Or think of love in all its beauty, but also in its sadness. Once we get involved with one another, we share extra burdens. Once we give hostages to fortune, as parents do, we have extra trouble. Yet there is in this love a strength and a power that finally brings to us refreshment and happiness. In spite of all its cost and demand, its reward is inspiration and confidence.
If we turn to sacrifice, we discover the same truth. The worldly-wise man does not want to be taken in, as he says, and he never wants to get out on a limb. But to the man who finds something worth giving himself to, there is revealed the meaning of life and the awareness of its eternal significance.
The last thing to say is that Christianity comes with a great paradox. Out of its suffering there comes triumph, and out of its stripes there comes healing. The Law which seems so severe can become the source of our liberty. The psalmist professes that he loves the Law. The moral law of life which is so severe proves to be that which sets us free and brings us fulfillment. Duty, which the poet called the stern voice of God, seems to be a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. How amazing it is that duty turns into laughter and freedom.
We find this in our lives. Were our parents beautiful or not? The question seems entirely minor as we think of our mother and her love. She was above our ordinary standards. Someone may comment that a friend of yours is very strange looking. You never noticed it because he is your friend, and in the qualities of his life you see beauty and wonder. So Jesus Christ, who to the world may be a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, becomes to the Christian the Rose of Sharon and that which is altogether beautiful. When the Gospel touches us, it has the strange power of transforming what to the pagan is only grief and sorrow into triumph and hope.