Isaiah 53:5 “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.”

            One of my favorite cartoon strips is Calvin and Hobbes. If you don’t read this comic regularly, Calvin is a little boy with a typical preschooler’s imagination and knack for getting into mischief. In one series in the strip Calvin invented several clones of himself, but then he lost control of them. The clones go around getting into trouble, and Calvin winds up taking the blame. In time, however, Calvin learns how to turn the tables on them. Then he performs the mischief, and the clones take the punishment. Wouldn’t that be every child’s dream–to have someone to take the blame and the punishment for everything we did?

            For Christians, we know this is reality. We DO have someone who has taken the blame for us. He has taken the blame for every sin committed by every human being. Jesus has done this with his vicarious death. He has lived and died as our substitute. That is what Isaiah describes in these words: “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities.”

            The word “vicarious” isn’t a word we use every day. In the Lutheran church, some are more familiar with a part of this word, “vicar,” referring to pastors in training. During a seminarian’s training for the ministry, one year is spent under a pastor in a congregation. The vicar learns by substituting for the pastor in many situations. He calls on the sick, preaches sermons, teaches classes, and makes evangelism calls in the pastor’s place. 

            In a sense, each of us has been called to serve as vicar, or substitute, for Christ. Rather than do all the work of spreading the gospel himself, he has chosen us to go in his place. But there is one important way in which we cannot serve as his substitute. Only Jesus can pay for the sins of the world.

            The reason we need Jesus to do this vicarious work is simple: We don’t live up to God’s perfect standard. The Bible makes it clear there is only one way for us to obtain heaven on our own. When asked what a person must do to obtain heaven, Jesus replied, “If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.” But God isn’t satisfied if we occasionally keep his commands or resist temptation. He expects nothing less than perfect, faultless obedience: “Be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” 

            That doesn’t sound like Isaiah’s description of us here. “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities. With his commandments, God has drawn a line, set a limit, and warned us not to go any farther. But a rebel lives inside us all. Not only do we step across that line, by nature we have our feet planted solidly on the wrong side it in defiance. We have transgressed. We are far from perfect.

            Sometimes we may use our imperfection as an excuse. We are all familiar with the disclaimer, “Nobody’s perfect.”  When we fail to remember the date of our anniversary, to get a job done right, to complete a task for school or work, and we can’t get around it or deny it, we may be tempted to say, “Nobody’s perfect.”  But our imperfection isn’t an excuse. It’s the problem. And it’s a problem that doesn’t just affect ourselves or the people around us.  It costs us our good relationship with God. 

            That is why we need a substitute. That is why we need the vicarious life and death Jesus lived and died in our place. He is the perfect substitute, the vicar we need. 

In this brief passage of Isaiah, only our sin is evident: our transgressions, our iniquities. Jesus has done nothing to deserve the kind of treatment he received. Still, “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

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