The Ugliness of Christ

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Isaiah 53:2

You’ve probably heard about the beauty and attractiveness of Jesus Christ, but have you ever thought about his ugliness?

Fair are the meadows,

Fairer still the woodlands,

Robed in the blooming garb of spring:

Jesus is fairer,

Jesus is purer,

Who makes the woeful heart to sing.

So we sing in the beautiful words of an old German hymn called “Fairest Lord Jesus.” The incomparable attractiveness of the Lord Jesus Christ is a much-loved theme of Christians in all times and places. To us, he is indeed the fairest of the fair, a “Beautiful Savior, the Lord of the nations.” A genuine Christian can always be recognized by the way he or she esteems the Lord Jesus Christ.

Of course, when we speak of the beauty of Jesus, we don’t mean that in a physical sense. It is interesting to observe that while his closest companions left us minute and detailed accounts of what Jesus said and taught and did, they never wrote a word about what he looked like, not even a passing comment. If Jesus Christ were to bump into you on the street today dressed in modern clothes, you would not have a clue as to his identity.

When Christians speak or sing about how beautiful Jesus is, we mean the beauty of his personality and the goodness and purity of his character. We’re talking about Jesus’ words and deeds, not his appearance.

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ISAIAH

But there is another side to the story. If we speak of the attractive features in the Bible’s portrait of Jesus Christ, we also have to talk about the ugliness and repulsiveness. Yes, that’s right: the ugliness of Christ!

One of the most amazing chapters in the Bible is the 53rd chapter of the book of Isaiah. Here we find a powerful, deeply moving and yet mysterious description of a person whom Isaiah calls only “the servant of the Lord.” Isaiah writes of a man specially favored by God and chosen for a unique mission. “Behold, my servant . . . he shall be exalted and lifted up” (Isa. 52:13, rsv), says the prophet. But as he goes on to describe in detail, though honored by God, this Servant would also be harassed and persecuted by his own people; spat upon and scorned, despised and rejected, tortured and eventually killed. All this suffering he would patiently endure for the sake of those whom his suffering would save.

Who is this messianic figure, this suffering servant of the Lord, this wounded and dying Savior? Like a man from Ethiopia who read the moving words of the 53rd chapter of Isaiah centuries later, we wonder, “Who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” (Acts 8:34).

The answer the New Testament gives is clear beyond the shadow of a doubt: Isaiah was speaking about Jesus Christ. Writing some 700 years before the birth of Christ, in one of the most powerful evidences of the Bible’s unique inspiration as the Word of God, the Old Testament prophet gives a clear account of Jesus’ sufferings and death. This chapter offers us, in condensed form, “The Gospel according to Isaiah.”

FITTING THE PROFILE

I’d like to invite you to follow with me as I study this gospel of Isaiah verse by verse. The chapter opens with a plaintive cry.

Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

(vv. 1,2, niv)

So there it is: the ugliness of Christ. The Lord’s chosen One would have no beauty or attractiveness and nothing desirable in his appearance. What does Isaiah mean by this? Again, he is not talking about physical attributes. Nor does he mean that there would be absolutely nothing good or desirable in the person of the Servant of the Lord.

Perhaps I can help you to understand his meaning by telling you about something that once happened to me. Quite a few years ago, when I was a young and somewhat long-haired college student, I was running through an airport to catch a plane. This was around the time of the first airplane hijackings, and airport security had been increased, but it was before the days of metal detectors and baggage x-raying. As I rushed up to the door leading out to the plane, two hard-eyed and grim-faced men stepped up alongside me. Each clamped down on one of my arms while they “invited” me to accompany them to a small room, where I was subjected to a quick but thorough search and then allowed to board the aircraft. On my way out I asked the security agents why they had decided to search me (innocent, harmless, law-abiding little me, I might have added). “Because you fit the profile,” one of them growled.

I think that’s the issue Isaiah was raising when he wrote of the Servant’s unattractiveness. He was saying that when the Savior actually did come into the world, he wouldn’t “fit the profile” of the Messiah. He would not look the part. He would be outwardly unpromising, like a young plant growing out of dry ground. He would be average and ordinary, with nothing remarkable in his appearance that would make people turn their heads when they saw him and think “There’s somebody special.” He would not stand head and shoulders above the crowd like Saul, Israel’s first king.

Nor would he act the part of the expected Messiah. In the circumstances of his life he would be humble, with nothing about him that would naturally draw the world’s admiration. He would not be the kind of political leader most were looking for; he would fail to impress in that way. As far as popular opinion was concerned, the Messiah whom Isaiah describes just would not measure up. This is what he means when he speaks of the ugliness of Christ.

THE ANONYMOUS MESSIAH

But now think about this. Is there anyone who fits Isaiah’s profile? Can you think of a Messiah who was judged to be undesirable, who went largely unrecognized when he came? Consider the actual details of the life of Jesus Christ. There was his nationality. Jesus was a Jew, a member of the most despised and persecuted race in human history. Then there was the country where he was born; Roman soldiers who were posted to Palestine felt like NATO troops being sent to Bosnia, and for exactly the same reasons. It was a difficult, dangerous and out of the way place, filled with people who seemed to be impossible to control. Jesus not only was born in Palestine, he grew up in Galilee. Even the Jews laughed at Galileans. And then there was his family. Though they might trace their family tree back to the great King David, whatever prestige Joseph and Mary’s family might have once possessed had long since vanished. They were nobodies, poor working class folk who never had much of anything that the world values.

That’s who Jesus of Nazareth was. Born without social status, living without worldly prestige, dying a homeless, itinerant preacher who, as he himself once said, didn’t even have a bed to call his own.

Because Jesus didn’t look like the Messiah was supposed to look, most people did not acknowledge him when he came. “He had no beauty . . . to attract, nothing in his appearance that [they] should desire him.” It’s true there were a few who, by the grace of God, did recognize him. Their eyes were opened and they responded to him in faith. But they were a tiny group which included almost nobody of any importance: some wise men – foreigners, a few shepherds early on, others later coming mostly from ranks of the peasants, humble people like fishermen, and a significant number of women. It is also true that the crowd followed him for a time, listening to his teaching out of curiosity, clamoring for his miracles of healing and feeding. But there was no real recognition of him in all of that. Jesus was never important to most of the crowd except as a means of getting what they wanted for themselves.

When the time came and they were given an opportunity to choose Jesus, the crowd cried, “Away with him! Crucify him! Not this man. Give us Barabbas!” Now there was a Messiah who fit the profile – a revolutionary, a man of action who would strike a blow against Rome and who never said strange things about loving one’s enemies or denying one’s self or becoming the servant of all.

Despite all he said and did – perhaps because of all he said and did – Jesus remained for most of his contemporaries an anonymous Messiah. Because he did not match their expectations they simply failed to recognize him for who he was. They saw nothing in him that they wanted.

Exactly the same thing is happening today, for Jesus is present among us here and now. Yet he goes unrecognized every day. Where does that happen, you ask? It happens in many places. Jesus is present in his church at worship. “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst” he said. Whenever his word is spoken, when the Bible is read and explained, when the stories of Jesus are told over again, when the bread is broken and the cup served at his table, he is there. People could meet him if they would only see and recognize him.

Jesus is also present in his followers. His Spirit lives in the lives of Christians today. When Christ the Lord accosted the man then known as Saul of Tarsus, who was on his way to Damascus to hunt down the Christians in that city, Jesus said to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Every day throughout the world people are mocking and harassing Christians, discriminating against them, sometimes beating or imprisoning, even killing them. I wonder if it would make a difference if those who did such things could only see that it is actually the Lord God himself whom they are mistreating.

There’s one other place where you can meet Jesus if you have eyes to see and ears to hear. He is also present in our world in the persons of the poor, the lonely, the outcast, and the despised of our societies. Jesus has told us that in some sense he is living in those lives, and that every act of love or kindness done to one of them is really done to him, and every failure to act is neglect of him.

I was riding on the subway in Chicago. A man came staggering down the aisle of the car. He was dirty and disheveled and either drunk or half-witted, or maybe both. “Give me a dime,” he muttered. “A dime. I need a dime. Somebody got a dime? Give me a dime,” over and over and over, lurching from one seat to the next. I turned away uncomfortably and stared out the window, trying to ignore a hopeless case.

I wonder how many times I have looked at Jesus without recognizing him. I wonder how many times you have.