Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Baptized for Service

Baptized for Service
Isaiah 42:1-9
January 13, 2008
Baptism of the Lord (A)

© 2008 by Christopher D. Drew

Sermon Focus: Today is when we acknowledge another action marking the epiphany of Jesus Christ as the anointed Son of God. The prophet Isaiah reveals the essence of what it means to be chosen and claimed by God, the responsibilities of that calling, and the ethical basis upon which to fulfill those responsibilities.

Sermon Function: To illustrate for listeners how they, as those baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, are also God’s chosen people; and to testify to the significant responsibilities associated with being chosen to serve the cause of justice – opening eyes that are blind and bringing prisoners out of dungeons of despair.

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Today is another sort of epiphany Sunday. Today we mark the event of the baptism of Jesus Christ by John, his cousin. The baptism of Jesus is considered such an important event that an account of the baptism occurs in all four of the gospels. In each case, there is a three-part movement in the story. First, Jesus approaches John, and John Baptizes Jesus. Second, there is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus. Third, there is a divine proclamation by God that Jesus is God’s Son, his beloved one, the one with whom God is well pleased. And this statement, which is almost identical in form in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, is tied directly to today’s sermon text in Isaiah.

Today’s reading is the first of four so-called “Servant Songs.” These are written in poetic Hebrew, and each of the songs describes “God’s special agent who will fulfill his purpose for the faithful community. Though innocent, he will suffer for his people.”1

Let’s listen now to God’s word to us.

[Read Scripture - Isaiah 42:1-9]

Introductory Comments

I love this reading from Isaiah. For the people of Israel, this passage marks the hope of a new beginning, a new beginning in the home country of the capitol, Jerusalem, after having been spread out far afield, across the coastlands of the Mediterranean Sea, living in the darkness of unfamiliar lands. It makes a certain sense, then, that this passage on about new beginnings, with new leadership – servant leadership, be selected together with our reading form the Gospel of Matthew.

In fact, this text from Isaiah seems to be reaching out from the depths of history to the present reality of the baptism of Jesus Christ. For Christians, who cannot read the Old Testament except through the eyeglasses of truth known as the Gospel, this passage clearly alludes to Jesus and his role in the kingdom of God.

Isaiah here is quoting God: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.” God delights in his servant! When we hear these words today, we’re tempted to hear them in our mind’s ear with the voice of someone deeply serious, perhaps James Earl Jones. But I hear laughter in these words, the laughter of a parent who is thrilled by the wholesome innocence of the child.

Isaiah quotes God as saying, “I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations” (Isa 42:1 NRSV). God’s very spirit marks the servant as one who is set aside for a specific job, to bring justice to the nations. Not just the nation of Israel, but all of the nations of the world, including the gentile nations. I like how Eugene Peterson paraphrases this verse, “I've bathed him with my Spirit, my life.”2 The bathing image clearly alludes to baptism. The very creative breath of God, the same breath that came over the waters and brought order from chaos at the beginning, that same breath gives life to God’s beloved servant, the same breath that lighted on Jesus like a dove.

Characteristics of the Servant

We know that the servant is the one in whom God’s very soul delights. What are some of the characteristics of servant?

We read that the servant “will not cry or lift up his voice.” He won’t break the reed that is bruised – the soul that is hurting. He won’t snuff out the light of the dimly burning wick, neither will he snuff out the hope of the lost. Instead, “he will faithfully bring forth justice.” The people of Israel under the occupation of Rome expected a Messiah that would fundamentally overthrow the political order. This reading from Isaiah makes it clear, however, that no one should have been overly surprised that Jesus would be born into a humble life, and enter into solidarity with us through the waters of baptism, and then, rather than leading an army to overthrow Rome, instead preached the good news of a loving God who desires mercy, while healing the sick, casting out demons, and giving solace to the poor.

The servant described to us by Isaiah is steadfast in his task until “he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.” The church, through Christ, continues to work to establish justice and to share the good news of the gospel, and it will continue to do so until Christ returns to complete the work he began with his birth and baptism.

Who Is Making the Promise?

In the middle of our reading is a certification, of sorts. Isaiah here makes it clear that the words being written are the very words of God, the Lord. The one who made everything there is, beginning with the heavens, then the earth, and the one who gives life to every creature on the earth, and the spirit to those who walk in it. The picture of the complete human is one who is created, who has a body and a soul, and who is a child of the living God. The living God who is present with all creation through all time, and who gives (note the present tense!) breath and life, to you and to me, and to your friends, and your families, and your neighbors.

The Lord Gives The Servant as a Covenant

By God’s own righteousness, he takes his servant by the hand and keeps him safe. Isaiah writes that God gives the servant as a covenant to the people, and a light to the nations. He is given as a covenant. His body is given as a covenant. His blood is given as a covenant. Just as we are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, so to do we remember that this servant is himself a new covenant, sealed with the very real sacrifice of his own body and blood on the cross.

And his devotion and dedication to the work of God brings redemption. Eyes that were blind, blind with anger, or fury, frustration, or sadness, are opened to see the joy of the everlasting love of God. Prisoners are brought out from the dungeons and darkness of sin and unrelenting oppression.

For What Reason?

And for what reason does God do this? He does because of his own glory, a glory of One who creates, who takes delight in what he creates, and who gives us a servant to illuminate our lives with his light, so that we might not remain in the darkness of sin and death. He does these things because His love for us is his glory.

Reading Ourselves Into the Text

Isaiah is writing for Israel. Seen through the lens of Jesus Christ, Isaiah is proclaiming the realization of God’s promise to us gentiles as well.

And on this day, the day set aside for the worship of the servant who came as a baby, was baptized in solidarity with us by John, humbly served others in his ministry, and used the power of the cross to save those who were lost, and who through his body and blood reminds us of the new covenant he inaugurated, it definitely pays to remind ourselves of this fact: God claimed for himself a servant to save Israel and the gentiles. And, through baptism, Christ claims US for the work of his ministry in the world – to feed the poor, to strengthen the fainthearted, to support the weak and oppressed, in short, to love our neighbors as ourselves. In baptism, the former things of our life pass away and a new thing takes hold. The temptations of the old life, all of the sin, all of the addictions, all of the destructive behavior, all of the misuse of resources, all the misuse of others, gets tossed in the rubbish bin. But, as you know, these things can sometimes take time. Baptism is frequently and incorrectly, I think, viewed as a discrete, one-time only event. In fact, it marks the beginning of a life of sanctification in Christ. By “sanctification,” I mean like a refining process, one that sifts out the impurities and insecurities and impertinencies of life. It is a process that is renewed sacramentally when we nourish ourselves at the table, when we join together singing praises to God, and when we deliberately reflect on that wonderful fact that we are claimed by God, for, God, before we’re even aware of it.

It is said that Martin Luther, the great reformer who inaugurated the protestant reformation, when suffering from the intense pressures and trials, would rediscover the great peace of God’s grace by simply reciting to himself this reminder, “I am baptized.” And as we continue down the path of this new year, a year that will undoubtedly be filled with its own pressures and anxieties and trials, I think we should take a moment now to remind ourselves that we, too, are claimed by God through baptism. In just a minute, I’m going to head back to the font and ask you all to join me in a reaffirmation of your baptisms. And if you happen not to be baptized, I invite you to watch with an open heart and an attentive ear to see and hear if God might be pulling you through his Word toward the font, claiming you as His own, as a servant of His Son Jesus Christ.

Given at First Presbyterian Church, Portland, Texas.

1Haslam, Chris. “The Baptism of the Lord – January 13, 2008: Introductions for Readers.” Comments. Accessed on January 11, 2008. Link here.

2Peterson, Eugene. The Message.

Monday, January 14, 2008