January 8, 2017
Isaiah 42:1-9 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
42 Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
2 He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
3 a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
5 Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
6 I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
7 to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
8 I am the Lord, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
9 See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.
We have arrived at Baptism of Jesus Sunday, the first Sunday after Epiphany. On the Day of Epiphany, we celebrate the coming of light into the world in God’s self-revelation in the person of Jesus. For those in the Eastern Church, January 6 is Christmas. In the West, it is Epiphany, which is according to tradition the day we remember the coming of the Magi to honor Jesus with their gifts. They represent the Gentile nations who have seen the light of God. On Baptism of Jesus Sunday, our attention shifts several decades into the future. Jesus is now a grown man, who, according to Matthew, comes from Galilee to the region of the Jordan River, where John is baptizing. Why does Jesus come to John for baptism? That is the question for the ages, but whatever the answer, in Matthew’s version of the story, John resisted the request. He suggests that Jesus should baptized him, but Jesus insists that John baptize him. When Jesus emerges from the waters of baptism, the Spirit of God descends upon him in the form of a dove. Then a voice from heaven declares: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:13-17). With this announcement from the heavens, the ministry of Jesus is launched.
Baptism has deep roots within Judaism, and it is one of two sacraments that almost all Christians affirm (the other being the Eucharist). Defining the meaning/theology of baptism and describing the “proper” forms is rather complicated. It would require much more space than I’m ready to give to it at this moment. I might suggest reading Clark Williamson’s small book Baptism: Embodiment of the Gospel, Disciples Baptismal Theology, (Christian Board of Publication, 1987), though it is long out of print, for an interpretation arising from my own tradition. I will interject this from Paul: in baptism, we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection, so that we might be dead to sin and alive to Christ (Rom. 6:1-11).
In Matthew’s description of Jesus baptism, we hear God affirm Jesus to be God’s Son and we watch with Matthew as the Spirit of God alights upon Jesus. We hear that God delights in Jesus, and this leads us to the reading from Isaiah 42. The prophet (Second Isaiah) declares, on behalf of God, “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations” (Is. 42:1). The wording isn’t quite the same as in Matthew 3, but there is a resemblance. Jesus is the servant of God, in whom God delights. He is the one, according to Luke 4, upon whom the Spirit has fallen, and who is given the responsibility of bringing “good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18). The scripture Jesus reads in the synagogue in Nazareth in Luke 4 is Isaiah 42. In that passage, Jesus claims this mantle. He is the one in whom God delights. He is the one who is filled with the Spirit, to bring justice and good news to the world. He will bring deliverance to the captives and sight to the blind.
While we appropriate the message of this psalm from Isaiah to define the ministry of the one who received baptism from John—the one whom God claims as God’s Son as the Spirit descends—it’s unlikely that Isaiah has Jesus in mind. Contextually, the servant is Israel. As John Goldingay puts it, “Yahweh’s servant embodies with it means to have Yahweh in covenant relationship with you, embodies what it means to have Yahweh’s light (that is, Yahweh’s blessing) shine in your life. That covenant and light are not designed just for Israel but for the nations; Yahweh’s plan was to embody them in Israel as something also available to the nations” [Goldingay, Isaiah forEveryone, p. 158]. Here we have, laid out for us, Israel’s vocation. Here, in these verses, Isaiah lays out Israel’s calling as the covenant people of God living in exile in Babylon. This people is called by God, and filled with the Spirit, to bring good news to the nations. They have been charged as God’s covenant people with being a light to the nations.
What is important to hear in this passage is Isaiah’s description of Israel’s condition. What is amazing about the story of God’s covenant relationship with Israel, is that this people was never rich or powerful. Israel, even at its height of glory, was a relatively small kingdom. It never approached the power of Egypt or Assyria or Babylon. It stood at the crossroads of empires, which meant that many battles were fought on its plains and valleys, but it was never the main actor. Nonetheless, this people whom Isaiah describes as being a “bruised reed” will “never break.” Israel might be a “dimly burning wick,” but it “will never be quenched” (vss. 2-3).
So, what word should we hear from Second Isaiah on Baptism of Jesus Sunday? What is Jesus’ mission, and how might we participate in it? In other words, how might we baptized with the baptism of Jesus? Whatever the form of our baptism, whether immersion or sprinkling, believer’s or infant, on Baptism of Jesus Sunday, let us reaffirm vows of commitment to Jesus and his way. May we be formed by God’s grace, so that we might be in Christ a community of light to the nations, so that justice might be proclaimed, that good news might be shared with the poor, the captive, the blind. We close with these words from Isaiah, words fit for the beginning of a new year.
I am the Lord;
that is my name;
I don’t hand out my glory to others
or my praise to idols.
The things announced in the past—look—they’ve already happened,
but I’m declaring new things.
Before they even appear,
I tell you about them. (Is. 42:8-9 CEB).
New things are about to happen, and God has revealed them to us. We have been made, through baptism, part of the covenant people of God. Therefore, may the light of God shine through us so that the world might see God’s grace, love, and justice.
Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan and is the author of a number of books including Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016) and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015).