First Sunday after the Epiphany,
January 8 2017
Isaiah 42.1-9; Psalm 98; Acts 10.34-43; Matthew 3.13-17
Rev Páraic Réamonn, Church of Scotland
Last Sunday, while I was spending more time with my family, John Howard led us in a covenant service, as befits the first Sunday of a new year.
This Sunday is, if you like, the second shoe dropping: a second chance to remember God’s covenant with us and our covenant with God, as we read of the baptism of Jesus by John and bring to mind our own baptism.
Here in chapter three of Matthew’s Gospel, we are still on the threshold of the ministry of Jesus. But Matthew hasn’t been wasting our time. Already by chapter three, Jesus has been set in the context of God’s saving activity among Israel and the nations; commissioned before he was born to embody and show forth this saving presence; threatened in infancy by Herod the Great – a story that anticipates the real-life threat the adult Jesus will face when the Roman empire and its puppet leaders in Jerusalem collude to have him killed – attested by the Jewish scriptures; and witnessed to by John. These scene-setting chapters establish Jesus as son of Abraham and son of David, “God with us”, and “king of the Jews”. But as Matthew and the other Gospel writers in their different ways take pains to tell us, he is a very peculiar kind of king.
To understand this better, let’s start with our Old Testament reading.
In Isaiah 42, the divine speaker announces a servant who is chosen by God and a source of delight for God. God will place God’s spirit upon him so that he may be a light to the nations, bring forth justice, open blind eyes and free prisoners from dark dungeons. When Jesus is baptized in our Gospel reading, God’s spirit descends upon him in like manner and God delights in him. The two texts echo one another.
This servant is spoken of in Second Isaiah in four different passages. Scholars call these the Servant Songs, although they are more accurately described as poetic or poetic in form. Scholars typically interpret them with reference to each other and – if they are Christian scholars – with reference to Christ. But we should begin by reading them within the context of the overall message presented in the second part of the book of Isaiah – chapters 40 to 55.
Second Isaiah is addressed to a defeated people who need reassurance and a new vision and, above all, help. The southern kingdom of Judah has been overrun by the Babylonian empire, with kingship at an end and the temple in ruins. The leading families of the community find themselves in exile in Babylon. But help is at hand, says Isaiah 42, in the person of this servant.
Who is this servant? The question is much debated. Tentatively we can say that its original setting, Isaiah 42 probably refers to Cyrus of Persia.
Now, Cyrus was an imperial ruler and, as we might expect, not a very nice man. He began his career as head of a clan in southwest Iran – in contemporary Middle Eastern terms, as a warlord. He gained the leadership of other tribes in the Persian heartland and went on to conquer the empire of the Medes, the kingdom of Lydia, much of the Greek-speaking Ionian littoral, the entire Neo-Babylonian empire, and vast territories to the east.
As Isaiah 41.2 sums up his career, he trampled kings under foot; he made them like dust with his sword and like driven stubble with his bow. In worldly terms, he was a great success, well deserving of an Oscar for imperialism; but it’s worth noting that he died fighting.
Cyrus ruled his empire, however, in a different way from the Assyrians or the Babylonians. He is remembered kindly in Jewish tradition as the one who gave permission to the exiles in Babylon to return home. In the words that end the Jewish Bible, the closing verses of Second Chronicles (36:23): “Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him! Let him go up.”
Even in the book of Isaiah, however, we can already see the prophecy of Isaiah 42 being reinterpreted. In Isaiah 49.3, the servant is identified not as Cyrus but as the people themselves: “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
Take the four passages together and, where we might expect a prophecy of God’s triumph over the Babylonian power that has enslaved God’s people, we find instead a servant of God who will bring true justice to the nations. “There will be no clamorous military parades through the streets before cowed onlookers, no smashing of enemies reduced to impotence.” True justice, the justice of God, means peace and the “cause of right” – a just order both within and between nations or communities. True justice will be brought about not with the sword and the bow, but by a servant who is willing to suffer and by suffering to save.
Jews have traditionally understood this servant as the Jewish community, called to be a servant to the world, a light to the nations.
For Christians, by contrast, Jesus is the Israelite who is able to fulfil Israel’s mission. The presentation of the servant’s mission, his rejection and persecution, and the saving nature of his death in these Servant Songs uncannily foreshadows the Gospel story. These four servant poems are a central reason why many have seen the book of Isaiah as the fifth Gospel.
Turn next to the book of Acts.
Looking back in the light of all that has happened and all that he has learned, Peter sums up the ministry of Jesus by saying that he is the preacher and the agent of God’s peace. Given all the trouble Jesus stirred up and the sticky end to which he came, this is perhaps a surprising summary.
But peace is more than making nice. Peace comes from engaging in the struggle against all that is wrong in our lives and wrong in our world. Peace means the end of domination and oppression. It is the healing restoration of God’s world.
But it doesn’t mean hating those who are caught up in an oppressive system. Peter preaches this telling little sermon in the house of a Roman centurion. And this is the other side of the coin.
As God reveals to us what the servant kingship of Jesus means in the world, we often find ourselves struggling to keep up with God’s visions about neighbours and strangers and enemies. Like Peter, we learn that God’s care extends beyond our own tribe. We begin to realize in new ways that the family given to us by God’s grace extends beyond people who look, think, and live as we do. It extends to everyone:
“Gone are class and status; gone, degrees and fame… None dare trust their lineage…” God has no favourites or, to put it another way, we are all God’s favourites. It’s the same thing.
When we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany, the light of the servant messiah shines upon us, helping us in turn to show this light to all we meet.
So too, when we remember the servant king humbling himself to be baptized, we are in turn shown the way of humility. In baptism, we are cleansed from sin, adopted as sisters and brothers of the servant messiah, and given the grace to act as children of God towards others. We are anointed to be servants of good news in the world.
Last but not least, the baptism of Jesus, like so many stories in our scriptures, points us to the mystery of a God who is three in one: the voice from heaven, the son immersed in the waters of the Jordan, the spirit descending like a dove. It is of course idle to look to scripture for the developed teaching of the Trinity we find in the great councils and theologians of the church; but this story and the others like it are why we are compelled, to the great confusion of our Jewish and Muslim neighbours, to speak of a Trinity at all.
Like Peter, we are called to tell the story of Jesus in such a way that it frames both our own story and the story of our world, and we are called to tell it to others but in the first place to tell it to ourselves. We say that this story is good news; but it becomes good news only when we allow it to change our lives and through us to change the world.
Peace with justice is at the heart of the baptism of Jesus and of our own baptism. Like Peter, we are called to be witnesses – not just to repeat a story from long ago, but to witness to God’s continuing work of peace today. Like the servant in Isaiah, like the servant king in the waters of the Jordan, we are called to be servants and to play our modest part in God’s saving mission, each in our own way.
Christ is our light! (CH4 336)
Oh, sing a new song to the Lord (CH4 61)
Here at Jordan’s river (Noёl Nouvelet)
The voice of God goes out to all the world (CH4 283)
We sing a love that sets all people free (CH4 217)
Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 40-55. A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 2000)
Book of Common Worship (Louisville KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993): “Litany for the Baptism of the Lord”
Mark O’Brien op, The ABC of Sunday Matters. Reflections on the Lectionary Readings for Year A, B, and C: “Baptism of the Lord, Year C” (Sydney, Australia: ATF, 2013)