Baptism of the Lord
In Isaiah, as in Matthew, context is key. The author is writing to a community in turmoil and mourning, most of the people of Judah in exile in Babylon, with no King and a Kingdom and Temple in ruins. Any hope to be found is a distant dream and those who hold it must be in it for the long haul. Scholars debate the identity of ‘the servant’, some arguing that it is Cyrus or a kingly figure in the model of David, while others consider it to be the prophet, author of the text. The Christian tradition associates this text with Jesus and marries these words with the words we have in the gospel of Matthew. A strong strand of scholarship points to the exiled community as the servant – they, collectively, will bring light to the Nations by their actions.
This is an epiphany moment! In the text, God delights in the servant and goes on to tell us what it is that delights. The actions of the servant throw down a gauntlet and challenge communities of faith to consider how they are called to live. The servant’s justice is gentle – the bruised reed and the spluttering flame are not disregarded, but protected and nurtured and given every chance to thrive.
People of faith, don’t trample others underfoot in a race to the top or a race to be right. Speak gently and thoughtfully, don’t drown out the voices on the margins or silence those whose voices are muffled by poverty, fear or oppression.
God’s justice is not about one side winning and another losing; no, it is an embedded reality where power realigns and is shared. The widows and the orphans and the stranger – those most vulnerable, pushed into corners and too easy to overlook – their voices and stories are raised up and pulled into the centre of the community’s concern.
God’s justice opens the eyes of the blind – those who cannot focus past today because of hunger and fear and those who cannot see because they are blinded by greed and the fear of losing their place of privilege. It is the same with the image of the prisoner being freed – there are different ways to be bound up and held back.
The Epiphany moment is here – as servants in whom God delights, how do we respond to climate change, gender injustice and the refugee crisis? How do we reach out and embrace our place as an important cog in a wheel rolling towards justice? The text ends with verse 9, ‘See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.’ It is our job to be living expressions of the new things God is calling into being, to get on with doing good, when the temptation is to shrink back in the face of unfavourable odds.
This is an ‘Epiphany’ moment for Jesus. When He comes out of the waters of His baptism and hears the spirit of God saying, ‘I am well-pleased with you, my child,’ there is a realisation that, now named and claimed, there is work to do. The ‘Beloved’ now turns His attention to all the others God loves. The echoes with Isaiah begin.
Jesus comes to John to be baptised in the waters of the Jordan in a time of political turmoil. Israel is controlled by the Roman Empire – people are on their knees struggling to pay tax to their occupiers, there is corruption at the heart of the Jewish inner circle. If you want to stay at the centre, then you work with Rome. Like the backdrop for Isaiah’s servant, it is a violent and uncertain time.
Yet, the Son with whom God is well-pleased will not meet violence with violence, but with love and forgiveness and healing. The text resonates with the image of the servant in Isaiah, who will not break the bruised or snuff out the dimly burning.
It is telling that the Spirit in Matthew’s gospel telling descends like a dove, symbol of peace, restoration and forgiveness. God is well-pleased with gentleness, vulnerability and humility. That is what God delights in and intends to base the justice-filled world order on. Jesus did not go about being right and absorbing power, but walking alongside, healing and feeding, living and dying for justice that realigns life to shalom. Finally, like Isaiah’s servant, there is an intrinsic relationship between the Servant/Saviour and the community. Jesus’ baptism was to fulfil all righteousness, to take us into the water with Him. We come out hearing the words ‘you are my beloved’ – and we know there is work to do. Help the congregation consider how they turn their collective attention to the world that God also calls ‘Beloved.’
These weekly pointers are provided by Sally Foster Fulton, Head of Christian Aid Scotland and are a slightly adapted from content provided for the Church of Scotland Weekly Worship pages – used with permission.
Oh God, are you ‘well pleased’ with me?
Could it really be true, that I am your beloved?
Give me courage to believe that, in my baptism, you chose me and anointed me, to serve you.
Give me the grace with which to burn with love for you and for your people.
Give me the Holy Spirit, to come upon me, to anoint me and to bless me, so that I may know that I am yours.
And show me how I can so live and speak of your burning love for all your people that all will know that they too are your chosen ones in whom you truly delight.
Prayer by Rev Dr. Susan Durber, provided when she was theology advisor for Christian Aid.
Points for prayer can be found in the weekly prayer diary
Published on 12 December 2019