Thursday, January 5, 2017

What Sort of Servant?


In the collect for the First Sunday after the Epiphany, we pray to our "Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit." As I wrote about on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, that proclamation--that identification of Jesus as God's beloved Son--is the key to understanding Jesus' baptism. Why was Jesus baptized? To show us that in him God was bringing his centuries-old work of righteousness to its fulfillment. If we listen for it, we can hear more echoes of that identification in the other readings for this Sunday.

Isaiah 42:1-9 sticks out to us because we typically think of it as a Lenten reading. Appointed both for Epiphany 1A and for Monday in Holy Week, these words tell us of God's servant "in whom [God's] soul delights." This is the servant who "will bring forth justice to the nations" but will do so without using his voice to cry out in the streets as a typical prophet would. So gentle is this bringer of justice that he would not even quench a flickering, dimly burning candle. Remember that "justice" and "righteousness" are synonymous.

For thousands of years, God's people have asked who the servant depicted in these servant poems is. Is it Cyrus, the Persian leader who set God's people free from the Babylonian exile? Is it Cyrus' prophetic successor, who picked up the mantle when Cyrus' leadership disappointed God's people? Is it Israel? Is it Jesus? For me, when I hear the words of Deutero-Isaiah, I sense a historical particularity of which I am unaware--likely Cyrus and his successors--but I also sense a generic foreshadowing that resonates with the story of Jesus. In other words, these servant poems are not specifically about Jesus, but they point to a type of righteousness-fulfilling servant that Jesus enshrines.

Read the words of Isaiah 42 and think of Jesus' ministry. Jesus set God's people free. He brought light to the nations. He opened the eyes of the blind--literally and metaphorically. He brought the captives out of the prison of darkness. He brought the glory of the Lord to the earth. In all these ways, he established God's righteousness through his ministry, death, and resurrection. And it all starts with his baptism.

In all the synoptic accounts, baptism by John in the River Jordan is the first public act of Jesus' ministry. This is how everything gets started. And it starts this way because it is at the river that we hear God declare Jesus as his beloved Son, his beloved servant. This identification is more than a mantle of authority. It is a reflection of centuries of prophecy. Jesus is the righteousness-establishing servant whom God has sent to the world. As he emerges from the waters of baptism, we hear and see that identity, enabling us to recognize it throughout his ministry in his words, his miracles, and in the peculiar company that he keeps. The question in my mind isn't whether we can see who this Jesus is. God's voice makes that pretty clear. My question is whether we can see that the work of Jesus and, thus, that of his followers is to establish that justice.

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