A Light to the Nations

Lessons: Matthew 3:13-17, Isaiah 42:1-9

We usually leave our Christmas tree up until Epiphany at my house, until January 6th, the Twelfth Day of Christmas, the day the Church celebrates the visit of the magi. This year, for some reason I can’t quite explain, I was ready to put away Christmas on January 1st. I waited until January 2nd so I could get the help and cooperation of the rest of my family, but as I told my husband and our son, I was so over it.

I actually love Christmas. Our Advent, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day worship here at First Presbyterian Church are so special; so rich with joy and mystery. This past Christmas Eve, the pageant was not only fun but thought-provoking, and the music at our 9:00 p.m. candle light service was transcendent. Thank you, Daniel, John and the choir. So I’m not sure why I was so ready to move along, but it does mean that for once I’m in tune with the church calendar, which always seems to rush us after Christmas. At the end of Chapter 2 of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is a small child. Fast forward thirty years or so. The very next time we meet Jesus in Matthew’s gospel is in this morning’s passage. He’s about thirty and he’s come all the way from Galilee to the wilderness of Judea – perhaps about 70 miles – to join with the rest of the people Israel in being baptized by John the Baptist[1] in the Jordan River.

John looks and sounds like an Old Testament prophet. He’s not predicting the future, which is what people often think when they hear the word “prophet.” He does what all the Old Testament prophets did: he reminds the people of God who God is and what God expects of them. The reason he’s doing this out in the wilderness is because his message is countercultural; it’s basically a protest against the religious establishment. Ritual cleansing wasn’t anything new but it always happened in Jerusalem, in holy baths near the Temple. By baptizing ordinary folks out in the wilderness, John is saying that traveling to a fancy building in the big city isn’t what makes people holy. His message could be summarized in one word: “Repent,” which meant “rethink everything,” or “question your assumptions,” or “turn completely around in your thinking and your values.”[2] As protest so often is, John’s message was both a warning and a ray of hope. He confronted the powerful with their hypocrisy at the same time that he said to ordinary folks, “Things don’t have to be this way. God doesn’t want them to be this way.”

So Jesus shows up at the river and that all by itself tells us a couple of things. Jesus identifies with John’s countercultural protest, and he identifies with these ordinary folks. Then he steps out of the river, and the special effects start. We don’t know what it means that “the heavens were opened to him”[3] except that it’s far from ordinary. Something like a dove – not like an eagle or a hawk, or a lion or a viper – a dove, representing God’s Spirit, lands on him, and a heavenly voice, presumably God’s voice, announces, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”[4]

God’s words in Matthew echo this morning’s Isaiah passage. God, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, says, “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.”[5] In Isaiah, it is God’s servant; in Matthew, God’s Son – but both passages give us an opportunity to look at what it means to be God’s earthly representatives, God’s chosen ones – those anointed with God’s Spirit.

The context of the Isaiah passage was that the kingdom of Judah had been conquered by Babylonia in the 6th century B.C. The temple was in ruins and some of the leaders were forced into exile, dragged off to Babylon. Without a temple and a king, the future looked bleak. The people needed assurance and a new vision. Into this difficult political situation, Isaiah introduces this servant.[6] Interpreters debate exactly who the servant is, including whether the servant represents an individual or a community, whether the servant is a historical person or all of Israel.[7]

Interestingly enough, this same tension exists in the Matthew passage as well: Is this about an individual or a community? On one level, obviously Matthew is talking about an individual – Jesus, who is baptized by John. Jesus is the Beloved, God’s son, the one in whom God is well pleased. But on another level, we are invited to see ourselves in this baptism experience, to see the Christian community as baptized like Jesus into faith, into the beloved community. Together we are the daughters and sons of God. God is well pleased with us.

Less ambiguous is what God’s servant is to do. Isaiah is crystal clear that God’s servant will bring about justice. Every now and then someone asks me why the Christian church uses the word “justice” so often. The word sounds so judicial; it reminds people of the criminal justice system or of TV shows or movies in which people “take justice into their own hands.” Maybe “love” or “compassion” might be better words to communicate what the church is all about.

Those are great words, and the church uses them, as well, but we keep on using “justice” because the Hebrew word for justice, mishpat, is nothing less than the hallmark of the prophets of Israel.[8] Here in this passage, the word “justice” rings out from Isaiah’s poetry three times in the first four verses. The servant will “bring forth justice;”[9] he will “faithfully bring forth justice;”[10] he will “establish justice in the earth.”[11] Mishpat isn’t the kind of justice that puts people behind bars or gets revenge. It’s the kind that says everybody – everybody – is equally valuable in the sight of God and should be treated as such. According to the prophets, justice is the chief sign of a nation blessed by God. In such a nation all people have equal access to the goods and services of that place; all people know inherently that their primary responsibility and goal is the welfare, the shalom, of all and each of their neighbors; all people of such a nation know that when any member suffers, all suffer, too.[12]

The early Christians identified Jesus with Isaiah’s servant, which meant that they understood the primary goal in his earthly ministry was to be a light to the nations, to bring justice to the nations and to root it deeply into the soil of the world.[13] Not just Israel, but the whole of God’s world, the world God created. Justice is what Jesus preaches in his first sermon in Matthew’s gospel, the Sermon on the Mount. Justice is what he announces as his mission statement in Luke’s gospel: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[14]

If Jesus’ main goal was to be a light to the nations, all nations, and to bring about this kind of justice, then that is also to be the goal of those of us baptized into Christ, the beloved community formed in his name. We celebrate every Pentecost that we have received God’s Spirit. Those anointed with the Spirit are supposed to do justice. Bring good news to the poor. Proclaim release to the captives. Let the oppressed go free. Everywhere.

Sounds like a big job, right? It is the job to which the church is called. We are facing our own difficult political situation right now. Our country is divided; its citizens are filled with dread; hate crimes are on the increase; Medicare, Social Security and health care are on the chopping block; fear often speaks more loudly than compassion on both the Left and the Right. So just how are we, the body of Christ, to do Christ’s work of justice in God’s world? That is a matter of particular calling – both as individuals and as a community – but Isaiah’s answer, Jesus’ answer, might be surprising: “He will not shout out or raise his voice ….” says Isaiah. “A damaged reed he will not break, nor a dimming fire he will not extinguish,” yet, “he will not faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth and the coastlands wait for his teaching.”[15] This servant will work to bring justice inexorably, certainly, assuredly, without fail, but he will do it quietly, unobtrusively, unassumingly. He doesn’t fan hostilities, pick fights, put people down. Maybe we won’t even notice what he’s up to, but justice will come. I’m reminded of Martin Luther King, Jr., who said: “The arc of the universe is long, and it bends toward justice.”

What might that look like for us in our own lives – this quiet, persistent campaign bending towards justice? If activism is your calling, it probably means you choose the one area that’s most important to you, and chip away at it with love and compassion. But it also means that God can use any and all of us to make this world a more just and trust-worthy place,[16] day in and day out, in our ordinary lives. Marilyn Englander, a Marin teacher, describes what it looks like in her work. Englander writes about an encounter with a student: “She was my best student in history, but unsure of herself. She worked hard, really wanted those A’s.”

“Now it was the final exam. She dove right in, typing furiously on her laptop. I roved among the students. Every time I came towards her desk, she squirmed in her seat, changed the angle of the computer screen. My teacher radar went off. I kept circling the classroom, peering over shoulders, until I knew for sure.

“After the exam when everyone else had left, I explained what I had clearly seen her doing, toggling to her stored notes. I ripped up the print-out of her exam.

“It was a terrible moment for both of us. But I was the adult. I owed her the truth of right and wrong.

“As a teacher, I see the difficult terrain teenagers negotiate as they establish a sense of self, assembling personal values and ethics. Parents may not have the stamina to teach the really painful lessons, and the digital world where teens live is an echo chamber where cause and effect, acts and consequences are obscured, if not hidden. There are no referees. Meanwhile, they see the shortcuts some take to get ahead.

“They do something wrong because they saw other kids do it and ‘nothing happened.’ Or they think: ‘No one will find out. Everyone does it.’ No one discovers the school denied a diploma to the senior who plagiarized. Parents fight disciplinary action when their student ‘tells just a little lie.’

“Talking face to face about ethics, defeating the idea that a bad act can be ‘technically’ okay, is critical. Adults dare not be polite.

“I sat beside my student, feeling miserable too, but remembering that teaching right and wrong is the central work of all adults, and especially teachers. We are training the next generation to do the right thing.

“After she finished sobbing, my student looked at me teary-eyed and blurted, ‘Thank you.’ For stopping her, now.

“Years later,” says Englander, “she still stays in touch.”[17]

Englander didn’t tackle all of the world’s injustices. She mended the part of the world within her reach.[18] But she spoke up when it was hard to speak up, reminding me of the wisdom and warning of German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

Some of us speak or act publically. Some of us mend the part of the world closer to our reach and that’s holy work, too. Either way, we are the beloved community, together the daughters and sons of God, with whom God is well-pleased.

I saw a cartoon yesterday showing two figures: one standing, one digging in the dirt. The standing one says to the other, “Why so optimistic about 2017? What do you think it will bring?” The other says, “I think it will bring flowers.” “Yeah?” says the first fellow. “Why do you think that?” “Because I’m planting flowers,” says the other.

May we expect justice in 2017, because that is what we plant. We are a light to the nations. The day in, day out insistence on what is true, what is good, what is just is a light to the nations near and far, across the ocean or across the street or across the table.

May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2017 all rights reserved.

[1] John is also known as John the Baptizer, presumably so that people won’t confusedly connect him with Protestant denominations that call themselves “Baptist,” which were not founded until the 1600’s.

[2] Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking (New York: Jericho Books, 2014), 88.

[3] Matthew 3:16.

[4] Matthew 3:17.

[5] Isaiah 42:1.

[6] There are a number of passages about God’s servant in this part of Isaiah, often called “Second Isaiah. The servant of Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) is mentioned in four different passages: Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12.

[7] Later at Isaiah 49:3, the prophet names the servant as Israel: “And [God] said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” Tyler Mayfield, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3132.

[8] John C. Holbert, “The Very Definition of a Servant: Reflections on Isaiah 42:1-9,” January 07, 2014, http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Definition-Servant-John-Holbert-01-07-2014.

[9] Isaiah 42:1.

[10] Isaiah 42:3.

[11] Isaiah 42:4.

[12] Holbert.

[13] Holbert.

[14] Luke 4:18-19.

[15] Isaiah 42:3-4.

[16] David Lose, http://www.davidlose.net/2016/12/vocation-in-the-new-year/.

[17] Marilyn Englander, “Teaching Ethics to Teenagers,” aired on KQED Perspectives, January 5, 2017, https://ww2.kqed.org/perspectives/2017/01/04/teaching-ethics-to-teens/.

[18] Clarissa Pinkola Estes.

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