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The Rev. Teri Daily
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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.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
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:
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,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the LORD, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.
Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
There is a retired priest that I admire greatly, and he once told me the story of his first placement after ordination. At least one of the churches he served was very small–in fact, there were only twelve members. But this new priest was full of zeal and so very excited about the ministry to which he’d been called. He just knew that he would build up this small congregation and that, before long, the building would be bursting at the seams with people. When he moved on to another congregation a couple of years later, he told me, that same small parish had eleven members, since one of the parishioners had died during his tenure as priest there. Being a faithful pastor certainly didn’t look exactly like he thought it would.
As I read the story of Jesus’ baptism from the gospel of Matthew, I couldn’t help but wonder what expectations for his own ministry Jesus might have held on the front end. In the canonical gospels, Jesus’ baptism signals the beginning of his ministry–the beginning of a life of discipleship. Now the accounts of Jesus’ baptism inevitably stir up some confusion. We’re told earlier in this chapter of Matthew that the people of Jerusalem and all of Judea were going out to John to be baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins. Well, if Jesus had no sins like the Church traditionally holds, then why should he be baptized? It certainly seems that Matthew himself anticipated that his readers would have just this question, and so he made sure to portray John’s reticence to baptize Jesus. “I need to be baptized by you,” John says, “and do you come to me?” Jesus replies: “Let it be so for now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
“Fulfilling all righteousness” here doesn’t mean being brought into good standing before God; instead, fulfilling righteousness in this context is about acting in accordance with God’s purpose or God’s will. In other words, far from being portrayed as one in need of repentance, Matthew paints Jesus as one who is obedient to God’s will. What takes place in today’s gospel is a sign that Jesus is submitting himself to a larger purpose that’s at work in the world.
The words obedience and submission seem to have gotten a bad rap recently, and I can understand why. We have all seen these words used simply as power plays, or to maintain oppressive hierarchies, or to promote a rigid legalism. But when Jesus is baptized as a sign of discipleship and submission, he’s not proclaiming obedience to some set of rules. Instead, he’s taking on the yoke of a vision–the vision we see in our passage from Isaiah. And the irony here is that the yoke he takes upon himself is actually a vision of freedom and newness. We read in Isaiah: “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, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness… See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare.”
This passage from Isaiah is one of four so-called Servant Songs that are assumed to have been written while Israel was in exile in Babylon. It’s not clear who the chosen or called one is meant to be in the Servant Songs–maybe it’s an individual, or maybe the “servant” here refers to the nation of Israel. Whatever the word “servant” refers to, these four songs were clearly meant to be a source of hope during what were very difficult times. But look at how that hope that will be fulfilled–not with bold pronouncements or cries, not with force or violence, not even with enough bluster to put out a wick that is barely burning. And yet as gentle as this hope comes, its purpose won’t be short-circuited, its persistence won’t run dry, until justice has been established in the earth.
When Jesus began his ministry with the baptism proclaimed by John, did he know the vision into which his whole life would be taken up? Did he know the shape his ministry would take? Maybe so, especially if we take the gospel of Luke as our guide. In Luke, after Jesus has been baptized, led by the Spirit into the wilderness, and tempted by the devil, he begins teaching in the synagogues. When he comes to Nazareth, he stands up in the synagogue and reads from another portion of Isaiah, saying: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He 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.” If Jesus drew his own vision of ministry from the prophet Isaiah, maybe he had a sense of what lay ahead for him. Maybe he internalized the Servant Songs to some extent. Maybe he knew the path that awaited him–a path without fanfare, without the use of force, and without even an obvious victory. I don’t know.
But I do think that reading today’s passage from Isaiah on the first Sunday of the Season of Epiphany points to a crucial truth. “Epiphany” means appearance, manifestation, or revelation. The season of Epiphany begins with our celebration on January 6th of the magi’s visit to Jesus, then we have the Baptism of Our Lord, and the season will end with the Transfiguration. Each of these moments in the story of Jesus’ life gives us a brief glimpse into who this Jesus of Nazareth really is—the Son of God, the fulfillment of the law and prophets. They are all moments of revelation.
But by reading today’s passage from Isaiah along with the dramatic scene of Jesus’ baptism, we see that God’s presence in the world is made manifest not just by some booming voice from heaven, but also through profound gentleness, silence, and faithful persistence. What a relief! Sure, there may be times when we’re called to some bold action as we live into the dream God has for the world, the dream we find in the Servant Songs, other passages in Isaiah, and in the gospels. There may well be times when some dramatic action is how God’s presence at work in the world is made manifest. But perhaps there will be even more times when we witness to God’s presence in very quiet and ordinary ways–through careful attention to the bruised reed and the dimly burning wick. Sometimes our call may be to have coffee with a friend, to notice the person in our midst who is silently hurting, to give thanks for the sunshine, to be present right where we are. Sometimes the greatest epiphany may simply rest with doing the next thing in front of us.
The intensity of the revelation doesn’t depend on any theatrics on our side, on any grandiose plans or expectations we may have. Instead, Epiphany is about how God uses our faithfulness to reveal God’s love for the world. And when we come to understand that, the freedom and newness we find in Isaiah’s vision is not just something we proclaim, but also part and parcel of a life of discipleship. The yoke we take on at our baptism, the call of our own ministry, becomes easy and light. Maybe that’s what Jesus means when he says later in the gospel of Matthew, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Who knew a life of submission and ministry could hold that kind of grace?