Inspired by Isaiah 42: 1-9
Last week Jesus was a baby in the manger where the Magi traveled to bring him exotic gifts. This week Jesus is thirty years old standing in a river being baptized.
It’s frustrating to me, as well. I’m sorry. There is nothing I can do about this notable omission of childhood memories. It would have been nice to been privy to the baby book or the yearbooks or the report cards, but apparently, they were nowhere to be found.
As a consequence of this omission of adorable baby Jesus slideshows, we are flung into the adult baptism of Jesus, told in Matthew, and, according to most Christians, prophesied in Isaiah 42.
I did not grow up in a conservative home. This is my excuse for not fully understanding the connection between Jesus’ baptism in Matthew and the prophecy of the servant figure in Isaiah 42. Maybe this is where the baby pictures would have helped me out, but I have, in the absence of traditional understanding, created my own meaning in the connection.
This (potentially heretical) connectedness begins in what seemed more interesting to me than my actual ignorance regarding the redacted Christological connection between Jesus’ baptism and the servant figure; the context into which Isaiah 42 speaks.
The kingdom of Judah finds itself in exile, the temple is in ruins, a kingship is at an end. Biblical commentator, Tyler Mayfield, explains, “Zion in all its splendor has been diminished, and some of the Judahites are forced exiles in the foreign land of Babylonia. Without a temple and a Davidic leader, the future of the people is greatly in peril. They need assurance, assistance, and a new vision.”
Does this sound familiar? Australia is on fire, our country is edging closer to war with Iran, and, as I discovered earlier this week, the top cause of death in my daughter’s tween age group is suicide. Yes, at eleven years old, suicide is the top cause of death.
This week a dear friend emailed me a blog written by a United Methodist Bishop regarding the status of our structural separation. My response to his email was both apologetic and emotionally transparent. I am struggling to care about or have compassion for an institution which can’t pull it together to do the work of the prophet servant figure when the world seems to be bleeding out.
I realize, because perhaps you are thinking this, that none of these problems are new. I realize we have been through it all before, but the replication of such problems only heightens my cause for concern, my sink into despair. The comfort that might be offered by the reality that we have faced such problems before only multiplies my sense of hopelessness that, while we may be learning how to handle the aftermath of these problems, we have yet evolved to a point where we would be able to prevent the problems from occurring in the first place.
I imagine it is into a similar political and religious context that the prophet of Isaiah 42 offers us the anchor of a servant figure. A servant figure that the Christian faith took the liberty of defining in individual terms, associating the individual clearly with Jesus, his life and ministry…his death and resurrection.
Which could give us a legitimate exit out of the tough stuff, leaving it to Jesus to sort out while we bite our nails waiting for the world to end. Some do lean in this direction. Intentionally and unintentionally, we probably all lean in this direction, if the leading didn’t leave us in the midst of the baptism of Jesus.
A baptism which, in the reflection of water recently disturbed, we see the reflection of our own invitation to manifest the servant figure in Isaiah 42. A baptism, which, leans our preferences and priorities into the fresh waters of a Living God who invites us to see the world anew with hope and possibility.
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 taken you by the hand and kept you…can you imagine? Can you imagine, in all the despair and brokenness and relentless hopelessness in this world, Jesus taking you by the hand? Jesus keeping you close and calling you His own?
This is the leading of Isaiah 42 into the baptismal covenant modeled by Jesus in Matthew. A deep and abiding interdependence of Jesus with us and us with Jesus. A hand taken into our own, leading us into the world to seek justice and show mercy, to live humbly and love deeply. A hand, taken into our own, to pull us back into the presence of infinite belonging founded on an eternal promise of hope. We, too, are the servant figure.
Now, honestly, this is where my sermon takes a turn into the weeds. The place where I realize I am speaking from an unnamed/unknown emotional experience that is leading me to share beliefs that in a few days’ time I may realize I don’t really believe. Or, if I realize I do really believe them, I may also realize I should’ve believed them to myself, and shared about something else or, perhaps even better yet, I should have ended my message with the paragraph above.
While I perceive myself to be gracious, accepting and flexible…I have noticed a reactive intolerance in behaviors that I define as being selfish. I have noticed myself feeling quicker to anger and slower to forgive. Specifically, in cases where I feel as though one is being neglectful regarding the impact of their personal actions on the community as a whole. I am not fond of this feeling or experience, whether it is one newly had or one that is simply newly identified. It is an experience that leaves me exposed and vulnerable and, often, tired.
If I have to think through the impetus of this experience, which I have had to do in order to talk about it in this message, I believe it is a response to my deepening love for this community. Perhaps, not a deeper love for this place in particular, but a deeper love for the people who now call this place their spiritual home.
I loathe that I cannot solve or, even contribute to the solution, of a denominational separation that I know is breaking many of your hearts. I am irritated that the world presents us with so many tragedies that we fail to experience them as such. I am discouraged by the limitations of the servant figure in Christ, and I am infuriated by these same limitations in myself. I worry for each and every one of us, birthed so fresh into a new version of a Church without walls, when we know very well there exists criticism on all sides.
Baptized into love as a servant to the world, I feel angry and anxious, hopeless and heartbroken. I feel lost in emotions, mixed up and stirred around until I can barely know which way is right and what way is wrong. I step backwards into a water colder and deeper than I predicted and just when I imagine I might drown in this place, a hand is in my hand, and a voice is in heart…calling me its own.
It is the embrace of a baptism of believers without water or ceremony or ritual or vows. It is a voice spoken, by not one or two, but by many as we remind one another to travel in a direction once chosen with such confidence and certainty. Travel toward a star. Toward the light. Toward the vague outline of a cross that manifests a baptism at full expression, wrapped in the sheer clothe of radical solidarity with the least of these, in the most inconvenient and excruciating way.
Baptism in the context of Isaiah 42 teaches us; we can only lead as far as we are willing to follow the hand that holds our own, and the voice that call us Beloved.
Baptism in the context of Isaiah 42 reminds us; we are led toward one another in the practice of discipleship, in the fulfillment of our own unique, contextual versions of this servant figure.
Together, we are the light that illuminates hope in death, peace in chaos, love in hostility. It is not our call to be perfect or stoic or particularly professional or extraordinarily efficient. Neither is it our call to give of ourselves until we feel as though we too were crucified.
Our call is an invitation. An invitation to follow the hand that leads us and the voice that calls us over the noise of a world that screams to give up, to just quit while we are ahead, to pack up and go home early…. this is the place I imagine Jesus sticks. around. Waiting for the servant figures to show up tired, lost and seeking new direction.
My prayer for myself. My prayer for each of us. Is that we may we be those who, with Jesus, stick around. May we be the lost seeking the direction of Christ, seeking the brokenness of the world, seeking the corporate calling to bandage a world that is bleeding.