Second Isaiah (what scholars call chapters 40-55) begins in a season of terror. Back probably fifty years before today’s text, but still firmly entrenched in the memory of the people, Babylonian armies burst into their beloved Jerusalem, knocking down city walls, destroying the temple, razing homes of many important citizens. Much of the leadership was killed. King Zedekiah and his sons were captured; the sons were executed in front of Zedekiah, who was then blinded, and taken to Babylon with many others,1 King Nebuchadnezzar’s armies left in control of the broken city. The exiles, at the time of these chapters, have been in Babylon for two generations. They wait, and they wait, as hopelessness settles in. Will they ever be able to go home? Does home still exist?
It is into this hopelessness the prophet speaks. This is the first of four servant songs in this part of Isaiah, in a trial setting, where God challenges other gods to prove themselves worthy. All other gods are a delusion, God argues, “their works are nothing; their images are empty wind.”2 Then God turns and reminds the people, in the overwhelming sadness, in the heart of grief, when they are unsure what still stands – as bad or worse than anything we can imagine ourselves – of God’s claim on them. You belong to ME, God says. And, there is One who is coming…3
This text is both a summons and an introduction. 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. Scholars will debate you all day long WHO the servant is – Israel, propaganda to Cyrus of Persia, Christians have for centuries taken this as a direct reference to Jesus. This is the move Matthew makes in today’s other text, that we’ll come back to soon. Paul Hanson says the servant isn’t a biographical description but a description of who we, who love God, are challenged to become.4 At the end of the day, the particular identity is less important than what the servant is called to be and do, namely to bring forth justice to the nations.
This notion of justice, mishpat, is found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. It is a vision of a society that is founded on fundamental principles of care and compassion and law, bound together in the Torah. It is about the binding together of love of God and love of neighbor. Here’s a quote from Walter Brueggemann about the nature of biblical justice. People who seek justice, he says:
… are to be active advocates for the vulnerable and the marginal and the people without resources, and that then becomes the way to act out and exhibit one’s love of God. So, love of God gets translated into love of vulnerable neighbor. The doing of justice is the prophetic invitation to do what needs to be done to enable the poor and the disadvantaged and the neglected to participate in the wealth and resources of the community.5
The work of living into God’s vision of justice is about creating a world in which people and institutions and societies are judged not by economic growth or size or efficiency, but by who has access to that growth, by how well ALL children can learn, not just folks who have access and resources like many of us. By how we look to the poor, to the widow and the orphan, to the left out and left behind, to be a light to all the nations, to open blind eyes, to speak hope to those in prison, to live and serve with courage and with compassion. How we love every single one of our neighbors – God’s love translated into love of vulnerable neighbor, as Brueggemann says.
It was this vision that called, summoned the people stuck in exile, to follow and live into the call of God’s servant, who brings that justice to the nations. The exiles were too bruised and dimmed to imagine the vision that God gives to them, my friend Jessica writes. Nonetheless, this Servant Song calls them back to powerful hope, rooted in the purposes of God.6 We Christians draw a straight line from this vision of justice for the people to this call that was also at the heart of Jesus’ ministry. Echoes of the prophet fill this short Matthew text, that Jesus might fulfill all righteousness, (I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness, the prophet writes). After his baptism as he comes out of the water, the heavens were opened to him, the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” God speaks. (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.)
And so this Sunday, in which we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord, we are reminded that his call is also ours – as individual disciples and as church. Rooted in these baptismal claims, we work for all our neighbors. In baptism, each of us are commissioned – as Jesus was at his baptism. To remember God’s mighty claim on you. But also how that claim calls us to be servants who seek justice for all of God’s people.
Back on Wednesday, December 21 – the same night we gathered here to carol to homebound members – a group of us gathered to participate in an annual worship service coordinated by Durham Congregations In Action, a vigil on the longest night of the year to remember those who are without homes who have died this year. Sometimes these are people without much community, so it is important that we gather to sing songs, pray prayers, light candles, and speak their names: Claude Thomas Fuller, David Leopold, Calvin Olds, there were 15 this year. We met at the downtown Farmer’s Market. This year was particularly interesting. For years there was no one around, that part of town pretty quiet by 6pm. But this year, the whole time we were worshipping there were some folks who had backed their truck up and had lights and mats and were doing some sort of hip workout. About 6:15 a running club, I think from Fullsteam, came down and jogged by us, about 20, 4 or 5 with dogs. Construction continued over on the other side. The restaurant crowds behind us, and in the parking lot between there and the downtown YMCA. In the moments of silence to remember these folks someone stepped in the middle of our circle and said, “There is a lot of wonderful stuff happening down here. I wonder who all this benefits? I wonder how we could be a part of the making of a city where everyone can enjoy all of this growth and how, as we are building beautiful condos, we can be about making sure everyone, especially people who can’t afford nice places like that, have a place to live?”
Our baptismal identity, rooted in God’s love for YOU and for EVERY PERSON, is to be about loving God and all of our neighbors, and envisioning, with the prophet, how we participate in the work of justice – in our interactions with each other, in Durham and North Carolina, in our nation and beyond, from Aleppo to Jerusalem to Ankara. “Injustice anywhere,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said on many occasions, “is a threat to justice everywhere.” I wonder what that looks like for you. Maybe that is building a bridge to a neighbor. Maybe it’s reaching out to someone very different from you and listening as carefully as you can. Maybe it’s finding a way to engage issues of race, deeply rooted in our society. Maybe its advocating for affordable housing in our wonderfully growing community. Who does Christ call us to be? And, in following him, what might that cost us?
This day in which we remember the baptism of our Lord, I’m going to invite you to come up in a moment. We’ll pour some water into the font and, in the silence after the sermon or as the music before the hymn begins to play, I invite you to come up and dip a finger in this water. Hold it, leave it there, touch it to your forehead, make a cross if you like, let the water drip into your hands. REMEMBER that YOU are Christ’s beloved. But that this call, not just now – but has always been and will always be – is to help to work alongside our God to make the prophet’s, God’s own vision, into reality… God’s justice, for all.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. Jeremiah 52:10-11.
2. Isaiah 41: 29 (NRSV) or as The Message reads: “It’s all smoke and hot air—sham gods, hollow gods, no-gods.”
3. Two papers from The Well provided helpful background and informed my reading of this rich text– one by the Rev., Jessica Tate, 2013, and one by the Rev. Ellen Crawford True, 2014.
4. Hanson, Paul. Isaiah 40-66: Interpretation, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995), p. 44, from Tate.
5. Smith, Christopher. What is Justice? Patheos.com.
6. Brueggemann, Walter, et al. Texts for Preaching: Year A. (Louisville: WJKP, 1995), p. 92.