“by Fr. Travis O’Brian”
Baptism of the Lord (A) January 5 (VST) & 8, 2017
HERE IS MY SERVANT
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 streets;
A bruised reed he will not break,
And a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
. . . He will not grow faint or be crushed
Until he has established justice in the earth;
And the coastlands wait for his teaching . . .
Today we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord. If Jesus was without sin, why did he insist on receiving John’s baptism of repentance? If Jesus’ life reflected perfect union with God, why would he need to take up John’s call to ‘repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand?’ Was it not his very coming that signaled the arrival of God’s Kingdom on earth? These are questions that puzzled even John. “Surely,” he asked Jesus, “surely I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus’ response seems only to deepen the mystery: “let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
But Matthew, in his telling of the story, does something audacious to help point us in the right direction. As Jesus comes up from the water, Matthew puts Isaiah’s words in the mouth of God: “this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Doing so, Matthew indicates that the story of Jesus’ baptism is not a self-contained story. In order to understand Jesus’ baptism, we must go further back, back to the hope and expectation of the prophet.
The words Matthew has God quote from Isaiah introduce the first of what have come to be known as Isaiah’s four ‘servant songs,’ songs celebrating, in words of both tenderness and determination, that God will bring justice to the earth, not by sending a fierce warrior or powerful politician, but by the suffering of his servant – one whose voice will hardly be heard amidst the tumult of the world, one who “will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street.” It has been an ongoing question who Isaiah thought this ‘servant’ was or would be. Did Isaiah mean Israel itself is God’s suffering servant, or do his songs point toward some future Messianic figure? In its immediate context, the likelihood is that the song refers to Israel. Israel’s suffering, says Isaiah, is central to her faithful ‘witness’ of God’s presence in the midst of the nations. Israel’s suffering is inseparable from her Covenant faithfulness, and therefore must be regarded as a sign of her ‘righteousness’ – that is, her right-relationship, with God. It is through this right-relationship (and so through the suffering that inevitably accompanies it), that Israel fulfills her purpose and Covenant destiny as “a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,” chosen by God to be a blessing to all races and peoples.
But there is a twist to this story. In fact, more than one. For although everything ends according to Isaiah’s prophetic word, nothing ends according to his own expectations. In good prophetic tradition, John arrives on the scene to announce that something is awry. Israel has turned away from Covenant faithfulness; her life therefore no longer expresses servanthood, she is no longer serving the purpose for which God called her into being, to be the witness of God’s presence in and for the world. So John calls the nation to repent, and as a sign of her repentance, as a sign of her desire to return to right-relationship with God, and also as a means of grace by which God prepares her to receive the restoration of right-relationship again, John calls Israel to be baptised. John, we must be clear, was not calling individuals per se, but, through her citizens, he was calling Israel as a nation to repent and be baptized.
At this moment, as we know, Jesus steps into the picture, asking John to baptise him in order “to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus does not act on his own behalf. Rather, he repents on behalf of the whole of Israel. Jesus in offering himself to be baptised, assumes the form of a servant. Doing so, he assumes upon himself Israel’s failure to be Israel, and by this very act he “fulfills all righteousness,” that is to say, he re-establishes Israel’s right-relationship with God. In a crucial sense, then, by his baptism, by this act of servanthood, Jesus fulfills the destiny of Israel as proclaimed by Isaiah: becoming a servant of God in Love for God’s people, he re-establishes right-relationship, Covenant-relationship, with YHWH. Now the purpose and salvation of Israel is accomplished in and through him. Not that Jesus thereby makes Israel expendable, but in him Israel is freed again to be what it is: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17).
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.” Where Isaiah’s words pointed to Israel, God’s servant-nation, God sent an individual man to be the one in whom the nation received the fulfillment of its purpose and its salvation. That is the first twist to the story. But there is a second. Just as we have seen that the meaning of Jesus’ baptism does not begin with his baptism, neither does it end with it. For we who are baptised in Christ’s name are given to be the new Israel – that is, to witness in our corporate life the presence of God in and for the world, every nation, every people. The second ‘twist’ to this story, and the awful wonder, is this: that in the end, Isaiah’s song refers once again not just to an individual, but to a people, a people united by bonds not of flesh, but by the Spirit of Christ –which is to say, ‘the Church.’ Isaiah’s servant song, in other words, points to us. That blows me away. The words of God, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights,” God intends, fulfilling but outstripping the intention of the prophet, to apply to us.
If Christ in his baptism bore Israel’s failure of right-relationship in his body, so we through our baptisms are given to be the body of Christ. Baptism is always an act of servanthood. To be baptized is to die to our dreams of self-determination, and to know our life, our future, belongs to God. It is this truth, which is in fact the Good News that Jesus holds out to us ever again, of which we are called to witness in the world – even if we have to suffer for it, because it puts us at odds with the self-insistence of the world. Ultimately, this is the meaning of servanthood – to pray, “not my will, but thy will be done.” May we be given the strength and the humility to pray this in truth, not only with our lips, but in our life together.