The Servant's Call -- A Sermon
Matthew 3:13-17, Isaiah 42:1-9
What is your calling in life? That is, who are you at your core? And how do you know this to be true? What were the signs that confirmed this sense of calling or vocation? Pushing this even further – Where does God fit into your sense of vocation?
There are those, mostly hyper-Calvinists, who believe that God plans every moment of our lives, while others believe that God doesn’t play any role at all – it’s all up to you. I imagine that most of us fall somewhere in between these two extremes. We believe that God is present in our lives, guiding our choices, but we also believe that we have freedom to choose. So, given this freedom, how do you discern God’s call on your life? How do you know when God takes delight in what you’re doing with your life?
1. Epiphany, Baptism, and the Call of Jesus
I raise these questions with you as we begin our observance of the season of Epiphany. This is a season that allows us to acknowledge the light of God, which has been manifested in our world through the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. The journey actually began Thursday, January 6, which marks the Day of Epiphany. In most Eastern Christian traditions, January 6 is actually Christmas Day. But for us, Western Christians, January 6 marks the end of Christmas, and the beginning of a new season of the Christian year. Epiphany begins with the story of the Magi, who bring gifts to the child Jesus, in acknowledgment that God has chosen him for a specific task – to be the light of God in the world.
Now, we’ve decided to leave up the Christmas Tree for one more service. I will admit that there’s a practical reason – we simply didn’t get around to taking it down. But this fact gave me an idea. By leaving the tree up and lit, we remind ourselves that the one whose life we honor in this season of Epiphany is the light-bearer of God. Jesus is the one whom God has chosen to make God’s self manifest in the world. Last week the text for the day was John 1, which declares that “the Word (of God) became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn. 1:14). Now we get to see how this Word made flesh reveals God to us in the life of Jesus. So, the tree remains up, and the lights remain on, but at the end of the service, Pat will pull the plug on the tree, and the lights will go out. But do not fear, even though the tree grows dim, the light of God is not extinguished. We become the light bearers.
But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, for we must hear the story of Jesus’ own call, which is set in the context of John’s ministry of baptism. In the verses that precede our text, we discover that God has called John to prepare the way for the Lord, who is to come baptizing not with water of repentance, as does John, but with Holy Spirit and Fire. That is, he’s called to prepare the way for the one who, to borrow from John Dominic Crossan, will introduce the “Great Divine Cleanup of the World,” or as it’s better known – the Kingdom of God.
To understand this morning’s text, we need to understand that John is waiting expectantly for the Promised One to be revealed, and so he’s taken aback when Jesus comes to him and asks to be baptized. You see, John immediately recognizes Jesus to be the one he’s been preparing the nation to receive. Although John initially refuses, he relents when Jesus tells him that this is what God desires, so that they would fulfill all righteousness. Then, as Jesus emerges from the waters of the Jordan, he hears God speak from the heavens: “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I’m pleased.” In that moment, Jesus had his calling affirmed and sealed.
I don’t know how many of you have heard God’s voice speaking from the heavens during your baptism, but perhaps even without this your baptism serves as the sign and seal that God has called you, gifted you, and empowered you, to join with God in this “Great Divine Cleanup” that Jesus proclaimed and lived.
2. The One In Whom God Delights
As we consider Jesus’ calling, as well as our own, I’d like us to consider the words of Isaiah 42, a passage of scripture that comes from the time of the Babylonian exile. The prophet speaks of the Servant, in whom God takes delight, and whom God has chosen to receive the Spirit and bring justice to the nations (Is. 42:1). In many ways Isaiah 42 stands behind Matthew’s description of Jesus’ baptism. Remember that Matthew makes it clear that the Spirit of God fell on Jesus, the one whom God calls “my Son” and with whom God is “pleased.” He is the one, as Luke makes clear, whom God has called to bring justice and healing to the nations (Luke 4:18-19). That is, the one in whom God delights is the one who has received the Spirit and brings a light to the nations, opens the eyes of the blind, and brings the prisoners out of their dungeons of darkness. And what is true of the Servant called Jesus, would seem to be true of those who seek to be his followers.
3. The Way of the Servant
I began this sermon by asking the question – what is your calling in life and how do you know this to be true? If, as our texts suggest, we are called to be Servants of God, what does that mean for our lives?
Isaiah suggests that the way of the servant is the way of humility, of peace, and justice. The servant of God doesn’t bark angrily in the streets or even quench a dimly burning wick, but instead brings “full justice to all who have been wronged" (NLT). And Jesus offers us the model of what this calling looks like. As we look at his life and listen to his teachings, we see a man who didn’t force himself on others, didn’t seek political or military power, nor did he trod underfoot the powerless in this world.
If Jesus manifests God’s presence in the world, as the season of Epiphany suggests, then the picture of God that emerges from the life and ministry of Jesus is very different from the distant, unfeeling, self-absorbed God that many of us grew up with. This is not the God whose anger at humanity is expressed through thunder and lightening, earthquakes and floods. Instead of an imperial deity, like the one Constantine envisioned blessing his conquests, the God we meet in Jesus is the fellow sufferer who walks by our side, encouraging us, empowering us, and gifting us. I realize that many people aren’t comfortable with this kind of God, because such a God seems too weak and not worthy of our praise. But, this is the God whom Jesus envisions and reveals in his own life, and he invites us to join in this life of God
As we think of people who have tried to live out this kind of servanthood that Isaiah and Jesus envisioned, perhaps there’s no better example than Henri Nouwen. Nouwen would be the first to say that he wasn’t perfect and might not want to be pictured as an exemplar of the way of the servant. But, what can we say about a man who was a well-known and respected theologian, academic, writer, lecturer, but who in the prime of his career left an important academic post at Yale University to serve the mentally disabled. Yes, this is the way of the servant.
4. The Call to Servanthood
In our baptisms we, like Jesus, receive our calling to be servants of God, who are given the responsibility to “bring forth justice to the nations.” If we will take up this mantle, then we’ll receive the promised Spirit of God, who will not allow us to “grow faint or be crushed” until “justice is established in the earth” (Is. 42:4). If we take up this calling to be God’s servants then we’ll participate in God’s work of bringing light to the nations, open the eyes of the blind, and bring those who are caught in darkness out of their imprisonment.
Before I close this sermon with a call to remember our own callings, I need to remind us all of the tragic events of yesterday in Tucson, Arizona. As most of you know, a gunman shot and nearly killed Gabrielle Giffords, a Congresswoman from Arizona, at a meet the constituents event at a local Safeway, something she has done regularly. Although it appears that she’ll make it, several others in the crowd, including one of her aids, a Federal judge, and a nine-year old child were killed, and several more were wounded. This act of violence is a reminder that we have much work to do to restore a sense of civility to our rhetoric and end the threat violence in our land.
The way of the Servant, which leads to transforming the world, isn’t an easy calling, especially in times like this. Remember, however, that Jesus did say that the way of God is narrow and difficult. So the question of the day is this: Having been baptized into the Name of Jesus, are you ready and willing to affirm your calling to be a servant of God? Does this calling define your sense of who you are as a person? And to push this further, is this our calling as a church? That is, is this our mission – to be beacons of light in the world so that the justice and peace of the God who is love might reign?
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
1st Sunday after Epiphany
January 9, 2010