A Light to the Nations - A Sermon for Baptism of Jesus Sunday (Isaiah 42)

Isaiah 42:1-9

We need Vitamin D to keep our spirits up, but getting enough Vitamin D during the winter months is a problem. The sun rises later in the morning and dips below the horizon relatively early in the evening. Even during the daylight hours, clouds can dominate, casting a sense of gloom across the land. So, the next few months can be a bit dreary. The good news is that this season of darkness won’t last forever. Even now the days are slowly growing longer, and eventually, the sun will shine bright. 

Perhaps, as we await the end of winter’s gloom, it’s a good time to celebrate a season of light. That’s what Epiphany is all about. We begin with the Magi who follow a star to the home of the baby Jesus. These Sages, who appear in the Gospel of Matthew, might have been Zoroastrian priests who hailed from the land that is today known as Iran.  Matthew doesn’t tell us very much about these Sages, so we’re left to our own imaginations. But, we don’t stay very long in Bethlehem, because Matthew quickly takes us to the Jordan River, where Jesus appears to John and is baptized. 

After Jesus emerges from the waters of baptism, he receives a word of assurance and blessing from the heavens. Once again, I picture light shining into the world. With this event, Jesus is launched into his ministry. As Matthew puts it:
  16 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. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  (Mt. 3:16-17).

These words of affirmation echo the opening lines of Isaiah 42, where we read: 
“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” (Is. 42:1). 

Could Matthew’s Jesus be Second Isaiah’s Servant? Is Jesus the chosen one in whom God delights and upon whom the Spirit rests? Is he the Servant of God who “will bring forth justice to the nations?”

The prophet we call Second Isaiah likely spoke these words to Jewish exiles living in Babylon. This was a season of transition for a people who had lost their sense of national identity. They were a people without a home. As the Psalmist sang: “By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion” (Ps. 137:1). As they sat down and wept by the rivers of Babylon, the people of Israel heard this message:  “You are my servant . . . in whom my soul delights,” and “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations.” 

According to Isaiah, Israel is called to be a light to the nations, so that justice might come to the earth. This is a universal calling that comes to the people from the creator of the heavens and the earth. They have a mission, if they choose to accept it, to help establish God’s path of compassionate justice in the world. For Israel, this vision of justice is revealed in the Torah; for us, it is revealed in the life and teachings of Jesus who embodies Torah for us. 

On the day of his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus heard the voice of God declare: “You are my Son, the Beloved.” As God made this pronouncement the Spirit of God fell upon Jesus, ordaining him for the ministry he was about to take up. I believe this same commission is given to us in our baptisms. Paul wrote this of baptism in his Romans letter: “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). In our baptisms, we identify ourselves with Christ and take up his mantle. We become one with him so that we might share in his calling, which is rooted in the call of Israel. So, empowered by the Spirit, we can participate in God’s work of bringing “justice to the nations.” 

According to Isaiah, God gave Israel as “a covenant to the people, a light to the nations.” This reference to Israel being “a light to the nations” brought to mind a little song we probably all know very well:  “This Little Light of Mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” Yes, “this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine!” I think that song sums up Isaiah’s message. Israel was not a rich and powerful nation. It couldn’t impose its will on its neighbors. In fact, at that moment a good portion of its population lived in exile, and yet God commissioned Israel to be a light to the nations so that it could establish justice on the earth. Yes, God declares through Isaiah:  “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.” 

When Jesus appeared before the synagogue in Nazareth in the Gospel of Luke, he read a passage from Isaiah 61. In that passage, which Jesus claimed to fulfill, we hear a word about God’s anointed one, who brings joy to the humble and binds up wounds, proclaims release to the captives, and liberation to those who are in prison (Lk. 4:18-19). The commission we find here in Isaiah 42 encompasses these same callings. The words of Isaiah, as Jesus embodies them, speak of a pathway to justice that is not imposed by force, but which nevertheless will come to fruition. If this is Israel’s calling and Jesus’ calling, is this not also our calling? 

As we ponder these words of Second Isaiah, given to a group of exiles, gathered by the rivers of Babylon, who wondered what the future might hold for them, do you hear in them a word for us? How might we take up the mantle of the servant, so that we too can be a light to the nations? How might we “bring forth justice to the nations?” Yes, how might this little light of mine shine forth so that the pathway of justice might make itself known?  

This question gets posed to us on the Sunday we ponder the meaning of our own baptisms. What does it mean to be baptized into Christ? What is our calling? How might we participate in God’s work of establishing justice on the earth?

The Hebrew word translated here as justice is mishpat. I found the Jewish Publication Society translation to be a bit different and intriguing. It suggests that the servant, whom God has chosen, will “teach the true way to the nations.” What is the true way? It is God’s compassionate justice that is taught and not imposed. According to Isaiah, the Servant will “not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.”   The Servant “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.” Nevertheless, he will establish the true way, the way of God’s compassionate justice on the earth.

As we move into the year 2020, we face numerous opportunities to share the light of God in the world and embody God’s pathway of justice. There will be elections taking place, and we have choices to make. We’ll need to make these choices with God’s vision of justice on our hearts and minds. Since we don’t know where the situation with Iran will take us, what should our response be?  Then there are the fires in Australia that remind us of the challenge of climate change to the earth. We face issues regarding immigration, along with questions of race, sexual orientation, economic equity, and gender equality.  One thing I’m learning is that these all intersect. They’re all related. 

So, how might we embody God’s mishpat, God’s compassionate justice in our lives together? James Evans reminds us that “theologically the text suggests that the Spirit of God and the pursuit of justice cannot be separated. Further, this justice is not a narrow, nationalistic kind but a justice for the nations. This suggests that justice is relational” [Connections, kindle loc. 5300].  

As we stop to reaffirm our baptisms this morning, do you hear God saying to us: “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?”  Do you hear the call to be God’s light in the world?

Preached by: 
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
January 12, 2020
Baptism of Jesus Sunday

Picture Attribution:  Zelenka, Dave. Baptism of Christ, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56385 [retrieved January 11, 2020]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Baptism-of-Christ.jpg.


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