January 12, 2020
Have you ever received a gift which you just knew would change your life? Or maybe a gift that you weren’t sure what to do with? The gift of Christmas, the birth of Christ, is the kind of gift which fits both of those categories.
Last week marked the beginning of the season of Epiphany and I shared that I think of Epiphany as a season of unwrapping or unpacking the Christmas gift. We begin to make sense of who this baby is, the significance of his coming, and the implications of God’s breaking into the world through him. We begin to wonder what we will do with this gift and how it will affect our lives.
Matthew wastes no time in his gospel, unpacking the good news of Christmas. Last week, we read from the second chapter about the wise men who followed a star to the place where the infant Jesus was. They worshiped him and then took a different route home, avoiding King Herod who was filled with fear and anger about this new King of the Jews. No one really understood this gift yet, but they knew that Jesus would change things.
Today we read from the third chapter about Jesus’ baptism. We’ve missed out on a massive portion of his young life, as Jesus is now an adult. John the Baptist is active, doing what he does best – baptizing people with water, promising them a second baptism with the Holy Spirit, and preparing them for the coming of God’s kingdom. John has no idea just how close they really are as Jesus makes his way down to the Jordan River.
John is hesitant at first, insisting that Jesus should be baptizing him! But he relents and John baptizes his cousin Jesus. The Spirit descends upon him, in the form of a dove, and God claims him and proclaims his delight and satisfaction in the Son.
Let’s come back to the words of the prophet Isaiah. Israel is in a difficult situation. They were in exile in Babylon and missing their home, Jerusalem, which had been destroyed. They were feeling hopeless and sorely disappointed in God and perhaps they wondered if in fact Babylon’s gods were more powerful than theirs. It was probably hard for them to imagine things getting much worse… or any better.
And yet, there is this word from God that God’s servant is here to bring justice in some pretty unconventional ways. And that they, Israel, are still God’s people and God is with them even in this terrible situation. That even now they need to be a light to others, a source of faith and truth.
That strikes a chord with me. We are living in a world that feels so unjust. We wonder and search for God in the midst of a lot of brokenness. We long for the kind of leadership and justice Isaiah describes. We wonder how justice can be brought about with such gentleness. Is it possible that justice can be reached without making a lot of noise, without crushing the weak and taking advantage of the poor? Looking back on the events of this past week, it doesn’t seem like it.I spent some time imagining how Jesus might have heard these words from the prophet Isaiah. I envision Jesus having heard them many times over the years in the synagogue, and suddenly they come rushing back to his memory as he comes up from beneath the waters of the Jordan and hears God say:
You are my Son and my servant. I’ve got your back. I have chosen you and I am so happy with you. I have filled you with my Spirit. You are going to make things right between the nations, not in flashy or showy ways, but gently and faithfully. You won’t ignore those who are broken and hurting You will pay attention to even the smallest and most insignificant people and situations. You will faithfully make all things right. You won’t tire of it. And no one will be able to stop you until you are finished setting things right on earth. People across the entire world will look forward to learning from you.
I wonder if Jesus heard these words and remembered the plight of his people, of Israel. Did he recognize in that very moment, in his baptism, that he had been created to serve God and potentially fulfill the words of the prophet?
Jesus has been baptized because he is God’s Son. Because he is joined to God’s mission. Because God has claimed him as his own and has sent him to brings God’s light and justice and love to the world.
We are baptized for the same reason that Jesus is. We too are claimed by God, sharing an identity as God’s beloved. We too are called to participate in the mission of God, being a light to the world and bearers of God’s justice. We are joined to Christ in our baptism, sealing us as members of Christ’s body, marking us as servants of God. It sends us out to proclaim God’s truth as we do God’s will.
We’re unpacking that Christmas gift, beginning to see how it will affect our lives.
Listen to the passage from Isaiah again, this time from The Message:
“Take a good look at my servant.
I’m backing him to the hilt.
He’s the one I chose,
and I couldn’t be more pleased with him.
I’ve bathed him with my Spirit, my life.
He’ll set everything right among the nations.
He won’t call attention to what he does
with loud speeches or gaudy parades.
He won’t brush aside the bruised and the hurt
and he won’t disregard the small and insignificant,
but he’ll steadily and firmly set things right.
He won’t tire out and quit. He won’t be stopped
until he’s finished his work—to set things right on earth.
Far-flung ocean islands
wait expectantly for his teaching.”
This is God’s Message,
the God who created the cosmos, stretched out the skies,
laid out the earth and all that grows from it,
Who breathes life into earth’s people,
makes them alive with his own life:
“I am God. I have called you to live right and well.
I have taken responsibility for you, kept you safe.
I have set you among my people to bind them to me,
and provided you as a lighthouse to the nations,
To make a start at bringing people into the open, into light:
opening blind eyes,
releasing prisoners from dungeons,
emptying the dark prisons.
The gift of Christmas, of Christ’s birth, is the best gift we will ever receive. It’s also the most challenging because it calls for a particular response, a particular way of seeing and living in the world.
When we look around, when we consider all of the world’s brokenness, it is so hard to imagine what is just and fair. It seems that one person’s vision of justice is another person’s experience of injustice. Isaiah reminds us that we must look at the world from the perspective of God’s justice. And that’s downright uncomfortable. How can we maintain courage and energy and faith in the face of all that is unjust? Is justice possible without injustice? Whose side is God on?
In a few minutes we are going to reaffirm our baptism. We will recall what our baptism represents. We are again going to promise to reject sin and evil and instead follow after our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. We will commit ourselves again to the hard, but important work of being Christ’s disciples. We will ask God to fill us again with all that we need so that we can bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ.
I’ll be honest, sometimes God’s justice sounds a little too idealistic and not very realistic. As we reflect on the situations in our own lives and around the world, you may be thinking that it isn’t practical at all to seek after the kind of justice God describes through the prophet Isaiah. We hope and expect that God is on our side, that God shares our perspective on what is just and fair and right.
But our thinking is skewed. Because God doesn’t take our side and God doesn’t seek to see things from our perspective. We need to know that God shows no partiality. That means we have to take God’s side, that we need to see things from God’s perspective. That is the great challenge for us, as human beings, of unpacking the Christmas gift, of allowing it to change our lives and the world.
This is why we must remember our baptism, the baptism we share with Jesus Christ himself.
Remember your baptism and give thanks that you are grafted into the Body of Christ. Remember your baptism and give thanks that you are called to bring light to places of darkness. Remember your baptism and give thanks that you have been tasked with participating in gentle, faithful God-given justice. Remember your baptism and give thanks, by living into its promises and accepting the challenging invitation to make our baptismal identity visible and unmistakable because we are claimed and beloved by God. Amen.