Tuesday, January 15, 2008

A New Servant Song

RCL Proper 1A: Baptism of Christ
13 January 2008

St Faith's Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

God has a preference for working God’s purposes through an agent, whether an individual or a people. There are four passages in Isaiah where the prophet describes what God is doing through an agent whom the prophet calls ‘the Servant’. Today’s reading from Isaiah 42 is the first of these songs.

I have commented before on the context in which this portion of Isaiah is written, but I shall take the risk of repeating myself. The book of Isaiah is actually three books, one written during the dramatic events that led up to the Assyrian domination of Israel and Judah, a second section written after the leadership of the Jewish people had been taken into exile in Babylon and a final section written some time after the people had returned to their devastated homeland.

The first ‘Servant Song’ comes from the second section of Isaiah, written during a time when the leadership of the Jewish people was still in exile but seeing signs that the new imperial power, Babylon, was open to restoring a degree of autonomy to Judah so long as Babylonian power was acknowledged. It was a time of aching hope, a promise just over the horizon that some would not live to see, but a promise worth giving thanks.

In the four ‘Servant Songs’, all found in this second section of Isaiah, the prophet speaks words of encouragement but also words of challenge. It is a call to remember what God expects of those who have been called into relationship with the creator of the universe, the Holy One of Israel. Despite any and all appearances of rejection and failure, the God who entered into covenant with Israel is still the creator and sustainer of the whole world (The HarperCollins Study Bible, 1071).

Isaiah’s Servant is not, however, some messianic individual who will restore the people. The servant is a corporate image that describes not an individual but a people. It is Israel as the covenant people who will be a sign to the nations and whose covenant loyalty will result in bringing many peoples into this covenant. The people of Israel will achieve the mission entrusted to them by God not by preaching nor by coercion but by being a community whose life manifests justice.

“’Justice’ (mishpat) is one of the most fundamental categories in the prophetic tradition. It characterizes the fair and equitable behavior of human beings in society, established with due process in law, administered without discrimination, and based on the just will of Yahweh. To establish justice is to establish the reign of God. The word in the present context refers primarily to the administration of justice, the promulgation of a just order in society. NJPSV translates in all three instances ‘true way’.” (Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year: Year A, 79)

It is the task of the leadership of the community of faith to instruct its members in the responsibilities of living a covenant life, living a life which manifests God’s reign rather than talking about the covenant. For the Jewish people this way of life is found in the Torah, the patterns of life that enable the community to be a sign of justice in a world where injustice is more common.

For Christians our Torah, our way of walking in faithfulness with God, is a life lived following the example of Jesus of Nazareth. In him we believe the Torah of God, the Wisdom of God, came among us in human form so that we, being human ourselves, might see with our eyes, touch with our hands and hear with our ears the ‘true way’, the way that leads to fullness of life. In today’s celebration of the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan we commemorate the public inauguration of the ministry of Jesus, a ministry that revealed this way to us.

Christian baptism is the sacramental rite by means of which an individual enters into a relationship with God through a community committed to following the ‘true way’, to being light in the darkness, to liberating those who are enslaved, to do justice. In other words, baptism is not about saving an individual from damnation nor about a self-serving personal relationship with Jesus, turning Jesus into a personal possession, a piece of spiritual jewellery to dazzle the eyes.

In baptism we commit ourselves and our children to being God’s agents to bring light into the darkness of our world. There are those who are blinded to the needs and concerns of others and the planet by the extensive possession and personal wealth they have accumulated. There are those who are blinded to the possibilities of change and responsible living by various addictions, whether to chemicals or money or sexual gratification or success or alcohol. The Christian people live to cast the light of God into those dark recesses that exist even or perhaps especially in affluent communities such as ours here in Kerrisdale.

In baptism we commit ourselves and our children to being God’s agents to liberate those who are enslaved. There are those who are enslaved by economic forces that create poverty and homelessness even in as prosperous a city as ours. There are those who are enslaved by centuries of systemic injustice even in a country such as ours with a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Christian people live to break those chains, to speak the truth to the powerful on behalf of the powerless, to risk condemnation as ‘do-gooders’ in a society dominated by ‘take care of number 1’ thinking.

In Isaiah’s song there is not ‘a dramatic day when all things will be transformed suddenly’ but a reign of God brought about by the perseverance of God’s people in doing acts of justice (Craddock). Even though the Servant of Isaiah will not break or quench or crush, neither will the Servant of Isaiah be broken or quenched or crushed. The God who began to work on the first day of creation continues to work and will not be thwarted. We who have been baptized have been grafted into the mission entrusted to the Jewish people, not to replace them but to work with them in witnessing to and working for the reign of God.

To advocate for the hungry and the homeless is not politics but a living out of our baptismal covenant. To work for reconciliation between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians is not politics but a living out of our baptismal covenant. To make choices in order to reduce our ‘carbon footprint’ and to ‘green’ our homes and businesses is not politics but a living out of our baptismal covenant. To work to make the Church a safe and just place for all people whether gay or straight, young or old, rich or poor is not politics but a living out of our baptismal covenant.

We do not need to look far for the Servant through whom God will work to establish justice. Look to your right. Look to your left. There is the Servant. Look at your hands. They are the hands of the Servant. As the Servant People let us stand and reaffirm our covenant to be light and liberty and just.

Dear friends, through the mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ we have been buried with Christ in baptism, so that we may rise with him to a new life. Now that we have come to the celebration of his baptism in the Jordan by John, let us renew the promises we made in baptism, when we rejected Satan and all the works of evil, and promised to serve God faithfully as members of the holy catholic Church.

Do you reaffirm your renunciation of evil and renew your commitment to Jesus Christ?
I do.

Do you believe in God the Father?
I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
I will, with God’s help.

Will you persevere in resisting evil and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
I will, with God’s help.

Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?
I will, with God’s help.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself?
I will, with God’s help.

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
I will, with God’s help.

God the creator, the rock of our salvation, has given us new birth by water and the Holy Spirit, and bestowed upon us the forgiveness of sin, through our Lord Jesus Christ. May he keep us faithful to our calling, now and for ever. Amen.

No comments: