Called, Taken, Kept, Given
| Psalms 2:7-7
|Sun, January 13, 2002
Rev. Ed Searcy
|It starts with the baptism. Jesus shows up at the Jordan to confess his sins along with all the rest. Prophetic John is standing waste deep in the river, hardly able to keep up with the flood of humanity that comes to get washed clean and to turn life around. It starts here. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John agree on this. Yes, Matthew, Luke and John include prologues that variously describe the birth of Jesus. But the story of the proclamation of the good news in Jesus really starts with the baptism. Coming up out of the water “suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God, descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’.” (Matt. 3:16-17). This is Jesus’ epiphany. This is the moment when the heavens open and God’s Spirit comes over him and Jesus is identified as God’s own beloved child. Suddenly Jesus’ life is changed ... he is led into the wilderness to be tempted ... then returns preaching the good news of lives radically changed by God’s kingdom coming near. The early church knows all of this. That is why it makes the celebration of Jesus’ baptism one of the earliest Christian festivals ... well before there is any thought of Christmas. Now few stop to celebrate that day when Jesus’ life ... and, therefore, our own ... is suddenly changed.
When we do mark the baptism of Jesus we discover that the story doesn’t tell us much about what happens on that fateful day. It says that John alone sees the import of Jesus’ arrival at the river. Everyone else sees only another pilgrim, come to be made clean. John glimpses the One who he has been preparing the people to receive ... and so John is hesitant when the Promised One seeks cleansing. Jesus does not hesitate ... he says that it is the right thing to do. So he goes under the water. Then the heavens open to him ... then the Spirit like a dove ... like that other dove returning to Noah’s ark with an olive branch after the terror of the Flood ... the Spirit like a dove alighting on his shoulder. Then, finally, a voice from heaven: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” That is it. That is the entire story of the day that Jesus hears God’s call ... and goes into the wilderness to meet the Devil rather than back home to his kin in Galilee.
But this is not all there is to tell. From the earliest days Christians have noticed with interest that the voice from heaven speaks familiar words. The announcement that Jesus hears ringing in his ears blends two well known texts from the ancient scripture of the synagogue. There is the phrase taken from the Psalm that is traditionally read whenever a new king - a new messiah - is anointed in the Temple: “You are my son; today I have begotten you” (Ps. 2:7). This powerful national memory of the crowning of a new king is now married to Isaiah’s prophetic announcement of God’s servant who will be a light to the nations: “my chosen, in whom my soul delights” (Is. 42:1), “the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matt. 3:17). The voice that Jesus hears is freighted with memory and meaning. This is not a new calling ... but it is news that God is now calling this Galilean, born of Mary, to be chosen as the servant-Messiah ... a light to the nations. It is news even to Jesus ... or so it seems ... because this is where the story of his ministry begins.
After hearing a heavenly voice that addresses him by quoting from Psalm 2 and Isaiah 42, Jesus must meditate on these texts during his sojourn in the temptations of the wilderness. In doing so, he surely recalls the beginning of this poetic vision in Isaiah, those famous first words of Handel’s ‘Messiah’: “Comfort ye, comfort ye My people, saith your God” (Is. 40:1) This is news to be shouted from on high. In fact, the Bible’s first use of the word ‘gospel’ or ‘good news’ ... the Greek word ‘evangelical’ ... is to be found here, in the surprising comfort that is sung by Isaiah: “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings ... say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’.” (Is. 40:9) There is, Isaiah proclaims, good news for a people who are lost in grief ... and desperate for hope. The good news is that God is on the horizon of history ... and is coming to “feed his flock like a shepherd, (to) gather the lambs in his arms ...and gently lead the mother sheep.” (Is 40:11).
When Jesus hears the voice from heaven, he hears this good news story ... and he suddenly recognizes his place in this story: “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 street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.” (Is. 42:1-3). Jesus is the servant who comes to bring justice not only to Israel ... but to the nations. Ever since the ill-fated attempt to onstruct the ancient Tower of Babel the nations have been at odds ... speaking in foreign tongues ... and at war. Now God sends a servant to bring global justice ... but not in the way that the world expects. This servant of God’s justice does not cry out in the streets. Instead, he faithfully brings forth justice by seeing that the bruised reeds of the earth are not broken ... and that the dimly burning wicks of human life are not extinguished. He is a servant of the fragile and vulnerable people of the earth ... “and he will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and (even) the (distant) coast lands wait for his teaching.” (Is. 42:4) Not even the Cross of that bleak Good Friday will, finally, be able to crush him ... or his pursuit of God’s just Kingdom come.
Perhaps Jesus wonders how this can be his calling ... and his alone. Perhaps he notices what we notice in Isaiah’s testimony about the call of God’s servant. It begins, fortunately for us, with the call of someone else. Isaiah speaks in the third person: “He will bring forth justice ... he will not cry ... he will faithfully bring forth justice ... he will not grow faint.” This is the story of someone else ... of someone who is chosen by God ... of someone who is a delight in the soul of God ... of someone upon whom the Spirit of God has been placed. This is about the Messiah. It is about Jesus and his baptism. But then the song shifts. Its lyrics are no longer set in the third person but, now, in the first person plural ... from ‘he’ to ‘ya’ll’: “I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a light to the nations.” (Isaiah 42:6) Suddenly the servant is no longer someone else ... now the servant has become, instead, the community who hears this text and this voice. Somehow God’s call shifts from a chosen person to the calling of a chosen people ... a movement called out from all manner of families and nations and races. It turns out that Jesus’ baptism is not only the beginning for him ... but also for us. Remember the commission that he gives at the end of the story: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them ... and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. (Matt. 28:19-20) Called as a servant who is to be “a light to the nations” (Is. 42:6), Jesus calls a community of disciples and says to them: “You are the light of the world.” (Matt. 5:14). This is the odd thing about our life together. We come, having heard the news that Jesus is the Christ, the light of the world. Arriving in this assembly, we are soon participants in his baptismal calling and even his embodiment in the world.
Now I don’t know about you ... but this is, at once, unbelievable and terrifying. We come to be comforted ... only to discover that we are to be messengers of God’s comfort. Or, to put it in the vernacular, we come to be fed some ‘chicken soup for the soul’ and find out that we’re essential ingredients in the soup! Which is precisely why God - Yahweh, the one whose name literally translates: ‘I am what I am up to’ - recites such an impressive resume of past accomplishments: “Thus says, God, Yahweh, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people and spirit to those who walk in it. (Is. 42:5) In other words, after creating the universe and making the earth and giving life to humankind, calling a people to be servants in spreading the good news is not beyond possibility for God. In fact, this is precisely what God is up to in a world that is shrouded with darkness: “I am Yahweh, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations.” (Is. 42:6) Notice that Yahweh is not asking if the community that is addressed here wants to be - or chooses to be - God’s servant. Yahweh is doing it to them ... dare I say, to us. Yahweh has called us ... that explains why we are here and not in bed or on the golf course or in the mall right now. A heavenly voice will not let us go ... keeps rising up in our consciousness ... calling us to live a faithful life in response ... and so we are here. Yahweh has taken us by the hand and kept us. There is soup for the soul ... and mind and heart and body ... here. There is “comfort, comfort O my people” (Is. 40.1). The hand of Yahweh is the peace of Christ which is the hand of the neighbour or stranger in this company who is unafraid to hold your hand, even through the valley of the shadow of trouble and sorrow and grief. Yahweh keeps us, cares for us, feeds us at the Lord’s own table in the midst of our enemies ... whether those enemies be terrifying disease or addiction or compulsion ... or evil’s temptation to violence or greed or despair. Yes, through Jesus the Christ, Yahweh has called us in righteousness and taken us by the hand and kept us safe from evil.
And Yahweh is also giving us as a covenant - a pledge - to the people, a light to the nations. The congregations of God’s called people - God’s synagogues and churches - are not ends in and of themselves. The church does not exist as a service for its members. We are not consumers of God’s steadfast love and mercy for its own sake. We receive this grace for the sake of God ... and God’s beloved earth. We have been mysteriously called out of the world to become a gift of God to the peoples of the world ... a people in whom others catch a glimpse of what God is up to. In other words, with Jesus we are called “to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” (Is. 42:7) To be perfectly honest, I am not sure that I yet comprehend what this will mean for the eternal life that we are to lead here and now. God is giving us to the world so that eyes are opened and so that prisoners go free. This is how God brings justice. It sounds odd to me. Most who cry out for justice on the hot-line shows imagine that this will result in more being put behind bars. But Yahweh sees that there are many “bruised reeds” and “dimly burning wicks”, many wounded and broken people who are unjustly imprisoned. Is this only a metaphor? Does it speak simply of those who are imprisoned by the temptation to place their trust in mammon ... or locked up by memories of past abuse ... or jailed behind iron bars of unworthiness and despair? Or does Yahweh also dream that justice necessarily includes a world in which the vast majority who are behind bars are not society’s poorest and weakest? Is the calling of Jesus’ disciples also a calling to work for the salvation of too many poor and addicted and First Nations’ women and men who have become fodder for our jails? These are the necessary and troubling questions that arise from the baptism of Jesus ... and the baptism of his church. These questions frame the conversation and the living of those who have been called out of the everyday world ... and taken by his shepherd’s hand ... and kept at his banquet table ... and given with him to the nations.
This would all seem too huge a task for us to even consider beginning down the path that leads on from the Jordan river font. Thank heavens that this path is not of our choosing ... or of our doing. Praise God that this is what Yahweh is up to in the world ... and in our life together: “I am Yahweh, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.” (Is. 42:9) Amen.