January 12 Sermon


A sermon preached at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on January 12, 2014 (First Sunday after Epiphany/Baptism of Christ Sunday)

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. 2He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; 3a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. 4He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

5Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: 6I am the Lord, 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, 7to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. 8I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. 9See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.             – Isaiah 42:1-9

Psalm 29

Acts 10:34-43

Matthew 3:13-17


This first Sunday after Epiphany – the first Sunday after the Christmas season – confronts us with chronological shock.  The traditional gospel lesson for this Sunday is the story of the baptism of Jesus by John – not when Jesus was an infant (as is common practice in many churches today), but as an adult of about 30 years of age.  We have just celebrated the birth of Jesus and marveled at the story of the Child of God being born in a cattle feeding trough.  Now, all of a sudden, he’s all grown up.  The truth is the gospels have very few stories of Jesus as a child – the story I told the children this morning (Luke 2:39-52) of a young Jesus in the temple is pretty much it.  Other than that, he seems to have dropped out of sight until the time of his baptism.

Although we didn’t read that story this morning, many of you have heard it before.  John was a spectacle – a strangely dressed apocalyptic prophet who drew folks to the wilderness to hear him preach by the river Jordan.  He warned them they needed to repent of their sins and be baptized because a time of judgment was at hand.  Then Jesus appeared, asking to be baptized by John.  John, recognizing that Jesus was something new – something much greater than himself – at first refused.  He knew that Jesus had no need for repentance and forgiveness.  But Jesus insisted, “to fulfill all righteousness,” as he says in Matthew 3.  And so John baptized Jesus, and the heavens were opened and Jesus saw the Spirit of God descend on him like a dove, and there was a voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Ever since, those who have desired to put their faith in Jesus and become his followers have been baptized – for the forgiveness of sins, but also to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, and to become a part of God’s beloved covenant people.

But I want to focus this morning on this amazing passage from Isaiah – one of several in which the prophet speaks the words of God about one who is God’s chosen servant, in whom God delights.  One of the characteristics of this servant that brings such delight to God is named here: this servant will “bring forth justice to the nations.” (Isaiah 42:1)  The Hebrew word that is translated as “justice” (mishpat) is a common word in the Prime Testament.  It has a range of meanings and uses – including not only the proper judgment of right and wrong, or guilt and innocence, as in legal cases, but also a concern for fairness and equal opportunity for all members of the community.  It is being sure that all have the basic necessities of life to live in dignity.  It is concern for the poor and powerless who are oppressed by unjust people and institutions.  The God of Israel is a God of justice.  God’s people are concerned about justice, and they adopt practices to enact it.

One of the amazing things about this servant who brings forth justice is that it is not just for “our people” (the people of Israel), but also for “the nations” – those foreign unbelievers who worship other gods and goddesses and have strange customs.  As Peter observes in the book of Acts, “God shows no partiality.”

Needless to say, this is very different from the ways of many people in our nation and throughout the world.  Our economic concerns tend to be primarily for what benefits us and makes life easier for us.  Our political concerns tend to be for the citizens of our local communities, and our nation, rather than for outsiders.

Our mission concerns of the church tend to focus on local needs.  But God loves justice for all people, whether we think they are our concern or not – whether we think they are deserving or not.

But who, exactly, is this servant who brings forth justice? It turns out that biblical scholars have not been sure exactly who the prophet was speaking about.  Perhaps this servant who delighted God’s heart was one of the ancient kings of the people of Israel.  The kings were supposed to be faithful servants of God, and to show concern for all people under their care – especially the poor and unwanted, like widows and orphans.  But there is no indication here of who that king may have been – most of them were not very good about serving God.  And this particular part of the book of Isaiah is thought to have been written after the line of kings of Israel and Judah had come to an end.  So it’s not likely that Isaiah was speaking about a king.

Another possibility is that this “servant” may have been all of God’s covenant people – the people of Israel — the descendants of Abraham and Sarah that would become what we would call the Jewish people today.  They were also supposed to be servants of God, and live by the commandments of the Torah given through Moses at Mt. Sinai, that included commandments for showing justice to the poor and marginalized among them.  Through them, the blessings of living as God’s people were supposed to be extended to other nations.  But they didn’t always faithfully live out their covenant commitments.

Many people have seen this description of a servant of God embodied in Jesus.  He cared for the poor and weak, he offered hope and healing to all the world; he opened the eyes of the blind and brought liberty to those imprisoned by sin and futility.  Indeed, God’s Spirit came upon him at his baptism, and he was affirmed as God’s beloved child.  Jesus was indeed a faithful servant of God.

All of these: king, Israel, Christ – are possibilities.  But there is one other possibility we should consider today.  This servant in whom God delights is YOU – those of you who are baptized, who are part of the Church of Jesus Christ.  When we were baptized, just like Jesus we were anointed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.  God says to us, “You are my beloved Child, with whom I am well pleased.”  But that Spirit and that affirmation are not given just for our comfort – just for the assurance of forgiveness and everlasting life.  It is given so that we might carry on the ministry of Christ – including bringing forth justice both locally and worldwide.  The instances of injustice in the world are legion – so much that the work of confronting them may seem overwhelming, both in the number of challenges and their complexity: racism, poverty, gender issues, abuse of the earth and its resources.  But the God who created the earth and gives life to its people is the One who anoints us with the power of the Holy Spirit to do what is right.

We will have an opportunity today to renew our baptism by affirming the questions that are asked of those being baptized (or their parents).  Then, during our final hymn, those who wish are invited to come forward for anointing with water as a reminder of baptism.  One of the baptism questions asks us to promise, by the grace of God, “to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ…”  In this coming year, I want to be more intentional about living out that promise personally.  Perhaps some of you will want to join me as well.

(Lead everyone is renewing their baptismal promises and offer anointing with water at the close of worship)

The renewal of baptism questions are:

Do you desire to affirm your baptism into the faith and family of Jesus Christ?

(I do.)

Do you renounce the powers of evil and desire to live in the freedom of new life in Christ?

(I do.)

Do you profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior?

(I do.)

Do you promise, by the grace of God, to be Christ’s disciple, to follow in the way of our Savior, to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ as best you are able?

(I promise, with the help of God.)

Do you promise, according to the grace given you, to grow in the Christian faith and to be a faithful member of the church of Jesus Christ, celebrating Christ’s presence and furthering Christ’s mission in all the world?

(I promise, with the help of God.)

Robert J. von Trebra

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