January 11, 2015
The Baptism of the Lord
First Reading: Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7
We like to sneak away. Whether it be “sneaking out” of work early on a Friday, going on a weekend trip without telling anyone or even just finding a quiet corner to be alone, sometimes we long for relief from the constant bombardment of work, problems, responsibilities and just plain noise that the world throws at us. We long to “get away from it all” for good, but realize that all we might be able to do is find a few minutes of peace away from the fray. Jesus was no different. The Gospel of Matthew quotes this Sunday’s first reading from Isaiah to explain Jesus’ tendency to withdraw at times.
The first reading depicts a chosen servant whom the Lord assigns to establish justice, bring about a new covenant, and be a light for the nations. This passage constitutes the first of the four Servant Songs of Isaiah (42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13—53:12). These important passages explain the identity of a certain man chosen by God to suffer, give witness and deliver his people. The identity of the Servant is interwoven with Moses and the people of Israel, but ultimately finds its target in the person of Jesus. Jesus comes as the new Moses to lead the people of God on a new Exodus, to re-gather Israel around himself and establish a new covenant kingdom.
The Power of Appointment
The Servant in Isaiah 42 is not a lone wolf. He does not dream up an interesting idea and seek to implement it solo. Rather, he is personally selected and appointed by God. He has received a divine commission, divine approval and is sustained by divine power. This is one reason the Church elects to read this passage on the feast of the Baptism, the moment at which Jesus’ divine approval is suddenly proclaimed by a voice from heaven. Jesus, the God-man, is confirmed in his role as Messiah by the Father. God “grasps him by the hand,” forms him and sets him as a new covenant for the people (see Isa 42:6). Divine appointment, divine approval and divine grace sustain the Servant to complete his mission.
Encouraging the Fainthearted
While Isaiah 41 describes Cyrus the Persian as a violent conqueror appointed by God, the servant of Isaiah 42 is different. Rather than delivering a smash-and-grab program of divine vengeance, he will be gentle: “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench” (Isa 42:3 RSV). The people symbolized by the bruised reed and smoldering wick are likely the discouraged Jews in the exilic and post-exilic period, longing for restoration of their nation. But I think the metaphor can easily extend into the ministry of Jesus, who came not to crush and smash the broken-hearted, but to bind them up. It is much easier to discourage people than to encourage them. Jesus chooses the more difficult path. His role is to come as a servant-king redeemer. He even says, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Mat 11:29 RSV). Jesus, the suffering servant, does not find the weak and break them, but humbly lifts them up and encourages them. He does not seek to crush the discouraged but to give them heart.
The Victory of Justice
The Servant’s acts of encouragement are a mere prelude to his awesome purpose: to establish justice. He brings about a great reversal of fortunes: releasing prisoners, giving sight to the blind, enlightening the darkened nations. While Jesus is meek and mild, he also overturns the money-changers tables, challenges the Pharisees’ hypocrisy and says he has come to “cast fire upon the earth” (Luke 12:49). Justice has a soft encouraging side—the meek and humble love of the Messiah. But it also has a fierce side: the fire of judgment, the tearing down of the mighty from their thrones. Jesus is the perfect balance of the two sides, sometimes confronting his opponents in the public sphere and sometimes sneaking away for quiet moments with his disciples and his Father.
The Importance of Sneaking Away
If Jesus had to sneak away in order to snatch a few moments of quiet prayer, then so do we. The overwhelming whirlwind of our fast-paced world can make our heads spin. The harsh edges of that reality can be very discouraging: setbacks, failures, disappointments, broken relationships can drag us down. Even within ourselves—our weaknesses, our sins, our inner conflicts—we can experience a chaos or at least a cacophony. That is why we need to find those moments, the secret and hidden ones, the ones that no one knows about, to sneak some time with God. Jesus talks about going into your room and closing the door to spend time with God in secret (Matt 6:6). If Jesus could redeem the whole world without shouting, without breaking the bruised reed, then surely we can find away to let those secret moments with God shape us, change us, renew us to be more like the original sneak-away-and-pray Savior whom we are trying to follow.