Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 12, 2020
Isaiah 42:1-9 Commentary
On this First Sunday after Epiphany, the world-wide church celebrates the baptism of Jesus because that event was the first manifestation of the glory of God in the adult ministry of Jesus. To help us see the magnificence of Christ’s glory, the Lectionary selects Isaiah 42 for its Old Testament reading. It is a fine choice because Isaiah 42:1-9 reads almost like a commentary on the baptism of Jesus, shedding its ancient light on that event so that we can see it in all its glory.
Of course, reading Isaiah 42 as a prophetic commentary on the baptism of Jesus begs a large question. So we might as well face the elephant in the room right away. Who is the Servant in Isaiah 42 and, for that matter, in the other three “Servant Songs” that will follow (49:1-6, 50:4-11, and 52:13-53:12)? The Lectionary’s pairing of Isaiah 42 with Matthew 3 assumes that the Servant is Jesus Christ, but that is far from clear to many scholars.
In fact, the identity of the Servant is a huge controversy. Some say it is the prophet Isaiah himself, whose mission to Israel was a failure, in the sense that his words of warning fell on deaf ears. Others say the Servant is the nation of Israel, whose mission to be the light for the Gentiles failed, because the word of the Lord came to people who were blind and deaf. And still others think that the Servant was, indeed, Jesus, who fulfilled both the prophet’s and the nation’s mission. He was both a Servant to Israel and the very embodiment of Israel the Servant.
Some parts of the Servant Songs seem to point to Isaiah himself as the Servant, while other passages seem to be clearly corporate. What tips the scales in the direction of Jesus as the Servant are the obvious parallels between Isaiah 42 and the baptism of Jesus. For example, verse 1 is virtually quoted in Matthew 3:17. In both texts God gives a public presentation of the beloved Servant, identifying him as God’s Chosen One in whom God takes delight. In both texts, the Spirit comes upon the Servant, equipping him for his ministry. In both the revelation of God’s glory is prominent, as God declares his unrivaled glory in Isaiah 42:8 and the very heavens open in Matthew.
Even more conclusive is the way Matthew 12:18-21 interprets Isaiah 42:1-4. Aware that the Pharisees were looking for ways to assassinate him, Jesus withdrew from public view, but the mobs of sick people followed him. Jesus healed them, but warned them not to tell who he was. “This,” says Matthew, “was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah….” Then Isaiah 42: 1-4 are applied directly to Jesus. Led by the Spirit, Matthew identifies Jesus as the Servant of Isaiah.
Did Isaiah understand that? Almost surely not, but this is a good example of what Peter said in his first letter. “Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the suffering of Christ and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven.” (I Peter 1:10-12) That is, Isaiah might not have been able to identify the Servant about whom he prophesied, but the Holy Spirit could, and did, in the New Testament.
Thus, Isaiah 42 gives us marvelous insights into the ministry of Jesus that was inaugurated at his baptism. The very first verse assures us of the very thing Jesus’ enemies could never accept, namely, that he came from God as God’s special Savior. Jesus was “my Servant,” says God, and I fully support him (“whom I uphold”). Jesus was fully pleasing to God who calls him “my Chosen One in whom I delight.” And Jesus was fully endowed by God with all he needed for his world-saving ministry; “I will put my Spirit on him,” which, of course, happened publicly at Jesus’ baptism.
The epiphanies in Isaiah 42 continue with the last phrase of verse 1, “he will bring justice to the nations.” That was the mission of the Servant, underlined by its repetition 3 times (see also verses 3b and 4b). This is a revelation for those who think that Jesus mission was only to “save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21.” That is, of course, true, but many Christians think that salvation from sin involves mainly or only the forgiveness of sins. Jesus erases our guilt and removes our punishment, and that’s all there is to salvation.
Isaiah 42 reminds us that God isn’t done saving until he restores justice to this world, until he makes all things right. The Hebrew word here is mishpat. Andrew Bartelt sums up its meaning very well: “The concept of mishpat refers to a positive sense of God’s ‘law and order:’ a peaceful and whole life in relationship with God, with others, and with all creation.” In a word, the mission of our Servant Savior was to restore Shalom to the whole world, so that everything that was made wrong by sin would be put right by the work of the Servant.
This understanding of salvation spoke directly to Israel. Again, Bartelt nails it when he says, “Speaking to a time when the people of God were in exile, questioning the very justice of God who would have allowed his people to suffer so, words about ‘justice’ and ‘freedom’ (verse 7) would certainly serve to “comfort my people’ (Isaiah 40:1).”
What’s more, says this Servant Song, such comfort is not just for Israel. It is for the nations as well. Indeed, God’s choice of Israel was always designed to bring salvation to the nations of the world (Genesis 12 and 17). When Israel failed at that mission by being a self-centered, sinful people, God sent his Servant Jesus to complete that mission. Israel broke God’s covenant, but Yahweh will “take hold of [the Servant’s] hand and I will keep you and make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles.” As Isaiah 42:4 puts it, “He will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on the earth. In his law the islands will put their hope.” Not surprisingly, Jesus sent his disciples to all nations to “teach them to observe all that I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19).”
Those words of Matthew 28 are a fulfillment of Isaiah 42, especially verses 2 and 3. How will the Servant establish justice in a broken and brutal world? Not by loud protests or brute force, but by teaching with gentleness and mercy. “He will not shout or cry out or raise his voice in the streets.” No “pompous fanfare or media entourage” for him, just faithful proclamation and merciful action; “a bruised reed he will not break and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” How unlike the modern attempts to bring law and order, justice and peace. Most of us grow weary and despairing in the face of deep rooted injustice and flaming unrighteousness. Not our Servant Savior, who “will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth.”
How noble! And how futile! For centuries now Christians have proclaimed that the Savior has come and is coming again, but the world seems little changed. Are the Jews right when they say that Messiah has not yet come, that Jesus was a pretender, not the Servant of Isaiah? How can we keep believing that Jesus will bring justice and peace to the world?
Here again Isaiah 42 throws light on the ministry of Jesus inaugurated at his baptism by revealing the identity of that Voice that thundered at that baptism. According to verse 5, he is the Creator of all that is: “he who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and all that come out of it, who gives birth to its people and life to those who walk in it…” The One who created everything can certainly bring everything back to together!
Further, says Isaiah 42: 8, this God is Yahweh, the covenant making and keeping God. Indeed, he is the only God, who “will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols.” To a world that perpetually puts its trust in other gods, Isaiah boldly declares that there is no other god in whom we ought to hope. His glory is to save, and save he will, because he has promised and will keep that promise.
We know God can keep that promise, because Yahweh always has kept his promises. As Isaiah 42 says at the end of our text, “See, the former things have taken place….” That is probably a reference to God’s promise to judge and chasten his people in the Exile. I told you I would do it, and I have. But now I am doing a new thing; “new things I declare; before they spring into being I announce them to you.” Undoubtedly, God is talking about Israel’s restoration to the Promised Land, but, more significantly, he is pointing ahead to the coming of the Servant.
Like the Servant of Isaiah, that Servant Savior would be chosen, beloved, equipped, gentle, merciful and faithful. He will bring light to the nations, opening eyes that are blind, freeing captives from prison and releasing from the dungeon those who sit in darkness. He will do that in the most unusual way. Again, Bartelt says it memorably: “That this servant would establish justice by bearing God’s judgment upon himself is truly distinctive, unique, and the glorious work of no other God.”
One of the longest running shows on TV is the beloved “Law and Order.” Apparently there is no end to people’s fascination with seeing the “law” catching the law breakers and the courts making sure that “order” is restored. What a testimony to our inbred need to see justice done in this world.
I always tell myself that it is precisely my thirst for justice that drives my addiction to movies in which the bad guys get it in the end. But, if I’m honest, there’s also a bit of vengeance roiling around in me, mixed with a drop or two of blood lust. What a contrast to Jesus, the Servant who seeks justice not by beating people up, but by tenderly caring for the beaten up and then by being beaten up himself. It doesn’t fit our contemporary culture, but it is glorious proof of how much God loves us. The baptism of Jesus gave us a glimpse of God’s glory in the Servant, but the death of Jesus was the full revelation of God’s glorious love even for sinners with closed eyes and deaf ears.
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