Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 8, 2023
Isaiah 42:1-9 Commentary
Throughout the “Servant Songs” in this part of Isaiah, despite the focus on the Servant, there is no question who is really in charge and calling all the shots. The Servant has work to do and will achieve that work to a stunning degree of effectiveness. Nothing short of the bringing of justice to all the nations will be in the offing. In this corrupt and unjust world, that’s a tall order. The Servant must really be something—must really be somebody amazing—to pull this off.
But let there be no doubt: it is Yahweh, the one true God of Israel, who is actually enabling every last bit of the Servant’s tasks. Several times here and in surrounding chapters God is speaking and not only uses the 1st person singular “I” a lot but at times uses a highly emphatic version of that in Hebrew: Ani Yahweh. It is really not necessary to use the pronoun as the verb conjugation in Hebrew (like in Greek) always makes it clear it is an “I” who is speaking. Most sentences in Hebrew that say something like “I love my mother” just leave the “I” out because the verb form tells you this is first person.
But even as Jesus in John’s Gospel often threw in the Greek pronoun ego in the “I Am” sayings (ego eimi) to really emphasize both who Jesus is and his connection to Yahweh, the great “I Am,” so here Yahweh himself throws in an emphatic “I” as a way virtually to thump his own chest. Who is doing all this work through the Servant? God answers definitively: I Am.
In other words, tucked in just behind and beneath all that the Servant of the Lord does is nothing short of the almighty power of Almighty God. This is high voltage stuff. (Speaking of high voltage: connect up this reading with this week’s Psalm lection in Psalm 29 and recall the majestic power of God on display there through the fierce grandeur of a thunderstorm.)
But all of that is why other parts of Isaiah 42 are so striking.
Because somehow that majestic energy is going to get translated into a ministry of lyric gentleness. The Servant won’t he a shouter. The Servant does not walk the streets of this world bellowing through a bullhorn. The Servant is not focused on the power centers of the world but on the lowly on the margins. The human equivalents of smoldering wicks and bruised reeds are what will garner the most ardent attention of the Servant.
Thus raw power and moving tenderness coexist in this Servant. The Servant does not come first and foremost to “kick butt” as some Christians today engaged in so-called “culture wars” sometimes depict Jesus. Yes, the Servant is here to establish justice on all the earth and that will take no small amount of effort and power. But it comes through the tender acts of care and kindness that are principally on display in these verses. Justice comes through the Servant’s tender mercies, not despite all that.
Biblically this very simply seems to be God’s M.O.
On this Baptism of Jesus Sunday, we can recall that this is why a lot of people—including the supposedly best educated religious leaders of the day—failed to recognize Jesus as the Christ of God. It started in many ways at Jesus’s baptism. There he was, just a face in the crowd, waiting his turn in line to get dunked by John in the Jordan River. Even John pulled him aside to object. “You don’t need this baptism of repentance” John whispered. “I know” Jesus as much as replied, “but just let it go for the sake of all righteousness.” And if you know Hebrew and Greek, then you know that in both languages “justice” and “righteousness” work the same side of the street and can almost be indistinguishable from each other.
Jesus let himself be baptized as an ordinary sinner, though he had no sin. He let himself be identified with the lowly and needy and the ordinary of the earth, though he himself possessed all that majestic power of the Yahweh who speaks in Isaiah 42. Jesus was baptized like that so he could begin already then to look at the smoldering wicks and bruised reeds of the world at eye level. It was, of course, only the beginning of a ministry that would climax on a bloody cross.
Against all odds and appearances, of course, this ultimate Servant of the Lord did achieve justice and righteousness for all the earth. As such he did become the Light to all the nations. He was the One who opened the eyes of the blind, freed the captives, sprung people imprisoned in every manner of dungeon: physical, mental, and spiritual.
This is why we call the Gospel “Good News.” And it begins when all the majesty of Almighty God gets channeled down to the ground floor of life; to the smoldering and bruised among us. It is a wonder to behold. If we ask the question, “Who did this?” God has the answer: I Did!
In the “Harry Potter” books and movies, J.K. Rowling had a lot of fun inventing clever features of the magic wielded by the wizards in the stories. One such clever device involved playing around with proportions and space. Thus in one part of the story while the characters of Harry, Ron, and Hermione are on the run and camping out in the woods to hide, they would pitch what from the outside looked like a small one- or at most two-person little pup tent. Except that when the three of them went inside the tent, it was huge, containing multiple rooms, furniture, lamps, food stuffs, and enough room to sleep a dozen people. Appearances can be deceiving when magic is involved!
This reminds me of how all through history—in art, literature, cinema, poetry—people have tried to capture the paradox of the incarnate Christ in ways that also dealt with space, proportions, and appearances. Having just passed again through the Advent and Christmas Season, we have reviewed afresh the mystery of the Almighty Son of God somehow getting reduced to first a microscopic zygote in the womb of Mary and then soon enough to a vulnerable, tiny baby.
One such person who took on capturing this paradox was C.S. Lewis in an image that may be familiar to regular readers of our sermon commentaries here on the CEP website. At one point in one of his Narnia stories Lewis has his characters enter a structure that looked typical and smallish from the outside but that seemed downright huge once you went inside.
“Its inside is bigger than its outside” one character says in gob smacked wonder. “Yes,” replies another, “something like that once happened on earth too. A small stable somehow contained a baby who was himself bigger than the whole world.”
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