Pastor Johnold J. Strey
Gloria Dei Lutheran Church; Belmont, CA
Sermon on Isaiah 42:1-4
First Sunday after Epiphany; The Baptism of our Lord (Year A)
Sunday, January 9, 2011
It’s Friday night. You have tickets to the San Francisco symphony concert. You brave the traffic, find the parking garage, walk to Davies Hall, pick up your tickets at the “Will Call” window, head inside and up the stairs, and find your seats. There are still ten minutes before the concert begins. You pass the time reading the articles in the program, gleaning some information about the guest conductor and the musical pieces on the program that evening. Ten minutes later, the lights dim, the conductor enters, and the concert goes forward without a hitch. You head home, go to bed, wake up the next morning, open the newspaper, turn to the “Arts” section, and read the reviews of the performance that you heard last night.
That description of your imaginary Friday night trip to the symphony is a good way to describe the relationship among the three Scripture lessons in today’s service. Today we kick off the Epiphany season by looking at the event that kicked off Jesus’ ministry two thousand years ago: his baptism. The First Lesson for today’s service was from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. That reading was like the program notes you read before the concert began; Isaiah gave his readers a description of what they should expect in Jesus. The Gospel was from Matthew chapter three. That reading was like the performance; we heard and saw what took place on the day Jesus’ ministry began. The Second Lesson was from chapter ten in Acts. That selection was like the newspaper review after the concert; Peter described Jesus’ ministry after the fact, including details from the beginning of his ministry on the day of his baptism.
This morning, we’re going to go back to our pretend symphony hall seat before the concert began and read the program notes. We’re going to take a closer look at Isaiah’s “program notes” for the Savior’s inauguration in the First Lesson. What should we expect from the man whose ministry began on the day we remember this morning? Isaiah’s program notes for the Savior’s inauguration will talk about Jesus’ qualifications, his actions, and his goals.
If you are reading actual program notes about a conductor or performer, the first words in the article probably contain the person’s name. Isaiah also begins by bringing our attention to the man he is talking about, although he uses a title rather than a name. He says, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations.”
In the previous chapter, the title, “my servant,” was applied to the entire nation of Judah, but God also expressed his displeasure with his sinful and wayward people. So he introduced a new servant: an individual person who was highly qualified to carry that title, someone whom God hand-picked and to whom God gave complete and total approval.
Ancient Jewish writers who lived before the time of Christ recognized that this verse referred to the Messiah, the coming Savior. It is impossible to read Isaiah’s words in this verse (42:1) and not see the parallels in the Gospel, which tells us about the Baptism of Jesus at the beginning of his ministry. Isaiah describes the introduction of someone in whom God delights; at his baptism, God introduced his Son, Jesus, to the world, and said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Isaiah described someone on whom God would send his Spirit; at Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit came down on Jesus in a visible way to tell everyone that God had set apart this man to be the world’s Savior. Seven hundred years before Jesus was born, God used the prophet Isaiah to introduce his future servant, Jesus, whose perfect life made him perfectly qualified to receive the title of God’s servant.
It is natural to want the approval of others. Whether it is from our parents, teachers, boss, or colleagues, generally speaking, we want their approval. Maybe there are people who do approve your personal work and accomplishments. But do you have God’s approval? We mentioned earlier that when Isaiah wrote this words, ancient Judah did not have God’s approval. Time and time again they wandered away from him and fell into sin and idolatry. For that reason, God allowed a foreign army to come in and haul his people off into captivity.
If we are honest with ourselves, we really don’t fare much better than ancient Judah. Perhaps we gain approval from others in our lives, but is there a person among us today who has always loved God perfectly? Is there a person here today who always puts the other person’s needs first? Is there a person here today who has never uttered a cruel word or entertained a rude thought? The honest answer to those questions is, “No.” And if we are truly honest, we have our own “pet sins” that we come back to time and time again even though we know better. Like ancient Judah, we have repeatedly turned away from God in sin, and God would have every right to deport us to hell.
With that reality before our eyes, God comes to us and says, “Here is my servant.” He draws our attention to Jesus, his servant and our Savior—and for good reason! Here is someone who meets with God’s perfect approval, but Jesus earned God’s approval on your behalf! Here is someone whom God hand-picked to carry out his mission to rescue the world from sin, and Jesus began that mission on the day of his baptism with you in mind! Jesus’ perfect and holy life met with his Father’s approval and made him completely qualified to be the Savior who would rescue us from the consequences of all our sins and failures.
Isaiah wrote to a generation of God’s people who were taken captive by a foreign nation, the nation of Babylon. But Isaiah also told God’s people that they would be rescued from their national captivity. In a few chapters after our reading, Isaiah mentions Cyrus, the King of Persia, by name and says that he will use Cyrus to free his people from captivity. Cyrus accomplished his goals with the force of his military. Cyrus acted like a military leader, guiding his army into war to expand his empire and defeat his foes.
As we look at the next section in these “program notes” about Jesus, perhaps we would expect to read about a Savior whose actions would be like a military leader. If God would use the army of Cyrus to free Judah from national captivity, maybe the future Savior would act just as boldly to free them from spiritual captivity. But that is not what Isaiah says. “He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.”
These don’t sound like the actions of a conquering servant of God, but Isaiah tells us that this is what we should expect from God’s servant. He won’t make a scene or draw attention to himself merely for his own sake. He will not destroy repentant souls who are spiritually broken by their guilt and sin. He will not snuff out the flicker of faith from people who are weak and wavering. God’s servant would not act with force, but with love and compassion for others.
John the Baptist was surprised when Jesus came to be baptized. He knew Jesus was holy; he knew Jesus was the Son of God. But he didn’t expect Jesus’ actions to be filled with humility that would identify himself with everyone else in this sinful world. Yes, Jesus had harsh words and actions for those who rejected him or who didn’t recognize their own sinfulness. But Jesus comes with care and concern for souls that know they need God’s forgiveness. He came with humility that took him all the way to the cross, where the holy blood he shed has washed away your sins. He comes to helpless souls in Holy Baptism where he adopted another new lamb into his family again this morning. He comes to you who feel your guilt and know your unworthiness, and he invites you to hear his words of forgiveness and receive his Supper of forgiveness. His actions are humble and gentle, because he has not come to conquer you, but to save you and strengthen you and bring you into his family of faith.
As you sit in symphony hall and read the program notes about the conductor, perhaps you’ll come across a description of his goals. He wants to establish a world-class orchestra that is respected around the world. He wants to develop concert programs that combine great classical pieces alongside the best works of modern composers. Whatever they may be, the conductor has goals that drive his work.
The “program notes” that Isaiah includes in our reading also tell us about the Savior’s goals. Isaiah said, “In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his law the islands will put their hope.” One of Jesus’ missions was to “bring forth justice,” although the Hebrew word might be better translated as “judgment.” When Jesus came into this world, his goal was to go to the cross, where he laid down his life as payment for the world’s sins. He did not let the torment of the cross cause him to “falter or be discouraged.” And when his Father raised him back to life on Easter, God demonstrated that he had accepted Jesus’ payment for our sin. God’s judgment was that Jesus’ faithful work was acceptable to redeem us from sin. And every soul who trusts in Jesus’ work receives the “forgiven” judgment that Jesus secured by his death and proved by his resurrection.
But justice wasn’t Jesus’ only goal. Isaiah’s last statement was this: “In his law the islands will put their hope.” When Isaiah refers to “the islands,” he is thinking about the Mediterranean islands to the west of the ancient Holy Land. In the chapter before our reading, the people of those islands were described as idol worshippers. But Isaiah says that Jesus’ goal is to lead those people to faith in him. No man-made statue or idol can forgive sins, or conquer death. But Jesus would win forgiveness by his death and conquer death by his resurrection. Jesus may have been born among one nation, but he came for all nations, and many outside of ancient Judah would also come to faith in him and receive his forgiveness and victory.
How well do you stick to your goals? Perhaps you set major goals like completing your master’s degree, or learning a new language, or making the honor role or dean’s list. It’s good to have goals, but just because you set a goal doesn’t necessarily mean that you will achieve it. Imperfect people have an imperfect record achieving their goals.
But the perfect Son of God has a perfect record achieving his goal. And this shows you Jesus’ tremendous love and commitment for you. Nothing swerved him from the certain death of the cross, because by his death, he has won your forgiveness and peace with God. Nothing swerved him from death and burial, because only then could he defeat death for you and open up heaven for you and for all who believe in him. Jesus’ goal was to do for you what you could never do for yourself—to make you right with God and ready for eternity! Not only did he set his goal, but he achieved it, too—and he achieved it for you!
We are accustomed to starting special events with some fanfare and ceremony. The playoff games this weekend all began with some fanfare: player introductions, the national anthem, and the coin toss. Weddings begin with fanfare: the church bell rings, the groomsmen enter, the bridesmaid process, and the father walks the bride down the aisle. Ava’s baptism today had a bit of ceremony. I suppose we could have just baptized her and been finished in ten seconds or less, but the ceremony we put around every baptism visually emphasizes that this is a special event that deserves our attention.
Today we remember the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry. On this day, when God set Jesus’ ministry into motion, he added some fanfare and ceremony to the occasion. He had his Son identify with sinful humanity by being baptized along with everyone else. He anointed him with the Holy Spirit and spoke his approval from heaven. I suppose Jesus could have just started preaching and performing miracles, but the start of his ministry was extremely special, and the way God the Father “observed” this day tells us that there is something special about Jesus, and there is something special in the ministry he began today. This is no ordinary man, and his was no ordinary ministry. This is the only person qualified to make you right with God and who put those qualities into action to achieve his goal and win your eternal peace. Those aren’t just impressive program notes. That’s an impressive Savior with impressive grace for you! Amen.