For those who want a change from the Gospel
Epiphany 1 / The Baptism of Christ – Isaiah 42:1-9
Having been brought up in the Baptist denomination and only having come more lately to Anglicanism, you might imagine that baptism was an issue for me. I had been baptised at the age of 18, after years of battling with the feeling that I wasn’t ‘ready’ yet, and certainly not ‘good’ enough to take this step. So when I finally joined the C of E, in order to prepare for ordination, all that I had to do was to get confirmed. The battle here was less theological and more practical. I could not be ordained if I wasn’t confirmed, so I had to suck up any theological scruples I had and get on with it.
Only later did I have the theological tools to analyse what I actually believed about baptism, and to understand that Baptist and Anglican understandings of the rite are very different. I had been brought up to believe that baptism was all about nailing my colours to the mast, and making a public statement of what I believed and how I would live. It was about me giving two things: my commitment to God, and my witness to everyone around me. I later realised that in Anglican theology baptism is not about what I give: it’s about what God gives.
Whether or not we interpret the Servant Songs in Deutero-Isaiah as being about Jesus or about the nation of Israel as a whole (my preference is for the second), there are some clues in this passage, the first of the Servant Songs, about how God relates to his people and what being his people entails. Baptism, like this passage, is fundamentally about two things: God’s delight in us, and our calling from God.
The two are brought together in the first verse, which forms a kind of abstract or summary of the whole text. It begins with God’s delight in his servant. It starts with relationship. Now that I am retired and have a large garage I have been collecting tools: last Christmas I got a chopsaw, and for my birthday in June I got a bench grinder. I love using these tools; you might even say I delight in them, but I certainly don’t have any relationship with them. I own them and use them, and that’s it. Elsewhere in the OT we see God using other nations to do his will. Both Assyria and Babylon are servants of God to punish the Northern and Southern Kingdoms respectively for their apostasy and disobedience. Later God will call Cyrus, King of Persia, his ‘Messiah’ because he is going to conquer Babylon and thus let the exiles return home. But these nations do not inspire delight in God. Israel/Jesus his servant is different. The relationship is not primarily like a tool to a carpenter, but rather a loving devotion.
But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have a job to do. In Anglican thinking about baptism, the ceremony is actually our ordination to ministry. Often we expect there to be a gap of many years between the time when we are baptised into Christ and when a very few of us might receive a vocation to public ministry and leadership. This is not a biblical pattern. St Paul on the Damascus Road is both converted and called at the same moment. He doesn’t have 20 years to think about it!
So the role of the servant, in whom God delights, is to delight God through his ministry. This forms the rest of our passage. The content is justice, the greatest desire of God’s heart, and the method is not to shout about it but to work for it. He will work with gentleness, fanning into flame those whose passion is almost extinguished, and he will not be discouraged himself, but will work tirelessly until justice fills the earth. Note the dual focus of the servant’s ministry: to God’s people themselves, but wider than that to the Gentiles too. The servant has both a teaching and an evangelistic ministry.
A tall order? The final part of the passage tells us two things, about what God will do, and who he is. We are not alone in our calling to work for the justice and righteousness of God’s kingdom. He takes us by the hand and leads us; he fills us with the power of his Spirit, and he covenants to remain faithful to us.
Finally God tells us about just who it is who wants this kind of relationship with us. He is not some little tinpot idol, unable to see what it going on or what is coming. He is the real deal, the eternal God, the only one worthy of praise, and the only one worth serving.
Had I been a Methodist rather than a Baptist I would have used the beginning of each new year to renew my covenant with God, and to recommit myself to his service. Anglicans have now pinched the famous Covenant prayer and put it in Common Worship. If you use this prayer in your service this Sunday, maybe you can let Isaiah’s words fuel your recommitment to God’s service, and your personal relationship with him.