Rocherty UMC January 12th, 2020
“The Servant(s) of the Lord”
Sermon Manuscript

          You may have noticed if you’ve been paying attention to the bulletins lately that the seasons of the church year has changed quite a bit over the last few weeks.  If you remember, for the longest time, the bulletins said something like “the twentieth week after Pentecost, Proper 20” or some other obscure church calendar reference.  But all of the sudden, with the coming of the Advent Season, things changed quickly.  The decorations for the Christmas Season went up.  We exchanged the green paraments that drape the pulpit with those of purple.  And then, on Christmas Eve, we deck the church in white to symbolize the coming of Christ to us, and the promise of his return.
          And as you might recall, last week we celebrated Epiphany.  This day not only celebrates the appearance of Jesus to the Wise Men of Old, but the revelation of the God-Man—literally God in the flesh—to earth.  It’s a revelation, or an epiphany to human beings lost in darkness.  We’ve seen the great light that Isaiah promised so long ago.  Now the question becomes in our lives: what difference is it going to make?  How do we live differently now that we know that God loves us so much that he is willing to stoop so low from his heaven to enter weak human flesh and dwell among us?
          You see, it’s one of the central tenets of the Christian faith that Jesus Christ, this king we celebrate born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth in the Galilee, was not just an appearance of God like a vision or an apparition or even an angel.  No, Jesus Christ was at the same time 100% God and 100% human.  He never lost the deity at the expense of the humanity.  But he also never lost the limits of humanity even as he was one with God.  Even to the point of death—death on a Cross for us and our salvation, as the Bible tells us.
This Mystery
          How do we deal with such a mystery?  How do we deal with a God who stoops so low as to come down to our level?  In the ancient world, this was quite controversial.  The Jewish people had spent hundreds, if not thousands, of years developing their understanding of God as a strong, omnipotent ruler of the cosmos.  This God wasn’t just a God of one tribe on earth like so many others but was the Creator and Sustainer of the entire universe.  So, the question among early Jewish followers of Jesus was: how do we make sense of Jesus, the man who is also God?  For many, this was just too much and they walked away.
          But for many Gentiles, those non-Jewish followers of Jesus, the scandal and mystery were something a little different.  It wasn’t that they couldn’t understand a God who had human properties.  No, if you are familiar with any of the stories of Greek and Roman mythology, you’ll understand that the tales of the gods are human—all too human.  No, that wasn’t the issue.  The issue for Gentiles was how such a human being that was executed as a common criminal could be proclaimed as God in the flesh.  There were numerous tales of gods doing things in human form, so that wasn’t the issue.  The issue was how could death be overcome?  How could the humiliation of the horrible death at Calvary make any sense to the sophisticated minds of the Greco-Roman culture? 
          Even the resurrection stories didn’t help all that much at this point.  You see, we often think that people who lived in the ancient world must have been a bit more gullible than we are because they didn’t have access to the amazing knowledge and scientific progress that we do. Well, that’s not really the case.  For being limited, the people did really understand that once someone was dead, they were dead.  Resurrection was just as foolish in the ancient times as it is to many modern skeptical ears today.
Connecting to Today
          Even Paul, the great Apostle of the faith that wrote many of the greatest pieces of literature in the Bible knew how hard the gospel message was to swallow—even in the ancient world where stories of gods and miracles were common.  The gospel message is essentially that the God of the universe appeared in human flesh—as both God and man.  He lived a life of humility and service teaching others to inaugurate the Kingdom of God—God’s reign of peace and justice on earth.  And all of that happened in about 3 or so years.  Then, as suddenly as he appeared on the scene, this God man was arrested, convicted, sentenced, and executed as a common criminal.  In the most horrendous way known to the ancient Romans—crucifixion.  And then, three days later, bursting forth from the tomb that meant to hold him forever, this God-Man was suddenly transformed.  No longer quite the man he was before—but certainly no less—this man appeared to his disciples and proclaimed that God’s work had in some way been completed.  And that now it was the mission of the followers to continue the work that he had started until he came again a final time to make all things right and new.
          Just sit back and think about that for a minute.  That’s the story we have to tell to the nations.  That’s the story we have to tell to our neighbors, our friends, and that’s the story that you and I are called to live into as followers of Jesus Christ.  It’s one of the most unlikely stories of all time.  It sounds impossible, because in human terms it is.  But remember, the Bible tells us that “nothing will be impossible for God.”
          Let that sink in.  “Nothing will be impossible for God.”  That’s the angel’s words to Mary when this whole thing started.  A heavenly being alights upon an ordinary human being.  The Holy invades the Common.  The Sacred crashes into the profane.  In the process, all things are changed.  The old things pass away and in their place something new comes.  New Creation begins with Jesus…but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Baptism of Jesus
          Please allow me to back up a bit and focus on the meaning of today in the church calendar.  Today is yet again another special day that the church sets aside to celebrate a significant event recorded in the Scriptures.  Today we celebrate not Jesus’ birth, or his appearance as God incarnate, not even his appearance to the wise men.  No, today we celebrate Jesus’ baptism.
          It seems like quite an odd thing to celebrate doesn’t it?  What do we usually associate with baptism?  For me, I have always associated baptism with the start of something new.  In our Methodist tradition, we baptize infants as a promise made on behalf of the child to raise them in the Christian faith.  It’s a promise made to train up a child in the way they should go.  In other traditions, adults or at least older children capable of making a decision for themselves, decide to be baptized.  But between these two differing traditions, a similar thought is at work.  In the life of the person baptized, something new is afoot with the waters of baptism.  It marks a rite of passage for the person.  It allows them entry into the community of faith.  It unites them with Christ’s body, the church.  It opens the door to greater communion with God and his people around the world and through all time.
          But most importantly, it signifies a washing.  It even signifies a death.  A death to self, a death to sin, a death to the wicked ways of the world.  Paul says that in baptism, we die and are raised with Christ.  We become part of the work of the New Creation.
          But for John the Baptist, who we encounter in today’s Scripture, baptism meant something a little different.  For John, Baptism meant a fresh start in life, yes, but it meant a renunciation of sin and a fleeing of the wrath to come.  It meant a turning away from the world and its fallen system of power and corruption and a turning to God.  It meant an abandonment of sin.
          And here’s where things get dicey for us.  Today, we celebrate the baptism of Jesus.  But hold the phone—Houston, we have a problem!  If Jesus accepts John’s baptism, doesn’t that mean that Jesus is acknowledging sin in his own life.  Doesn’t that make Jesus a sinner?  And isn’t one of the central tenets of Christian faith that Jesus was sinless?
          Well, yes.  One of the key tenets of the faith is that Jesus was indeed without sin.  So, let’s take a look deeper at our passage this morning and see if we can make sense of what is going on with Jesus’ baptism.  As we do so, we’ll make some connections to both the psalm that we heard read this morning, and the mysterious passage from the prophet Isaiah that talks about the “Servant of the Lord.”  We’ll learn that Jesus, the God-Man IS this servant of the Lord and that you and I are called to be servants too.  So, let’s turn now to Matthew.
Matthew 3:13-17
          Our passage opens with John’s confusion over Jesus’ request to be baptized.  It’s not just us that has some questions about what is going on here!  Let’s listen: Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John.  But John tried to deter him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’
          John is absolutely incredulous that Jesus is coming to the Jordan to receive baptism.  He knows Jesus.  He knows of his character, his life, his mission, and his potential.  He is related to Jesus after all, a cousin.  Even John can’t conceive of the reason for such an act.  Jesus has nothing to repent of.  No sins haunt his memory.  No guilt invades his waking conscience and keeps him from his mission.  Yet he insists on being plunged in the waters of the Jordan anyway.
          Jesus replied, ‘Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then John consented.
          Jesus’ reply is enigmatic.  It raises more questions than it answers.  What exactly does this phrase “it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness” mean anyway?
          In order to understand this, we need to zoom out and take a wide look at Jesus and his ministry.  Jesus did many strange things along the way—things that puzzled both skeptics and believers.  He was baptized by John, yet without sin.  He spent 40 days in the wilderness being tempted by Satan yet did not succumb.  He taught things that went counter to common understandings of God and the way things always had been done.  He ate with tax collectors and sinners.  He healed prostitutes and lepers.  In short, he broke nearly every rule found in the “Jewish Messiah Handbook.”  At least as it was written at the time of his coming.
          But there is something going on here that I don’t want you to miss.  I could beat around the bush a little and save it all for a surprise ending.  That would make good writing, but I don’t think it makes good teaching.  Good teaching is plain and straight-forward.
          You see, one thing I don’t want you to miss is this central fact.  In the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, Israel gets a second chance to follow her intended mission of being a light to the nations and the vehicle for God’s salvation in history.  It is not an overstatement to say that in a real, tangible way, Jesus becomes Israel and repeats her story—this time only with success and in a way pleasing to God.
          Think about it.  Jesus is born of humble parentage.  Israel is born of humble parentage, from a family of wandering nomads.  There is a miracle in the birth of each.  Abraham is childless, and Jesus was born by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Now Jesus comes to be baptized in water.  Israel was delivered through the waters of the Red Sea in the Exodus, what many later writers would liken to a type of Baptism.  And Jesus, as the representative Israelite, the New Israel, the New Creation, takes the plunge in the waters.  And that’s not it.  Israel wanders in the desert for 40 years before being delivered to the promised land.  Jesus wanders in the desert for 40 days compelled by the Spirit and in the end is delivered and ministered to by the angels of God.  Israel suffered the fate of exile and death only to be delivered by God.  And Jesus suffered the curse of exile and death.  But here, Jesus breaks away from Israel’s tradition and emerges from the tomb victorious.  Where the old Israel had failed, Jesus succeeded.  Jesus was vindicated by God in the resurrection and in so doing now draws all people to himself by his grace and the love of God.
          Isn’t this exciting stuff?  I remember the feeling I had the first time I had these connections made for me by a Bible teacher.  It was like the scales had fallen from my eyes and I began to read my Bible differently.  It was a step of maturity in faith for me and a step toward understanding and applying the Scriptures differently as a result.  I hope you’ve had some of those experiences in your life.  They are precious and life changing.
          But let’s get back to our story.  Jesus has now convinced John to baptize him and although the text doesn’t say so explicitly, Jesus is baptized by John.  We don’t know exactly what this looked like.  We don’t the method of baptism or the words that were said.  But we do know the result.  Let’s listen:
          As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water.  At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.  And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love, with him I am well pleased.
          This is another one of those passages that I could spend many weeks of sermons and teachings expounding.  But let’s look at the main points.  Something changes when Jesus emerges from the water.  Just like Israel was forever changed by the events of the Exodus and that deliverance started a new relationship with God, so Jesus’ baptism was the start of something new in his life and in the life of the world as well.
          With the baptism of Jesus, Jesus inaugurates his public ministry.  After his temptation and baptism, it is only then that he starts healing the sick, raising the dead, and preaching the gospel to the children of Israel.  The baptism, like our own baptisms, was a rite of passage for Jesus too.  It was a transition point for Jesus.  He went from being a humble carpenter into the period we now call “his public ministry.”  It was the beginning of a new relationship with God.
          It’s not that Jesus wasn’t God before he was baptized.  It wasn’t that Jesus somehow now became God or now could work miracles when before he couldn’t.  No, it’s more like a graduation from a season of preparation.  Jesus, like us, grew in stature and wisdom and maturity.  The baptism was his time to transition into the fulness of his calling.  He set his face towards doing God’s will in a new way.
The Psalm
          And all of this receives the divine stamp of approval.  When Jesus emerges from the waters, the Bible tells us that heaven was opened.  When I used to read this passage, I used to picture an image of a door.  You know doors open easily (usually).  They have hinges and latches that makes it quite easy to go from one place to another. 
          But the relationship between heaven and earth is not like that.  There isn’t a door between the realm of God and the realm of human beings.  If there was one thing the ancients got right, it was the qualitative difference between the realm of God and the realm of human beings.  They are two quite different modes of reality.
          And so, when we hear about heaven being opened, I want to take us to the morning psalm this morning, Psalm 29.  Psalm 29 is a command to the angels of heaven to ascribe to the Lord glory, strength, and the honor due his name.  In this psalm, the God we meet is huge.  He is all powerful.  He communicates through the images of thunder and lightning, storm and flood.  He commands the forces of nature and uses them at his will.
          So, when we return to our Matthew passage, I want us to remember that it is THIS God we meet opening the heavens.  It wasn’t that a door was opened at the baptism of Jesus, but that the heavens were ripped open by the God who speaks in thunder and lightning and storm.  The voice of the Lord who is powerful enough to move mountains and shatter trees is the voice we hear proclaiming his delight in his Son.
          He tells us, and all who heard it and read about this incident to this day that this All-Powerful God is pleased with his Son.  And not only that, but that he loves him.  This all-powerful God has a Son, one in whom he is well pleased.  One whom he loves One whom we should listen to.  One who connects the realm of heaven and earth and brings them together.  This is the Jesus we worship, adore, and love.
          And one would think that the Son of this All-Powerful God might act a little bit like his Father?  Yet we don’t see this in Jesus’ ministry—at least not mostly.  Instead we see Jesus as humble.  Jesus as meek.  Jesus as a wandering teacher who identifies with the poor and the weak.  Is it any wonder that people were confused about him?  He is the Son of the Almighty God who speaks in thunder and lightning yet he himself doesn’t harm a fly.
          And that’s why on this day we read Isaiah 42:1-9.  It is one of several passages in the book of the prophet Isaiah that are designated as the so-called “Servant Songs.”  In these passages, a character is introduced, the Servant of the Lord, and we learn a great deal about this character from Isaiah’s pronouncements.
          We learn that this servant is upheld by God and that God delights in the Servant.  God has chosen him to be a light to the nations and to use him to bring justice to the world.  Yet this Servant will do so in meekness and gentleness.  He won’t break a bruised reed or snuff out a smoldering wick.  And yet, despite his meekness, he will render Justice to the world.  God’s justice.  True Justice.  Justice that makes equity for all people and binds up the wounds of the oppressed and needy.  And in the teachings of this Servant, people will place their hope.
Conclusion: The Servant(s) of the Lord
          I bet you can guess who this Servant of the Lord is, right?  Well, it’s clear to us that this is Jesus, and it was to many in the early church, but in the ancient world, this was also applied to Israel as a nation.  Israel was called to be God’s servant.  Israel was called to be a light to the nations and a kingdom of priests.  Israel was called to establish justice on earth.
          But in Jesus, Israel is re-constituted.  In Jesus, Israel is reborn from the ashes of sin and exile and a New Creation is inaugurated.  Now, believing Jews and Gentiles get to partner with the Servant of the Lord, Jesus Christ, in bringing about God’s intended purpose to redeem and restore the world.
          Now, brothers and sisters, you and I get to be a part of the Israel of God through union with Jesus Christ.  We get to be a part of the New Creation.  We get to be a part of the justice that Christ promises to the world.  We get to be agents of the kingdom in which everything is upside down and topsy- turvy.
          How will we serve the Lord?  How can we be servants of the Lord?  On what basis do we get to call ourselves such?
          Well, the simple answer is that we, like Jesus, get the call to service in our baptism.  When we were baptized, either we or our parents on our behalf, promised to love and serve God, to renounce evil, to work to build God’s kingdom right here on earth.
          It’s these baptismal vows that are at the center of the United Methodist Church’s understanding of what it means to be a Christian.  We give our Prayers, Presence, Gifts, Service, and Witness to not only the Church, but to God as well.  We covenant together to bring about New Creation in a world in which the Old Creation still groans.
          This week, I invite you to remember your baptism.  Like Jesus, when you encountered those waters, something was changed.  It wasn’t like magic.  And it might not be as dramatic as Jesus when heaven ripped open.  But something changed.  And I’ve placed this water here on the communion table as a sign of that change.
          Finally, this week, I encourage you to reflect on what it means to be baptized.  What does it mean for God to give YOU his seal of approval?  Your baptism is a sign—united with your own profession of faith—that you are accepted by God.  Not by anything you’ve done, but by the grace of God.  You too are God’s beloved children—each and every one.
          If you or someone you know has never been baptized, I invite you to come talk to me and I can help you with that.  It would be my privilege to serve as a vessel in making that happen.  And for those of you today who want to remember your baptism in a tangible way, I invite you, after the service, to come up to the communion table, dip your fingers in the water, remember your call to be a Servant of the Lord and in so doing remember your own baptism, your own call as the beloved of God.  Amen.

Let’s Pray: