The Baptism of Christ, Guido Reni, 1622-1623, Kunsthistorisches Museum (Vienna)
The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord
Isaiah 42:1–4, 6–7
January 12, 2020
The first reading for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord is the same every year. It allows us to see not only how deeper our understanding of the Old Testament has become but also to demonstrate how the same passage from Scripture can be applied to new situations. We will therefore provide the same commentary as last year, and I would assume next year, but with a different application.
The return of the Jewish leaders to Jerusalem was obviously an important event for the Jews. Isaiah, who has a wider view of history, shows us in today’s reading that we must also see it from the perspective of “world” history, God cannot move without disruption. To understand this, we must begin with chapter 41.
Isaiah is creating a trial scene in which God is the prosecuting attorney and Judge. The first case is “Who liberated the Jewish People?” As we proceed, note that the scriptural passages are listed in the headers, but only a small section is written out. Hebrew poetry is a bit repetitive to our ears.
Summons to the First Trial (41:1)
Keep silence before me, O coastlands;
you peoples, wait for my words!
Let them draw near and speak;
let us come together for judgment.
The coastlands are the trading peoples of the Mediterranean world, they are not Jewish.
First Legal Questioning (41:2–4)
Who has stirred up from the East the champion of justice,
and summoned him to be his attendant?
To him he delivers the nations
and subdues the kings;
With his sword he reduces them to dust,
with his bow, to driven straw.
This is Cyrus the king of Persia who conquered Babylon and will offered the Jewish leaders an opportunity to return. Yet it is the God of the Jews who is in control:
Who has performed these deeds?
He who has called forth the generations since the beginning.
I, the LORD, am the first,
and with the last I will also be.
Election and Reassurance of Israel (41:5–20)
But you, Israel, my servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
offspring of Abraham my friend—
You whom I have taken from the ends of the earth
and summoned from its far-off places,
You whom I have called my servant,
whom I have chosen and will not cast off
Cyrus has been obedient to God’s will and has been rewarded with victory, but the Persians are not the chosen people. It is the people of Abraham who God has recalled from the ends of the earth and have his special favor. Note also that he refers to them as servants. They are chosen and important but because they have a role.
Many beautiful lines follow, but they reinforce the idea that the God of Israel is the Lord of History. As we have seen many times before, He demands justice from his people.
Summons to the Second Trial (41:21)
Having established that Israel’s God has worked his will, we begin the second trial, “Are there other gods?”
Present your case, says the LORD;
bring forward your reasons, says the King of Jacob
Second Legal Questioning (41:22–29)
Now the “other” gods are on trial, or more specifically their idols:
Foretell the things that shall come afterward,
that we may know that you are gods!
Do something, good or evil,
that will put us in awe and in fear.
They cannot, therefore:
Why, you are nothing and your work is nought!
To choose you is an abomination.
He uses Cyrus as an example. He called him and the “other gods” did not even know it:
Who announced this from the beginning, that we might know;
beforehand, that we might say it is true?
Not one of you foretold it, not one spoke;
no one heard you say,
From this, He concludes that they do not exist. This is the earliest clear statement that there are no other gods:
Ah, all of them are nothing,
their works are nought,
their idols are empty wind!
Second Election and Reassurance of Israel (42:1–9)
We now come to the section for Sunday’s reading. We have seen in 41:8 that God has called his servant. He returns to this to explain to the people what accepting him as the only deity really means:
Here is my servant whom I uphold,
my chosen one with whom I am pleased,
Upon whom I have put my spirit;
he shall bring forth justice to the nations,
He is speaking to the Jews who returned to Jerusalem, not to a king or indeed prophet. As we saw with Herod and the Scribes of the people, the traditional leaders failed. They failed to be just to their own people and thus could not fulfill their calling to bring justice to the nations. If the God of the Jews is truly the only God, then he is truly the ultimate course of justice and peace:
A bruised reed he shall not break,
and a smoldering wick he shall not quench,
Until he establishes justice on the earth;
the coastlands will wait for his teaching.
It shall not be by their own power, certainly not by traditional military might. A plant shall not be crushed by their own efforts, but the power of God will transform the pagans of the coastlands who in the quiet of their hearts await the message that will set them free as well:
I, the LORD, have called you for the victory of justice,
I have grasped you by the hand;
I formed you, and set you
as a covenant of the people,
a light for the nations,
By his covenant, sharing of life with his people, he will make them into a light for the nations: the way his name will be known. Through them, he will do for the world what he did for Israel:
To open the eyes of the blind,
to bring out prisoners from confinement,
and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.
This commentary was originally written last year during the partial government shutdown. It was obvious who was suffering, and it was not our national leaders. They were an obvious and necessary target, but an easy one. Let us look at ourselves. We have been blessed, anointed, and formed: have we been effective?
If the earth swallowed up St. Charles tomorrow, who outside this church would know or care?