Behold, my Servant! I will take hold of Him. My whole being (nephesh) delights in my chosen One. I have given my Spirit upon him; He will bring forth justice (mishpat) for the nations.
He will not cry out; He will not lift up (his voice); He will not cause his voice to be heard in the street.
A crushed (Qal Pass Ptc) reed he will not break; And a glowing wick he will not extinguish; For reliability he will bring forth justice (mishpat).
He will not become expressionless; And He will not abuse; Until he establishes justice (mishpat). And for His Torah, even the coastlands will wait.
This is what God, ADONAI, has said, The One who created the heavens and their extensions, Who spread out the earth and her offspring, Who gives breath to the people upon it, And spirit to those who walk in it:
“I Myself, ADONAI, have summoned you in righteousness, And I have grasped (you) by your hand, I have kept / guarded / preserved you And I have given you as a covenant to the people; A light to the nations / Gentiles.
To open blind eyes, To bring out the prisoner from the dungeon, From the house of confinement, those who dwell in darkness.
I am ADONAI, that is my name! My glory I do not give to another Nor my praise to idols.
The former things, behold, they have already come! But the new things, I am declaring! Before they spring forth, I will cause you to hear them.
This Sunday, January 12, is the first Sunday after the Epiphany. It is also Baptism of the Lord Sunday, so the Gospel lection for today (Year A) is Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism.
Epiphany, the season of light and enlightenment, not only sheds light on the identity and vocation of Jesus, it also opens the church’s eyes to her identity and vocation as followers of this peculiar Messiah. Today, we not only remember Jesus’ baptism, we are summoned to remember our own baptism, and rededicate ourselves to living into (and out of) our God-given identity and vocation.
We will interpret the Isaiah passage in light of the Gospel lection, since there is a deep and direct link between these two texts. But we also need to remember the original context of Isaiah 42 and let that knowledge inform our interpretation as well. The book of Isaiah makes a dramatic turn at chapter 40. Isaiah of Jerusalem (chapters 1-39) had warned the people of Judah about God’s coming judgment. The people were chasing after other gods (other lovers) and forsaking the justice (mishpat) and righteousness (tsedeqah) that the Torah required of God’s people. We must love God with all our heart, all our being, and all our excess. We must love our neighbors as ourselves. Israel has failed on both counts, so off to exile she goes.
Years later, the voice (school, tradition) of Isaiah reemerges at the end of exile (Isaiah 40). The prophet announces the end of this long season of punishment, and the dawn of a new day for Israel (using new exodus allusions). The good news (Isaiah 40:9) to be heralded from the mountaintops is the arrival of God in strength – with an arm (think of God’s outstretched arm in the Exodus narrative) which will rule Israel like a shepherd who gathers his lambs in his arms and gently leads them home. This is homecoming – a return to the land God promised to father Abraham.
With chapter 42, Isaiah begins to sing the first of four Servant Songs (Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-7; and 52:13-53:12). There are several ways to interpret these songs, but most scholars believe that they certainly speak to Israel about her calling to become the servant people of Yahweh, through whom all the nations of the world will be blessed (the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-4). So as Israel returns home for a fresh start (after a massive failure that resulted in exile), the prophet reminds Israel of her God-given vocation – to be a servant people who bear God’s blessing, God’s promises, and yes, even God’s glory, to the very ends of the earth. So this is a text about vocation.
This is particularly the case when we read this text in light of the baptism of Jesus. On that fateful day in the Jordan, the heavens were torn apart and God came down (much like Isaiah promised in 40:10). The dove, representing God’s creation blessing and peace, descends from heaven and rests on Jesus. And the voice of God thunders from heaven.
According to the gospel, when God speaks over Jesus in that baptismal moment, two Old Testament texts are cited. The first one comes from Psalm 2 – the royal psalm that celebrates the coronation of the king of Israel – “This is my Son, the Beloved.” This is a clear affirmation of identity and relationship. In baptism, we are named and claimed as beloved children of God. Baptism Sunday is a beautiful time to remind us of our core identity as God’s beloved children. But the text does not stop there.
The second word spoken at the baptism of Jesus is a clear allusion to our Old Testament lection in Isaiah 42:1 – “With you I am well pleased.” This word spoken over Jesus at his baptism is God’s call upon his life – to take up the work of the Servant of the Lord. Jesus, in his baptism, is called to live his life for others – this is his divine vocation. The same is true for us. Our baptism lays a claim and a call on our lives – to be servants of the Lord who live for others. As we celebrate this day of baptism remembrance, this Isaiah passage gives clarity on how we are to live, in light of God’s claims and call on our lives in baptism.
Preaching from Isaiah 42 might focus on two more aspects of our missional calling. First, God’s servant is deeply concerned about and committed to justice (in Hebrew, the word is “mishpat”). Failure to practice mishpat in social and economic relations was long a concern of the prophets of Israel. Amos, the earliest of the classical prophets, cried out that God is not interested in forms of worship that do not change the hearts and behaviors of the worshipers. “I hate, I despise your feast days… Take away from me the noise of your songs… But let justice roll down like water, And righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:21-24).
In 1963, Martin Luther King delivered a famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. This crusader for justice not only spoke the truth about real social injustices; he also pointed us all to the hope of the gospel, using the very words of Amos:
There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality… We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.”** We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
It is this kind of passionate concern for economic and social justice that lies behind the Hebrew word “mishpat.”
In this first servant song, Isaiah mentions that the Servant’s essential work is to bring forth (or establish) “mishpat” – God’s just judgment that cares for the poor and seeks well-being for all. Micah 6:8 sets the agenda for God’s people: What does the LORD require of you…right actions (practice mishpat), right motives (love covenant faithfulness), and right attitudes (walk humbly with your God). To live out our baptism is to care deeply about justice in this world – and to devote our lives to practicing justice in all of our social relations. This is a word especially pertinent to our current context, where injustice abounds, especially toward people on the margins.
There is a second idea that emerges from this servant song – the vocation that is placed upon God’s people to be light in a world of darkness:
“I have given you as a covenant to the people;
A light to the nations / Gentiles.
To open blind eyes, to bring out the prisoner from the dungeon,
From the house of confinement, those who dwell in darkness.”
There is a moment in the movie Freedom Writers, where Miep Gies, the woman who hid Anne Frank for months in her attic, is addressing the students of Woodrow Wilson High. She rejects the idea that she was any kind of hero, saying, “I did what I had to do, because it was the right thing to do…We are all ordinary people… but even an ordinary [person], can in their own small way, turn on a small light in a dark room.” That resonates with the call of Isaiah 42. We are called to be a light to the nations. Just as Jesus is the light of the world, we are called to be the light of the world (Matthew 5:14-16).
On this first Sunday after the Epiphany, we reflect on the Baptism of Jesus, and the vocation to which Jesus is called – to be God’s servant who lives for others, who brings forth justice on the earth, and who is the light of the world. In doing so, we also are to remember our baptism, and the vocation to which we are called. Isaiah 42 lays out the church’s missional vocation – to be servants who live for others, to work for justice for all people and groups of people, and to be those ordinary people who, in our own small ways, turn on a small light in a dark room.
Thanks be to God.