Sunday, January 12, 2020. Rev. Dr. Scott Ramsey, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17
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Baptism of the Lord Sunday is one of the times in the year when we focus on the church’s identity as the baptized, those who have been baptized into the life of being disciples of Jesus. Baptism, among other things, is a rite of initiation; it is an initiation into a particular way of life in the world, a way that is an alternative to the dominant ways of living that are on offer from the world; it is a way that subverts those other ways of life because it is deeper and higher and broader than they are. Our world wants us to think of ourselves primarily as consumers who buy things in the marketplace, but our baptisms tell us that we are primarily disciples of Jesus. Our world wants us to think of our identities primarily according to our party affiliation as Democrats or Republicans or Independents, but our baptisms tell us that we are primarily disciples. Our world wants us to think of ourselves primarily according to our nationality as Americans, or Mexicans, or Canadians, or Swedes, but our baptisms tell us that we are primarily followers of Jesus.
And before we think that being baptized sets us above other people, we need to remember that baptism is not a ticket into some first class, reserved-seating section of God’s love. God’s love is not for purchase, is not up for sale. God’s love is freely given to all of God’s creatures. Baptism is a public initiation into a particular way of life in the world.
And when we start thinking about our individual identity as disciples, that leads us directly to thinking about the identity of the church. Last year, we spent considerable energy articulating the basic WHY of Lewinsville, the reason Lewinsville exists. What we discerned was that Lewinsville exists to love and serve God by responding to human need. That’s WHY we are here. Drilling a little further into that, I’ve been thinking about WHAT we need to be up to, if we are to do that. And three core things occur to me that we need to be doing as a church, following Jesus. We need to be intentionally forming disciples of Jesus Christ; we need to be building a community of acceptance; and we need to be building a community of justice. Intentionally forming disciples of Jesus; building a community of acceptance; building a community of justice.
Another way that we sometimes talk about being a community of acceptance is to talk about being a “big-tent church,” where different viewpoints are welcome, where there is not some hard party-line that everyone is expected to toe, where we expect and enjoy coming to the communion table with people who disagree with us on any number of issues. We may visualize a community of acceptance as a community of embrace. And another way to talk about being a community of justice is to talk about being a “prophetic community,” where we discern that there is a moral shape to the Christian life, where some practices and policies are seen to be congruent with God’s grace and others are not. We may visualize a community of justice as pointing in a particular moral and ethical direction.
I hope you can feel the way that these two things – being a community of acceptance and being a community of justice – are in tension with each other. Some people and congregations may choose to escape this tension by choosing one over the other. It is likely the case that many of us are instinctually inclined towards one or the other. Some of us are most comfortable hosting different points of view from different directions; others of us are most comfortable saying, “Nope, we need to go in that direction.” While some congregations may be called to do one or the other, my increasing sense is that Lewinsville is called to work at doing both. And it is clear that the only way to hold these two things together is to center our lives on Jesus, because he does both of these himself. He welcomes all kinds of people, including tax collectors and sinners, whom others in his sphere would have rejected; and he is clear that some things are right and some things are wrong; especially things having to do with the well-being of the poor and vulnerable.
Form disciples of Jesus; build a community of acceptance; and build a community of justice.
This week, I have realized that part of the reason why I believe that is a helpful way to describe the three-fold, baptismal calling of the church is because of Isaiah 42.
Isaiah 42 is the first of four Suffering Servant passages in Isaiah; the others are in chapters 49, 50, and 53. The suffering servant is an enigmatic figure, who has been understood variously as Isaiah or one of the prophets, as the people of Israel as a whole, and as a reference to the coming Messiah. The church has seen the profound ways that the suffering servant passages are embodied in Jesus himself.
Isaiah 42 shows us two things: what we are to do and how we are to do it. These are core elements of our calling. And according to this little text, what we are to do is justice, which is the glorious Hebrew word mishpat. In the first four verses of this poem, the word ‘mishpat’ is used three times. “Here is my servant, God says; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” “He will faithfully bring forth justice.” “He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.”
According to Isaiah 42, bringing forth justice is a basic commitment of the children of God. Justice – God’s passion for human dignity for all people, equal treatment without special privileges for any class of people, looking out for the neighbor, and especially for the vulnerable neighbor: widows, orphans, immigrants – justice is God’s love in action. The text is not naïve and understands that the pursuit of justice in our world will not be easy, but the text is clear that those who serve God, as articulated in Lewinsville’s WHY statement, will see the pursuit of justice as a basic commitment. According to Isaiah 42, we are baptized into justice.
This is not really a shocker that God wants us to stand up for justice and to defend the poor. That makes a certain amount of sense. What is astonishing is how this servant pursues justice. Because the pursuit of justice can be such an uphill battle in our broken and sinful world, we may think that God’s servants may have to use the occasional coercive tactic to get the job done. Take advantage of your opponent, look for their weak spots, go in for the kill when you’ve got a shot. And along the way, if you have to bend a few ethical guidelines on your way to victory, well, that’s just the way the world works.
But according to Isaiah 42, that’s not how this servant pursues justice. The servant does not cry or lift up his voice or make it heard in the street; a bruised and fragile reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench. To use one of the beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew, the servant is meek.
The world would call someone like this a loser and a pushover. But the text says that this servant is in touch with a power that the bullies and the coercers of the world know nothing about. It is precisely this merciful, gentle, quiet servant who will faithfully bring forth justice. This meek one has a backbone and a resolve made of steel that will not buckle under to evil, even as it tends those who are fragile and tender. According to Isaiah 42, we are baptized into gentleness.
Servants of God, disciples of Jesus Christ, are strong in pursuit of justice and, at the same time, are devoted to gentleness towards every neighbor. These are the ones who can build a community of gentle acceptance of all, and who can build a community of justice, especially for those who are small and weak. You and I are baptized, our church is baptized, into the identity of the servant. How will you live out the identity, the baptized identity, of the servant this week? To God be all the glory. Amen.