Sermon for Justice – A New Beginning (Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3.13-17)
Sunday 9 January 2011
The Feast of the Baptism of Christ
The end of Christmas evokes a variety of responses. For many, it may be a rather sad time. Gone are the Christmas decorations that made our homes look different to normal. For those of us who had real trees all that is left behind is a plethora of needles! But gone too are the greetings of love, peace and joy seen in the cards we received. Gone is the abundance, super-abundance of Christmas food which has left many of us straining to get into trousers and skirts! Now we must get back to normal again. But changes have occurred. Things don’t quite go back to the way they were. For a start we have the gifts to enjoy, new toys to play with, new CDs to play, new clothes to wear, new books to read. I’m already enjoying Stephen Fry’s autobiography. Some of you may have made New Year resolutions that call for change. So although the Christmas season has come to an end there are also a number of new beginnings to focus upon.
Today’s Feast of the Baptism of Christ is a new beginning in the Church’s year, reflecting a crucial new phase in the life of Jesus. Most commentators agree that this episode inaugurates the public ministry of Jesus. John baptised people to represent the washing away of their sins. But he realised that Jesus had no need for this kind of baptism, which was why to start with he objected. But Jesus insisted that it was important for him to be baptised so that he could “fulfil all righteousness.” What is meant by these words is something of a puzzle. “Righteousness” can scarcely mean observance of the Jewish law, the Torah, since the Torah contains no references to baptism. A better translation would be “to bring to fullness all justice.” If so then his words echo today’s first reading from Isaiah. The reading from Second Isaiah is the first of what we call the four Servant Songs found scattered in the forties and fifties of that great book. (Is. 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12) These songs or poems describe a figure chosen by God to proclaim justice through tenderness rather than force, and who will ultimately be lifted up not in triumph but in shame and disgrace and give his life as an offering for sin (Is. 53:12). Though scholars have long debated the identity of this servant figure, the application of these texts to Jesus is one of the oldest theologies found in the New Testament.
The Gospels represent Jesus as the suffering servant in many ways. His approach to justice is one part of the way he is seen as fulfilling the prophecy. Jesus shows us God’s way of justice which he brings with gentleness rather than through the strength of arms. Like the servant he is particularly sensitive to the weak and vulnerable, and his example is “a light for the nations” to follow. This initial public appearance of Jesus at the River Jordan prepares for the final heavenly assize, the last judgement, when people will be declared just or unjust on the basis of their care of the suffering and marginal of the world (Mt. 25:31-46). The baptism of Jesus opens up a new pathway of communication between God and humanity. It also discloses the shape our lives need to have for us to walk with Jesus along this path. Like him we need to be men and women of gentle justice, with compassion in our hearts for the poor and needy. Jesus was God’s beloved son because he manifested this pattern of living. Today we remind ourselves of our baptisms and remember that we too became God’s beloved children in Christ when we entered these waters. But as God’s children, the sisters and brothers of Jesus we are called to follow the way of the suffering servant and work to bring to the fullness of justice to all.
At the beginning of this new year perhaps our Christian commitment could make a new beginning. Perhaps we could resolve to follow more closely the Christ who is the bringer of God’s gentle justice. What does that mean in practice? Well justice means fairness, of course, and so we need to be fair in our own lives, to encourage fairness in others and to speak out for fairness against the injustices of our world. We need to resist small-mindedness, prejudice and bigotry. Sometimes this means we will be unpopular. But that is the destiny of those called to follow the one who himself fulfilled the role of the suffering servant, who did not grow faint and was not crushed until he had “established justice in the earth”. Jesus, the suffering servant of God, had to give his “back to smiters” and hid not his “face from shame and spitting”. Being women and men committed to justice may result in a similar outcome. But we who have become brothers and sisters of Christ though baptism must not flinch from our calling to be those who bring a new beginning to a world in dire need of the tender justice of Jesus.
Justice – A New Beginning (Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3.13-17) | Sunday 9 January 2011