By Bill Carroll
Here is my servant, whom I uphold—my chosen in whom my soul delights. I have put my spirit upon him. He will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street. A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench. He will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.
The resurrection of Jesus led to an explosion of joy and a flurry of missionary activity. The apostolic generation knew no Bible but the Old Testament. Among their favorite texts were the four servant songs of Isaiah. They used these songs as they proclaimed Jesus throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond, to India, Ethiopia, and China. Jesus was God’s suffering servant. Did he not suffer greatly when he died upon the cross? Was he not also the risen Lord who would establish God’s righteous rule on earth? Twice, Isaiah says that God’s servant will bring forth justice. Justice for the nations. Justice, in other words, for the Gentiles. By his resurrection, Jesus breaks open God’s covenant with Israel, so that all nations may enter the Kingdom of God.
In its original context, the figure of the servant probably meant God’s People Israel—or perhaps the prophet himself. God had called Israel, not for its own sake, but for that of the world. God chose this one nation in order to bless all nations. So too, the Word becomes flesh in one man—Jesus—so that all flesh may see the salvation of God. The Church is a particular people, called in Christ for the sake of God’s Kingdom. Here is my servant, says the Lord, whom I uphold. My chosen, in whom my soul delights. I have put my spirit upon him. He will bring forth justice to the nations.
We are entering the season of Epiphany. From the beginning of the season, there is an emphasis on the universal mission of the Church. The three kings come from distant lands to worship the newborn Messiah. Epiphany means manifestation. In the Gospel readings for the season, we see the glory of God revealed in Jesus. Jesus is God’s gift for the whole world.
We begin with his baptism. Little has happened since Jesus was born. Then, one day, he shows up at the Jordan, appearing for the first time in public as an adult. He is one among many penitents who have come to be baptized by John. The crowd is so impressed with John that they wonder whether he is the Messiah. But John points to another—to one more powerful than himself, who will baptize “with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
At first, Jesus is anonymous, hidden in the crowds. It’s not obvious he’s anyone special. But after he is baptized and begins to pray, heaven is opened. The crowd sees the Spirit descending. A voice speaks: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” God acknowledges Jesus, as if to say, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold…I have put my Spirit on him.”
This is a theophany, like God appearing in the burning bush. In his baptism, Jesus is revealed for who he is. The Baptist’s testimony, the descent of the Spirit, and the heavenly voice join together to say, “Here is the Son of God.” It’s significant that the revelation is Trinitarian. God’s voice says, “This is my beloved Son.” The Spirit rests upon Jesus. Here we see the one God, traditionally named Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We see the other persons related to the Son, who has become human. In and through the historical moment, we catch a glimpse of the relationships among the three persons of the Trinity.
God is fully revealed in Jesus, who is God from God, light from light, true God from true God. But God is reveled in concealment. God comes to us hidden. Hidden in the flesh of Jesus. Hidden in our neighbor. Hidden in water, oil, bread, and wine. In the sacraments, the most ordinary things are transformed into sacred mysteries, vehicles for the saving presence of God. Mysteries aren’t just something we haven’t figured out yet. Mysteries evade our comprehension in principle, because they involve the living God. Even the Scriptures are a mystery. Without faith and the Holy Spirit, they are just dead words on a page. The words of Scripture, in all their tensions and contradictions, point to the Word—Jesus, the Word made flesh. He is the living center of the Scriptures. With water, oil, bread, and wine, they are a sacrament of Christ, just as he is the sacrament of the living God—God with us in flesh.
The self-manifestation of God is real, but it is the revelation of a holy mystery of goodness and love. God is both gift and mystery—really given, yet ever eluding our grasp. God is “ever greater” than we can imagine or conceive. We know God, and God is always with us. Yet we can find no adequate words for God. So we stutter along, as best we can.
We search the Scriptures. We participate in the sacraments. We confess the creeds. But we can never, ever comprehend God. Indeed, as Augustine teaches, the creeds “fence a mystery.” They show us where the mystery lies without taking it away. Ultimately the mystery is the Triune God—creating, judging, blessing, saving, and sanctifying the world. The Holy Scriptures are the story of God’s dealings with humanity. They are the Word of God for the People of God. Their proper context is the liturgy of the Word in the Holy Eucharist. We do not read them alone, but in community. They proclaim the gift and mystery of Jesus, which is summarized in the Catholic Creeds, and given to God’s People in the bread and wine.
There seems to be some embarrassment in all four Gospels about the baptism of Jesus. Does it mean that John the Baptist is his superior? Why does Jesus participate in a ritual washing if he’s really without sin? Various explanations are given in the Gospels and the Fathers. One is that Jesus allows himself to be baptized in order to give us an example of humility. We ought not to fear to confess our sins and seek God’s forgiveness, because the Son of God was willing to assume the role of a penitent. Another explanation is that his baptism provides an occasion for God to make Jesus known to the crowd. A third explanation is given by Athanasius: Jesus is baptized in order to make the waters we are baptized in holy. Because Jesus is washed with water, water becomes the preeminent sign of his union and solidarity with us. Because of his baptism, water is forevermore a sign of his death and resurrection, of the forgiveness of sins, and of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Truly, when we are washed in the font, Jesus himself baptizes us, with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
In Holy Baptism, we come to share in his relationship with God. We are taken up into the life of the Trinity. We become God’s beloved children. We share in the same Spirit who rests on Jesus. On all the baptismal feasts, we confess our faith in the Trinity as we renew our baptismal covenant, which begins with the Apostles' Creed.
Through baptism, we also share in Christ’s mission in the world. So we continue by renewing the vows that provide the framework for our mission. Like the Creeds, these vows “fence a mystery.” They point us to practices that frame our participation in the crucified and risen life of Jesus. They do not solve the mystery; they show us where it’s found.
According to Daniel Stevick, “Christian baptism is an action of a community, bringing an individual into the shared life of a people—a life as intimately bound up with the living Christ as one’s body is with one’s personhood and identity. There is no private relationship with Christ: to stand in relationship with Christ is at the same time to belong to his people.” (By Water and the Word: The Scriptures of Baptism. New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 1997, p. 287) The five promises of Holy Baptism show us what it means to belong to Christ and his people.
First, we promise to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.” Gospel teaching is absolutely central to our life in Christ. So too is our regular participation in the life of the community, in the sacraments, and in common prayer. These are not something optional that we do only when it suits us. We are not consumers of religious services but disciples of the living Lord.
Second, we promise to “persevere in resisting evil” and to “repent and return to the Lord.” Life in Christ involves an ongoing struggle with sin, as well as trust in the mercy and forgiveness of God. All of us fall short in our discipleship. Day by day, we need to return to the Lord, remembering our baptism.
Third, we promise to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.” Life in Christ involves sharing our faith with others, by what we say and do. It involves making disciples for Jesus and bringing others to the saving waters of baptism.
Fourth, we promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.” Life in Christ means that God calls us to love all people—without exception. Our love extends even to our enemies and especially to those we find difficult to love. It goes without saying that this includes our fellow Christians. If we cannot love the members of our own family, how will we love strangers? We are called to do both, but we can’t do one without the other.
Fifth, we promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people,” and to “respect the dignity of every human being.” Life in Christ means that we are active peacemakers and that we join in the struggle for justice and dignity for all people. According to the prophets, this includes the poor, widows, orphans, and immigrants, both in their own right, and as a sign of vulnerable and oppressed people everywhere. We are to embrace this aspect of our mission even if it means that we must suffer greatly. By our baptism, we have taken on the servant ministry of Jesus.
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights. I have put my spirit upon him. He will bring forth justice to the nations.
The Rev. Dr. R. William Carroll is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog. He also blogs at Living the Gospel. He is a member of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.