The Baptism of Our Lord
January 10th/11th, 2016
Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
Israel was special. I’m not talking about the geo-political nation of Israel that exists today. They’re no more special than the Germans or Chinese or Americans or any other earthly kingdom. No, I’m talking about the Israel, the people of God, the people delivered from slavery in Egypt by miraculous intervention when the Almighty struck their captors with plagues and parted the sea for his people’s safe passage. I’m talking about the Israel, the people of God, the people who met the Lord himself at Mt. Sinai and received from him not mere the Ten Commandments, but who received the Tabernacle and the sacrificial system, the means by which God would sanctify them and dwell among them, Immanuel, God on earth, something no other nation on earth could claim. I’m talking about the Israel, the people of God, the ones for whom God prepared a Promised Land by driving out their enemies before them and establishing them in that place. I’m talking about the Israel, the people of God, the ones to whom the Prophets delivered the Word of God himself, the promise bearers, the people who would ultimately bring about the birth of the Messiah.
Israel was special. They weren’t special of themselves. No, they became special when God decided to work through them. There was nothing in Abraham or his descendants that deserved to be chosen by God. But God had to choose someone, so Abraham it was. And in that choosing, Israel became special. They were called to be different. They were called to be a glimpse of heaven on earth, a people who lived the life God had designed for all creation. They were called to treat each other justly and to live in mercy toward each other. They were called to put the Word and the Promises of God before all else. They were called to proclaim that Word to the nations around them, to bring the good news of God’s Promise to anyone they met.
Think about it like this: if your house floods, the first thing you clean is the sink in the utility room. Once that sink is clean, you can fill bucket after bucket with clean water to use throughout the rest of the house. When the water in the bucket gets filthy, you simply take it back to the clean sink, dump it out, refill it with clean water, and go back about your business. Eventually, if you go back to the sink enough times, the whole house will be clean. Israel was special because they were called to be God’s sink. The earth was filthy with sin and it needed to be cleaned up. It needed the gift of life and holiness. If God was going to clean it up, he had to start somewhere. He had to have one place where the buckets could be filled with clean water that could be used to wash the rest of the world. Israel was that place. God’s Temple was the sink, the place from which his Word was proclaimed, the place where his sacrifices brought the cleansing power of his forgiveness to his people so that they could go out and clean up the rest of the world with his love and forgiveness.
Yes, Israel was special. But more than that, Israel was a failure. God set aside Israel to be his servant, the people through whom he would bring his cleansing to the entire world. And Israel failed, repeatedly and miserably. Rather than being a place of mercy, Israel was filled with just as many starving and oppressed people as their neighbors. They did not care for their widows and orphans. Their leaders took bribes and kickbacks and caved to special interest groups. Their priests offered sacrifices on the Altar of the Lord before turning around and worshiping the idols of the region. Their kings were corrupt in their dealings, caring more about political alliances with pagan nations than with remaining faithful to the charge they had been given to lead God’s people.
Yes, Israel failed to live as the servant God called them to be. They could not fulfill the requirements set before them. They were unfit for the task; they were underqualified. And as several NFL coaches and GMs can tell you this week, when you don’t get the job done, you get fired. Israel got fired, in a manner of speaking. They were exiled from the holy city. They were cast away from the Temple. They were dragged out of the Promised Land in chains and taken to Babylon, their capital city left in ruins behind them. Their palace destroyed. Their Temple destroyed. Their status as the special ones of God seemingly revoked. They were back in slavery. Back where they had started when God first visited them in Egypt all those years before.
So they were ashamed. They knew their failure. Even though you might never know it simply by looking at the way they lived, they took a special pride in being set aside as God’s servant. It gave them purpose. It gave them identity. And for all their failures to actually live as the servant God intended, it filled them with great sadness to lose that distinction. It filled them with great sadness to lose their home. It filled them with great sadness to lose their Temple.
Which is why the words of the Prophet Isaiah we heard just a few moments ago would have been so comforting. It is why they offer such hope. “Behold, my servant, says the Lord. My chosen one, my Messiah, the one in whom my soul delights. Don’t look to yourself or your failings, O Israel. Don’t look at your chains or at the Babylonian landscape that surrounds you. Behold my servant, the one who will fulfill what you could not do. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will bring forth my justice to the nations where you could not. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice in the street. He will not need to draw attention to himself. He will not need to pander to the crowds. He will not grow intoxicated with gaining the approval of the masses. He will simply set about doing the work I have given him. He will simply accomplish that which I purpose and succeed in the thing for which I sent him.
“He will be a man of mercy. He will not break a bruised reed or quench a faintly burning wick. Even though the world may find these things as useless as a broken pen or a flashlight with a broken bulb, even though the standards of the world might say, ‘Throw it out,’ my servant will be merciful. He will not discard those whom the world declares useless or unworthy. No, he will faithfully bring forth my justice, and my justice is mercy. He will not grow too tired to complete his task. He will not be discouraged to the point of giving up, even if success does not show itself right away. He will see it through to completion. He will be obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Where You have failed, O Israel, my chosen servant will fulfill. Do not look at yourselves or your shortcomings. Behold my servant.
“I am not done with You, O Israel,” says the Lord. “I am the Lord. I have called you according to my righteousness, not yours. I will take you by the hand and keep you. I will use you to be my light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind to the reality of sin and death, to bring out prisoners from the dungeon of futility and vanity that encages this fallen creation, to bring those who sit in the darkness of that prison out into the light of my love. Behold, my servant, O Israel. I will accomplish these things through him.”
There was much comfort for Israel in the Prophet’s words, but the comfort is not limited to the descendants of Abraham who were stuck in Babylon 500 years before the Christ. The comfort of these words is for us too. For like the Israelites of old, we are called to be the servant of God today, for the Christian Church on earth is the continuation of the Israel of old, it is we who are the sons and daughters of Abraham by faith. And the failures of the Israel of old are hauntingly similar to ours. We are too quickly swayed by the accolades of the world. In the words of Isaiah, we cry aloud and lift up our voice in the street, demanding everyone’s attention. Maybe we don’t march down Gratiot shouting at the top of our lungs, but we demand the world’s attention through our postings on social media, snidely and sarcastically pointing out the foolishness of the world in a clever picture. We too easily fall into the “gotcha” attitude that passes for genuine discussion these days, acting as if each social ill is an opportunity for us to smash those people out there for their Biblical ignorance. Homosexuals? Let’s get ‘em! Socialists? Let’s get’em! Card carrying members of the NRA? Let’s get ‘em! Whatever opponent we choose, we spend far too much time going about the business of the Church according to the pattern of the world, simply trying to out shout the next guy as if being louder meant that we’re right.
But the consequences of such an approach are seen in every bruised reed that we snap in two, in every smoldering wick that we squelch under the thumb of self-righteous anger. Not only is it easier to sit behind a computer screen and condemn the sins of the world than to find ways to engage the world in conversation, the sad truth is that we like it more. We like condemning others. We like pointing out the sins we think we have covered. We do not bring forth justice faithfully, we revel in punishment and retribution. Like the disciples, we would have our Lord send down fire from heaven to consume all those evil people out there. We want him to get rid of the politician we don’t like, or the celebrity who her influence to popularize sin, or the media who undermines God’s Word at every turn. We want God to punish the sins of others, usually turning a blind eye to the sin in our own lives. Rather than using the water of God’s Word to bring a gentle cleansing to the world around us, we would rather dump the bucket out and walk away. When our thirst for vengeance is not satisfied quickly enough, we grow weary. We grow discouraged. We give up even trying. According to the description in Isaiah 42, we, like Israel, have failed to be the servant God intended. We have failed because we are unfit for the task. We are underqualified.
But like Israel of old, our Lord has raised up a servant to fulfill where we have failed. We have a servant who has fulfilled all righteousness for us, succeeding where we find only failure, bringing life where we brought only death. He did not march into palaces and demand an audience with the king. He did not raise his voice in the streets in order to draw attention to himself. He simply set about doing the tasks given by his Father in heaven. He may not have been impressive by worldly standards, but God chose what is weak and foolish in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world to bring to nothing things that are. So let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.
The Lord is our boast, too. We are his servant, but like Israel, we bring nothing but failure to this arrangement. Yet our Lord is faithful to us. He is faithful to you in your daily tasks. He is faithful to us as a Church and School. He has claimed us as his own in the water of baptism. We belong to him. He has cleaned us and set us aside for his use. He will work through us not because we are so deserving, but because he is faithful. As we chanted in our Psalm today, his faithfulness springs up from the ground and his righteousness looks down from the sky. It is above us and below us; it surrounds us. Through his gifts of Word and Sacrament, he takes us by that hand and protects us. Through these gifts he uses us as a light to the nations around us, to the people of our world, to the people of our community, to the people of our own families, to our own children and spouses, even to our own sinful flesh that is blinded by the empty philosophies of a dying world. Through the Word he has placed in our hands he opens the eyes that are blinded by sin, and he brings out the prisoners from their dungeons to bask in the sunshine of his love. Our call as his servant today is to be faithful to that Word, to teach that Word, to study that Word, to live that Word, for that Word is the breath of God that breathes into our nostrils the breath of life.
Yes, Israel was special, set aside by God to be his servant. We, too, are special, set aside by God to be his servant in this place today, to be his voice, to bring his Word of life into a dying world. But our boast is not found in ourselves. It is not found in our building or in our membership numbers or in our school or in our music program. It is found in Jesus, the true Servant, the one who acted in humility and mercy, the one upon whom the Spirit of the Lord rests, the one who has given us that very same Spirit in our baptism. Even though we may unfit to be his servant, he will never fail us. His Word remains true. Even though the world will never be impressed by our humble work, we remain faithful. We continue to bring the truth of God’s Word into people’s lives, sowing the seed and leaving the growth to the Spirit. For that’s what it means to be a servant of the Lord, and the servant of the Lord is exactly who we are.