Posted on January 13th, 2013
When the Scriptures describe us as being in bondage to sin, it certainly includes the sins we commit – the twisted lusts, evil inclinations, harsh words, pouting, and worse that we do: the things contrary to the commandments. But often we are also held in bondage by the sins committed against us: when someone betrays us, when a friend you trusted doesn’t keep his word or is working against you, when a woman is mistreated or abused. Perhaps you remember a cutting remark spoken against you even decades ago, but still it lingers in the mind, making you bitter, cynical. And so it’s not only the sins that we have committed, but also the sins committed against us, that need to be dealt with.
We would like justice. We want things put right. And sometimes, we want more than justice: we want revenge. For the person whose betrayal still stings, misfortune upon them would, we imagine, taste sweet to us.
And in our society, in the whole cosmos, we want justice. We want things put right. But we are afraid of tyranny. So we establish checks and balances. Our American system of government is built on the idea that because people are corrupt, we should never invest all power in one office. Thus we have executive, legislative, and judicial branches, and mechanisms for them to work together but also oversee each other.
Justice, judgment, and the giving of laws were not like that in the ancient world. Today, we hope that a judge will impartially interpret a law that he did not craft. But for those in the prophet Isaiah’s original audience, the idea of a judge interpreting a law was unthinkable. A leader, a ruler, a lord, a king is the law. In his person, he embodies what we think of as three separate functions: legislation, execution, and judgment. If the ruler is wise, this benefits everyone – but when he is foolish or selfish, then it is disastrous.
And if a ruler is wise but not powerful, then when his people are overwhelmed by a foreign king and his army, injustice will reign on the conquered. The prospects for life and a good future depended on having a righteous ruler, one who judges with justice.
The Hebrew concept of righteousness has four aspects. What is righteous is 1) accurate, in the sense of honesty [charging the correct price, a properly functioning scale]; 2) equity, what is fair and right; 3) what is loyal to the community [thus a righteous ruler puts the interests of his nation ahead of his own]; and finally, 4) what leads to the salvation and well-being of the people.
Now look at today’s first reading. We have another of Isaiah’s “Servant Songs,” prophecies about the Servant that God will send to be a Messiah, an anointed savior for the people. What will this Servant do, according to Isaiah? “He will bring forth justice to the nations…. He will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth.” And He says to the people, “I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness.”
The Servant of the Lord will rule not as a corrupt king but bring the rule of God to the earth. Not a hammer of oppression, a great burden of taxation or regulation, but justice, righteousness, which is to say, under him all things are honest, without cheating; all things are fair, without inequity; all things are for the good of mankind, the community; and finally, His rule, His leadership, the judgment and justice of the Servant will bring salvation and well-being to the earth.
The message of Christmas is that Jesus is that Servant, Immanuel, God with us come to bring justice to the Jews. But no one knows this save Joseph, Mary, and a few shepherds.
The message of Epiphany is that Jesus is that Servant, God in man come to bring justice also to the Gentiles, to the Nations. But no one knows this save a few Magi from the East.
And now, from Epiphany last Sunday to the Baptism of Jesus today, we’ve jumped at least three decades. The Servant of the Lord has grown from infancy through childhood in the home of Joseph and Mary to manhood. And then this Servant comes to John in the Jordan.
Why? John is preaching repentance, and offering a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. Thus when Jesus approaches, John tries to turn Him away. “You don’t need this,” John is saying. “Rather, I should be baptized by You! You are the Lord, the Lamb of God who takes away the world’s sin; but I am a great sinner, needing forgiveness.”
But how does Jesus answer? “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” In this we see what kind of Lord, what kind of King, what kind of ruler and leader Jesus is. He seeks justice and righteousness, the well-being and salvation of His community, which is to say, the world.
And how does He establish justice? How does He make everything right and fair? How does He make the scales balance, and bring salvation to the world? He, the sinless One, identifies with sinners. The filth and stench of a thousand sinners is poured over Him when John baptizes Jesus, and justice is established. Jesus becomes the sinner, and all the baptized become saints. Jesus is condemned, and prisoners are released. Jesus is made sick, and the diseased are healed. Jesus is judged, and the condemned are declared “Not guilty.”
He who is true God does this as a man. Adam the first man received God’s Spirit, but rejected it when He turned from God and His Word. This One, the Word made flesh, receives anew the Spirit on behalf of all man.
Then what does Jesus do? Rising up out of the waters, He is tempted for us, and something more: He establishes justice in the world by putting right what is wrong, repairing what is broken, drying what is soaked with tears. Thus Isaiah prophesies, “A bruised reed He will not break, and a faintly burning wick He will not quench; He will faithfully bring forth justice.”
Perhaps you are today, or will be someday, a bruised reed: halfway broken, ready to snap. Perhaps you know someone who is a faintly burning wick, still smoldering but almost out, almost cold, almost ruined. What does Jesus the Lord’s Servant do? “A bruised reed He will not break, and a faintly burning wick He will not quench.”
Are you barely hanging on by a thread? Do you feel the weight of sin, the pain of injustice, the sadness of grief, the loneliness of exile, the dissatisfaction at life unfulfilled?
Or perhaps you say, “I know I should be improving as a Christian, but I find myself riddled with sin. It seems I am worse than ever, and I hate it.” If you identified with any of these things, then you are the bruised reed and faintly burning wick in Isaiah. Therefore be consoled by the Lord’s Servant who comes to be your Servant. You the bruised reed He will not break, but mend. You the faintly burning wick He will not snuff out but rekindle. For where He is, He will not allow the battered reed to break all the way, nor the fire of His grace to be extinguished.
When Cameron was baptized, he came under God’s justice. When you were baptized, you came under God’s justice. Again, this does not mean judgment of condemnation, but rather in His justice He declares Himself loyal to Cameron, loyal to you. He will execute justice for Cameron and all of you by bringing you to Salvation and providing for your everlasting well-being.
We all come under His justice when we are baptized. Luther put it this way:
“You may well ask: what has all this got to do with me? Christ is God’s Son and is without sin. As for me, I am a miserable sinner, conceived and born in sin; my own baptism is thus less glorious on account of my sin. But no, you should not think like this. Instead, you should enter into Christ’s baptism with your own baptism, so that Christ’s baptism is your baptism and your baptism is Christ’s baptism and thus there is one baptism.” (Luther Brevier, p23)
So today I want you to take away two things from this celebration of the Baptism of Jesus: a word of exhortation (encouragement for Christian living) and a word of consolation for when you are a bruised reed and smoldering wick.
The Exhortation is this: Your baptism christens you, makes you a little Christ. You fulfill that vocation when you bring justice to the earth. How? Speak out for the helpless and care for those hanging on by a thread. That means defending children from abortion, speaking a kind word to someone who is downtrodden, being equitable and fair in your dealings with others.
And the Consolation today is this: Your baptism means that you have come under Christ’s rule, His justice, and so His promise of life and salvation is good. Therefore death cannot threaten you, the loss even of everything in this world means nothing. For the justice we are looking for, the justice we shall surely receive, is the resurrection. For He says to you still today: “I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you.”