Homily for the Baptism of the Lord, Year A, 2011
Sunday, January 9th, 2011
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Isaiah 42:1-9
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.
Isaiah sings of a servant, and what a strange thing to sing about! When you think about it, how many songs are written to extol the glories of the hired help? Songs are sung about kings and princes, songs are sung about lovers and heroes, but how many popular songs are written about the servant? I suppose with some thinking we might posit an example or two, but when we pause to consider it, the servant is indeed a strange person to sing about. I suppose that if we were to seek a modern equivalent, it would perhaps be like singing a ballad about the Walmart greeter. Nothing against the Walmart greeter, of course, it is just that he or she is not normally the subject of panegyric praise.
The book of the prophet Isaiah contains several songs about the servant; perhaps the most famous is his song about the suffering servant. Many will recognize from our Good Friday liturgy the words, “He was wounded for our transgression, bruised for our iniquities.” Today we hear another one of those songs, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights!” These songs that Isaiah sung resonated with the people of the Early Church. They would have been familiar songs, well-known sacred songs of their Jewish heritage. They identified with these songs.
There is much debate in scholarship over who Isaiah thought the servant to be, but it is fairly clear that the people of ancient Judea considered the songs to be about them as a nation. The servant was the chosen one, in whom God delights, who walks in his way, who has his Spirit. But the servant is also the one who suffers, who seems abandoned, and yet is never abandoned. The people of Judea could certainly feel their own story being sung in the words of these ancient servant songs. And so, I believe, it was.
But songs have many layers of meaning, and sacred songs all the more so. Thus, it is no surprise that for the early Christians, new layers of meaning began to resonate in these well-worn and time-honoured sacred songs after they experienced the Risen Jesus in their midst. They sung them once again as they gathered, and as they heard the old, old song, once again, they heard it now with fresh ears. The suffering servant became for them, Jesus on the cross: “He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities; like a sheep he was led to the slaughter; he was despised and reject; a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.”
The servant song we hear today is of a different sort, but it brought to life the story of Jesus with no less power: “Here is my servant, my chosen, in whom my soul delights: I will put my strength on him; I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness; I have given you as a covenant to the people; a light to the nations, to bring the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”
Instead of passion of Jesus evoked by the suffering servant song, this song brought to mind the coming of Jesus, the giving of light to the world, and all that that coming brings, especially release from captivity for the poor, the weak, the persecuted and those weighed down by sin and guilt. It called to mind his baptism, the pouring forth of God’s Spirit upon him, his vocation as the chosen Messiah of God, his identity as God’s beloved child and servant, and importantly as the incarnation of God’s righteousness. When the people of the Early Church recalled the baptism of Jesus, this was the song they sung, for it extolled the servant who consented to be baptized in humility by John, in order that the righteousness of God might be fulfilled, even though he need not be baptized. For them, this song was about Jesus, and so it is for us, as well.
Thus, we sing this song still and new layers of meaning continue to burst forth. As we approach the font today, to welcome new Christians into the family, and to renew our own Baptismal vows and covenant, we hear these words, “Here are my servants, whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my heart delights; I have put my spirit upon them, and they will bring forth justice to the nations!” The song that was sung about an unknown servant became the song of an ancient people who felt their chosenness in their delivery from the bondage of Egyptian slavery into a promised land, is also the song of Jesus our Lord who delivers us through the waters of baptism into new life. But oh so importantly, it is for us today our song, the song of our servanthood, the song of our deliverance, the song of our chosenness, and the song of our vocation to live out and proclaim the love of God. As baptized Christians, the ancient song becomes our song, we become his children and yes, servants of God, and of one another.
And all of a sudden it makes sense. We can sing songs extolling kings and queens, great men and women. These songs will always abound, but there is another song that echoes from age-to-age, the song of the servant, and it is a song that God sings! God sings a song of praise delighting in his people. It is a song he sings with passion and with love. It is a song he sings with joy and delight. It is a song he sang at the creation of humanity and a song he will sing at the consummation of all history. It is a song he sings of us, his servants, his children, in whom he delights.
c. 2011 the Rev. Daniel F. Graves