Isaiah 42:1-9, Matthew 3:13-17
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus. Amen. Dear friends in Christ:
A little over a year ago, my dad, brother and I were driving through the Iowa countryside to a football game, when we decided to take a short detour and see the small town where I lived during my first four years of life. I must tell you; my soul was delighted by that short visit. I hadn’t been there in many, many years. I was especially delighted to see the church where I was baptized—Trinity Lutheran Church, Manilla, Iowa. Seeing that church almost brought me to tears.
In the Gospel lesson just read, we heard about Jesus’ baptism. When Jesus was baptized, God the Father said: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” The second part of that phrase – “with whom I am well pleased” – is a direct reference to Isaiah 42 verse 1, which we read as part of our First Reading today. There the phrase is translated: “in whom my soul delights.”
Isaiah 42 was no doubt chosen as our first reading today so that we would see its connection to Jesus’ baptism. That being said, Isaiah 42 is also a very significant chapter in its own right. The opening nine verses of the chapter have long been identified by the church as the first of four “songs” of Isaiah known as the “suffering servant songs.”
Of these songs, the fourth is the most famous, for we read it every year on Good Friday. There in chapters 52 and 53 we hear the suffering servant described in details that so exactly match the description of Jesus’ death that we are sure the words were written to describe him.
The third song is read by the church on Passion Sunday, every third year, when we are reading from Matthew’s Gospel. The second song is scheduled to be read next Sunday, where it will be paired with John the Baptist’s declaration that Jesus is the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”
Because we have these two Sundays in a row of Servant Songs, I thought it would be good for us to examine them as our main texts. They have powerful messages for us–about Christ, and about what God desires for us. I’ve entitled today’s theme: “God’s Servant: chosen and gifted.” Next Sunday’s theme will be: “God’s Servant: chosen and called.”
When we read through the book of Isaiah, we discover that God, in his speeches to his people, often uses the label “servant,” and that he uses it in reference to many different people. Early in the book he calls Isaiah “my servant.” A little later he mentions “my servant Eliakim”—a man whom he would send to serve in the king’s court as a replacement for one who was unfaithful. He also mentions “my servant David”—referring of course to Israel’s great king.
The most frequent use of the label, however, is for God’s chosen nation, Israel, most often referred to as “Jacob” – since Jacob was the one first given the name Israel, and because he represents the nation’s unity before the nation was split into tribes and kingdoms.
Israel is first called God’s servant in chapter 41. There God addresses his people with the words: “But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend.”
As God’s servant, Israel is used by God for his purposes. And this is not a demeaning thing. Rather, to be God’s servant is to be honored by him. Israel is chosen for this work. Through Israel, God will accomplish great things. That’s why our text today begins: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.”
That being said, as much as it’s an honor to be God’s servant, there will also be difficulties. Being God’s servant won’t always be easy. Sometimes the servant will suffer.
The suffering described in chapter 42 is not very extensive. In fact, here the suffering is mostly just implied. The servant “will not grow faint or be discouraged” – implying that the work will be taxing and frustrating. The servant will need to take a posture of meekness and humility— “he will not cry aloud or lift up his voice.” He will be gentle in his actions— “a bruised reed he will not break; a faintly burning wick he will not quench.” The suffering isn’t so great here, but it will build to much higher degrees in the later servant songs.
Furthermore, as we read Isaiah’s descriptions of the suffering servant, it becomes apparent that the servant isn’t always Israel—at least not Israel the whole nation. The descriptions are much more fitting for an individual.
Isaiah gives prophecies about individuals throughout his book. Because prophecy can be fulfilled at different times and places, the individuals he mentions can be many different people. But we believe these prophecies are all fulfilled—and most fully filled—in the individual known as the Christ—the Anointed One of God. And we are certain that this Anointed One is Jesus of Nazareth.
As such, we look to Jesus as the one through whom God does his greatest work. And we note, also, that his greatest work involves suffering.
In his baptism, we see clearly that Jesus was chosen by God. He was declared, by God’s very voice, to be the one in whom God delights.
Furthermore, Jesus was chosen to be a servant. As he explains to John, he was chosen for a specific task: “to fulfill all righteousness.” This brief phrase from Jesus explains not only why he needs to be baptized, but also what he was coming to do. He was coming to make things right between God and his people.
Jesus would indeed make things right. And he would do it through his suffering. He would do it through his faithful, meek, humble and gentle ministry. He would do it through his sacrificial death on the cross.
Jesus would serve God’s people as one chosen. We should note, too, that he would also serve as one gifted. Jesus’ giftedness is shown by the presence of the Holy Spirit—for the Spirit is the one who gives gifts. The Spirit, of course, had always been upon Jesus. But when he was baptized, the Holy Spirit’s presence was made known visibly, in the form of a dove.
This special giving of the Spirit to God’s Servant is consistent with what God had said through Isaiah: “I have put my Spirit upon him.” It’s also consistent with what Isaiah said the Spirit-anointed servant will do: “he will bring forth justice to the nations.”
When Isaiah says this, he repeats and expands his thought a few verses later, saying: “I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations.” Jesus was gifted as a covenant for the people. “Covenant” is one of the Old Testament’s strongest words. In the new covenant of God’s servant, all people may find salvation.
Jesus is God’s Servant: chosen and gifted. We are grateful for his service. Jesus is God’s foremost Servant. But we recall that he is not God’s only servant. In the new covenant, all those made righteous by Jesus are also now God’s servants. That means you and me. We, too, are God’s servants. And we, too, have been chosen and gifted.
As it was for Jesus, your baptism is a sign that you have been chosen by God. At your baptism, the Spirit was poured out upon you, and you were declared to be God’s son or daughter—one with whom God is well pleased.
Hearing this is almost overwhelming. I don’t know about you, but there is a part of me that is actually a little uncomfortable with hearing the words of God to Jesus at his baptism being applied to me. Jesus is God’s Son. Jesus pleases God. But me? Really?
I wondered what Dr. Luther had to say on the matter. So, I read through a baptismal sermon of his—one that he wrote later in his career, on this text about Jesus’ baptism, for the newborn son of a prince. It’s a fairly lengthy sermon, but one filled with great textual and personal insights.
In that sermon, Luther says of Jesus: “After he was baptized… the heavens were opened above him – something never before seen at John’s baptisms – and the Holy Spirit was seen in the form of a dove; and the Father’s voice was heard above this baptism, saying that he was deeply pleased with it. For this Son, who stood there and allowed himself to be baptized, pleased him so well, that even though he were bearing the sins of a thousand worlds, they would all be drowned and destroyed in his baptism.”
Then Luther goes on to say: “And because he is well pleased with Jesus, he is also well pleased with those who believe in him and suffer themselves to be baptized according to his command. Therefore, we should diligently accustom ourselves to look upon these things with eyes of faith and to interpret this glorious revelation and divine radiance and splendor which shone forth above the baptism of Christ as happening to us.”
You are God’s child: chosen by him – and gifted too. You’ve been given the Holy Spirit. You’ve been given the gift of faith. You’ve been… to use the words of St. Paul from our second reading today… “united with him in a death like his, so that you will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
You are chosen and gifted – as God’s children and God’s servants.
There will be suffering in your service. Sometimes you will be humbled. Sometimes you will be called to take the humble position, and you will feel walked on, used or even abused. It’s not easy being a servant.
Many people aren’t up for it. They think the way to walk through life is to care for their own needs only. They balk at taking the servant role, which means that they’re then at best a simple survivalist, and at worst a hunter and conqueror.
Not us. We who hear God’s voice in the scriptures, and who hear it most clearly in His Son, hear his call to be servants. We learn to find joy in helping others. We open our hearts to all people. We endure suffering when it comes. And we trust God to bring forth his righteousness.
One final thought. You may recall that Jesus one day said to his closest disciples: “I no longer call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends.” Does this statement negate what we’ve been saying today? No. This statement of Jesus is given to explain the close relationship he wishes to have with his followers. We are friends at the same time that we are servants. Recall that Jesus also told his disciples: “let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.”
Jesus is God’s prophesied servant who has come to save the world. We rejoice in his salvation!
And we remember that we are chosen and gifted as servants too.
May God help us to serve faithfully and joyfully.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.