Isaiah 42:1-12; Matthew 3:13-17
Next week the country will inaugurate a new president. It‘s been a long time since there has been so much discord around the qualifications of a president-elect; so it’s a good time to ask what qualities we look for in leaders. I realize that I’ve been starting every sermon with a reference to our country’s political drama. That is obviously not the only significant thing going on. But it provides an important frame for reflecting on matters that relate equally to other parts of life. So I will continue to include it.
Every year on the second Sunday of January the church remembers and celebrates the baptism of Jesus. Today’s Scriptures offer some clarity about the qualities of leaders. Matthew must have had Isaiah’s text in front of him as he wrote. In Chapter 12 he quotes the first 4 verses of Isaiah 42. He described Jesus’ baptism by evoking Isaiah’s words: “Jesus saw the Spirit of God descending on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Child, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” Isaiah wrote, “Here is my servant, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon this one.”
Isaiah’s leader is a gentle servant, persistent and effective in bringing forth justice: “My servant will not grow faint or be crushed until establishing justice in the earth.” Matthew’s leader is humble and self-confident enough to risk being identified as a sinner by submitting to the baptism of John. But who is the servant? Isaiah leaves the question ambiguous. Is it the Messiah or the people of Israel? Matthew describes Jesus’ baptism as an anointing with the Spirit. But a few chapters later Jesus anoints his disciples to have authority in the spiritual realm. So, who is the servant?
The beauty of both Isaiah’s and Matthew’s ambiguity is that they invite us to see that the only ones who could be effective leaders were the ones who come to the fold having been wounded by injustice. It is in the ambiguity that we find life. The wounded ones are the ones who can be leaders. This is a critical observation for the church today because many folks have been treated unjustly by the church and need to be healed of those wounds. They need the situation to change, but first they have to regain trust in order to even show up. What kind of leader can provide that?
Isaiah’s servant would fit the bill: “The servant will not cry to be heard in the street, or break a bruised reed, or quench a dimly burning wick, [but] will faithfully bring forth justice and will not grow faint or be crushed until establishing justice in the earth.” In other words, they need a gentle yet effective leader.
We also need to ask what kinds of followers are needed. If followers seek leaders who tell them what they want to hear, they are responsible for the kinds of leaders they get. We need a whole new way of looking at life in community. When we divide ourselves into needy and the needed, victims and rescuers we get what sociologists call the victim’s triangle, which always has a victim, a victimizer and a rescuer. In this view of life the needy one is a victim who is always an object, whether of the action of victimizers or of rescuers. It doesn’t work to see some humans as objects and others as subjects.
The Scriptures invite us to see everyone as subjects. Isaiah the prophet paints a picture of gentle firmness. Matthew the evangelist reveals a humble, obedient and royal child who expresses solidarity when there is no obligation to do so. Henri Nouwen the priest calls for “wounded healers.” So often nothing gets done because the world gets divided into those who are too needy to do it and those who are too entitled to do it. A biblical view brings them together. The needy bring justice out of their need for justice. The entitled bring it out of solidarity.
Desmond Tutu connects solidarity to the spiritual connection we have in the human family through our baptism: “Justice is not a case of the haves giving to the have nots. That’s too unworthy and shallow an interpretation of God's intent for us. We must recognize that all people are our brothers and sisters in Christ; we are all members of God's family. We would want the best for our family. We would want good education and health care for them and we would willingly help in any way possible for that to happen. If they are being victimized and oppressed we would move heaven and earth to speak out against such evil. If dictators do not respect their rights, we will not stand by and say it is not our business. It is our business to be where there is pain and suffering and to oppose injustice with all our strength. Our brothers and sisters are in trouble and we cannot enjoy peace of mind and make peace with God if we do nothing. It is our responsibility as part of being God's children to actively try to make God's Kingdom come on earth.” Desmond Tutu, The Best of the Family
Last week I heard from a friend in Texas about a Jewish community that went to a Hispanic Christian congregation and asked if they could participate in their posada. When they did, they told the members that if they were ever rounded up for deportation that the Jewish community would have their back. That is solidarity and healthy community.
The choice is ours. Heroes are created by popular demand, so we get the ones we demand. When Christ is the ideal, society begins to look loving and compassionate and open. When money and power and escapism are the ideal, we get the macho, the cheap, and the crude. Don’t complain. Choose.
A Native American folk tale called The Wolves Within reveals that this is a spiritual choice before it is a political one:
An old Grandfather said to his grandson, who came to him with anger at a friend who had done him an injustice: "Let me tell you a story. I too, at times, have felt great hate for those who have taken so much, with no sorrow for what they do. But hate wears you down, and does not hurt your enemy. It's like taking poison and wishing your enemy would die. I have struggled with these feelings many times. It is as if there are two wolves inside me. One is good and does no harm. He lives in harmony with all around him and does not take offense when no offense was intended. He will only fight when it is right to do so, and in the right way.”
The grandson ask, “But the other wolf?”
“Ah! The littlest thing will send him into a fit of temper. He fights everyone, all the time, for no reason. He cannot think because his anger and hate are so great. It is helpless anger, for his anger will change nothing. Sometimes it is hard to live with these wolves inside me, for both of them try to dominate my spirit."
The boy looked intently into his Grandfather's eyes and asked, "Which one wins, Grandfather?"
The Grandfather smiled and quietly said, "The one I feed."
Our baptism connects us to the work of the Spirit. The Scriptures tell us that we were chosen before the foundation of the world as God’s beloved. Even if we don’t believe it all the time, that is what the Gospel teaches. Our baptism encourages us to feed the wolf that lives in harmony with others, and empowers us to put that belief into practice in service to others. The way the Spirit came on Jesus was gentle like a dove. He was not overpowered by the Spirit. He was led, and had a choice. He had the freedom to refuse. Satan played on that freedom in the temptations. If Jesus had been overpowered by the Spirit there would have been no temptation because he wouldn’t have been in control.
Baptism empowers us for service and give us the option not to serve as well. A few chapters after Jesus’ baptism Matthew reports Jesus saying, “The Harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest.” Immediately, Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority to do what he did. I believe that was their baptism. They had been called to follow. Here they were baptized– empowered – to serve.
Friends, we are baptized for ministry. We have the option to say no to ministry. But true freedom comes when we say yes. What will you say? The opportunities for your ministry are plentiful right here in this church. Think about your response as we renew our baptism.