Isaiah 42:1-9, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17, Psalm 29

The horizon of our possibility reaches the very edge of the earth … and beyond.

I’m not exactly sure when but it was something like 10 years ago when I headed off to a conference in Nevada and we took the opportunity to go see Hover Dam. I had seen it in numerous pictures, and I expect a movie or two. But still it was very impressive. We were also take-in by Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the US. From our perspective, you could not see the vastness of the lake. You could see the steep white sides where the water was several feet below normal levels. It looked a bit like the white cliffs of Dover. It was kind-of cool, until you saw the boat docks sitting on the ground, because the lake wasn’t just seasonally low, the lake was low because of drought. Lake Mead, and the Colorado River basin provide water to the entire south west; from Wyoming to California’s imperial valley, the source of 15% of our food supply; the lake and river provide water to 40 million people.

This week there was an article in the New York Times about the 14 year drought, the worst in 1250 years, which has area reservoirs at less than half their capacities. Lake Mead is currently at 1106 feet, (above sea level) at 1075 rationing begins, at 1050 drastic rationing begins, at 1025 rationing is draconian, at 1000 feet, Las Vegas runs dry. The era of “big water” is coming to an end. But people are creatively responding: a desalination plant, recycling sewage effluent, treating and returning to Lake Mead nearly all in door water use of southern Nevada. Much has been done, there is more that must be, and can be done. [i] In the face of extreme threat people are positively acting.

In preparing for today, the connection between the water crisis and the centrality of water to baptism, and Jesus’ baptism by John merged. But before we get there, let’s back up a bit and look at the back story of Jesus’ baptism as told by Isaiah.

It’s some 2500 years ago Israel has been taken into, well actually Israel, as the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom has been destroyed, and what is now called Israel, Judah, the Southern Kingdom, has been conquered, which is bad enough, but she’s also been taken into exile. And that means she is separated from the Temple, the home of God on earth, which effectively separates God’s people ~ from God. People are wondering if has God deserted them. Given that God’s city, and God’s Temple have been burned to the ground, people are wondering:  Is there still a God? Isaiah’s prophecy emphatically says Yes!  And he does so by speaking directly to the pain of tragedy, the pain of exile. He does so by naming how a divine servant will bring justice. Amy Oden writes:

Isaiah shifts Israel’s gaze here from themselves back to the wide casting of God’s promise and plan. The horizon of possibility is no longer the hand in front of my face but the very edge of the earth’s curvature. [ii]

It’s important to note, the servant will not act alone, four times the prophecy quotes God I the Lord and then names a specific action.

Six centuries and a decade later, Israel, Judah, is once again conquered. I’m not sure they are ever not conquered. They are used to foreign Kings and Emperors but this one also claims to be god, well at least a demi god, or the/a son of god. Even though the Temple is magnificently restored, and all the proper sacrifices are being made it’s all a bit edgy, it’s not quite right. A sign of trouble are communities of folks, who live in isolated communities, like the Essenes who live in Qumran, where the Dead Sea scrolls were found, who preach a different relationship with God. Many of them practice a baptism that washes away sins. Perhaps the most dramatic of them is John the Baptist. Not only is John baptizing folks, he is declaring the kingdom of heaven has come near. [iii] He is proclaiming

the [presence] of one who baptizes with water and the Holy Spirit, … [whose] winnowing fork is at hand. [iv]

One day, as John is baptizing people in the Jordan, this promised savior shows up and asks John to baptize him. John doesn’t want to, he isn’t worthy, he believes he should be baptized by Jesus. Jesus replies:

Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.

And John, humbly, obediently baptizes Jesus. Immediately the Holy Spirit appears, and God pronounces Jesus to be his son, with whom he is well pleased. Unlike Mark, who presents this as a private conversation, Matthew presents it as at least partially public. God’s voice parallels Isaiah’s prophecy:

Here is my servant                        This is my Son,

my chosen                                         the Beloved

in whom my soul delights           with whom I am well pleased. [v] [vi]

It is clear that Matthew is presenting Jesus to be the servant of Isaiah’s prophecy. Here is the one who will bring justice to all people.

The idea of Jesus as the servant presented by Isaiah several times, is common. It’s in the text of Handle’s Messiah. But, there is a wrinkle with the servant passage in Isaiah 42. Though there are problems with her ability to act, Isaiah’s prophecy reminds Israel that she is God’s servant. Verses 5-9 build on God’s previously calling Israel to be a covenant to the people, to be a light to the nations. [vii] It’s also clear in Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus is inseparable from the body of Christ, inseparable from the church. And I’ll admit, if it were left up to the Church, to us  there would be reason for despair. [viii] But is isn’t; and we aren’t alone. Remember ~ four times in Isaiah’s prophecy God says  I the Lord …  and names supporting divine action. In submitting to baptism, Jesus is

Standing in solidarity with those who often feel unworthy of God’s love and grace [it] is a powerful act that is vividly portrayed in this text and throughout the ministry of Jesus. [ix]

In short, the church, we, never have been, and are not now ~ alone.

A final little interpretive bit: Jesus says it is right for him to be baptized, to fulfill all righteousness. In English, ‘righteousness’ infers following established norms and obeying the law. In scripture, ‘righteousness’  infers fulfilling the covenant relationship  with God and with each other. In short ‘righteousness’ is fully living in relationship with God, everything starts from and moves towards God. Remember Joseph, who is righteous because he seeks to follow established custom and law, and is going to quietly put pregnant Mary away, and who is so righteous, is in such strong relationship with God he violates all that and humbly obeys God, marries Mary, etc …. [x] Jesus is fulfilling righteousness in humble obedience to God, in bringing the Kingdom of heaven to earth. John is righteous, in humble obedience to Jesus and baptizes him.

And so what. Well here is where the water story comes in. It’s a story of crisis. What was carefully planned, has failed. But the leaders have not simply thrown up their hands in despair declaring Woe is us! They have set about making dramatic changes.

The church is in a crisis moment. What was envisioned has not come about. There has been too much Woe is us! too much holding on to what no longer is, nor can be. It’s almost as if the water of baptism, is of less consequence, [xi] of less value than drinking water. It’s almost as if we Do the baby as a hedge just in case all this God stuff is real, or to placate Grand Mother. It is our calling by our baptism to continue Jesus’ ministry proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven is here! And yes, it is a frightening task, it is an overwhelming task, but we are not alone. And yes, we will have to make dramatic changes, which we will intentionally set about this year, with:

Welcome Home,
Friday Families,
Brewing Faith, and
Stephen’s House,

and more; and we will not be alone.

Those planning how to respond to growing water shortage in the Colorado River basin cannot see the future; but they are not deterred from doing their best, and they are acting. I/we cannot see the specific details of the future of the Church, save faith that it will be,  and I believe that a cloudy vision shouldn’t deter us from acting. And we will begin acting by:

renewing our baptismal vows,
reminding ourselves of our relationship to God,
reminding ourselves that we are God’s people, God’s beloved
with whom God is well pleased,
reminding our selves we are called to bring justice to the world,
reminding our selves that we are not alone
that:
The LORD shall give strength to his people; *
the LORD shall give his people the blessing of peace.
reminding ourselves the horizon of our possibility reaches the very ends of the earth.


[i] MICHAEL WINES, Colorado River Drought Forces a Painful Reckoning for States,  nytimes.com,  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/06/us/colorado -river-drought-forces-a-painful-reckoning-for-states.html

[ii] Amy Oden |WorkingPreacher.org, 1/12/2014, Commentary on Isaiah 42:1-9

[iii] Matthew 3:1

[iv] Matthew 3:11b,12

[v] Ben Helmer, episcopaldigitalnetwork.com http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/2013/12/31/1-epiphany-a-2014/, 1 Epiphany (A) – 2014, January 12, 2014

[vi] New Interpreter’s Bible, Matthew 3:13ff

[vii] New Interpreters’ Bible One Volume Commentary

[viii] Center for Excellence in Preaching ****

[ix] Karyn Wiseman, WorkingPreacher.org, 1/12/2014, Commentary on Matthew 3:13-17

[x] New Interpreter’s Study Bible, Holman Bible Dictionary, righteousness

[xi] David Lose, Baptismal Problems and Promises, Jan 5, 2014, WorkingPreacher.org

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2 thoughts on “A sermon for Epiphany

  1. Pingback: A sermon for Epiphany | Who will dance with me?

  2. Pingback: Nazarene Commentary Mark 1:1-8 – The Beginning of the Good News | Belgian Biblestudents - Belgische Bijbelstudenten

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