This sermon turns out to break into two parts: the task and the power. For the task, let’s start with our first reading.
I’m grateful that it’s not easy to identify with the probable audience of our first reading. Isaiah 40-55 is set in the period shortly before the Persian conquest of Babylon (539 bc), and probably addressed to the exiles (prisoners of war) in Babylon. They’re on the verge of despair (“My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God” [40:27]); the prophet assures them that the LORD still treasures them, still wants their service. Today’s text is one of the clearest descriptions of that service. What is the service the LORD wants? Micah, Isaiah’s contemporary had given one memorable answer: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic. 6:8) Today’s text fleshes that out. As we’ll see, it shapes Jesus’ identity, and we hear echoes of it in Peter’s words in our second reading (“how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil”). But this doesn’t exhaust its meaning; Jesus hands it off to us. So take it home, tape it to the bathroom mirror, and wonder about where it might continue to point us.
The voice from heaven in our Gospel: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” These words combined with the descent of the Spirit of God enact the beginning of our first reading. Jesus uniquely, wonderfully, fulfills, fills full, Isaiah’s portrait of the servant. We meet this fulfillment repeatedly in Matthew’s Gospel; it reaches a crescendo in Holy Week. And Jesus does this not so the servant role can be mothballed, but so that it can be repeatedly enacted by those baptized in Jesus’ Name.
The commentators Davies and Allison see four themes in today’s text: “Jesus as Son, Jesus as servant, Jesus as the inaugurator of the new exodus and new creation, and Jesus as the one who fulfils all righteousness” (I.344). We’ve been noticing the second theme; what of the others?
“Jesus as Son.” The beginning of the heavenly announcement “This is my Son” echoes not Isa 42, but lines from Ps 2, the first of the royal psalms: “I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you” (2:7). A royal title, it’s echoed repeatedly in the New Testament, and prompted “Crown him with many crowns” as our opening hymn.
“Jesus as the inaugurator of the new exodus and new creation.” This is a bit more subtle, but suggestive. Matthew, recall, reminded us of the setting: “just as he came up from the water” (like Israel from the Red Sea), and the next episode is Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, mirroring Israel’s temptation in the wilderness. As for new creation, Matthew’s dove may recall the Spirit’s hovering over the waters (Gen 1:2). In any case, the new exodus/new creation themes appear repeatedly in texts recalling our baptism (“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” [2 Cor. 5:17]).
“Jesus as the one who fulfils all righteousness.” This picks up on that brief interchange between John and Jesus. But what does it mean? In the Old Testament stories, righteousness is often about doing whatever is necessary to fulfill one’s obligations. Jesus does whatever it takes—including identifying with this very motley crew—to inaugurate that new exodus/creation.
What Jesus does with righteousness here recalls the angel’s command to Joseph a few weeks back. Conventional righteousness meant putting Mary away; the righteousness Joseph and Mary needed went beyond that. Conventional righteousness in today’s text might have meant Jesus staying dry: “I don’t need that.” But Emmanuel (“God with us”) and ‘with’ means the righteousness that has Jesus in the water. And it doesn’t stop with Jesus. Conventional righteousness is reasonable, with forgiveness maxing out at, say, seven times a day. Peter makes the mistake of asking Jesus about this. “Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times’” (Matt. 18:22).
The task: inaugurating the new exodus and new creation. Sketched out in Isaiah, incarnate in Jesus, continuing in his followers—and requiring more than conventional righteousness.
Part two: the power. Pulling the camera back from our Gospel to include the other readings, notice the central role of the Holy Spirit. In Isaiah: “I have put my spirit upon him.” In Acts: “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit.” In Matthew: “the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.” If we ask how the Holy Spirit acted in Jesus’ life we get into very deep waters very quickly, so I’m not going to go there. But since it’s the same Spirit that we receive in our baptism, that’s worth some reflection.
The important point: following Jesus isn’t something we’re expected to do relying on our own resources. From John’s Gospel: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you” (Jn. 14:15-18).
The Catechism in the BCP captures it nicely. Please look at p.852:
Q. How do we recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives?
A. We recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit when we confess Jesus Christ as Lord and are brought into love and harmony with God, with ourselves, with our neighbors, and with all creation.
We don’t have to do it on our own, and we recognize the Holy Spirit’s presence in the effects of that presence the Catechism names, echoing today’s readings from Isaiah and Acts (“how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him”). Put negatively, there’s no encouragement in the New Testament to confirm the Spirit’s presence by introspection, by the presence of some sensation or a particular spiritual gift. The Spirit works, we might say, as a wonderful catalyst, enabling and empowering the reconciliation the Catechism describes, the servant’s work described in our first reading.
The other thing we might notice from our readings and the Catechism is that the Spirit is not about withdrawal from the world (as the Johnny Cash song has it “you’re so heavenly minded, you’re no earthly good”). Herod, Pilate, and their modern counterparts are quite happy with that “spirituality.”
I love what the German theologian Moltmann does with this. In the Old Testament and Judaism “God’s Spirit is the life-force of created beings, and the living space in which they can grow and develop their potentialities.…The nearness of God makes life once more worth loving.” In the New Testament and Judaism “God’s Spirit is the life-force of the resurrection which…is ‘poured out on all flesh’ in order to make it eternally alive. In the tempest of the divine Spirit of life, the final springtime of creation begins.…The sick, frail and mortal body becomes ‘the temple of the Holy Spirit’” (The Spirit of Life p.84). Or, as Paul puts it writing to the Corinthians, “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure (2 Cor. 4:16b-17).
The Spirit alights on Jesus; the Spirit alights on us. Rejoice, and fasten your seatbelts: the new exodus and new creation are still works in progress.