Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on Isaiah 42: 1 – 9 & Matthew 3: 13 – 17 on Sunday, January 12, 2014. Focus on The Baptism of Jesus and the qualities of leadership that God wants from us.
The early church had some difficulty with the fact that John baptized Jesus. It posed at least two problems for the early church. The first was the nature of who John was in relation to Jesus. If John baptized Jesus then that implied that John was superior to Jesus. Now each Gospel writer deals with this issue in their own way but since we’re in the Gospel of Matthew we’ll focus on how he handles the issue.
Matthew’s gospel deals with this by having John request that Jesus baptize him. If you listen closely there’s a comic interplay that goes on between Jesus and John where John is insistent that Jesus baptism him and Jesus is just as insistent that John should baptism him. It’s kind of an Alphonse and Gaston routine: “You first.” “No, you first.” “No, you first. I insist.”
But there was a second and even more serious issue, for the early church. John was calling people to repent of their sins and baptizing them was the mechanism used to make them symbolically clean – even though the Jordon River is as muddy as the mighty Mississippi. So the question becomes – What is Jesus doing here?
Now the reason Jesus is here Matthew tells us is to fulfill all righteousness. It’s a phrase that’s used by the prophets to refer to God’s justice. And by having John baptize Jesus we have a scene reminiscent of the prophet Elijah passing his mantle of leadership to Elisha. We have one prophet passing the mantle of righteousness to another prophet. In a sense John is saying to those who have gathered: This is he who has been spoken of in our scriptures.
John came baptizing for the repentance of sins and said “As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. “His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (vs. 11-12).
In other words John is saying that the Messiah would come to judge and punish sinners, but that’s not what Jesus did. Rather than punishing sinners Jesus comes to identify with them. To quote that beautiful verse out of Isaiah 42: 3 “A bruised reed God will not break and a dimly burning wick God will not extinguish.” God’s beloved son is coming as someone who is so gentle as to not cause an already bent reed to break or a wick that is barely able to burn to go out.
As Isaiah hoped, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down” (64:1) And that is exactly what God does. God comes down out of heaven, all the way down out of heaven into the dirty Jordon River. And as Jesus rises out of the water the text tells us that Jesus saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on Him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well – pleased.”
Now this isn’t an image of death and destruction. It’s an image of peace and love, which means God isn’t coming to destroy us. God is coming to heal us. And rather than seeing ourselves as unworthy sinners incapable of being anything but that, God invites us to see ourselves as beloved sons and daughters in whom God is well pleased.
So let’s look at what God delights in and what qualities of leadership God has put his divine approval upon. The first thing to notice is that God’s chosen “will not cry out or raise his voice, nor make his voice heard in the street.” So much for rhetoric as a tool – a leader isn’t defined as a great speaker. A great leader according to God is one who walks the talk.
What he will do is bring forth justice. But justice in a much broader sense than just legal justice. He will be bringing to us what we need. “A bruised reed he will not break and a dimly burning wick he will not extinguish.” I love this image because it’s an image of gentleness. And gentleness is a quality that we desperately need from our leaders but seldom get.
Just like Israel when we think about leadership we think about strength and greatness, but when God thinks about leadership God thinks about those of us who are bruised and beaten down or who are hanging on to hope like a flickering flame on a candle that is about to burn out and with the slightest gust of wind it will blow out.
So God knows something about our condition that we often forget that we all need someone who will just ever so gently whisper words of love and hope in our ears to reassure us that we are not alone and not forgotten.
And in Christ we say this type of leader has finally come. A leader who will not become disheartened or crushed, a leader who will not quit working in the back ground of corridors and rooms long forgotten by the strong and powerful. And this is an incredibly important part of leadership, because gentleness without persistence means nothing. There are plenty of gentle people who can’t go the distance when it comes to offering care and hope. One of the worst things we can do as leaders in the church is quit.
There are always good reasons given, but quitting becomes contagious just as succeeding does. So one of the necessary things that we need in addition to gentleness is the quality of persistence. This quality Jesus had and this quality we need out of those who will lead us forward. So to those whom we will ordain and install as our leadership today, “Thus says God the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and its offspring, who gives breath to the people on it and a spirit to those who walk on it.” Take heart because you have been called by none other than Christ himself to bring forth a sense of what is right on this earth, and God himself has promised to hold you by the hand and to watch over you as you lead God’s people, as you care for God’s people and as you learn to love God’s people.
And as you do this you will not need to depend on your ability to speak or on your own power and might, but instead you will be able to do this by your ability to be gentle with one another. By your ability to gently hold up what has been bruised. To gently whisper hope into the ears of those for whom it has all but run out.
And you have been called to do this because God has called you be leaders for this body of believers and in his Son our Lord God has given us a new paradigm of leadership that is to be based in persistent, unassuming steadfast gentleness ever building up that which is bruised and beaten down. Never quitting in its quest to bring this to all the earth and all the people who walk upon it. Amen