Behold, my servant

12 January 2020; The Baptism of our Lord; Epiphany IA (RCL); Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17

The voice from heaven speaks a phrase that is a conflation of Psalm 2:7 (You are my son; this day have I begotten you) and Isaiah 42:1 (Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am well pleased). This very combination is already asking the reader to make a profound theological move by combining the figure our the King with the figure of the servant.

Psalm 2 is a coronation psalm. It begins, “Why are the nations in an uproar?” The nations are seeking to be free of the yoke of Israel’s hegemony. But God has other things in mind. He has anointed a king who will crush the nations with an iron rod, and shatter them like a piece of pottery. One the other hand, the servant will not break a bruised reed or quench a dimly burning wick. It was the role of the king to be the mediator of justice, but Psalm 2 and Isaiah 42 imagine that vocation in very different terms.

Scholars, of course, have pondered over the question who exactly the servant is, but Isaiah 41:8-10 seems to have already clarified the issue. The 41st chapter of Isaiah speaks of the role of Cyrus in restoring Israel, and God, in courtroom setting says to Israel: “But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, offspring of Abraham my friend — you whom I have taken from the ends of the earth and summoned from far off places, You whom I have called my servant, whom I have chosen and will not cast off –.” The servant is the group of returnees reconstituting the people of God.

Subsequent servant songs make it clear that the suffering of the servant has redemptive effect. The great catastrophe of exile raised a very difficult question for monotheists. How could God have let something like this happen to us? Deuteronomy chose one answer: we failed in our worship of God, and worshiped other Gods; therefore God justly punished us for our failure.

Isaiah chose a different answer. Our election as God’s people had been God’s purpose to bring justice to the nations, to be a light to the world. We thought our election was for our benefit, that God has chosen us to salvation. But God had intended our election for the benefit of the whole world. Our suffering is now God’s redemptive instrument in the world, and we are set with the task of bringing that justice to all.

It is easy to see why the early Christians fastened on the servant songs as illustrative of the ministry of the Christ. Christ was indeed God’s anointed, but unlike the anointed in Psalm 2, Christ’s suffering would be redemptive. The anointed would not inflict harm or vengeance on the nations, but instead bring them into the fold of God’s promises. In this violent world, such love must be ready to suffer. One only need to look at Gandhi for an example of how that works.

If, as I believe, a new Christian would hear the Gospel for the first time on the night of her baptism, and hear it read from cover to cover, she could not help but draw the connection between her baptism and that of Jesus. That voice would speak to her as well. The early Church understood itself as God’s chosen servant, but here I believe is where so much Protestant theology goes wrong. That election is not election to salvation for oneself, but election for the salvation of the world. The Church is the mediating instrument of God’s love and justice in the world. One of the eucharistic prayers in Enriching Our Worship invokes the Spirit over the people to “make us the Body of Christ for the world you have made.” That’s a very different understanding of election than emerged out of the Reformation.

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