Wednesday, February 09, 2011


Isaiah 42:1-7, Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:15[1]

We live in a place where it’s important to pay attention to foundations. You know, the things our homes and businesses and churches are built on. The fourth largest metropolitan area in the US is built on land that is affectionately known in the construction industry as “gumbo.” When it gets wet it heaves, and when it dries out it settles. And all that instability makes it very important to pay attention to foundations. We also live in a time when it’s important to pay attention to foundations. The ones our lives are built on, that is. In earlier times, there were cultural, moral, and spiritual values that most people shared, and that served as common ground for people’s lives. In these days, we really don’t have much of a shared foundation for living.

I think it was about foundations that St. Peter was speaking in our lesson from the book of Acts. He was preaching to a group of Gentiles and that challenged some of the cherished ideals that defined his people—primarily that the Jewish people were special in God’s eyes. And in response he turned to the foundations of his life and faith to make sense out of it all. St. Peter saw Jesus as the fulfillment of the hopes articulated by the prophet Isaiah. Those hopes had also been articulated in a time when foundations seemed to be crumbling. Isaiah pointed the people toward a coming servant of God who would establish justice for all peoples. One of the Christian’s central convictions was that Jesus of Nazareth was the one sent by God to bring the peace and justice and freedom they had been looking for. And throughout the book of Acts, the apostles go back again and again to that foundation.

What would that peace and justice and freedom look like? According to our lesson from Isaiah for today, it would look like empty dungeons and prisons with no prisoners (Isa. 42:7). Now, we probably should recognize that there is a big difference between the system of crime and punishment we know today and the way it was in that day. Nevertheless, I think there is something to be said for the idea that when God’s justice is fully established for all peoples, the prisons will be empty. St. Peter says it a little differently—Jesus came preaching peace, doing good, and setting free those oppressed by the devil. At first glance, that might not look much like the justice the servant in Isaiah is to bring. But from a biblical point of view, justice and peace are integrally related. The kind of peace Peter and the other apostles saw in Jesus’ life and teaching was shalom, a total and all-encompassing kind of well-being and wholeness. And peace is what happens when people get to live in the kind of justice where all people can thrive.

And so Peter and the others came to the conviction through the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth that he was the “servant” who had come to effect God’s justice and peace and freedom. I wonder what it was that convinced them. We might think it was the result of some magical or superstitious thinking on the part of those “unlearned” fishermen. When we look at the account of the baptism of Jesus in the Gospels, it seems pretty far-fetched. Visions of heavenly doves and voices from heaven aren’t part of our normal experience. But I don’t know that we have to take the account literally as the report of an event that any bystander could have witnessed—as if they would also have seen the dove and heard the voice. Perhaps it was some kind of spiritual experience that the apostles later held on to as an expression of their conviction that Jesus evidenced a unique presence of God—as St. Peter puts it, “God was with him.”[2]

I think, though, that we’re putting the cart before the horse if we think that their faith and ours rests primarily upon miraculous events like that. In a very real sense, I think their faith and ours rests primarily upon who Jesus was and what he did. I think they believed he was the servant whom Isaiah had spoken of because they believed he was one who uniquely effected the peace and justice and freedom that God has always promised would come to all people. I think they believed Jesus was the one whom they had been looking forward to because—as Peter insists—they personally witnessed it. And they used the language of their day to express this conviction—language that sounds magical to us. But according to Jesus, the point of it all was to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15). We might miss the connection here as well if we don’t know that righteousness and justice are also integrally related in the Bible. Jesus’ insistence on being baptized signifies his commitment to God’s justice defining life in this world rather than the injustice that is so prevalent.[3] It would seem that Jesus was going back to the foundations too.

We live in a time when people seem to be ignoring foundations. In fact, some are positively obsessed with getting rid of anything and everything that looks or sounds traditional. To some extent, that’s natural; some traditions probably need to go by the wayside. But there are some convictions that serve as the very foundations for our faith and our life. We don’t have to endorse a magical or view of the world or become naïve fundamentalist clinging to every literal word in the Bible. But we must hold on to the essence of our faith. In this day and age, we need to return to our foundations as well—looking to Jesus of Nazareth and to the peace, justice and freedom that he gave his life to establish for us all.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/9/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. Barbara Lemmel, “Rare Sightings (Is. 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matt. 3:13-17),” The Christian Century (Dec 23-30, 1998): 1245, who observes, “Epiphanies, both large and small, tend to be private events. Trying to share the details with another is fraught with complications: the words are never quite right, and even the most sympathetic listener cannot fully bridge the gap between description and being there. No wonder most folks keep their personal experiences of the Holy to themselves. Who would believe it? And who would really understand?.”

[3] Brad Ronnell Braxton, “Ready for Revolution (Matthew 3:13-17),” The Christian Century (January 2-9, 2002): 18, says it this way: “Righteousness also signifies God’s saving action in the world. … righteousness encapsulates God’s passionate commitment to set right the things that are wrong.” So in this act, “Jesus says, ‘Through this baptism, I take up arms with you, John, and join this revolution whereby God’s justice will be manifest in the world.’”

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