Tuesday, January 31, 2017

It's Coming Together

It’s Coming Together
Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17[1]
It’s not hard to take the point of view that our world is coming apart at the seams. If you pay any attention to the news at all, you know that peoples and countries around the world are struggling against all kinds of disorder. The events that capture our attention are often negative, and it can leave us with the feeling that societies are falling into chaos all over the globe. But you don’t have to look that far to get the feeling that society is coming apart. It seems undeniable that the ways of interacting and going about daily life that many of us may have been taught to observe have simply gone by the wayside. Work ethic, civility in public discourse, simple good manners, seem to have worn themselves out.
The result is that it leaves us feeling like the world in which we are trying to live and raise our children is not a safe place. It’s a place where might makes right, which is fine if you have power. But if you don’t, it’s easy to get discouraged from the fact that you can’t even control your own life. Our world is a place where fame and money talk, and when they do, people listen. If you’re famous and rich, that’s great. But if you’re not, it can seem like your voice is, at best, marginal if not completely muted. When we conclude that our world is unsafe because all the commonly-held codes of decency have fallen by the wayside, it can lead us to a fairly gloomy outlook on life.
When we look at the message of the prophets closely, we find that they lived in times like these. They faced their world coming apart, and in response to God’s call, they proclaimed a very different message. They were motivated by the vision of God’s kingdom of peace and justice and freedom coming into this world and transforming it from the very roots. At times that message came to the people as one of judgment—as a warning that if they didn’t change their ways their world would fall apart even more than it already had.
But beyond that, the prophets were motivated by their faith in the God whose righteousness brings peace, the God whose justice puts mercy into action, and the God whose truth sets people free. And that faith led them to the vision that God has something better in store for the world than darkness, fear, injustice, violence, and chaos. After all, the Hebrew Bible introduces us to God as the one who brings light from darkness, who overcomes chaos simply by speaking the word (cf. Isa. 42:5). And as a result, the prophets pointed to the time when that same God would restore everyone and everything to the way he intended them to be.[2] They looked forward to the time when God would come to put back together the broken pieces of this world and the lives that had been shattered by the power-mongers who try to thwart God’s ways and God’s purposes.
Not only did the prophets envision this kingdom in which God’s peace, justice, and freedom would define life for all people everywhere. They also saw the way in which God would accomplish this miracle. Or perhaps more accurately we should say they saw the one through whom God’s kingdom would become a reality. As in our text from the prophet Isaiah for today, they spoke of the “servant of the Lord” as the one through whom God would establish God’s justice in this world (Isa. 42:4). And what all that would look like could be described in these terms: “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench” (Isa. 42:3). I like the way The Message puts it: “He won’t brush aside the bruised and the hurt and he won't disregard the small and insignificant.”
In other words, the one who would come to establish God’s kingdom in this world would do so through the mercy and grace and steadfast love that are the central characteristics not only of our God but also of the kingdom he intends to establish. The servant of the Lord would not act like those who wield power and influence in our world. He would be one who would come “not to be served, but to serve” (Matt. 20:28). And through his humble service, he would establish God’s righteousness, and the kingdom defined by it, for all the peoples of the world.[3]
I think that’s what Matthew’s story of Jesus’ baptism is about.  Jesus approaches John to be baptized, and John objects, “I need to be baptized by you” (Mt. 3:14)!  Jesus’ response might seem strange at first glance: “it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt. 3:15).  One would think that Jesus had “fulfilled all righteousness.”  I think the “righteousness” Jesus was referring to was the righteousness of God’s kingdom that the servant of the Lord was to fulfill. Once again, I think The Message captures the meaning well: “God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.”  In his life and ministry, Jesus was convinced that his mission was to fulfill God’s saving purpose for all the nations.[4]
It can be discouraging to see the way things are going in our world. But if we have the eyes to see it, there is something else going on. In his life and ministry and death and resurrection, Jesus began the work of bringing God’s kingdom of justice, peace, and freedom into this world. And he continues to do that even today. That might come as a surprise to you. What may be even more surprising is the way in which he continues that work: through ordinary people like you and me. As we follow Jesus’ example, we too are “fulfilling” the righteousness of God’s kingdom. As we seek to serve those around us, we can see signs that God’s kingdom is even now coming together in our midst.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/8/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 311: “The LORD’s reign is power devoted to righteousness and justice.  Righteousness is the rightness that makes for life and shalom; justice is found in decisions and actions according to righteousness.”
[3] W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison, Matthew 1-7, 344: “as the ‘servant’ of God, Jesus not only brings OT prophecy to fulfillment, receiving the Spirit (3.17; 12.18), taking up infirmities (8.17), and giving his life as a ransom for many (20.28)—he is also the paradigm of the righteous sufferer. Thus … he meekly sides with the weak and powerless while being delivered over into the hands of the mighty and powerful. Jesus came not to be served but to serve (20.28), and this idea presents itself at every turn of our gospel. From this we learn that sonship largely consists in choosing to take up the ministry of the suffering servant.”
[4] Cf. Donald Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 60: “Thus John and Jesus perform their respective roles, fulfilling ‘all righteousness’ as the salvific will of God now receives expression in the inauguration of the kingdom and the arrival of a new and crucial stage of salvation-history; cf. also Davies and Allison, Matthew 1-7, 326: “when Jesus fulfills all righteousness, he his fulfilling Scripture.”

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