Sunday, January 8, 2017

First Sunday after the Epiphany

Isaiah 42: 1-9
Baptism of August Isaiah Newman

Good morning.   The Sunday after the January 6th Feast of the Epiphany and the day of the traditional observance of the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ, as we’ve heard in the hymns and the gospel reading.  The event at the Jordan River in all four gospels launches the public ministry of Jesus along the road that leads eventually to Good Friday and the cross.  In the Eastern Orthodox Churches the day is known as the Theophany, as the divine nature of Jesus is revealed by the Word of the Father and in the descent of the Holy Spirit.

And here this morning we celebrate the baptism of August Isaiah Newman.  The launching of his public life and ministry as a follower of Jesus, a disciple.  “Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.”  Thank you Tom and Meredith for coming all the way from your home in Buffalo to share this great day with all of us.  A great way to enter a new year as a congregation and extended congregational family, with this reaffirmation of our shared baptismal identity and life in Christ.

August Isaiah’s namesake, the Prophet Isaiah, was living and prophesying in Jerusalem in the 8th and 7th Centuries before Christ.  The job of the prophet is to call attention to God’s Word in a fresh and compelling way when the people around him seem to have forgotten it. And Isaiah’s ministry took place in a complicated time.  The Northern Kingdom of Israel had been conquered by the Assyrian Empire of what today would be Eastern Iraq.  Its ancient cities and sacred shrines destroyed, its civilian population decimated and displaced in a disorganized refugee diaspora throughout the Near East.  Its cultural identity and history and faith traditions wiped clean, its orchards and farmlands distributed as the bounty of war to the soldiers of the victorious foreign army.  Yet just a few miles down south across the border in Jerusalem, the capital of the southern Kingdom of Judah, there is this sense of deep, deep denial.  “What happened to our cousins up North,  that could never happen to us!”  The country is protected for the moment  by a fragile network of alliances and vassal state relationships.  The Kings are big on ceremony and show,  pomp and circumstance--while in reality they are weak pawns in a game between the great powers, Egypt and Persia and Babylon and Syria.  The aristocracy is humming along like the courtiers of Louis the XVIth.  Eat, drink, and be merry!  The influences of foreign powers, foreign cultures, foreign religions are percolating through the nation.  Whatever the latest fad.   In all this what it was that made the sons and daughters of Abraham special, unique, a Chosen People, a sacrament for the world, a People of the Covenant, was slipping away.  The word of the Lord was set aside—the discipline of a holy and consecrated people ignored, forgotten. 

Isaiah could see disaster ahead.  You didn’t need a Masters Degree from the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.  It was pretty straightforward to anyone who knew God’s word.  The wages of sin.  But then also, what Isaiah could also see, as the truth written deeply into God’s character and word, was that God’s faithfulness to Israel was greater than any failure of faithfulness in Israel.  That no valley was so deep, no mountain so high, no grave so final, that God could not and would not prove himself true to his promise.

Our reading from the 42nd chapter is sometimes called the First Servant Song of Isaiah, a part of Isaiah’s prophetic vision of what it would look like beyond the catastrophe, when that perfect faithfulness of God would be made known. To look at those words again (there on page 7):  He will bring forth justice,  righteously but not violently, not by shouting louder than everybody else, not by steamrolling over the weak, not by snapping and crushing every bruised reed and extinguishing every weak spark and flame, but faithfully, carefully, with gentleness, with love.  A sign of new and renewed creation, the First Creator bringing forth a new heaven and a new earth, giving breath and life and spirit to a healed and restored human family.  Bringing light and sight to a dark world, freeing every prisoner, sweeping away all those false gods that command our worship and loyalty.  “Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare.”

 Isaiah’s vision is not an easy one.  Because real death must always come before there can be real resurrection from the dead.  But he sees how an Israel rescued out of  and through the calamity that would soon befall it would be refreshed in God’s word, would trust God’s promises, would obey his commands, and so would become in reality what God had first described to Abraham so long ago, a sign of blessing and grace and right relationship with God, to all people, to every tribe and race and nation.  Every nation on earth will be blessed through you.  And from the very earliest days of Christian memory and witness this has been heard as God’s word to us of the fulfillment in Christ of his everlasting and perfect Covenant.  We hear the echo this morning.  The Song of Isaiah 42 begins, “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.”  And as we heard this morning as Jesus and John stood side by side in the River Jordan, the word from above, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”  Epiphany and Theophany.  The delight of the Father, now with us and for us in a new way.

We pause in this season of Sundays after Epiphany to go deeper into the meaning and purpose of Christmas: what does it all really mean, that God became Man?  This story, Mary and Joseph and Child in the Manger, Angels, Shepherds, Wise men from the East—what does it mean that this child was born for us?    Words of the Prophet first spoken eight hundred years before the night the angels sang to the shepherds begin to open that up for us.    What difference does Christmas really make, once the trees come down?  I hope we would each one of us ask ourselves that question a few times in the coming weeks.  Thinking back to Christmas—and not, I mean, to the outward expressions and festivities, but to the heart of the story itself.  To the fact of Jesus.  Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.  Of the Father’s love begotten.  Israel’s hope and consolation.  To this promise that as we would follow him and become a part of his life and attend to and become obedient to his word, we ourselves may be lifted up in him as he brings about a new creation, a new heaven, a new earth.   

The Christmas holiday comes to an end.  Back to work.  Back to school.  The newspaper headlines proclaim wars and rumors of war, terror and disaster, conflict and strife.  The trees are put out for the landfill, the decorations get boxed up and moved back to the attic for another year.  But the one who was born for us at Christmas remains with us, the Father’s delight,  inviting us to remain with him, to find our own true lives in him.  From the Catechism: “Holy baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God.  The inward and spiritual grace in Baptism is union with Christ in his death and resurrection, birth into God’s family the Church, forgiveness of sins, and new life in the Holy Spirit.”  And the word of the Lord spoken by the Prophet Isaiah this morning to August Isaiah, to the people of Jerusalem and to the people of St. Andrew’s Highland Park—his promise to:  “I am the Lord.  I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations . . . .”   

Welcome to the family, August Isaiah.  Blessings and joy and Happy New Year!  Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

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