The Rev’d Jonathan Gale
Isaiah 42: 1 – 9
The Servant, a Light to the Nations
42Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
2 He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
3 a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
5 Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
6 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,
7 to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
8 I am the Lord, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
9 See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.
Acts 10: 34 – 43
Gentiles Hear the Good News
34 Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’
Matthew 3: 13 – 17
The Baptism of Jesus
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ 15But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved,* with whom I am well pleased.’
Years ago, possibly in the late ‘70s, I had an idea. What if one strengthened the frame of a bicycle somehow, put on large wheels with ‘knobbly’ tyres, and gave the bike many gears? One could ride off-road! One could go for picnics! (and here I imagined an over-the-shoulder bag) – one could even have special tracks made and have races!
Not being the most hands-on sort of bloke I headed on down the hill to a former national cyclist called Gordon Baker, who ran a second hand car yard, and tried to sell him my idea. “No,” he said, “You don’t want that. I’ve got a bike with large tyres I could sell you.” It turned out to be a normal road bike with a bit of tread.
A good few years later I opened our local newspaper and there was a large photo of two American tourists who had ridden up one of the 4 wheel drive tracks in the Drakensberg Mountains into Lesotho on what they called mountain bikes. You could have heard me yell from a mile away! Someone had had the same idea and there it was in the photograph before me.
A number of years after that I said to a mountain bike luminary that I had invented the mountain bike. To my surprise he said, “Yeah, you were in tune with the spirit of the universe. There were probably quite a few people who perceived the same idea around about that time.”
Now before we dismiss his comment as spiritual clap-trap, let me try and illustrate what is probably a better way of looking at this. Imagine a largish and prosperous family-owned business where the owner has carefully selected his staff. If it is a well-run business the good employees in it would not only be working well, but subconsciously they would be thinking of ideas to improve the business. There would be something operating that is more than just a technical business. What my mountain biking friend called ‘the spirit of the universe’ would be at work. The creative dynamics of people in tune with what was going on would be at work.
And here’s the point: if the owner of the business wanted to expand in a certain direction, he would probably look for the person currently on staff who would best manage that aspect of the new business. He would in all probability choose someone to do the job. This is very different from a bland corporation putting an advertisement in the newspaper in an attempt to find the right candidate.
The owner, having chosen someone who was already evidencing the potential he looked for, would take pleasure in the growth of his business – and of course in the person with potential who was managing its new growth.
Isaiah illustrates something similar.
42Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
When Jesus began his public ministry, which he kicked off in spectacular fashion in his home synagogue of Nazareth, he claimed these words referred to him.
God the Father speaks and says of Jesus that he is chosen and that his soul delights in him.
There is another memorable example of God announcing very publicly that Jesus pleases him and that is in our Gospel reading this morning, at Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan.
We heard only a moment ago 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved,* with whom I am well pleased.’
It must be nice to please God. In fact it is pretty crucial that we do.
It is certainly crucial if we believe the words of Peter from our Acts reading this morning: 42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’
If Jesus is the judge of the living and the dead and is the one who forgives sin, pleasing him is a big deal.
Now earlier, on the Day of Pentecost, our friend St Peter had said very similar words, after which we read When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2: 37)
Instinctively, when faced with a crisis, we think, “What should I do!?”
We will always seek to take evasive action, and under normal circumstances, that is a very good thing to do.
But when there is no possible effective action we can take, what do we do then?
How do we please God when no amount of redemptive action on our part can either remove the past for which we are responsible or effectively change our natures in an attempt never to displease God again?
There is a sense in which we never choose God unless he has first chosen us. God always takes the initiative. We see this in our Isaiah reading (we certainly see it all over the Epistles) 42Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
God delights in the one he upholds and has chosen.
But is that it? Does this mean we are so dead in our trespasses and sins that our feeble efforts are of such little effect that we simply sit back and hope that God has chosen us?
Not at all!
The Gospel passage shows us that Jesus, in spite of not needing to be baptised, went ahead with it anyway. It was Jesus’ response to his sense of calling that caused God to loudly announce, in a voice from heaven, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved,* with whom I am well pleased.’
There is never any passivity on our part when we attempt to please God. But – and this is crucial – we cannot do it without dependence upon Christ. And by the way, if you’re ever concerned as to whether God has called or chosen you, the very fact that you’re concerned is a sign that he has.
Any efforts we make to bridge the gap between God and ourselves under our own steam are quite simply doomed to failure.
Yes, you may have read in Scripture of any number of things God requires of us. In Hebrews 11: 6 we read that without faith it is impossible to please God but that faith is always in response to God’s initiative. And God’s initiative is firmly embedded in the overwhelming grace of God that comes to us in the wake of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Isaiah the prophet could foresee this and cried out, But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53: 5).
He then goes on to remind us of our need for forgiveness in the next verse when he says, 6All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him … (Isaiah 53: 6).
In being baptised, Jesus wanted to fulfil all righteousness. Even though he didn’t need salvation himself, he wanted to set an example for those of us who do. It’s the example of response to the initiative of God.
In the Revelation to John we read these well-known words, Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me. (Revelation 3: 20)
The response required of us to fulfil all righteousness is to open up our lives to the resurrected Christ. That is the appropriate response to God’s initiative. That is what we should do when aware of our need for salvation. For when we do let God into our lives – he enters unconditionally – we cannot dictate the terms, it is an absolute surrender or none at all. As someone once put it to me, “When we mean business with God we discover that he means business with us.”
We have just stepped over the threshold and into a new year. Is this the year of complete surrender to God for you? Let’s bow our heads in a moment’s silence. I suggest you use this time to speak to God.