A Reading from the Book of Isaiah (42:1-9)
“Here 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. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.” 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: “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, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell
you of them.”
1 Ascribe to the Lord, you gods, *
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
2 Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his Name; *
worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.
3 The voice of the Lord is upon the waters;
the God of glory thunders; *
the Lord is upon the mighty waters.
4 The voice of the Lord is a powerful voice; *
the voice of the Lord is a voice of splendor.
5 The voice of the Lord breaks the cedar trees; *
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon;
6 He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, *
and Mount Hermon like a young wild ox.
7 The voice of the Lord splits the flames of fire;
the voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; *
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
8 The voice of the Lord makes the oak trees writhe *
and strips the forests bare.
9 And in the temple of the Lord *
all are crying, “Glory!”
10 The Lord sits enthroned above the flood; *
the Lord sits enthroned as King for evermore.
11 The Lord shall give strength to his people; *
the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace.
A Reading from the Book of Acts (10:34-43
Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how 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. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not 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. He 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. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew (3:13-17)
Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And 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. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
In all four versions of the gospel, the story of Jesus’ public ministry begins with his baptism by John. That is only one of the reasons why we hear one of those accounts as our gospel reading on this Sunday every January, as we mark the start of a new year. Here, in this man named Jesus, God is doing something new.
Newness can be exciting, but newness doesn’t seem to last. Over the more than 17 years that I have been here at St. Mark’s, our diocese, as well as the wider Episcopal Church and the even much wider community of Christian churches as a whole, have brought us many new programs. Each new program, or new “in” speaker or new book promises that it is finally something really new, the thing that churches need to solve their problems and fulfil their hopes, the way that the church will need to be in the future. As I’ve told our Vestry each time one of these new approaches, speakers or books comes along: we’ve heard what the future will be countless times before, but it keeps changing. The future just isn’t what it used to be. We need to learn whatever is valuable from each supposedly new approach, and take the rest with a really large grain of salt.
I suggest that the fundamental problem with all these futures — each of which produces great excitement when they come along, but each of which is forgotten and replaced within a few years by another future – I suggest that the basic problem with them is that they are futures of our own making, but not necessarily futures of God’s making.
Futures of God’s making are often hard to recognize and totally impossible to control. Maybe that’s why we try to avoid them. We hear about two of those futures in our first two readings today, even before we hear about the great new thing that God was beginning with the baptism of Jesus.
Our first reading is comprised of the first of the four Servant Songs from the second part of the book of Isaiah. Here, God describes God’s ideal servant, but that servant’s identity is intentionally unclear. At times, the servant seems to be an individual. At times, the servant is specifically identified as the entire people of Israel. Taken as a whole, this Servant Song seems to describe the characteristics and actions of God’s servant in such a way that they apply to anyone and everyone who is really faithful to God. They set an ideal toward which all of us are called.
But that ideal lies in a future of God’s making and in God’s call to live in that future here and now. It is a future in which we strive, with all the gifts that God has given us, to establish God’s justice in the world. That is a theme that the author mentions three times in just the first four verses. But even the way we are called to establish God’s justice, God’s way of life, is something new. Religious people throughout history have all too often tried to do so by force: by using the same approach that the empires and emperors of this world have used.
But the future toward which we are called requires a genuinely new approach: a way of non-violence and of patient persistence. “My servant,” says God in our reading, “will not lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.” God’s servant takes the way of non-violence and ultimately suffers for it. Jesus is, of course, our prime example of both one who employed non-violence and one who suffered for it. Unfortunately, taking that way of non-violence, yet actively and vigorously working to establish God’s justice in our society, is still something new.
When we take that road, when we dedicate ourselves to being God’s servants, we are necessarily going to be surprised: surprised by God’s future, just as Peter was in the story told in our second reading. With all his faults, Peter had tried to live as a good, faithful Jew, one who had come to believe that Jesus is God’s Messiah and that it is in him that we find life. As he had learned and accepted all his life, that life was for the Jews and those who became Jews. But suddenly, he found himself confronted with this truly new thing that God was doing: extending God’s gift of life to all people, to non-Jews or “Gentiles” as well as to Jews. Peter apparently had not seen that coming! Here, God was once again doing something new, something unexpected. Here was not the future that Peter had expected or that Peter had planned, but God’s future. And Peter was now being called to live in that future.
I wonder what new things God has in mind for us, what unexpected challenges and opportunities God has waiting for us this year and in the years to come. And I wonder if we will recognize them and embrace them when they do come.
Ultimately, both the unknown author of the second part of the book of Isaiah and Peter did come to recognize the new future toward which God was calling them and toward which God was calling all of God’s people. And I suggest that there are at least two reasons why they were able to do so. Those two reasons might just have something to teach us, as well.
First, both that unknown author and Peter seem to have been immersed in the scriptures. They both comprehended the great story of God’s work in Israel in the past and were able to see that work continuing in their own time.
And second, they were open to the fact that the work of the spirit of God did not end when the people of Judah and Jerusalem came back home from exile, not did it end with the death and resurrection of Jesus and his sending of the spirit. Instead, both of them recognized that the spirit of God was still doing great, new things.
The scriptures still serve as the basis of our life in Christ and still have the ability to immerse us in the ongoing story of God’s creation and re-creation of all things. And the spirit of God is still working in the world, transforming it, transforming us, doing amazing new things, creating an amazing new future that, often, we hadn’t seen coming. Our task in life is not to try to make God’s word fit into our own worldview and our sense of what we want the future to be, but to allow that word to open us up to the new things that God is doing in our time, to the new opportunities that God is making available to us, to the new future toward which God is leading us.