Date: January 12, 2020
Festival: 1st Sunday after Epiphany
Text: Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17
Preaching Occasion: St. Paul Lutheran Church, Union, MO
Sermon Hymn: LSB #405 To Jordan’s River Came Our Lord
Exegetical Statement: In this prophecy, Isaiah lays out the work of God’s servant, which is Israel (identified in 41:8). As God’s servant, Israel’s duty is to bring justice to the nations, yet not as the nations typically bring justice. Unlike the nations, Israel will bring justice with meekness and quietness, not force and loudness. Israel will also do this without becoming faint and discouraged. The immediate context of this prophecy shows Israel has failed in this task (vv. 18-19). Previously, God condemned the idolatry of the nations, which His servant Israel had previously fallen into (41:21-29). False idols cause blindness and deafness to the Word. The great irony is that if the nations are caught up in idolatry and are thus blind and deaf, how can Israel lead the nations when they themselves are blind and deaf in idolatry? Therefore, the wider context of this prophecy shows that because of this, God will send a substitute servant, the Messiah (49:1-7). As verse 1 says, the Spirit of the Lord will be upon Him (cf. Matthew 3:13-17), He will be the Light to the nations (John 1:9-10), and He will open the eyes of those blinded in sin and free them from their captivity to darkness and sin (Luke 4:18). God will not give His glory to another, for to do so would be to negate His own essence. Yet the servant who comes to bring this light into the world must have God’s glory in order to do them, as he would have God’s own righteousness (v. 6). Therefore, God Himself must come down in His glory to do these things, which He did in Christ. John recounts this in his Gospel (John 1:14).
Focus Statement: Jesus enacted the justice of God in His Baptism, death, and resurrection.
Function Statement: That my hearers will live with meekness and compassion toward others.
Grace, meekness, and compassion to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Introduction: What is Justice?
Justice is just as much a theme today as it is in Isaiah’s text. Whether this be in the form of social justice or troubled Christians praying for God’s judgement against the wicked, the desire is the same. But what is justice?
I Googled justice and the definition I found was, “just behaviour or treatment,” but that’s not helpful because what does it mean to “be just”? A dictionary definition won’t do, so let’s turn to philosophy. The beliefs will vary, but the basic philosophical tenet of justice is a concept of moral rightness based on ethics, rationality, law, natural law, fairness, and even religion.
Here lies another problem, then. Who gets to decide what’s morally right and acceptable? What is ethical, rational, or fair? In our own justice system, we appoint judges to decide these matters, but even they get it wrong, at least according to our own definition of what is just. And even our own justice system is flawed; some might even say it’s not very just at all.
So, we have a big problem. We don’t really know what justice is. There is no single, clear definition; and there is no single philosophy everyone can accept and adopt. After all, laws are constantly changing, which testifies to that fact. Our justice even turns into vengeance. Our heroes in uniform—from police to the military—have to learn the fine line between the two. The question, then, is: Can we human beings ever dispense true justice in the world?
Justice in the Text
Israel had to learn this lesson the hard way. In our Old Testament text for today, justice is a main theme in Isaiah’s prophecy. And this is not any justice dispensed by human authority; this is God’s justice. God’s justice will be coming through God’s servant, Isaiah says. We know this servant is Israel because just prior to this, in 41:8, God calls Israel His chosen servant. In that same chapter, God condemns the idolatry of the nations. They worship other gods. Yet God has chosen Israel to be His servant, and He lists the duties of the servant.
In ancient times, when a nation conquered another nation, the conqueror would impose their religion upon the conquered people. They would do it with loudness and force. In contrast to this, God’s servant will be meek and quiet.
Earlier in Isaiah [36:6], Egypt is likened to a broken reed, but God says His servant Israel will not break the nations like a reed [break saxophone reed]. When a nation is close to destruction like the wick of a candle that is faintly burning away, God’s servant will not quench it out. Instead, His servant will continue in the meekness and quietness of God’s justice.
This servant has the acknowledgement of God’s own righteousness, who Himself will guide His servant by the hand to be a light for these nations living in the darkness of sin and idolatry. With the light of God’s justice, His servant will open their eyes and free them from the captivity of sin and darkness.
Yet in the immediate context of this prophecy, in vv. 18-19, Isaiah tells Israel of their great failure in their task as God’s servant. They themselves have become deaf and blind in idolatry. The great irony is that if the nations are caught up in idolatry and are thus blind and deaf, how can Israel lead the nations when they themselves have become blind and deaf in the same idolatries? The blind cannot lead the blind!
Therefore, the wider context of Isaiah tells us God will send a substitute servant [49:1-7]. The Spirit of the Lord would be upon Him, and He would bring light into the world. He would bring God’s justice, which was vastly different than the justice of the world.
Justice in the World
Today, we are desperately seeking justice. Social Justice Warriors, for example, make social justice demands for refugees, women, and the LGBT community.
Must we treat our foreign neighbours with compassion and seek legal ways to help them? Absolutely, for as St. Peter says, we are also sojourners and exiles in a strange land [1 Peter 2:11-12], and the heritage of our faith comes from Hebrew sojourners. Such compassion is God’s justice.
Must women be treated with respect and equity? Absolutely, for as St. Paul commanded Christian husbands, the first thing they are to do is give up their lives for their wives just as Christ gave Himself up for the Church and to love them as they do their own bodies [Ephesians 5:25, 28]; and as men are also called to treat women as human beings created in God’s image, not as objects of sex and abuse. Such love and meekness is God’s justice.
Must we treat the LGBT community with love and proclaim the message of the Gospel to them for the forgiveness of their sins? Absolutely, for as Christ said to the woman living in adultery, “Go, and from now on sin no more” [John 8:11]. This is God’s grace to remove all their sins and call them to a new life of sanctification.
And what about the justice we seek? We seek justice for the unborn who are being killed in the womb. We seek justice against terrorists who threaten our nation. We seek justice against persecutors of our faith who are murdering our brothers and sisters in China and the Middle East. We seek justice against those Democrats and against those Republicans, both of whom legislate unchristian—and dare I say unjust—laws and policies.
Yet we, and the Social Justice Warriors beside us, commit a twofold error. First, like Israel, we fail as God’s servants and cry aloud and lift up our voices against one another, screaming at each other in the streets and social media. Rather than kindness, patience, and compassion, we scream all sorts of slander and obscenities at our neighbour. This is wrong even when our cause is just!
And second, like all those around us, we fall into the darkness and captivity of these idols that cause us to sin so loudly.
In our attempts to enact our own justices, our idols have blinded and deafened us. We are deaf to the Word because we are too busy screaming at each other; and we are blind to the Word because as our hearts are idol factories, we produce one idol after another that all we can see is that thing we love more than God. And so, like Israel, we have failed as God’s servant and have lived in total darkness, seeking justice with our blind self-delusions and our deafening profanities.
God’s Justice into the World
Yet justice has already come. Justice is already here. We just celebrated this fact on Christmas and we celebrate it again this Epiphany! God’s servant Israel failed to do the task of enacting justice in the world that God bestowed upon them. No human being can accomplish this task, as Israel has taught us.
Therefore, God Himself came down in His glory to enact His justice. God became the human in the form of Jesus Christ who, as God Himself, established God’s justice.
And this justice looks nothing like the world’s. It came in an unlikely way. The world’s justice is forceful and loud, but the justice of God came in the lowly, quiet form of a baby boy in a manger; and it ultimately came in the bloody scandal and shame of the cross. This boy would become the substituted servant of Israel. He would fulfil what Israel, and we, could not do.
While God delighted in His servant Israel out of His deep love for her, Matthew’s Gospel tells us that in Jesus’ Baptism, God is well-pleased in His Servant, His Son, acknowledging the task and mission in which He would soon embark in the descent of the Holy Spirit [Matthew 3:13-17].
And when He began His earthly ministry, He did not do it with force, screaming and yelling at sinners (except for when they turned God’s house into a den of thieves!). Instead, He came in meekness and calmness, compassion and comfort.
Similarly, John’s Gospel tells us He is the Light that came into the world [John 1:9-10], the very glory of God who walked among us [v. 14]. And Luke’s Gospel tells us that with the message of the Gospel for the forgiveness of sins, Jesus opened the eyes of those blinded in sin and freed them from their captivity to the darkness of sin [Luke 4:18].
Just how did He accomplish this for you? One way we see it is in our Gospel text for today. Jesus was sinless, so why was He baptised? In His own words, “To fulfil all righteousness” [v. 15]. In Isaiah, God said He would call His servant in righteousness [v. 6]. This servant was Jesus, whose righteousness becomes yours in Baptism.
Just as the heavens opened up and the Spirit descended upon Jesus in His Baptism, so the heavens opened up again and the Holy Spirit has descended upon you in your Baptism. Just as the Father is pleased in Jesus His Son, so God is pleased in you, His child, by virtue of what Christ has done for you.
God saw it just to justify you—to make you righteous—by faith in His Son who died and rose for you. God’s justice for you was to be meek, compassionate, and gracious toward you.
Therefore, as Christ’s own servants, the Servant sends us out into the world not with loudness and force, but with His meekness and quietness, compassion and calmness. In this way, the message of the Gospel for the forgiveness of sins in Christ shines forth in a dark world disillusioned with its many idols.
God’s justice came in the unlikely way of grace in the death of Christ on the cross and His resurrection from the dead—His gift of life eternal He shares with you from His Baptism to your very own Baptism.
May this compassion of God, which surpasses all understanding, keeps your hearts and minds in the Baptism of Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.