There is a Chinese proverb: “It is better to be a dog in a peaceful time than to be a human being in a period of chaos.” Well, folks, like it or not, we are human beings in a period of chaos. Two weeks ago, in Charlottesville, Virginia, there was a right-wing rally. American Nazis marched in the streets carrying torches and chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” These “very fine people,” as the President called them, wish to rid the country of anyone who is not a white heterosexual of pure European descent. As you know, a woman was murdered by one of those American Nazis, and many other innocent people were injured.
“All is not as it seems!” That would seem to be the underlying message in each of today’s readings from Holy Scripture.
The prophet Micah narrates a divine lawsuit that God himself is pursuing against the nation of Israel, with the hills and mountains serving as members of the jury. The people of Israel have turned from their God. Oh, yes, they worship the Lord in his Temple. They are willing to sacrifice thousands of rams, rivers of oil. Some are even willing to sacrifice their children. But what they are not willing to do is do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with their God. The people think that their outward piety is enough to gain God’s favor. But they are quite wrong. All is not as it seems!
St. Paul speaks of the foolishness of the message of the Cross to those who insist on their own self-destruction. Paul knows just how hard it is for people to see the truth behind the scandal of the Cross. The Jews want miracles before they will believe. The Greeks demand philosophical argument and mathematical proof. What they get is the Cross. What they get is a Son of God who is shamefully and painfully executed as a troublemaker. To those in power, the God of the Christians is weak and pitiful. He cannot save even his own Son. They are blind to the fact that the death of God’s Son offers the whole world salvation. All is not as it seems!
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
I would like to start out by commending you all for braving this morning’s storm to attend church. By so doing, you have undoubtedly added to your treasures in heaven. Now for the actual sermon!
Last Friday was the feast of the Epiphany. In the Western Church, the focus of that feast day is the manifestation of the Christ child to the Gentiles in the persons of the Magi. But in the Eastern Church, the focus is the Baptism of Jesus. So in a sense, this Sunday is a liturgical tip of the hat to our Eastern brethren. And as the focus of the day is baptism, the Episcopal Church commends this day either for baptisms or for the renewal of baptismal vows. That explains the insert found in your bulletin.
Our readings begin with a poem about God’s Servant, taken from the 42nd chapter of Isaiah. I call it a poem, because the Hebrew is written in a classically poetic style. But the reading comes across more as a service of installation or commissioning than an actual poem. The unnamed Servant of God is first commended to the listeners. Then, he is directly addressed by one who speaks on behalf of God. We learn that this anonymous figure has received God’s Spirit and will be a bringer of justice to all nations, not just to Israel. He will be a light to open the minds of those who live in spiritual darkness. And he will free those who are imprisoned, both literally and metaphorically. What is particularly striking about this Servant of God is that he will be exceedingly gentle to the weak and the vulnerable: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” Now, the identity of this Servant of God is a source of some debate between Judaism and Christianity. Our Jewish brothers and sisters see the Servant as a personification of Israel, while we Christians have consistently maintained that the Servant of God is none other than Jesus Christ. And today’s Gospel reading, we see that Isaiah’s proposed service of commissioning was, in fact, fulfilled in the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan.