YEAR A: BAPTISM OF JESUS
(Sunday between January 7 and January 13)
Today’s passage, and that for next Sunday (Isa 49:1-7), belong to Deutero-Isaiah, Isaiah 40-55. These chapters contain oracles of hope for a return of the Judeans who have been in exile in Babylon for almost half a century. They date from about 560-540 BCE.
Leading Judeans had been forcibly transported to Babylon at various times early in the sixth century. The Babylonian attack on Judah had culminated in the destruction of city of Jerusalem and the Temple in 587 BCE. We ought not to underestimate the agony of this situation. Nor should we downplay the effect of living among people of different languages, cultures and religions. Babylon was a cosmopolitan city and the exiles, while enjoying a level of freedom, were nevertheless refugees in a strange society. Many of them were demoralised. Their world had collapsed around them, including their ‘faith world’. On the other hand, those who sought to remain faithful to the old ways, and to the God whom their ancestors had worshipped, found themselves having to rethink some old views. New theological insights were needed. Today’s text involves two of these, the idea of God’s ‘servant’ and of God’s relation to the whole of creation.
Early heroes of the faith, for example Abraham, Moses, and David, had been thought of as God’s servants but in Deutero-Isaiah there is new thinking of Israel as God’s ‘servant’ (cf. 41:8-9; 44:1-2; 48:20 etc.). In order to help Israel realise this the prophet known as Deutero-Isaiah developed the figure of an individual servant, later to be known as the suffering servant, who embodied the nation’s task in his own mission and life. The passages about this individual (42:1-9; 49:1-7; 50:4-9a; and 52:13-53:12) are used as the series of Old Testament readings for Holy Week.
Today’s reading is the first in the series of these passages. It begins to outline the servant’s mission. We are told the Lord delights in this servant (v. 1a). He is chosen by God and the spirit of Yahweh rests upon him (v. 1b). Whether some prophetic or other office is involved here is not clear. Usually we are told in the Old Testament that kings, prophets or other leaders are blessed with this gift, but here the servant does not necessarily fit an office such as these. The main task of this servant is one of bringing justice to the nations (v. 1b). He is also a teacher of torah (referred to as ‘teaching’ in v. 4). The poetic parallelism in v. 4 indicates that the justice mentioned is not so much a judicial matter as an educational one. In this sense, the servant carries on the tradition of Moses.
In bringing justice the servant will act with appropriate compassion on the weak (v. 3). There seems to be a sense of quiet, yet enduring strength in this servant. On the other hand we are told that the servant will not grow faint etc. until his task is complete (v. 4). There is possibly an anticipation of suffering in this verse although that will not become clear until we read 49:4; 50:6; and 52:13-53:12. This present passage gives the impression of an installation or presentation. This is confirmed when we read on in vv. 6-7 where another voice, that of God, pronounces words of installation.
The second section of the passage, vv. 5-8, which contains the words of installation, is build around another major theme of Deutero-Isaiah, that of Yahweh as creator and sovereign over all. The basis of Yahweh’s words to the servant in vv. 6-7 is the statement about God at the beginning and end of the section (vv. 5, 8). Yahweh is the one who created the heavens and the earth. His glory and praise cannot be shared. These statements contrast with the statements about the ineffectiveness and powerlessness of idols found elsewhere in Deutero-Isaiah (see e.g. 44:9-20). Yahweh is the one who gives breath and spirit to his creatures. But more than simply having the breath and spirit that enlivens all creatures, Yahweh says the servant will have ‘my spirit’ to carry out his work.
The passage closes with a surprising verse. New things are declared here; radically new things. There is a gentleness and ‘powerlessness’ in this servant (v. 3) that is more powerful than the empty idols mentioned in v. 8. The spirit given to the servant will enliven him in ways that are different to the breath and spirit which fills all creatures. Through this servant a covenant will be given for all (cf. in Isa 55:3ff). Blind eyes will be opened and prisoners will be released from dark dungeons (cf. later 61:1).
Early Christian writers identified Jesus as this servant in whom God found delight (Isa 42:1; cf. Matt 3:17 and 17:5), and as the gentle bearer of justice (Isa 42:1-4; cf. Matt 12:18-21), and the light to the nations (Isa 42:6; cf. Luke 2:32; Acts 13:47). The story of the baptism of Jesus (Matt 3:13-17) echoes aspects of the installation of the servant in Isaiah. We ought not to think that Jesus was the only one through whom this prophecy was found to be fulfilled. Whoever the suffering servant was in the time of the exile (the prophet himself, some anonymous individual, or even the exilic community as a whole) the experience described in these passages had a profound effect on the Judean community. It challenged their thinking about how God acts in the world and the nature of God’s power and sovereignty. It also made a way available for early Christians and later the Church to recognise in Jesus this very way of God, this ‘new thing’, embodied again in an emphatically new way altogether.
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