Year C: Baptism of Jesus
(Sunday between January 7 and January 13)
This is another of Second-Isaiah’s oracles of hope focussing on the return from exile in Babylon in the mid sixth century BCE. In Year C, similar passages of hope from Isaiah are set for Christmas Day 2, and Lent 3 and 5. Additional readings from Second-Isaiah, focussing on the famous ‘Servant Songs’, are set for Palm Sunday, and Holy Week through to Good Friday. Like all those passages, today’s reading is governed by the divine calling of the prophet in Isa 40:1 to ‘comfort’ God’s people. Such a calling is based on the greatness of God and the announcement of God’s presence with Israel (Isa 40:8-31). Could Isaiah have offered any greater source of hope than this for his compatriots in exile?
The transportation of leading Judeans to exile in Babylon in the early sixth century BCE fits a bigger theme present in the Old Testament. In the midst of events like the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt and their scattering many centuries later by the Assyrians and Babylonians, the people find God present with them and at work for good. From creation itself, through the destruction of the flood and especially in the captivity in Egypt, Israel finds salvation in the life giving word of their God, Yahweh. The Babylonian exile was for the Judeans at the time, an unmitigated disaster. However, it became a watershed for their faith and its literature. No doubt viewed from much later, but already beginning with Second-Isaiah in the midst of the disaster, it was a time of re-creation, of a new deliverance and a new exodus.
The central theme, that Israel’s God, Yahweh, is the one God of all nations and creator of all, stands within and firmly behind this passage and many others in Second-Isaiah (cf. Isa 40:26; 42:5; and 45:12,18). The universal character of Israel’s God is also illustrated in references to king Cyrus of Persia as God’s agent of salvation, God’s Messiah (Isa 41:2-3, 25; 44:28; 45:1-6; and 48:14-16). In the same language, the text for today begins and ends with the affirmation that Yahweh created Israel repeating the words ‘created’, ‘formed’, and ‘named’ (vv. 1a and 7). These two verses form what is called an inclusio in the passage, i.e. a set of ‘bookends’ holding the passage together. In this the appearance of a key word from Gen 1:1 (Hebrew bara, ‘to create’) reminds the audience of the great deeds of Yahweh of old and of the power and authority of the creator God. Although, even as the audience is reminded of deeds long ago, there is something new involved here too, for Yahweh now creates not a world but a people for himself.
Also central to today’s reading is the knowledge that the one who creates is also able, and will, to redeem Israel (Isa 43:1b, 5-6; cf. 44:22-23 etc.). The central verses of today’s passage elaborate the nature of Israel’s redemption. Israel is named by God and belongs to God (v. 1). Israel is redeemed not as a tool in God’s hand but as the beloved in a close relationship. References to the wealthy nations of Africa (v. 3) emphasise how precious Israel is to God. Israel’s redemption is not manipulated from afar by a distant deity but is experienced through the presence of God among them. Israel is not promised escape from the dangers of water and fire but that God will be with them in the midst of earthly trials (v. 2). In this we hear echoes of the flood and the wilderness wanderings. And yet, in an astonishing move, the verbs in this verse are in the present or future tense. The people’s vision of what is possible in their difficult circumstances is made partly by reminding them of Yahweh’s deliverance in the past. At the same time Second-Isaiah, by changing the tense of the verbs suggests to them that new things are possible with Yahweh, especially when that new thing is a reliving of that past experience of deliverance. Sometimes the hardest thing to accept is that what has happened before can indeed happen again. In typical prophetic mode, Isaiah 43 points to the way God can bring a reversal of circumstances. Israel may not have met God’s expectations as his messenger (cf. Isa 42:18-25). Nevertheless, they will be redeemed and will become a witness to the nations (Isa 43:8-13).
The point here is underlined by the very shaping of the text itself. While the verses at the start and end form an inclusio, so the themes in the verses form what is called a ‘chiastic’ structure (named after the Greek letter chi – similar to X), one which crosses over in some way in the middle. The allusion to the past exodus in v. 2 is matched by the statement of a new exodus from the north (Babylon) in vv. 5-6. The reference to the nations of Africa in v. 3 is matched by the people and nations being given in return for Israel in v. 4b. And finally, at the heart of it all is v. 4a which speaks of Israel’s preciousness in Yahweh’s sight. At the heart of God’s creative and redemptive acts is a deep love and compassion for his people. He seeks to comfort the ones he loves.
The point can be further illustrated by noting the passage which today’s reading follows, namely Isa 42:18-25. The language has the flavour of the law courts. One could expect the declaration of guilt at the end of chapter 42 to be followed by a ‘sentence’ of judgment, but it is not. As one writer puts it, the logic of grace takes over and the people are told to ‘fear not’.
In the gospel story of Jesus’ baptism, the tender and particular love of God that Isaiah announced for Israel is affirmed for Jesus as an individual (Luke 3:21-22). Similarly, Jesus receives the Holy Spirit as the sign of God who continues to dwell in human experience. The reception of the Holy Spirit by the Christians in Samaria (Acts 8) illustrates the same truth. The story of the inclusion of these non-Jews in the early Christian community reflects the universal God envisioned by Isaiah.
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