January 10, 2014

The Baptism of Jesus Begins a New Covenant Relationship (Proper 1, YearA)

The Gospel Reading (Matthew 3.13-17) begins with an important conversation between Jesus and John the Baptist. John does not think Jesus needs to be baptized. In fact John says he needs to be baptized by Jesus. Both statements are true. John, like all of us who want to be in right relationship with God, does need the baptism of the Holy Spirit that only Jesus can give him. But notice that Jesus is not thinking about himself. Jesus is thinking of the Fathers' will that a new covenant be established. This new covenant of Christian Baptism includes the baptism of water but goes beyond repentance and forgiveness to include a new personal relationship with God through the Holy Spirit. The readings help us understand how intimate and powerful this covenant relationship is to be. Jesus is modeling how we enter this covenant relationship through our own baptism.

1. Isaiah teaches us how personal this covenant relationship is
Under the Covenant of Moses God was a remote figure that put his Spirit on individuals and gave that one person guidance and Laws for the whole nation. Now God is promising to do something different. God is promising a "servant" who will establish justice and right relationships.

  • The servant will not be an authority figure like Moses. He will not do this through "shouting or crying out…"(42.2). There is to be no violence - not even breaking a "bruised reed" (42.3).
  • Instead the servant will establish justice and righteousness through "faithfulness" and not getting discouraged. A dramatic modern example might be the Civil Right marchers who established right relationships between colored people and white people in the US through non-violent protest.
  • Jesus is to establish His Kingdom by being ‘faith full’ as opposed to being ‘faith less’ in His covenant relationship.
  • Jesus is not alone - just as we are not alone. The Isaiah prophecy goes on to describe how intimate this relationship is to be. God will be with the Servant every day. God will call Him, hold Him by the hand and will "keep Him" (v.6). His plan is to make the Servant a "…Covenant for the people and a light for the gentiles." (v.6).
The servant is not just making a covenant. The Servant is the Covenant.

2. Isaiah teaches how powerful this new Baptism Covenant is
While the Servant will not shout or use violence to establish this new covenant, the Servant is not without power. Isaiah tells us the Servant will be anointed with the Holy Spirit. He will have a portion of the spiritual power of God. Isaiah tells us the Servant will do three things in establishing justice and right relationships. This is the passage is very important. Jesus reads it then announces its fulfillment at the beginning of His ministry in Nazareth. This passage defines Jesus ministry and our own ministry:

·         The Servant will open the eyes of the blind. This can be interpreted in two ways and both are valid. First of all Jesus had the spiritual power to open the eyes of the physically blind. Some people have trouble with the miracles of Jesus and do not really believe in the supernatural. This is why Jesus did not use the power of the Holy Spirit only to open people's eyes physically. Jesus also opened the eyes of the spiritually blind so people could believe in the miracles.

·         Jesus mission was not to teach a new religion, but to establish a new covenant relationship with God that would break the power of Satan over the world. Isaiah explains this in terms of "freeing captives" and releasing prisoners" (v.7). Our culture is a prisoner to the logic of Science. We have trouble believing something until it is proven to us scientifically. When our spiritual eyes are opened we can see and believe in the healing miracles and are freed from our mental prison.

·         Isaiah goes on to talk about an even deeper level of captivity. He talks about "…releasing people from the dungeons those who sit in darkness." (v. 7) How are these people different from the other prisoners? We know from Hebrew righting that ideas are often developed from the general to the specific. We know dungeons are likely to be underground, hidden and darker than regular prisons. Since we are talking of spiritual things, rather than physical things, my guess would be that Isaiah is referring to serious spiritual oppression. The Good News is that the Servant would have the spiritual power to cast out demons and free people from spiritual oppression.

3. Christian believers are baptized into this Covenant relationship
A Covenant relationship involves obligations on both sides. God's part is to give us the gift of the Holy Spirit as in the baptism of Jesus. This guides us and strengthens us in the relationship so that we can believe in Jesus, receive forgiveness and inherit eternal spiritual life. Our part of the covenant is to believe in Jesus and pt our complete trust in Him. This means not only knowing the story but also living out our baptism relationship so that we will be a faith-full witness to others. Like Jesus we are not to shout or use violence. Instead we are to grow spiritually by praying for others to be healed and freed from physical and spiritual oppression. This is the Covenant we make in our Baptism and renew and strengthen in Holy Communion.

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