Chosen by God
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; January 12, 2020
Baptism of the Lord
Isaiah 42:1-9; Acts 10:34-48
Through the prophet Isaiah, we hear words of hope as God claims a servant, in whom he delights, to humbly, steadfastly, bring justice to the nations. The same God who spread out the earth, gave breath and spirit to the people upon it, now declares a new thing is on the horizon. God’s chosen One will open eyes, set prisoners free, and dispel the darkness. And just who is this quiet, unassuming servant through whom God will bring about justice and liberation? It is a much-debated question! In Hebrew Scripture the servant is often the nation of Israel. To complicate matters, the servant may also have a mission TO the nation of Israel. In this case, the servant is called by God to bring to the nations the covenant revealed to the Israelites through Moses and championed by the prophets. God’s servant is to bring justice, not by brute force, but gently, quietly, with care and concern for those who are bruised and weak. New things are afoot!
The Book of Isaiah is quoted more than 100 times in the New Testament. Susan Ackerman notes that Isaiah is so highly esteemed by the church fathers that they refer to it as their 5th Gospel. And by the 4th century, Jerome writes, “[Isaiah] should be called an evangelist rather than a prophet because he describes all the mysteries of Christ and the Church so clearly that you would think he is composing a history of what has already happened rather than prophesying about what is to come.” By the Middle Ages, Isaiah is regarded as the prophet of the Passion. By the Reformation, the book’s emphasis on the “word of our God” becomes crucial to Martin Luther. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Christian missionary societies identify with the universal message of Isaiah. More recently, liberation theologians celebrate Isaiah’s prophetic mandate for peace.
Isaiah, beautifully written, complex in theology, has been used for great good. It has also been used for great harm. Anti-Semitic interpreters over the centuries have cited Isaiah to condemn Judaism as a whole. One has gone so far as to even compare Jews to Sodomites-hardly a message of reconciliation! It interpret Isaiah in a manner that uses it against other nations, to “lord it over them,” if you will, goes back to the question of “who is chosen?” as well as “does being chosen come with special privileges?” That way of thinking misses the point entirely. What is the message of God that we read, particularly in Isaiah 42? God is sending a servant to bring forth JUSTICE to the nations—and this servant will be so humble as to not break a bruised reed. In other words, he will be gentle. The chosen one will serve the purposes of God and bring salvation to the ends of the earth.
It turns out that being chosen is not proof of superiority and entitlement! It is proof of servant hood. But that is not the way of things in the early church. Insiders and outsiders, those who are chosen and those who are not, were designations alive and well in the early church. (And I might add, still alive and well in many places). But, as God says through the prophet Isaiah, former things have come to pass and new things I now declare, before they spring forth I tell you of them. God is about to bring about change, painting with vibrant strokes of color a “new thing.”
Which brings us to our reading from Acts. Earlier in the chapter, Cornelius, a low-ranking Roman military officer, who fears God and prays constantly, has a vision in which an angel instructs him to send to Joppa for Simon Peter. About noon the next day, Peter, too, has a mystical experience—falling into a trance. In a vision he sees the heavens open and a large sheet descends holding a host of unclean animals. When Peter is instructed to eat, he refuses because he has never eaten anything profane or unclean. The voice responds, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happens three times. Afterward, Peter wakes to Cornelius’ men knocking on his door. Peter goes to Cornelius, hears his story, and is amazed when he realizes that God shows no partiality.
Cornelius, an outsider, has a vision of an angel of God telling him to send for Simon Peter, an insider. Peter, a disciple of Jesus Christ who has witnessed the good works of his Lord, as well as his crucifixion, and resurrection, also has a vision—one that changes his world forever. Let us be clear: neither Cornelius nor Peter act on their own. They are players in a drama being directed by someone far greater than themselves. The script of this drama is being written by God and as William Willimon suggests, it’s difficult to tell if this story is about the conversion of a gentile or the conversion of an apostle. “The real hero of the story,” writes Willimon, “is not Peter nor Cornelius but the gracious and prodding One who makes bold promises and keeps them, who finds a way even in the midst of human distinctions and partiality between persons.”
So, God reveals a new thing to Peter, and, in response, Peter preaches the good news. What is the good news that he preaches? First, Peter declares that God shows no partiality. Peter has learned that anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God. Cornelius, a Gentile, is accepted by God because of his faith—his ethnicity has no bearing. Second, God has the power to change people. In fact, the whole point of Peter’s vision is that God can “make clean” those who are unclean. God sees that the human condition needs change and God sends Jesus—the change agent to confront all that is wrong so that hope can be restored. In his sermon, Peter essentially sums up the ministry of Jesus: Upon his baptism, Jesus is anointed with the Holy Spirit and his earthly ministry begins. Jesus does good and heals the oppressed. Even when he is hanged on a tree and all seems lost, God is victorious, raising his Son from the dead on the third day.
Finally, Peter points out that the evidence of Jesus’ resurrection is not made known to all. Only those chosen by God as witnesses eat and drink with Jesus. And those who are chosen are given no special privileges. Instead, they are chosen to serve the purposes of God as they testify to the people that through Jesus Christ, the forgiveness of sins is now available to everyone.
Biblical scholar, Andrew H. Bartelt, asserts: In the baptism of Jesus, he is announced to be the one in whom God delights and through whom all righteousness will be fulfilled. Here God is doing a new thing greater than all former things and still in anticipation of something yet to come…. That we might claim a role as humble messengers of this justice and heirs to the very identity of God’s people Israel is our …“new thing,” accomplished through our baptism into the life, death and resurrection of this same Jesus.
Commentary on Gospel by Mark Allan Powell
The Gospel lesson for this day presents the second of seven pericopes in Matthew’s Gospel dealing with John the Baptist:
- 3:1-12 the ministry of John is reported
- 3:13-17 John baptizes Jesus
- 9:14-15 John’s disciples ask why the disciples of Jesus don’t fast
- 11:2-15 John questions Jesus’ identity and Jesus speaks of John’s role
- 14:1-12 John is murdered by Herod
- 17:10-13 Jesus speaks of John following the Transfiguration
- 21:23-27 Jesus refers to John when his own authority is questioned
A study of these texts reveals that John is an unusually significant figure in this Gospel; he is very much the forerunner of Jesus, to the point that the content of his preaching is word-for-word identical with that of Jesus (cf. 3:2; 4:17) and is echoed in apostolic proclamation as well (10:7). Matthew understands John to be a bridge figure between the old covenant and the new – he brings the era of promise to a close and initiates a new era of fulfillment. The story in today’s text presents a “passing of the baton” from John to Jesus.
John tries to prevent Jesus from being baptized. Why? Many Christians have probably thought it is because his baptism was one of “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (see Mark 1:4) and, so, would have been superfluous for the sinless Jesus. But such thinking may be foreign to Matthew. John was calling Israel to repentance and, though individuals might have personal peccadillos to confess (3:6), the primary focus was probably on the sins of the nation. Jesus and others were baptized by John to symbolize a new birth for that nation, a cleansing for the people of God.
John’s objection to baptizing Jesus is related to a difference in status. John recognizes Jesus to be the “more powerful” one, the one he has been talking about for some time (3:11). John himself stands in need of what Jesus has to offer: a greater baptism of Spirit and fire (3:11); this is probably what he means when he says, “I need to be baptized by you” (3:14). John’s water baptism is one of repentance, which prepares the way for the messianic judgment that establishes God’s righteousness. Jesus’ response picks up on precisely that theme: they must do what is proper to “fulfill all righteousness” (3:16). These are the first words that Jesus speaks in Matthew’s Gospel and the saying is a bit mysterious. We may at least gather that God has a plan for making everything right and that Jesus is committed to being obedient to that plan. Why did he have to be baptized? That’s a minor question. The big one is, why did he have to die on a cross? Matthew grants that neither makes sense from a human point of view: thus, John tries to prevent Jesus’ baptism and Peter tries to prevent Jesus’ death (16:22).
The real focus of this story, however, is on the descent of the dove and, especially, the voice from heaven. Matthew’s Gospel is, of course, about God—every Gospel text in the Series A lectionary is about God—but most of the time God is in the background. People talk about God, and the thoughts of God are often revealed through prophets or angels or through references to scripture, which is “the word of God” (15:6). But there are only two texts in Matthew in which God actually speaks directly, as a character in the story (3:13-17; 17:1-9). One is read on the Baptism of Our Lord, the first Sunday in the Epiphany season; the other is read on the Transfiguration of Our Lord, the last Sunday in the Epiphany Season. These weeks we call Epiphany are literally framed by two divine pronouncements. What’s really interesting is that both times that God chooses to speak aloud from heaven, God says almost exactly the same thing: Jesus is God’s beloved Son and God is pleased with Jesus (3:17; 17:5).
The single most important thing that Matthew’s Gospel wants to say about Jesus is this: Jesus is the Son of God. This is the confession that gives birth to the church (see 16:16-19). It is hidden truth that must be revealed by the father in heaven (11:25-27; 16:17). Why is this so important? For Matthew, the divine sonship of Jesus is what establishes him as one in whom God is present (1:23). But hasn’t God been present in people before – kings, judges, prophets? No, not like this. God is present in Jesus in an absolute sense, so much so that people worship Jesus (see Matt 2:11; 8:2; 9:18; 14:33; 15:25; 20:20; 21:16; 28:9, 17; in all these verses the Greek word is proskyne´ō. Radically monotheistic Jews who believe that people should worship no one—no prophet, no king, no spirit, no angel, not even the messiah—no one but the Lord Yahweh (see Matt 4:10) are now worshiping Jesus. How is that okay? Matthew would say, because Jesus is the Son of God, and God is so present in him that worshiping Jesus counts as worshiping God.
The season of Epiphany focuses on the worship of Jesus, in whom God is made manifest to us. The revelation of his glorious divine sonship begins with baptism – the revelation to the world began with the baptism of Jesus and the revelation to us typically begins with our baptism. Some such analogy was no doubt intended by Matthew: when we are baptized, we too receive the Spirit and we too are identified as beloved children of God. We are baptized with Christ and into Christ, so that God’s plan of righteousness might be fulfilled in us and through us.
Professor of New Testament
Trinity Lutheran Seminary
How then shall we live; we who have been chosen, through our baptism, to further the plan of God? We who have been chosen, not through any goodness of our own, but through the act of a gracious God who has chosen us for a life of service—how then shall we live? How can we be change agents, participants in God’s reconciling work, in our little corner of the world? How can we share the message that God shows no partiality, all can be forgiven, all can be made clean, all are welcome at the Table of Grace?
It may start with wonder as we learn to blanket our words and actions with prayer. It may start small: choosing to refrain from gossiping and complaining, offering a hand to someone in need, sending a card to someone we haven’t seen in a while, taking the time to listen to a person who is in pain, or making a much needed phone call. It may start here in our church when God provides new avenues for learning, worshiping, and service. It may start at home with more words of kindness and compassion for our children, our parents, our spouse. No matter how it starts, it must start! It has already started in each believer who is equipped by the Spirit to be an instrument of change in a world that is desperate to hear the good news of Christ our Lord. Amen.
*Cover Art by Ira Thomas; used by permission