Baptism of Our Lord C

The words of the prophet of Isa 40-55 to the people living in exile in Babylon are some of the most deeply comforting and profoundly transformative words of Scripture.

Ceiling, Salzburg Cathedral
Ceiling, Salzburg Cathedral. Image by Marco Sacchi via Flickr; licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

January 10, 2016

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 43:1-7

The words of the prophet of Isa 40-55 to the people living in exile in Babylon are some of the most deeply comforting and profoundly transformative words of Scripture.

To the community, described in 49:7 as “deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, a slave of the rulers,” the prophet claims unequivocally that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, they are not the despised slaves of Babylon. They belong to no one but God. Isa 41-44 is a closely bound group of poems in which the prophet attempts to reshape the people’s self-understanding. The Old Testament reading for this first Sunday after the Epiphany is Isa 43:1-7, which is a part of this complex of poems.

Isa 43:1-7 is a beautifully constructed unit of poetry that attempts throughout its seven verses to reconstruct the exiles’ understanding of their identity. It is a part of a larger poem, Isa 42:18-43:10, in which we find the image of a blind and deaf servant — a condition connected to Isaiah’s call in Isa 6 to prophesy to a people unable to receive his message due to the cursing of their senses — counterpoised with the image of a divinely chosen servant, called to witness to the power of God to redeem. The prophet would seem to me to have several goals in juxtaposing these two servant images, but the overarching purpose is to convince the people to identify themselves as the exalted faithful servant and to distance themselves from their former state of obduracy.

While the word “servant” doesn’t actually occur in this portion of the poem, it does occur within the larger poem twice (42:19; 43:10), and the language used in this unit is used elsewhere in relation to the image of the servant (eg. 44:1-2). The people’s identity as the servant of God is clearly in view here in Isa 43:1-7. In fact, I would say that Isa 43:1-7 is a central part of the poet’s effort to compel the people to take on the role of the faithful servant; its description of the dignified and glorified role of the people stands in contrast to the references to the theme of the blind and deaf servant that surround it (42:18-25; 43:8-13).

Looking more closely at the poetic unit itself makes clear the purpose of the prophet. Notice the way in which vs. 1 and 7 enclose it: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (43:1) and “everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made” (v. 7). You have been created by God, redeemed by God, named by God, and claimed by God, the prophet proclaims. Like the kings of old, who were described as being divinely created and chosen, the servant has a special, honored place among humanity.

That special place also entails special protection. Throughout vv. 2-6, the prophet describes the lengths to which God will go to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the servant. Speaking in the first person as God, the prophet repeats again and again what “I will” do for “my people,” thus, emphasizing the close connection between the servant and God. The midpoint of the reading is also its high point, when the prophet writes: “Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” To a community in exile, which viewed itself — and was likely viewed by others in the same way — as a “despised … 45slave of rulers,” these words of love and honor would serve as an antidote to counteract the poisonous and destructive messages heaped on it by the Babylonian conquerors.

This is a powerful message to preach on the first Sunday after the Epiphany, the Sunday of the Baptism of our Lord. You are “marked as Christ’s own,” we declare in our baptismal services. This is an identity claim: you are God’s beloved child, called to be a faithful servant in order to witness to God’s grace and mercy.

A month or so ago, I met a man who has two names. His given name is Jeremy. He’s been called “Twitch” for years. Twitch, he told me when we met, was the name he went by when he was in and out of jail before he got clean. I said that I would call him Jeremy, thinking he wouldn’t want to be called a name associated with his pretty harsh past. He then said the most extraordinary thing. He said he wanted people to keep calling him Twitch so that it would be clear to the people who had known him before that he was a transformed man. He was afraid that if he started to go by Jeremy people might not realize that he was the same Twitch who’d been in jail with them, used with them. He comes around pretty regularly to the homeless ministry where I sometimes serve and hangs out with our homeless guests. Many of them know him. He wants them to recognize him and to take heart that God can transform their lives, too.

I thought of Twitch when I read this text that is all about identity and grace. When I asked him for permission to use the story of his name for this piece, he said he would be honored for me to mention what God has done in his life. I share his story with you because it seems to me to be a powerful story of redemption and gets to the heart of what the prophet is seeking to do in the poetry of Isa 43:1-7. The prophet calls on the people to recognize that no matter their past, they are loved and chosen by God. They are called by name.