A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on January 8, 2023 by Revd Dr Sam Wells

Readings for address: Isaiah 42: 1-9, Matthew 3: 13-17

When a person asks to come and talk to me because they have something on their heart, they’ve often got a lot to say, but find it hard to know where to start. So I tend to ask, as gently as I can, ‘Where does the story begin?’ That usually makes the person pause, but in a good way, because often the person realises at that moment that the roots of what they want to share go further back – sometimes a lot further back – than they’d initially supposed. In fact, it’s very hard to say when most stories truly begin, because all stories in some way intertwine, going back to the beginning of all things. So what the person often does is to say, ‘I’m going to tell you my story in a moment, but before I do that, I want to tell you another story, because if you don’t understand that story, you’re not going to appreciate the significance of the story I want to tell you.’

The same is true for a public new beginning. Take the inauguration of a President of the United States. The candidate will want special people from their past to be in key seats in the audience – their little league baseball coach, their dance teacher, the cousin they grew up with, their college roommate. Placing such people in prominent seats close to the Attorney General and the Justices of the Supreme Court is a way of saying, ‘You don’t know who I am unless you see who these people are. I’m a story in which these people play the main parts.’ If you’ve ever planned a wedding, you’ll know that, while the ceremony’s supposed to be all about the future the couple will spend together and the new household or family that’s coming into being, in fact a great deal of the planning and the day itself is about how to honour the past – how to ensure the people who birthed and raised the couple are given appropriate credit and respect and thanks.

The gospels themselves are not at all of one mind about where their story begins. The immodestly titled 1965 film The Greatest Story Ever Told begins with the wise men following a star. Luke begins with John the Baptist’s father Zechariah learning in the Temple that he’s to be a father. Mark begins with John appearing in the wilderness. John begins with his sonorous prologue, about the Word becoming flesh. Matthew in fact begins his gospel with Jesus’ genealogy, going back to Abraham. It’s as if they’ve each sat down with their pastor to tell a story – but the pastor hasn’t asked the question, ‘Where does the story begin?’

It’s in this spirit that we read Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus. Because this is in many ways the moment the story begins in earnest. You could read the foregoing material – John’s prologue, the Christmas stories, John the Baptist’s ministry – all as a prologue. Jesus’ baptism is where things really begin. To understand why that’s the case, and to appreciate what’s really going on at the baptism of Jesus, we need to read the middle chapters of the prophet Isaiah, one of which we’ve just heard this morning. Let’s take a look at what Isaiah chapter 42 is talking about before we work out what Matthew’s telling us in the baptism story.

The middle chapters of Isaiah are a story of death and resurrection. Israel’s in exile in Babylon. What’s dying is the notion that because God’s in covenant relationship with Israel, that means Israel gets to be top nation, with expanding borders, abundant soil, an exquisite temple, wise king, and quiet life. What mysteriously rises from the dead is the discovery that Israel gets to be in profound relationship with God, more profound than a transactional arrangement, whereby God provided, so long as Israel behaved. Instead, Israel and God suffer together, are bonded together, come fully to understand one another, and love one another.

That remarkable transformation and extraordinary relationship is embodied in the middle chapters of Isaiah in the figure of a servant. It’s never fully clear who this servant is. Sometimes it sounds like the servant is a specific person, maybe a historical figure, such as an Israelite king or a foreign leader. Sometimes it sounds like the servant is Israel as a whole. Sometimes it sounds like the servant is actually God – but God in a form the Bible hasn’t ever described before. Our passage today, Isaiah chapter 42, is the first mention of this servant. It would be a great passage to read at a beginning, like the start of a new headteacher at a school or a new boss of a company. That’s because it’s explicitly about leadership. This servant is clearly going to be crucial for how Israel comes out of exile and how it’s going to life a new resurrected life beyond exile.

Here’s what that leadership is going to involve. It has four characteristics. Number one, it’s calm. It’s not shouty or showy. There’s no crying out or raising the voice so people outside can overhear. It’s trustworthy, not manipulative. Number two, it’s kind. It doesn’t take advantage of those who are damaged, like a bruised reed, or struggling, like a dimly burning candle. It sees a role for everyone in shaping a community where all can flourish. Number three, it’s resilient. It won’t grow faint or be crushed. It knows pursuing truth will provoke enemies. It knows there’ll be days when it seems it’s all come to nothing. It doesn’t lose heart. And number four, it exercises its role with a special concern for those on the edge of society. If you imagine the sixth century before Christ, being sight-impaired, languishing in a dungeon, or dwelling in any other kind of poverty or entrapment were pretty lonesome places to be. Such social locations weren’t generally a priority concern for a leader of the time. Put the four characteristics together, and we have something Isaiah calls justice. All four of these characteristics of leadership and of justice – calm, kindness, resilience and compassion – are saying, ‘This is something new. Something different. Something unusual. Something remarkable.’

But there’s one other dimension to Isaiah 42. And that’s easily said but radically significant. It’s love. See how much this passage has to say about the relationship of the servant to God. ‘My servant,’ the chapter starts, ‘whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.’ Then it says, ‘I have put my spirit upon him.’ Later it adds, ‘I have taken you by the hand and kept you.’ These are intimate words. Together with what we’ve already discovered, they create what we could think of as a square. The four corners of the square are servant, justice, God, and new. Keep those four words in mind for a moment as we now turn to the beginning of the gospel story, the baptism of Jesus.

A lot of the New Testament is written in a kind of code, I think for two reasons: one is the gospel writers assumed everyone knew the backstory, the other is they were writing at a time of Roman domination, and if they were regarded as subversives, their lives could be short. When we look at the story of Jesus’ baptism, it takes place at the River Jordan. That connects it straightaway with the two most important moments in the Old Testament: the creation, at which the Spirit hovered over the waters, and the exodus, at which the Spirit parted the Red Sea and took Israel to freedom. So we’re realising immediately that this is a moment that connects Jesus to Israel’s primal experiences.

Now let’s see what happens. First Jesus tells John this is about fulfilling righteousness. Where does he get his notion of righteousness from? You got it – Isaiah 42. As we’ve just seen, Isaiah 42 describes righteousness as calmness, kindness, resilience and compassion. But don’t miss that word ‘fulfil.’ Jesus is saying, this moment, ‘I am becoming everything Israel is called to be.’ Then see what happens next. The Spirit of God descends upon him. Look again at Isaiah 42: ‘I have put my spirit upon him.’ Looks like fulfilment to me. Then, a voice from heaven says, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ Look again at Isaiah 42: ‘Here is my servant, … my chosen, in whom my soul delights… I have taken you by the hand and kept you.’

Ok, now remember the square we just spoke about. Recall the four corners of the square established by Isaiah 42, and see how that square works in Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus. Corner one: servant. The baptism story doesn’t say servant: it says ‘beloved’ instead. Sounds like an upgrade. Or a fulfilment. Corner two: justice. As we’ve seen, this moment is what Jesus calls ‘fulfilling all righteousness.’ Hear that little word ‘all.’ Another upgrade. Corner three: God. Here we have a voice from heaven that uses the word ‘my.’ Isaiah uses the word ‘my’ when describing the servant. Then corner four: new. We’ve seen how what Isaiah’s describing is a very different and utterly exhilarating understanding of Israel’s relationship with God. The baptism of Jesus is Jesus saying, ‘I am that new relationship.’

Scholars argue over what Isaiah was referring to in talking about the servant. What’s not controversial is that Matthew believed Isaiah was talking about Jesus. And Jesus did too. Remember some think Isaiah’s servant is a human person, some think it’s Israel, some think it’s God. Matthew’s saying, ‘You’re all right. It’s all three. Jesus is all three.’ These five short verses are the beginning of the gospel, because in them Matthew’s saying, the new development in Israel’s relationship with God is like a square whose corners are servant, justice, God, and new. And at the very first moment we see Jesus begin his ministry, he walks right into that square, like a baseball batter stands on a plate, and says, ‘This is who I am.’ Just like a US president putting their little league baseball coach and dance teacher in the front row at their inauguration, Jesus is saying, ‘If you want to know who I am, listen to these words, watch these events, and remember what Isaiah said.’

Maybe you know what it feels like to make a new beginning. Maybe you’re making one right now. If so, reflect on those four corners: servant, justice, God, new. Maybe you can stand in that square too. But even more, tremble as you imagine Matthew walking into his pastor’s office, desperate to talk about Jesus; and his pastor saying, gently, ‘Where does the story begin?’ And Matthew not blurting out what he was going to say, but pausing, reflecting, reconsidering, realising, and saying, ‘It begins when God says, “Here is my servant, in whom my soul delights.” It begins in Isaiah chapter 42.’