Saturday, January 10, 2009

Sermon on Isaiah 42:1-7, for the Baptism of Our Lord, "He Brings Forth Justice"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is Isaiah 42:1-7, the first of what are called the “Servant Songs” of Isaiah. The Servant Songs are a series of prophecies where God speaks about His chosen servant, who would bring redemption and God’s work upon the earth. They speak about the Messiah or the Christ, and the description is sometimes referred to as the “Suffering Servant,” because Isaiah prophecies in detail about His crucifixion. Today we’re going to look at how Jesus, the Suffering Servant brings justice to the earth. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

He Brings Forth Justice...Being on the receiving end of justice can produce a variety of responses. Are we getting what we justly deserve? Then justice might evoke resignation or a burdening sense of guilt. Maybe our “justice” is that we’ve made our own bed to lie in; we’ve dug our own pit, etc. Justice can mean the equal application of the law, in a way that doesn’t regard social class or standing, but is the simple, moral and mechanical application of the law. If this is the kind of justice we’ve received, whether we think it’s deserved or not; then to hear that Jesus “brings forth justice,” might not seem too comforting. Is He coming to give us what we deserve? In fact Scripture speaks of this kind of moral justice according to the law—the natural justice that’s based on our merits and deeds, whether good or bad. It says: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), and “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Scripture confirms that “no one is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10). To receive this kind of justice, to get what we deserve, means that our sins deserve death and God’s eternal punishment, because we have fallen short of His glory and are not righteous.

And if this is the kind of justice that is bearing down on you, and if the burden of poor choices, of remorse over sin, of guilt over missed opportunities to do good weighs on you, then these words in Isaiah were written for you. If that describes your life, then you or I are a bruised reed or a smoldering wick. And we’re the recipients of an altogether different, an altogether high and wonderful Divine Justice, that comes from Jesus, the Suffering Servant. Whether bent down or brought low like a bruised reed, facing our mortality, our weakness or fear in the face of the uncertainties of life…whether the oil of our faith seems to have run dry, and our confidence is like a smoldering wick, our hope like dimly glowing embers…then fear not! Hear the glad tidings of great joy that shall be for all the people! Christ comes to bring forth justice on the earth! What kind of justice then? This kind: “A bruised reed He will not break, and a smoldering wick He will not snuff out. In faithfulness He will bring forth justice; He will not falter or be discouraged till He establishes justice on earth. In His law the islands will put their hope.”

This is not the natural justice of what we simply call the Law, and getting what we deserve. No, this is the justice of One who stands as a light for the Gentiles, the justice of opening the eyes of the blind and freeing captives from prison, the justice of releasing from the dungeons those who sit in darkness. We who have sat in deep darkness, upon us a light has dawned! The justice of God’s suffering servant is the ray of light that pierces through the gathering gloom, that dissolves the cataracts of doubt and fear that blind our eyes. The ray of light that opens the darkest prison and frees those sitting in darkness, captive to sin and the guilt of what we justly deserved. For His Light shines to illumine God’s justice, and Jesus, His servant’s mission to carry out that justice. It describes His determination as well as His compassion and tenderness. In describing His determination it says that “He will not falter or be discouraged till He establishes justice on the earth.” In the Hebrew there is an intended play on words, as “falter” and “be discouraged” are the same words to describe the smoldering wick and the bruised reed. So what it’s saying, is that as Christ carries out His mission, He will not lose heart or be discouraged—He would not fail in His task. Yet there was much to deter Him from completing His mission!

Literally all hell was bent against Him, trying to cause Him to stumble! But on a simply human level, He daily faced the incredible burden of human suffering, and felt the sadness and loss of so many lives. He was constantly surrounded by those who were afflicted by leprosy, blindness, deafness, other diseases and troubles. Often we’re able to simply walk away from suffering, or change the channel, but God cannot. He sees and knows the greatest horrors humanity has inflicted on itself throughout history. The depth of His sadness is immeasurable, exceeded only by His redeeming love and willingness to enter our messy world to restore creation. Jesus faced the real human fear of death and pain when He prayed in Gethsemane for His Father’s will to be done. He was genuinely weighed down by sorrows, but He didn’t falter or become discouraged till He established justice upon the earth. He was steadfast.

To accomplish this Divine Justice, this high and exalted justice that goes beyond our simple experience, Jesus submitted Himself to God’s own Law, becoming God’s servant to mankind. God equally applied His own law to Himself. He took upon Himself the world’s troubles so that we can be delivered from them. He began His public ministry, His public service to mankind with His baptism by John the Baptist. When He stepped up from the Jordan River, after being baptized, two things confirmed that Jesus was God’s servant prophesied in Isaiah. First, the Holy Spirit lighted on Him as a dove; God said through Isaiah that He would put His Spirit on His chosen one, as He brings justice to the nations. Secondly, God the Father confirmed that Jesus was His Son whom He loves, “with Him He is well-pleased. In the words of Isaiah, He is the chosen one in whom God delights.

His life was marked by compassion and gentleness, not of boisterous shouting in the streets or proud demonstrations of His power. He did not need to. The message of His justice was compelling enough in itself. The goodness and even boldness of His words and life drew people to Him. He tended to the poor and the suffering, the sick and the guilt-laden as a gentle shepherd, God’s chosen servant. But neither was He weak or uncertain in His mission. He gave hope to the smoldering wicks and the bruised reeds. So how could the justice He brings forth be so different from the natural justice of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth; from the natural justice of getting what you deserve, which is called karma in some religions?

Because Christ fulfilled God’s righteousness perfectly. By submitting to His own law in every way, by becoming one with sinners in His baptism, by taking on mankind’s sin to become sin for us, He got what we deserved. He ate and drank with sinners, inviting all in repentance and need to come to Him —the bruised reeds that He would not break, the smoldering wicks that He would not snuff out. Numbered among sinners in His death, He bore our shame on the cross. The guilt of no sin remained unattached to Him, so that He could truly say at His death: “It is finished!” There He atoned for all sins, not only ours, but of the whole world (1 John 2:2). Here is the source and the basis of the high and exalted Divine Justice which we receive. At the cross of Jesus, justice was fully met in His death; a Great Reversal took place. Jesus who lived a perfect, sinless, spotless life, was the recipient of all the punishment that we deserved. The Reversal is that we, who deserved all this, were forgiven instead, and given the perfect innocence of Jesus our substitute. He changed places with us, with sinners, so that all our deserved guilt would fall to Him, and His deserved innocence would fall to us.

So this is the source of His Divine Justice, and the reason He did not snuff out the smoldering wick of those whose faith was dimly lit, whose souls were fainting under the dread load of sin. This was why He did not break the bruised reeds of people facing the consequences of poor choices they had made, or pits they had fallen into. Instead He gave light, and hope, and life to those who were at their “wick’s end.” He has entrusted to us this same merciful Divine Justice to shine to others. As Christ crucified on Calvary is the Light for the Gentiles, the hope and life of the nations, so He has given us His Divine Justice—what is called the Gospel, the good news—to shine to others. So that when we find someone burdened and weighed down by sin, someone whose oil of faith may soon run dry, and they’re smoldering in the fear and uncertainty of darkness—we can speak to them of God’s Divine Justice. The Gospel of Jesus’ compassionate life, His sufferings and death. Of the Great Reversal He has undertaken to put Himself in our place, so that we could be in His place. His Word to fill our hearts with the oil of faith and gladness (Is. 61:3), so that our faith may burn brightly, trusting in Jesus, God’s chosen Servant. We then will be glowing lamps that give His Light to the Gentiles. To be recipients of such lofty and merciful Divine Justice is certainly cause for rejoicing! Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
1. What is the natural kind of justice that we speak of as the Law? How does it work?
2. What is the divine justice that Jesus brings? How does it work? What does it look like in action?
3. How are we bruised reeds or smoldering wicks?
4. How or when did God place His stamp of approval on Jesus, marking Him as “my servant, whom I uphold” referred to in Isaiah 1:1?
5. What is the basis for the Divine Justice that Jesus brings forth?
6. How was Jesus a light for the Gentiles, and how can we be also?

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