For centuries the debate has raged on as to whether the Old (or First) Testament Scriptures should be considered as part of the Christian biblical canon. Jews and Christians alike argue over whether these ancient texts are intended for those who believe Jesus Christ is the Messiah. Most scholars agree that today’s reading from Isaiah comes at the beginning of the prophet’s teaching to the Jews held in captivity in Babylon. Their exile came after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. It is assumed that this section was written in the period just prior to the capture of the city of Babylon by Cyrus of Persia in 539. This ultimately led to the release of the Jewish captives and their return to Jerusalem. Historically, the rise of Cyrus, the release from exile, and the return to the Promised Land, is being declared and is as certain to happen as the former things are now past. It is easy to see in this historical context why the Jewish people understand this prophecy pertains only to their history and not to the future coming of Jesus in the New (or Second) Testament.
While we do not believe that our faith in Jesus supplants the Jewish faith in Yahweh, we do understand that Scripture has a universal way of speaking across generations to mean new things to new groups of people. We can read a call to adjust the focus of our worship within this important text. We can hear a description of Jesus in the redeeming words of Isaiah. We can hear the “new covenant” of Jesus in the “new things” that Isaiah proclaims. This leads us to believe that Jesus Christ is the New Center of worship for all humanity. On this Sunday that follows the Epiphany, this is the revelation of God we seek; a New Center for our lives.
Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday. It is the day on the church calendar when we usually talk about Jesus coming to the Jordan River to be baptized by his cousin John. It is also the day when we reaffirm our baptismal covenant each year, to be reminded of what we profess to believe. It is appropriate to celebrate this day at the beginning of the year. We are already thinking about new beginnings and starting things fresh. Remembering our Baptism reminds us of the new creation that God created in us through Jesus. This morning we are also hearing a word from the prophet Isaiah to help us make a connection between God’s ancient work and our world today. God has always sought to be the center of our world. When we look at the design of our universe, we notice that we revolve around the source of our light – the Sun; it is not the universe that revolves around us. This is a metaphor for our relationship with God.
Let us pray…God, this morning we come to your word, longing to know how to keep you at the center of our lives. Teach us today, Lord, in Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
Isaiah is writing to a fractured nation. Many of the leaders have been forced into exile in Babylon. The rest of the nation is scratching out a living in the homeland. The “exiles” are doing OK, under the circumstances; they are permitted to do business and participate in the local culture. The community left behind, however, is frustrated in the aftermath of a war that devastated their land. Marauding armies, raiders, and vandals have plundered the land, leaving the people little to work with. For both groups, there was a sense of spiritual desolation, as they began to believe that their God had been defeated by the pagan gods of conquering nations. They wondered if God had the power to protect them, or even care for them. The prophet comes to stand in the empty space that once was the center of the community’s life; the space where they once thought God was. The challenge for Isaiah is to restore a sense of Center to his people who are devastated by war and captivity. They are cut off from their sacred stories of inspiration, tradition, and faith. Their ancient covenants appear to be broken. Living as a “family of faith” within the family of nations has given way to living in foreign, secular cultures and letting go of ancient practices of holiness.
I think we should realize that people in all times and places may experience this same type of “loss of center” during times of spiritual crisis, depression, and sorrow. It’s a struggle to keep God at the center when we feel hopeless and completely off-balance. Hope springs from a sense that a Center is present; but hope may be hidden amid difficult circumstances. For Isaiah, finding the Center means holding onto a conviction about the character of God. We come to this text in search of hope, in search of a new center for lives that may feel a little out of balance these days.
As we move through a world that is changing rapidly, we may find it hard to stay focused on the center; it’s often like trying to catch the brass ring on a carousel that is moving too fast. Isaiah speaks to us about God who gives us a spirit of strength and purpose. We hear about God’s longing for justice in the world and our call to righteousness. We are given the promise that God leads us and keeps his covenant with us. We are reminded of our call to serve God’s justice in Creation: “all who live on earth” are intended to be in right relationship with God and with one another.
Isaiah spoke to a fractured nation; a people in conflict. Today, there are many fractured nations and many people in conflict. All around us are signs of intolerance and people treating one another badly. Isaiah reminds us that God’s promise of love, forgiveness, and healing is for “all who live on this earth.” For Christians, Isaiah makes a connection between the God of Creation and Jesus, the suffering servant. We are able to hear words of hope that lead us to reaffirm our covenant relationship with God through our baptismal promises today. God placed the Spirit upon the Servant Jesus so that he might breath the Spirit into us as well. We need to understand that God’s plans for us cannot be achieved through our efforts alone; we need God at the center.
God has made an investment in Creation through the work of servant people throughout history. Israel received from its prophet the same gift that the Church received from Jesus – the revelation that the God who creates is a just God who restores sight to the blind, freedom to the captives, and grants strength to those who serve. This is the same proclamation the Church makes to the world. “See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.” God has given us a new center to focus our lives on: the hope and strength of Jesus Christ. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.