January 9, 2005
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings:

Isaiah 42:1-9 Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.

Matthew 3:13-17 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

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Sermon:  See the Signs of God’s Favor

I think this past Christmas was the first in many years where I did not sit through an entire showing of Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” starring Jimmy Steward, Donna Reed, and Lionel Barrymore. It never fails to upset me when Uncle Billy gives that mean old Mr. Potter the bank deposit in the newspaper with the headlines about Harry Bailey being a war hero. But I just like how George is constantly pulled back from his big dreams to his destiny, stepping into his father’s shoes and fulfilling the role of serving people in Bedford Falls, and how he learns, just when he is on the verge of despair and self-destruction, that his righteousness leads to his redemption.

In his darkest hour, George talks to God like a psalmist of the Old Testament – straightforward, arguing that he’d kept up his end of the bargain, now where was God to deliver him. George is a righteous man because he has unwavering faith in others – in the town’s immigrant population that Potter describes as garlic eaters, in Violet, the girl with the bad reputation, and in the townspeople who almost bankrupt him with a panicked run on the Bailey Savings and Loan.

George is a righteous man because he is concerned about the rights of those who are not privileged or in positions of power – especially their right to decent housing. And George is a righteous man because he does that work that God puts before him. And yet, in spite of his righteousness, it seems God is displeased with George and has withdrawn the signs of his favor, leaving him in ruins.

I mention all this as preface to the story of Jesus today, who goes to John to be baptized to, in his own words, fulfill all righteousness. Jesus is on a path that can only be described as destiny – the taking on of a role that has been prepared for him and doing the work that God sets before him. Actually, in Christian theology, the work of Jesus is not contained in a single role. It is sometimes described as a three part role – prophet, priest, and king – and other times it is described as a two-part role, with those two parts being polar opposite – the glorious Son of God and the humble suffering servant.

This morning, because of the first lesson from the Prophet Isaiah, I want to look at Jesus as he steps into the role of the servant, and how his baptism is part of that role, and how in our baptism we too are called to full all righteousness stepping into those same shoes. Actually, I probably should say stepping into those sandals, but I have no evidence of that as being a saying of the biblical era – as in that’s one big pair of sandals he’s got to fill.

Actually they had a similar saying about taking on the mantle, the covering, the cloak of another – as when Elijah passes by Elisha and throws his mantle on him, thus choosing him as his disciple and successor.

So Jesus took on the mantle of the servant described in the book of the prophet. A lot of how we think about Jesus has been shaped by what’s called the servant songs in the Isaiah. This is no accident, for Jesus himself uses the words of the prophet in the first public declaration of his ministry:

Luke 4:16-21 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

There are several servant songs in Isaiah and we read one of them for our first lesson today – from chapter 42. Probably the more familiar is from chapter 53. Hear how one modern translator – the poet David Rosenberg – puts these lines.

Is there anyone to believe

What we’ve listened to

As we report it.

Who is there

Who’s actually seen the Lord’s

Arm around the shoulders

Of the despised this richness

Incredible support

Freely given to him

What could have been there

To attract us no handsomeness

Nothing to divert the eye

How could we even turn our heads

For something so poor in our eyes

So uninspiring

He was a thing rejected

Despised for being human

In an offensive suit of clothes

The clothes of suffering

A shirt of pain

A cloak of sorrow

But it was our

Loss and our

Pain he bore

Our hidden fear and indifference

He wore

Openly for us

And then, in more familiar language the passage ends:

But he was wounded for our transgressions, upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.

The Servant Isaiah describes is a person who seems to have fallen out of favor with God. Today we often hear people describe something as a blessing - which is another way of saying a sign of God’s favor. But there is nothing in the description of the servant that would be described as a blessing – quite the contrary – but things are not always as they seem.

This reversal of perspective on blessing is spoken clearly by Jesus in one of the most famous of all his sermons:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

There has always been a current of thought that sees good looks, good health, prosperity and so on as signs of blessing, of God’s favor. But there has also been undercurrent that rebelled against this idea – As the preacher in Ecclesiastes noted: Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all.

When we are baptized into Christ, we are submerged into this undercurrent, for Jesus is the personification of this rebellion against human vanity and self congratulation.

This is not to say that the good things of life are not a blessing, a sign of God’s favor, but it must be taken with a grain of salt, for their absence is not the absence of God - for in Christ God showed his presence in their absence.

There is an old song, Count Your Blessings – count your blessing, name them one by one, and you’ll be excited at what God has done. I guess today I’m saying “it ain’t necessarily so.”

When we come to be baptized, we step into the sandals and take on the mantle of Christ as his disciples and successors. We put on Christ, to share in his work so that we may also share in his destiny. In our baptism we declare, as Paul wrote: I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him.

Will we find the signs of God’s favor along this path? We should not worry, for we have been pre-approved. Note that the story of the baptism of Jesus ends with these lines: And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

What has Jesus done to be called “beloved;” what has he done to deserve the approval and pleasure of God? He is just setting out, just at the beginning.

The love and favor of God are given as free gifts of grace, not as rewards for accomplishments. God’s pre-approval is the foundation of our life, the basis of our faith, the center core of our courage. It is the bedrock of our lives, always there under the surface no matter what structure we build to hide or obscure us. We cannot win the favor of God, for God gives it to us freely and without condition. We can only accept it and then live in response to it.

There is no greater perversion of love than to make it conditional – I would love you if…. you’d only be a better student…… a more successful bread-winner…… a more attractive spouse. This is not love, this is control wearing the mantle of love – a sheep in wolves clothing. But God’s love is from beginning to end, God’s favor with us in times of joy and sorrow, God’s pleasure in us even as we take our first steps on the path of righteousness, seeking to be servants sharing in the ministry of God’s grace in this world.

That is the one blessing we need to count, the one blessing we can count on, and the sure sign of God’s favor as “the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
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