Jesus' Baptism And Ours
Isaiah 42:1-7 and Mark 1:4-11
In the Old Testament passage God's prophet, Isaiah, announces the coming of God's servant, a servant whose mission will be "to bring forth justice to the nations," which means, according to verse seven, liberating people everywhere from conditions which oppress them, conditions such as sickness, poverty, blindness and political persecution. This servant will be empowered by God's own Spirit and upheld by God's own hand. This servant will act with quiet firmness and "will not fail or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth."
Whomever Isaiah may have had in mind when he described that servant, Christians believe that Jesus was the one in whom the prophecy came to fulfillment. The words from heaven, which Jesus told of hearing on the occasion of his baptism, were the words of Isaiah 42, verse 1, "Thou art my loved Son; with thee I am well pleased."
Jesus' understanding of his mission as that of bringing liberation and justice was identical with Isaiah's understanding of the servant's mission. Following his baptism, when he was beginning his ministry, Jesus stood up in the synagogue and read another passage from Isaiah's prophecy to describe why God had sent him:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed...(Lk 4:18)
Just as Isaiah had said that the servant of God would bring liberation and justice to all nations, Jesus understood his mission to be universal. "Other sheep have I which are not of this fold," he said to Jews. "I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself," he said to the crowd. "Go and make disciples of all nations," he commanded his disciples.
His method was also the same as that of Isaiah's servant—quiet, patient, steady, courageous, undaunted action in the face of opposition, betrayal, suffering and death. And the means were the same. He was empowered by the Spirit of God and upheld by God's omnipotent hand.
What the baptism of Jesus appears to have brought into clearer focus for him as he prepared to begin his ministry was:
(1) that the liberation of people from all forms of bondage was his purpose,
(2) that all people everywhere were the objects of that purpose,
(3) that his method was to be that of quiet, patient, persistent action and,
(4) that he would be held by God and empowered by God for the fulfillment of that purpose.
Whether you have become aware of and accept it or not, that is what your baptism signifies. That is what it should bring into focus for you. To be "engrafted" into Christ, as we say in the administration of the sacrament, is not simply to become a beneficiary of the blessings of God, but also to become an instrument of the purposes of God. The reason the branch is grafted into the vine is not merely in order that it may be nourished by the sap which begins to flow into it from the vine, but in order that it may produce fruit.
That is where Israel lost her way. The Israelites became so intent upon the privileges of being God's chosen people that they forgot the purposes.
I am concerned about the degree to which we may be drifting more and more in that same direction. I sense, for example, a much more positive response to sermons which focus upon the blessings and benefits we receive and can expect to receive from God through Christ and the Holy Spirit than to sermons which focus on the mission to which God has called us in Christ.
In the mid-1980s sociologist Arthur Levine saw a pronounced national trend in that direction. In a book entitled When Dreams and Heroes Died, he argued that idealism in America was being steadily replaced by what he called "meism."
Bradshaw Frey of Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, observed the same thing and wrote:
We see an alarming number of Christians who are consumed with seeking economic security for the future. We see vast numbers of people who have had their senses dulled to the abject poverty of three-fourths of the world by escaping into the surrealistic world of television and video games. We see some Christians fleeing to Bible studies and fellowship groups to escape the tensions of life. In short, Christians are being assimilated by the culture rather than implementing God's agenda for it.
On the American religious scene today the places where interest and monetary contributions are most impressive are those places where the emphasis is on what you can get out of your religion rather than on what it is going to cost you. The Wall Street Journal on Friday, July 31, 1992, carried an article by Gustav Niebuhr entitled "Churchgoers Are Putting Smaller Portion of Their Incomes Into Collection Plates." In the ar ticle, Sylvia Ronsvalle, executive vice president of the research organization which conducted the study on which the article is based, is quoted as saying "People have changed from stewards into consumers, and they have brought attitudes to their churches where they are buying specific services." Elmer L. Towns, vice president of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, agrees. He says that younger churchgoers in particular are likely to choose a church based, not on the avenues for mission and service which it offers, but on what benefits they expect from it, such as family-oriented programs or even "a good handball court."
What is troubling is that the emphasis seems to be moving more and more toward what you can have—materially and spiritually—through Christ and away from what you are called to do.
The issue becomes more pronounced when we focus upon the scope, the dimension, of the mission to which we are called.
The emphasis in Isaiah 42 and the objective in Jesus' own mind was upon the salvation of all people, all nations, the whole world. "God so loved the world," wrote John, "that he gave his only begotten Son." To be baptized into Christ is to be commissioned from infancy into an ever-enlarging, always-expanding, concern for others. One measure of our spiritual maturity is the degree to which our concern for others has grown in scope and range through the years.
Against that criterion I worry about us. I have the feeling that in the church today the circle of our concern is diminishing rather than enlarging, contracting rather than expanding. Commitment to large and distant goals of world service and evangelism seem to be giving way to absorption in smaller, more immediate, local forms of outreach. The Wall Street Journal article confirms that the proportion of churchgoers' money finding its way to national and global missions is declining, while the proportion being kept at home is rising.
It is often said by way of explanation that "people just naturally have more interest in what they can see and touch for themselves than they do in things far away." Well, that is certainly "natural." By nature, unredeemed human beings have a very limited range of concern. Should we not, however, look for better than that when we have been en grafted into and nurtured as branches of the Vine? It is almost as though we have persuaded ourselves that this growing sense of local mission and waning sense of national and world mission is a sign of spiritual progress rather than retreat. We need to recover the kind of long-range vision and conviction which we see in martyrs such as Bishops Latimer and Ridley who were burned at the stake for their Protestant faith during the Reformation period in England. As they were on their way to execution, Latimer was looking far ahead. He was heard to say to his companion, "Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out."
We have been called to join our hands, our hearts, our prayers and our offerings in the building of God's Kingdom which will not be complete until it embraces, not only Jerusalem, or even Judea and Samaria, but includes the ends of the earth as well. "A sign of maturity," wrote an anonymous author, "is to plant trees under whose shade we ourselves shall never rest."
To be baptized into Christ is also to be given a certain style or method for advancing the cause of the Kingdom. Basically, it is a quiet, respectful, persistent and hopeful style.
The servant whom Isaiah describes "will not shout or raise his voice or make loud speeches in the streets. He will not break off a bent reed nor put out a flickering lamp. He will establish justice on the earth," but he will do it unobtrusively with gentleness and dignity. There may be some rare circumstance in which he will react with force, as Jesus did in driving the moneychangers out of the Temple; but his prevailing and persistent style will be quiet, not loud, peaceful, not violent, respectful, not judgmental, flexible, not rigid, and collaborative rather than confrontational.
As Ernest Shurtleff wrote in 1888
Lead on, O King Eternal
Till sin's fierce war shall cease,
And holiness shall whisper
The sweet Amen of peace;
For not with sword's loud clashing,
Nor roll of stirring drums,
With deeds of love and mercy,
The heavenly Kingdom comes.
How can you become a more mature and effective agent of God's worldwide purpose of evangelism and liberation? This can be done only by remembering to whom you belong and why you belong to him. At your baptism, the same Spirit came down upon you as came down upon Jesus at his baptism. The same Father said to you, "You are my beloved son" or "you are my beloved daughter." The same Father has continued ever since to hold you in his hand and to empower you for his work.
You may not have grown steadily in your awareness of that and in your acceptance of that. Quite possibly you have ignored it or rejected it or misinterpreted it. But that does not alter the fact that you are not your own. You belong to God. In God's goodness you were born, in God's providence you have been kept all the days of your life and in God's grace you have been redeemed through Jesus Christ your Savior and Lord.
Why have you been thus blessed? Not merely in order that you may fold your hands in praise of God, but in order that you may extend those hands in the cause of God's Kingdom. Baptism is not just a sign that Christ's light will shine in your darkness; it is also a sign that his light will shine through you into the shadows of a hurting world. There may, in fact, be times when you will not feel that you are being held by God, times when you may feel abandoned as Jesus did upon the cross; but, if you are truly involved in his cause, then even in those times others of God's children will feel that they are being held by God through you.
In the third century, the city of Alexandria in Egypt was struck by the dreaded plague. As people fled in panic, many Christians stayed to care for the sick and dying. They were held in the hand of God, and they died of the plague, beloved sons and daughters with whom God was pleased.
"Do you not know," asks the Apostle Paul, "that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried, therefore, with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life" (Rom 6:3-4).
J. Harold McKeithen, Jr.