The voice of the Lord, made manifest in Jesus (Matt 3; Epiphany 1A)

The readings that are collected for this coming Sunday seem to gather around the theme of “the voice of the Lord”. This is one of those Sundays when the selection of four readings clearly focusses on a topic found in each of them (in contrast to the many “ordinary” Sundays where each of the four readings follow their own independent lines).

The theme of “the voice of the Lord” is sounded clearly in the psalm (Psalm 29), with a repeated refrain, “the voice of the Lord” through verses 3 to 9. First, the psalmist announces, “the voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders … the voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty” (29:3–4).

Then follows a repeated affirmation, “the voice of the Lord breaks the cedars … the voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire … the voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness … the voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’” (29:5, 7–9). The message declared by the Lord God is conveyed by the natural order of things, in the elements of the creation, made by God (see Gen 1–2; Ps 104; and in this Sunday’s reading, Isaiah 42:5).

The speaking forth of God, made manifest and evident in God’s creation, is a fitting theme for the first Sunday in the season of Epiphany—a season that celebrates the shining forth, the manifestation, of God. However, this Sunday is designated, not only as the first Sunday in the season of Epiphany, but also as the day on which The Baptism of the Lord is recalled.

In the Gospel selection (Matt 3:13–17), the first evangelist reports that the Spirit of God “descended on [Jesus] like a dove” (3:16) as Jesus was baptised by John in the River Jordan. At that event, “a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’” (3:17). The voice of the Lord is clear and prominent in this account of what was likely to have been the commissioning event for Jesus as he started into his public activities in the region of Galilee (Matt 4:12–25, and on until 19:1).

In the reading from Acts, in place of a section of an epistle, we hear Luke’s report of a speech of Peter, given in the house of the centurion Cornelius in Caesarea (Acts 1:34–43). In this speech, Peter announced how “the message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced; how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” (Acts 10:38).

That message was to be continued by the disciples; Peter says that God “commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead” (10:42). The voice of the Lord that has been heard in the early testimony (see Acts 2, 3, 7) continues through the later apostolic proclamation (see Acts 13, 17, 20).

Linked with this is the first of the four songs found in Second Isaiah (Isa 40–55) that are linked explicitly with the Servant (42:1–9; 49:1–7; 50:4–11; and 52:13–53:12). Here, the Servant is designated as the one in whom God delights (42:1); the phrase recurs in the message of the voice from the cloud which speaks at the baptism of Jesus, declaring that he is the one “with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17). The Servant has God’s spirit within him (Isa 42:1), something which is directly enacted in the baptism of Jesus when he “saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him” (Matt 3:16).

The work of the Servant is to bring justice to the nations (Isa 42:1, 3, 4); that will be evident in the work of Jesus (Matt 12:18–21, quoting directly these verses from the first Servant Song). Through the Servant, the Lord calls people “in righteousness” (Isa 42:6); that call is echoed by Jesus as he calls his followers to demonstrate righteousness (Matt 5:20) and exhorts them to “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (6:33). Indeed, the baptism of Jesus narrated by Matthew is said to have taken place “to fulfil all righteousness” (3:15).

Through the Servant, God establishes God’s people “as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations” (Isa 42:6); that charge is repeated by Jesus, who came as light shining in the darkness (Matt 4:15–16) and who equips his followers to be “the light of the world” (5:14–16), whose whole body will be “full of light” (6:23).

Through the Servant, God announces that “the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare” (Isa 42:9); this is exemplified, according to Jesus, by “every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven [who] is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matt 13:52).

The identity of the Servant was debated in Israel; was this an individual, or a symbolic representation of the whole nation? The many resonances of the Servant Song in the story of Jesus indicate why Christian interpreters have identified Jesus as this servant. The story of his baptism provides a most appropriate occasion for underlining this connection. The shapers of the lectionary have thus linked these two passages on this Sunday, and set them into the context of passages declaring how “the word of the Lord” has been made manifest. It is a compelling start to the season of Epiphany.

The tongue of a teacher, to sustain the weary (Isaiah 50; Lent 6C)

“The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word” (Isa 50:4). So begins this Sunday’s Hebrew Scripture selection that is offered by the lectionary—yet another passage from the section of Isaiah which is set in the period when Israel was in exile in Babylon. We have read other passages from this section of Isaiah on Lent 3 and Lent 5.

In considering those passages (Isa 43 and Isa 55), we noted that the experience of exile was experienced as a time of great difficulty for the people of Israel. The hope for a return to the land of Israel was strong and insistent throughout those years of exile. The imagery in the verses immediately before this passage (50:2–3) clearly convey this bitter sense. Hope is waning amongst the people. There is a need for strong leadership.

In this section of the text, the anonymous prophet speaks of an unnamed figure who will take on this function. He is known as the Servant (50:10).

In this song, the Servant specifically identifies himself as a Teacher, to encourage the weary and offer them hope (50:4). The Teacher is resolute, determined, fully committed. Yet he encounters opposition, resistance, aggression. He is called to stand up for what is right in the face of opposition (50:8) as well as to endure the negativity and abuse from those opponents (50:6). The call he has received is not an easy task. It requires resilience, being able to see the long view in the midst of immediate setbacks. The Servant, says the prophet, has “set my face like flint” (50:7).

The use of the term Servant at 50:10 (as well as at 42:1; 49:3, 5, 6; 52:13; 53:11) means that this passage is one of four songs known collectively as The Servant Songs (42:1–9; 49:1–7; 50:4–11; and 52:13–53:12). The identification of the Servant is contested. Do the songs refer to an individual? Or is the term intended to refer to the collective experience of Israel, as a nation? Certainly the hardships and oppression of life under various empires—Egyptian, Assyrian, and Babylonian—would attest to this latter identification.

Another aspect which points to a collective understanding (the whole nation as the Servant of the Lord) is the occurrence of the imagery of light. Israel as “a light to the nations” (42:6; 49:6) reflects a national understanding, developing and extending the earlier sense that nations would come to Zion to worship God (Isa 2:2–4; Mic 4:1–4).

Both of these elements feed into the later Christian interpretation that these song provide a prefiguring of the person of Jesus, “the servant of the Lord” (Acts 3:13, 4:27). The way that Jesus was treated in his trials and on the cross resemble the mistreatment of the Servant—and worse. The insistent description of suffering in 52:13–53:12 particularly correlates with the sufferings of Jesus in his passion (Acts 8:32–33; 1 Peter 2:21–25).

And the universal extent of the “light to the nations” image is also deliberately applied to the way the message about Jesus spread across the world (Luke 2:29–32; Acts 13:47; 26:23). In Christian interpretation, the songs of the Servant are usually taken to provide a pointer to the fate of Jesus—dedicated to God, committed to his calling, speaking forth with passion, enduring opposition, being utterly humiliated and thoroughly abused, and dying an abject death. Yet the power of the figure of the Servant was such that—for Israel, and for followers of Jesus—the message and example of the Servant (be that Israel, or Jesus) lived on for centuries.

See also