First Sunday after Epiphany — January 8, 2023

Rose Schrott Taylor wonders if the servant in Isaiah 42 is a prophecy for us as well as Christ.

Year A
Isaiah 42:1-9

In early December, my friend Amanda received news that there was an active shooter at her local high school and five students had been shot.

As the associate pastor and youth director of a church in the area, she knew students in that school and their frantic parents. She anxiously sought more news and contacted other local clergy members, ultimately learning that the threat was a hoax. There was no shooter. But the high school remained on lockdown for most of the day with students and staff inside the building, and loved ones outside, unsure what the next minute, hour or day would hold.

While the shooter in this case remained fictional, the fear was immediate and insistent. With the mass murders at Robb Elementary, Marjory Stoneman Douglass, and Sandy Hook (among many others) in our recent memory, how could it not be? We live in a world where life-ending violence lurks around the corner. No place feels safe.

What are pastors to say in the wake of such violence? What are parents to say to their children? What can we say to ourselves?

As Amanda said after the fact, “In the face of the world’s brokenness, I feel like I am standing here with a roll of Scotch Tape.”

In moments like this, it is easy to feel off-balance. Where is God in the fear and the violence and the loss? Where is the servant Isaiah writes about in 42:1-9 who brings justice?

It can be easy to forget that the original audience of Isaiah 42 also questioned God. Fractured by exile, one fragment lived in Babylon while another group scratched together a living amongst marauding raiders and vandals in Judah. They also questioned how their God could have let such violence happen. They also wondered if their God was even real. As Richard F. Ward writes in Feasting on the Word, “The covenant made with the wild, whispering God of Abraham and Sarah [seemed like] a broken promise.”

Into this doubt stepped Second Isaiah, the writer of today’s passage, with a poem outlining God’s character and the coming of God’s compassionate justice. It can be easy to immediately interpret Isaiah 42:1-9 as a prophecy about Jesus — this is particularly tempting when reading it as a part of the First Sunday after Epiphany, dedicated to Christ’s baptism. However, Paul Hanson cautions against this easy explanation in his Interpretation Commentary on Isaiah 40-66.

He writes that there isn’t scholarly agreement about the poem’s original meaning, and, given its poetical nature, seeking such a direct interpretation limits the text. Poetry is hardly ever literal. It is rarely direct. It’s not even always factual. Rather, the strength of poetry lies in its ability to play with language, using words and phrases and allegory and line breaks to point to something that words can’t always define: the truth.

If we allow Isaiah 42:1-9 to be indirect, we set it free, writes Hanson. In doing so, we can read that “the Servant … is the description of the human being whom all who love God are challenged to become.” We are the servant, if we allow God to claim and change us.

So, in a sense, the servant – a human in perfect relationship with God – is Christ. But if we read this passage simply as Christ’s biography, we miss the fact that the prophecy calls to us, too. We are to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out the prisoners (v. 7). We are God’s chosen, in whom God’s soul delights (v.1). We will bring forth justice (v. 4).

Just as Christ’s baptism in today’s Gospel passage (Matthew 3:13-17) reminds us of our own baptism, of how God claims and calls us as God claimed and called Christ, Isaiah 42:1-9 makes it clear that, even when we feel off-center, even when God feels far away, our Creator is at work, making the world better through us (and, by God’s grace, the Holy Spirit).

As we face the threat of violence and death in the world, it does feel, as my friend said, that all we have is a roll of Scotch Tape. But maybe that is enough. In responding to Amanda, my friend Joel pointed out that all of our hypothetical rolls of Scotch Tape used together are incredibly strong.

Earlier this week, the church celebrated Epiphany, a feast day that marks the gift-giving of the Magi. While Epiphany is a specific day of celebration, it is also the name for the liturgical season that stretches between Advent and Lent. This is the church season where we learn about Christ’s character, not only how it was revealed in his coming of age, but also how Christ continues to reveal himself today. I love this season because it reminds me that the realization of Christ, for those who seek it, never ends.

Perhaps our work together, the layering of our tape, reveals God to others. Perhaps we can both seek the realization of Christ during this season of Epiphany and offer Christ to others in the way we work together to bring God’s compassionate justice.

Questions for reflection

  1. Analyze your reaction to the interpretation of Isaiah 42 that names you as the servant. How does it make you feel? Why do you think it makes you feel that way?
  2. Acknowledge the agony of being human. What is one time when you felt completely overwhelmed in the face of pain? Acknowledge how God uses people for good. What is one time you felt one person make a positive difference?
  3. What does your baptism mean to you?
  4. Reflect on the meaning of Epiphany as a church season. How have you experienced Christ recently?

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