When I used to play high school football, one of our coaches would go and scout the other teams to determine their strengths and weaknesses. I remember the day before we were scheduled to play Merivale High School, the coach gathered the defence together and he showed us how Merivale’s favourite play worked. The quarterback would fake a lateral to one side, holding the ball high in the air like this, and then he would hand off to the running back on other side. And so during the game the next day, whenever we saw the fake lateral with the ball held high we would swarm the running back on the other side, and we tackled him for a loss almost every time. We had found a weakness, and so we exploited it.
There’s a big difference between the high school football team and the high school debating team. But the coaching philosophy wasn’t all that different. Debaters were trained to look for weaknesses in their opponents’ arguments, and when they found one, they pounced.
Power exploits weakness. People who want to win will find a weakness and use it to their advantage. They will break the bruised reed, they will quench the dimly burning wick. And that’s not just in contrived situations like football games and debates. Think of what happens among children in schoolyards. Think of what happens among adults at your workplace. Think about what happens between spouses in a marriage. Reed breaking and wick quenching happen all the time. The easiest way to assert that you’re right is to tell somebody else they’re wrong. Too often we lift ourselves up by putting others down. I know. I have broken bruised reeds and quenched dimly burning wicks. I suspect you have too.
But when God looks upon Jesus, hear what he says:
“Here is my servant, my chosen in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations.
A bruised reed he will not break,
And a dimly burning wick he will not quench.”
We call this compassion. The biblical language for this is the Hebrew word “hesed”, usually translated as steadfast love and mercy.
The God revealed to us in Jesus is a God of compassion, abounding in steadfast love and mercy.
Some people would have been surprised by that. In our psalm today, the psalmist focuses on the power and the strength of God, the one who created the heavens and stretched them out. And so when the psalmist imagines the voice of God, he imagines it as a voice which breaks cedars, a voice which flashes forth flames of fire, a voice which shakes the wilderness and strips the forest bare.
But in our gospel reading we hear a different voice. When Jesus had been baptized, just as he came out of the waters, the heavens were opened to him and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” The wilderness does not shake, and there are no reports of cedars breaking. What is heard is the voice of love, the voice of compassion, a voice which sees Jesus’ baptism and says, in a very loose paraphrase that I heard this week, “This is just so awesome!”
Today’s account of Jesus’ baptism begins with grace. When John sees Jesus coming, he recognizes him as one who is more powerful. John even says that he’s not worthy to carry Jesus’ sandals. And so, John refuses to baptize Jesus at first, probably he has every expectation that the one who is more powerful will now take over the ministry of baptism. But Jesus doesn’t take over John’s ministry, instead he affirms it and he submits to it. Would that you and I were so gracious about affirming each other’s ministries!
Jesus submits to the baptism of John, because he understands that our part in baptism is to present ourselves to God and to commit to God and to God’s ways. But the most important part of baptism is what God does. God sends his Spirit upon us. God gives us a name, child of God. God tells us that he loves us and delights in us. And God calls us to go and to be his agents in the world.
This is what happened at Jesus’ baptism. This is what will happen here in twelve weeks at our Easter Vigil, when eight of us will be baptized here at St. Albans.
At Jesus’ baptism, God called him to a special ministry and mission, and that was to reveal to us who God is, what God is like. And Jesus, through his life and teaching, even his death, did just that, revealing God to be a God of compassion, full of steadfast love and mercy. We see it in Jesus’ ministry of healing, we see it in his ministry of reconciliation. We see it when he reaches out to those who are marginalized. We hear it in Jesus’ message of love, of forgiveness, of praying for enemies, we hear it as he proclaims the good news to all in need, people of all genders, races and nations.
Jesus surprised people. Jesus disappointed some people. Many thought that the Messiah, the one chosen and sent by God should act in a more powerful way. That he should put down enemies. That he should pick winners and losers, determine who’s in and who’s out. Because isn’t that how power usually works?
But Jesus is the one who will not break a bruised reed and will not quench a dimly burning wick. When he encounters people he will not condemn them for their bruises nor will he dismiss the dimness of their light. No, he will see our bruises and our dimly burning light and he will be moved with compassion towards us, loving us as we are, bringing healing and grace into our lives. Jesus reveals God to be a compassionate God, abounding in steadfast love and mercy.
In baptism we commit ourselves to God, and God names us as his beloved children, puts his Spirit upon us and calls us to go and be compassionate, agents of God’s steadfast love and mercy in the world.
Is that a big task? It’s huge! Compassion is hard, it’s something we have to learn and practice, every day. So much of the time we see and do the opposite, power-seekers who exploit weakness, those who would break the bruised reed in order to gain advantage, and snuff out the smouldering wick to make themselves appear strong or to prove that they’re right. We live in a world where often compassion is not the norm. But you in your baptism were called to lift people up, not to put them down. You are to support the one who is bruised, to tend and heal the broken reed. You are called to affirm even the dimmest light, to celebrate that light even as it smoulders, to show compassion and to help it burn brightly again. For every person you will encounter is a brother or sister made in God’s image who has the light of God within them.
Let me remind you of some of your baptismal vows. At your baptism, you, or someone on your behalf, promised,
To proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ.
To seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself.
To strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.
Those are big promises, difficult promises to fulfill, which is why in our baptismal liturgy the response is always,
“I will, with God’s help”
The God revealed to us in Jesus is a compassionate God, abounding in steadfast love and mercy. In your baptism you promised to follow in this way, following the example of Jesus. May it be said of this church that we are a compassionate community that builds people up, not that brings them down.
May it be said of each one of us:
Here is my servant, in whom my soul delights.
A bruised reed she will not break, and a dimly burning wick she will not quench.
Homily: Yr A Baptism of the Lord. Jan 15 2017, St. Albans
Readings: Isaiah 42.1-9; Ps 29; Acts 10.34-48; Matthew 3.13-17
Image by Trudy Bloem, Creative Commons