A Broken Reed
What was Jesus like?
That seems like a good question for those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus, those of us who, at least in some measure, try to model our lives on the life of Jesus. What was Jesus like?
The people who were best placed to tell us what Jesus was like were his first disciples, those who walked with Jesus, people like Peter and others of the early church who were eye-witnesses to Jesus’ life. One of their responsibilities as those witnesses was to do just that, to tell us what Jesus was like.
They did this in various ways. In the reading from Acts, we hear Peter telling Cornelius and his household what Jesus was like. The early church told stories, they developed an oral tradition that witnessed to Jesus, an oral tradition that was eventually set down in writing as what we call the New Testament. But there is another way that they witnessed to what Jesus was like, one that was very much in keeping with Jewish traditional ways of teaching and learning. What they did was to turn to the Hebrew scriptures, their Bible, what we call the Old Testament, and choose certain texts to help themselves and to help us understand who Jesus is and what he was like.
They had lots of scriptures that they could choose from. There were the scriptures about Moses, about David and all the kings of Israel, about the judges and the prophets. But when it came to Jesus, the scroll that they turned to more than any other was that of the prophet Isaiah. And one text that was thought to be particularly significant, particularly insightful, particularly revealing, is the one that we heard today as our Old Testament reading:
“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.”
This is one of the servant songs found in the book of Isaiah, and we can see why the early church found it to be especially meaningful, especially helpful in illuminating who Jesus is and what he was like. We can also understand why it is that we read it today, on this day that we celebrate Jesus’ baptism. The text invokes the Spirit which descends upon Jesus at his baptism and echoes the voice which sounds from heaven as Jesus comes up from the water:
“This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Jesus is the one in whom God delights, with whom he is well pleased, the one whom God, as the reading in Isaiah puts it, calls and takes by the hand. This language of delight and affection, the closeness of the relationship between the Son and the Father, is indeed essential to Jesus’ identity, to who Jesus is. One of the gifts of baptism, both for Jesus and for each one of us, is the gift of identity, of knowing who we are and whose we are.
Identity matters because out of identity flows purpose. Often we find that our purpose is grounded in our identity. So it is with Jesus. As God’s Son, Jesus is called to be a light to all people. God places God’s spirit upon him so that he can bring forth justice to the nations.
That seems like a tall order. Then, as now, there’s a lot that’s not right with the world. Injustice, inequality, oppression - these are sadly present in all times and places. Fixing all that, bringing justice to the nations, is a big task.
If you were given the job of bringing forth justice to the nations, of righting the wrongs of the world, knowing that the power of God is there to back you up, how would you go about it? Would you run for political office? Would you work your way into a powerful position in society?
Jesus lived at a time when the most visible injustice was the Roman military occupation of Palestine. Would he lead a rebellion? Would he overthrow the government? Defeat the military overlords? Punish the perpetrators? That’s the sort of justice that many of his contemporaries, even his own disciples were looking for.
But that’s not what Jesus is like. In the words of Isaiah, yes, he will bring forth justice to the nations, but
“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;”
That’s what Jesus is like.
“He will open the eyes that are blind;
He will bring from the prison those who sit in darkness.
The coastlands wait for his teaching.”
Jesus will bring forth justice through a ministry of healing and compassion, a ministry of teaching by word and deed, and not through the exercise of power and influence. I’m drawn to that image of the bruised reed, and of the dimly burning wick. Haven’t we all felt bruised at some point? Haven’t we all had days when our flame flickers and burns dimly if at all? Conventional wisdom tells us that a bruised reed isn’t of much use, that a dimly burning wick can be replaced with a brighter lamp – but that’s not the way that Jesus works. “A bruised reed he will not break, a dimly burning wick he will not quench.”
Soon after his baptism, Jesus will gather his followers with the crowds on a mountain top and say much the same thing but in a different way:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of God.”
In God’s kingdom, in God’s vision for humanity, in God’s quest for justice, no one is disposable. People are not plastic cups. No one is to be thrown out or left behind. Bruised reeds will be healed, not broken. Dimly burning wicks will not be quenched, instead they will be restored and refueled and burn brightly again.
Everyone is worthy of love and compassion, of grace and healing. Jesus turns his attention to those who are struggling, to those who are down, to those who need to be healed. This is how he will bring justice to the nations – by tending, gently and patiently, to the victims of injustice. Many of Jesus’ contemporaries just couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t use his power to overthrow the Roman military occupation and change the world. Instead, he opts for service, compassion, forgiveness, and encouragement. Healing and teaching. It takes tremendous patience to try to change the world this way. Some might think it impossible. And yet, Jesus did change the world. Though there is still much work to be done.
Which is why the question of what Jesus is like still matters today.
Because we who are followers of Jesus, we who have been baptized, we have been called to carry on Jesus’ mission to bring justice to the world. Last week at our Connect service, one of our youth was baptized, and as part of her baptism we all renewed the promises that we made, or that were made for us, at our own baptism:
We promised to proclaim the good news of God in Christ. We promised to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being.
Or in other words,
“A bruised reed we will not break;
And a dimly burning wick we will not quench”
Our mission to bring justice to the world is to be like Jesus. To be gentle and compassionate. To bring comfort and healing to those who are bruised. To nourish and encourage those whose flame is going out. To care for and to advocate for those who are in need, who are vulnerable or marginalized. To serve, to love, to forgive. There is a tremendous gentleness, and a tremendous patience required, if we are to change the world this way. But this is what Jesus was like.
And we are to be like Jesus.
Homily: Yr A Proper 1 The Baptism of the Lord. January 15 2022. Trinity
Readings: Isaiah 42.1-9; Ps 29; Acts 10.34-43; Matthew 3.13-17
Image by Skitterphoto