In a number of Servant Songs in Isaiah, a mysterious individual appears who sometimes represents the nation of Israel, though later Christians understood him to represent Jesus. In Isaiah 42, this person is designated “my servant” (ebed in Hebrew), while in the Septuagint “my child” (Greek pais) is identified with the nation of Israel. But whether we see the servant, God’s child, as the nation of Israel or as a prefiguring of Jesus Christ, God’s son, the task remains the same: the servant is called to bring forth justice. Isaiah writes, “a bruised reed he will not break,/ and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;/ he will faithfully bring forth justice.” Justice will be served, but with meekness and gentleness.
The servant has been consecrated for this job “as a covenant for the people,/ a light for the nations,/ to open the eyes that are blind,/ to bring out prisoners from confinement,/ from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.” In times of social travail, as now in the United States—which imprisons a greater percentage of its people than any other country, in which the not yet healed scars of slavery and injustice are reopened by ongoing racism and injustice and in which police officers meant to serve and protect fellow citizens are seen as oppressors of their brothers and sisters—the servant’s Spirit-filled demand for justice resonates anew.
Mark and the other Gospels point to Jesus’ baptism as the starting point for the Spirit-empowered work of the servant, God’s son. The Spirit descended “like a dove on him,” but John the Baptist’s words indicate that Jesus’ baptism was only the beginning of the Spirit’s work. As John the Baptist says to his disciples, “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Jesus was baptized as a model for his disciples, the men and women who make up the church, to follow in his footsteps, to share not just in the repentance that the water represented but also in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that Jesus brought.
The Acts of the Apostles makes clear that the Spirit descending upon Jesus at his baptism was the model for the outpouring of the Spirit upon the whole church. Peter tells us that this message of repentance and justice began “in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power.” The church was then empowered to carry on and continue the work of the servant Jesus Christ. The church was emboldened to embody justice and light for all people. Peter’s speech, in which he tells his hearers that “in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable” to God, follows the baptism of Cornelius and his family.
Who is Cornelius? Only a Roman centurion, a symbol of the oppressive military power of the Roman Empire that had subjugated the Jewish state for a century. Yet Cornelius’s conversion tells us that the Spirit can and will convert any heart. For even though we, as human beings and as Christians, sometimes embody partiality, God shows no partiality. God’s son came to identify with each of us, regardless of race, ability, challenges or sins. God knows us all and loves us all. God loves Tamir Rice, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, just as God loves Cornelius, the centurion, and as God loves the police officers, those who act for justice and those who break the hope of justice.
Christ’s baptism creates for us the beginning of a paradigm upon which we model our lives after the Just One. Just as Christ invites us to baptism, in order to participate in justice, we need to offer the invitation to God’s table, so that people know that God’s hospitality welcomes all. The promise of the just Son of God, the one who is for all people, makes us yearn for him, but also to act for justice now, as we have the model to emulate. We need to yearn for the Spirit to move us to repentance, to challenge our prejudices and sins, rooted so deeply in our hearts, to ask how we can change not only unjust societies and institutions, but our own hearts.