The way that humans understand their role in the world varies; and the understanding that religious people have of the relationship between God and them is never the same and sometimes develops. In the lead-up to Christmas we have had many passages in which the Jews expressed their hopes and expectations of God; they thought of ideal leaders, of being gloriously successful and of leading the rest of humanity. But now we hear of other trends that they were developing, based on their experiences of bad times, of disappointments and especially of being away from what they thought of as their God-given homeland. Tentatively there arises the thought of a subservient role for themselves, even of suffering for the benefit of others. In part of the book of Isaiah from the time of the Exile in Babylon, there are four poems about a servant of the Lord and what he will do. The reading for today is part of the first of these. It is never clear who the servant is meant to be; it could be an individual saintly person, one of the prophets or all the chosen people as a group; but Christians have always seen Jesus as the one referred to in these poems; that is why this particular passage is chosen for us today. It speaks of justice for all, of gentle caring for the weakest and of miracles for those with various ills; a servant who is a promise for them and a light for all. The psalm with which we respond to the reading, is about the thunderous rain and lightning that is both a hardship and a blessing for this agricultural people; it is called the voice of God and it is a revelation of the glory of God and peace but also hardship for His people.
We know that Peter spent a good bit of time with Jesus, and though he got to know him, no one could ever grasp the full impact He was to have. Eventually Peter learnt to see Jesus as the Son of God who shows us God’s universal love and forgiveness. After the resurrection, Peter worked at spreading this good news (the gospel) to others. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles tells the story of the early growth of this message as Christianity; he writes how Peter began to accept that God no longer required the rules of his Jewish upbringing, for God loves all people as much as they will let Him. In our reading from Acts Luke tells us of Peter preaching about this new insight, when he visited Cornelius whose household was not Jewish. Jesus after His baptism began to show the world that God loves all people who show to Him and to others due respect – respect is perhaps a better word than the ‘fear’ in our translation. There was a practice in the Near East that you lowered your face when meeting important people and if they wanted to check who you were they lifted your bowed head to see your face; Peter’s opening words literally say, God does not (to check who they are) lift the face of anyone (προσωπολημπτης); translated as “shows no partiality”; God loves us whoever we are! Christians have not always grasped this but it was reaffirmed in the Vatican II Council’s Document on The Church para 9:“At all times and in every race God has given welcome to whosoever fears Him and does what is right.” Quoting from our reading today.
For the Gospel we have Matthew’s story of the baptism of Jesus by John. All four gospels tell this story but not all in the same way. For Mark this is the start of the Gospel, of the public ministry of Jesus; as He comes up our of the water a voice from heaven (God) tells Jesus He is His Son, on whom the Spirit comes down in the way a dove flies down to land. In Luke the account is much the same, except the Spirit actually takes on the bodily form of a dove. But Matthew reverts to Mark’s way of putting it; yet Matthew wants to make it quite clear that Jesus is superior to the Baptist and so has John’s hesitancy to baptise Jesus; for Jesus is like other people except for sin. The baptism John preached, just like ours, was a symbol of starting a new way of life. For Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel the reader already knows that Jesus is the Son of God, but up until this point Jesus has not shown this publicly; but now it is announced and the voice from heaven is addressed to all bystanders: “Behold, my beloved Son!”