What does it mean to be Chosen?
The Feast of the Baptism of Jesus
January 12, 2020
Readings: Is. 42:1–7; Ps. 29; Acts 10:34–38, 44–48; Matt 3:13–17
(Comprehensive Catholic Lectionary)
Along with baptism, today’s readings weave together a song of hope, a theme of servant-leadership, and signs of God’s grace always at work among us.
Second Isaiah is a prophecy of hope. God identifies a Chosen One to serve the exiled people of Israel and lead them back to what our biblical translators have named wholeness.¹ But before we talk about wholeness, let’s talk about this Chosen One.
As Christians, we often associate Jesus with the Chosen One mentioned in Second Isaiah, but this text can be read many ways. First and foremost, it is a prophecy of comfort and relief for a suffering people. It was written during a time of exile, and it was a message of hope for Israelites who were suffering both physical and spiritual trauma. Israel’s relationship with God and the land had always been intertwined, so to be displaced physically was also to be separated spiritually from God.²
When we read this passage in context, we can be mindful of how the Chosen One is called to bring hope to his own generation: the people of the Babylonian Exile. I won’t take us down a poetic path, but it’s important to know this text uses literary devices to draw a parallel between the Chosen One of Isaiah who would lead his people back to Zion, and Moses, who freed his people and led them from Egypt to safety. The song is one of promise to God’s people that they are not forgotten. It is a song that urges the Chosen One on:
You will not falter or be discouraged
until all is well on earth, until peace comes.
Your teachings will bring hope
even across seas, even to far off islands. (Is. 42:4)
So who was this Chosen One? Some scholars believe that the “You” is referring to the whole Tribe of Israel. You, my people, will not falter or be discouraged. Others suggest God was speaking to the Prophet himself, commissioning him as a servant-leader just as God called Moses.³ Many Christians, of course, believe it is a direct prophecy about Jesus, but I think it is important to consider the immediacy of Isaiah’s need and Isaiah’s audience. The prophet was speaking to people of his day who were actively suffering, and while his words continued to bear meaning in Jesus’ times and even today, there was a demand for God’s presence right then and there. It wasn’t written as a futuristic oracle about a Messiah that would save a different, future generation. It was written for the people of the Babylonian exile in their own time.
That said, the songs of DeuteroIsaiah form a critical part of an ongoing narrative showing us how God has been with every generation for thousands of years, calling upon prophets, servants, and healers to bring peace in their place and time — including ours. The holy work will continue until all is well on earth.
Today’s reading from Acts presents us with the visions and prophecies of Jesus’ own generation. Jesus is the Chosen One identified by the people of the Gospels, the ones who lived during the time of Roman Occupation in Israel. Jesus, like the gospel writers, preached with immediacy for the salvation of their own people, place, and time. Unsurprisingly, Jesus’ ministry echoes the prophecy of Second Isaiah, just as Second Isaiah echoed the theme of Moses’ Exodus. It is a story we continue to hold sacred today because God continues to work among us in the same way.
This brings us to the theme of baptism. During our lifetimes, sacraments have been traditionally defined as signs that bestow something upon a recipient. If you grew up with the Baltimore Catechism, you were probably taught at some point that sacraments are “outward signs instituted by Christ to give grace.” I grew up with the Catechism commissioned by Pope John Paul II that says that sacraments are ways “by which divine life is dispensed to us.”
In reality, the broader historical scope of our tradition affirmed by Vatican II gives proof of the opposite: sacraments celebrate God’s abundant grace which is already present in the lives and ministry of people.⁴ They bring our careful attention to what already exists, and they help us to see and experience God’s grace more fully.
This is true in today’s Gospel. If John were the one giving grace or dispensing divine life to Jesus, that would mean John held some power to do so. Maybe that is John’s worry. His speech tells us he feels inadequate for the task, but Jesus corrects him: “this way we do the right thing.” The holy work of God happens in community.
In Matthew’s Gospel, John’s job is not to give grace, but to celebrate the grace already present in Jesus and bring attention to what already exists. John does what is asked, and the sky breaks open as an unmistakable symbol for all to see. Through it, many understand Jesus to be the Chosen One.
A similar, but inverse miracle happens in Acts. While Peter preached the Good News of Jesus’ baptism to a group of Jews and Gentiles, the Holy Spirit poured out upon all present. Acts tells us that those who lived by the law of Moses were astounded that even those who did not were also touched by this radical grace.
Peter proclaimed, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” In other words, how could there possibly be justification for withholding sacraments from anyone touched by the Holy Spirit, regardless of tribe, gender, or social status? (How does this challenge modern taboos about who can receive Eucharist and Holy Orders?! What does it mean that the Holy Spirit was poured out on all, just as the holy spirit poured down upon Jesus at the River Jordan?!)
The passage shows us that it was not the holiness of the water nor the authority of the baptizer who caused a grace to happen, but it was the ritual of baptism in the context of community that recognized God’s grace in a very diverse people and bound them in mutual belonging. That’s huge. It flips power on its head, it challenges what we might understand to be the boundaries of our communal belonging, and it extends a grace of chosenness to all.
Now, we are no longer just talking about Moses, Isaiah, or Jesus as chosen ones; we are talking about the infusion of God’s grace reaching out through many — through all of us — to bring wholeness. We are now asked to listen to the story for ourselves.
What do you hear?
¹ Jane Via and Nancy Corran, eds., “Readings for January 12, 2020, Baptism of Jesus,” The Comprehensive Catholic Lectionary, https://www.inclusivelectionary.org/.
² Michael Fishbane, “Isaiah 40–66: Return and Restoration,” My Jewish Learning, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/isaiah-40-66-return-and-restoration/.
³ Clifford, Richard J. “Isaiah.” In The Catholic Study Bible. Oxford Biblical Studies Online, http://proxy.earlham.edu:2262/article/book/obso-9780195282801/obso-9780195282801-div1-73.
⁴ Martos, Joseph. Doors to the Sacred: A Historical Introduction to Sacraments in the Christian Church. New York: Doubleday, 1982. 140.