Juggling Justice and Gentleness
January 12, 2020*
Baptism of Jesus
By Pastor John Partridge
Isaiah 42:1-9 Matthew 3:13-17 Acts 10:34-43
Have you ever been caught watching a juggler who is so good that you just can’t stop watching? Sure, there are the average “good” jugglers who can get you to watch for a few minutes. They’re fun to watch in a parade as the go by, or for a moment as you pause on the midway at the fair for a few minutes. But every once in a while, there’s that one juggler who is so good that every time you think you’re starting to lose interest, they change their act and suck you right back in again. Some years ago, there was a guy that would show up in television occasionally, and I’m pretty sure that he even made an appearance on the Johnny Carson Show, but he billed himself as the guy who could juggle anything. He would start his act by juggling, balls, and then juggling pins, then bowling pins, then pieces of silk, feathers (which is pretty tricky), but then he’d mix in knives, swords, things that were on fire, chainsaws and even bowling balls, and finally he’d finish by juggling all those weird things at the same time. Sure, it takes talent to juggle feathers, or bowling balls, or chainsaws, but in his closing act, he would juggle a feather, a chainsaw, a sword, and a bowling ball all at the same time. That was impressive to watch.
But, when we listen to his instructions and commands of God, sometimes it seems like that is the kind of thing that God is asking us to do.
We find this kind of juggling in the words of Isaiah found in Isaiah 42:1-9
42:1 “Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will bring justice to the nations.
2 He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
3 A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
4 he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
In his teaching the islands will put their hope.”
5 This is what God the Lord says—
the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out,
who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it,
who gives breath to its people,
and life to those who walk on it:
6 “I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness;
I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and will make you
to be a covenant for the people
and a light for the Gentiles,
7 to open eyes that are blind,
to free captives from prison
and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.
8 “I am the Lord; that is my name!
I will not yield my glory to another
or my praise to idols.
9 See, the former things have taken place,
and new things I declare;
before they spring into being
I announce them to you.”
God says that his Spirit would enter into the messiah so that he could bring justice to the nations but, that in doing so, he would not shout, cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. His coming, and his work, would be so gentle that he would not break a bruised reed or snuff out a smoldering wick. But despite his gentleness, he will not falter, or be discouraged, until he establishes justice on the earth and brings hope to his people.
To most of us, I think that description sounds both wonderful and just a bit confusing. We are familiar with justice from watching our law enforcement and legal systems, but much of the justice that we see, as hard as they try, often involves the use of brute strength and a lack of subtlety that clearly does not make us think of things like gentleness, tenderness, and hope. I’m not saying that members of law enforcement and the legal system are brutes and bullies, or that they aren’t trying to do the very best that they can do, but we all know that circumstances, and the way in which our laws are written, sometimes leave them with few other options. In the end, trying to bring justice and gentleness at the same time seems as difficult an exercise as juggling feathers and bowling balls.
But that was precisely what the messiah would be sent to do, and we begin to see how Jesus threads the needle a little bit as he begins his ministry in the story of his baptism contained in Matthew 3:13-17.
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
It’s important we notice that John knows that Jesus doesn’t need to be baptized. Jesus was the messiah, the one who was sent to bring righteousness and indeed, to be righteousness, so John knows that Jesus ought to be the one who baptizes him, not the other way around. But Jesus explains that although he doesn’t need to be baptized for forgiveness, or to be symbolically purified, he needs to be baptized because that was what the scriptures said would happen, and that was what tradition and proper religious practices required. Jesus is balancing, juggling if you will, both who he is, as well as who everyone expected him to be. And in that moment, God recognizes that he is pleased with what Jesus is doing.
And, as we read through the gospels, we often see that Jesus is regularly juggling who he is with the mission to which he was called. Jesus is constantly juggling the fulfillment of scripture, with the forwarding of his mission, with opposing those who are bent on destroying him, while at the same time offering gentleness and hope to those who have already been wounded by life, by God’s people, and even by the church. And in many ways, that same juggling act, that same struggle for balance, has been passed on to us. In Acts 10:34-43, Luke records Peter’s speech where we hear these words:
34 Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. 36 You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37 You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.
39 “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, 40 but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41 He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
Peter reminds the crowd that they all know what Jesus had done, they had all either seen him or heard the stories about him and many of those gathered had done both. But because they were the witnesses, because they had seen Jesus with their own eyes, because they had heard him preach, and because they had seen his miracles, they were also obligated to do something about it. Because they were witnesses, Jesus commanded his followers to preach about Jesus to those who hadn’t heard and who hadn’t seen.
Peter also reminds them that the prophets had promised that people would receive forgiveness of sins through the name of the messiah, Jesus. But telling others about Jesus’ forgiveness of sins is a part of the juggling act and where we struggle to find balance. Why? Because God appointed Jesus as the judge of the living and the dead, and because Jesus is the righteous judge, and because people receive forgiveness in the name of Jesus, and because the possibility of forgiveness is often the only thing that offers hope, all of these things must be found together. We cannot tell the story about forgiveness and hope if we are unforgiving. No one will listen to stories about a loving Jesus if we are unloving nor will anyone believe the promise of justice if we are not a people of gentleness.
No doubt you have all seen people of faith who, with the best of intentions, have attempted to tell the stories of Jesus and to be his witnesses while, at the same time, saying mean, angry, and hurtful things. It is almost impossible to hear a message from anyone who is hurting you or attacking you. Instead, we are called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, to learn the art of balance. We must juggle justice and gentleness, truth and compassion, so that the world around us can hear Jesus’ message of forgiveness and hope.
Sometimes that’s going to feel a lot like juggling feathers and bowling balls at the same time, but as hard as it might be, that is the mission to which Jesus has called us. We are called to be witnesses and to be loving.
We must seek truth and compassion. Forgiveness and hope. Justice and gentleness.
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