Isaiah 42:1-9 • Psalm 29 • Acts 10:34-43 • Matthew 3:13-17
When beginning anything, it is important to think it through. Maybe not to the end. But at least as far as identifying intentions – for they will quickly be tested in the thing one is trying to accomplish. This week's scriptures describe the effort to put intentions into action from three different directions: the selection of a leader in Isaiah; the principles by which the group will operate, in the Cornelius story in Acts; and the manner by which one will operate, in the baptism or Jesus in Matthew.
The Isaiah passage starts off with a big reveal: behold my servant. The writer hastens to add that the servant is the chosen one, but he is described first as a servant. He is, moreover, a gentle sort of a servant, soft-spoken, and not one to cause further injury, even to a bruised plant. Underlying this gentle exterior, though, is an incredible strength. The servant is a leader who will not stop until justice is established on earth.
Peter – and Cornelius, for that matter – show up as leaders in the Acts passage. Cornelius, a Roman centurion with 100 men under him, is an unusual sort, with a daily practice of prayer. Receiving instructions from an angel, he reaches out to Peter. Peter responds by telling Cornelius and his (also Roman) companions the gospel story, beginning with a new insight – that he, Peter, has come to see that God shows no partiality towards any nation or its people. He then wonders, before everyone present, whether it makes sense to baptize these folks, which he proceeds to do. In the story, Peter shows a willingness to re-think his positions; he has no need to defend his earlier views. He shows flexibility in the events unfolding before him, taking a new direction. The community then begins to find its way beyond the tribalism of a Jewish sect towards a more universal approach.
The final example of leadership comes in the gospel story. In a brief five verses, John baptized Jesus and God indicates approval in a spectacular sign from the clouds. All of this happens, though, only after John asks Jesus whether the whole thing is appropriate. Shouldn't you be baptizing me? (v. 14). Jesus, clear about what the moment requires, reassures John that it is fitting for ritual to seal his purpose, and for John to perform the baptism.
In recognizing his own need to set his intention through public baptism, Jesus begins to remind the reader of the chosen one – the gentle servant – of the Isaiah passage. His decision to be baptized by John is a surprise, somewhat like Peter's baptism of Cornelius must have been. In all three readings, the surprising underlying virtue of the true leader turns out to be humility. The final surprise of the gospel reading is the opening of the heavens, complete with a dove and a voice from the clouds – but perhaps these things are no more surprising than an authentic, humble, servant-leader.
Morning: What would be different if I lived today with humility?
Evening: When did I manage to find a humble way of being? When did I lose myself in arrogance or pride?