The Feast of The Baptism of the Lord


God’s Gentleness

He shall bring forth justice to the nations, not crying out, not shouting, not making His voice heard in the Street. A bruised reed He shall not break and a smoldering flax he shall not quench. Isaiah 42:2–3

Careful readers of Chapters 40–55 of the Book of Isaiah have long found in these prophesies distinctive themes of hope, and in the fifty-second and fifty-third chapters the prophet offers the image of a Savior who comes to comfort, who is bruised for our iniquities, who does not display the beauty that the world desires, and who deals gently with those He calls. It is an image that transforms the idea of the King, for the one who is coming calls us from a visage made undesirable by suffering. He comes not to judge but to heal. He will come in glory, but now He comes in gentleness. His kingdom in this world is a kingdom of the heart. His grace works from the inside out. The Adversary is ever the master of the outside. The belief that power lies in the mastery of the human person through those things that lie outside us, calling out to us from what Scripture names “the world,” that the human person is to be managed with either the violence of unreasonable desire or the knotted cord of threat is the blind policy of the Adversary. The gift of the self to things that lie outside may begin in temptation; it will end in slavery. It may begin with accommodation, it will end with coercion. The contrast is between the slavery of Mordor and the peace of the Shire. Had God wished to create a world that expressed His power in an extrinsic beauty at the cost of leaving the human heart enslaved and unhealed, it is at least conceivable that the result would have been the dystopic vision depicted in Stepford Wives, a world of synthetic peace in which beauty is indeed skin deep, a world in which there is no gift to give because there is no heart to make the offering. But His will is otherwise. And indeed of the many ways the history of salvation can be conceived not the least apposite is the forestalling by the Lord of justice displayed in judgment on behalf of patience in the face of human folly. It is the design of the Holy Spirit, who always moves within, finally to possess the human heart through informing love. In Screwtape Letters C. S. Lewis causes the senior devil to draw the contrast: We want slaves; He wants sons. Just so God’s very providence uses omnipotence not as an end but as a means to touch the heart. Miracles have their blessed effects, bodies are healed, water made wine, but their final cause is, as it were, that those who see might give glory to God in their hearts. The very creation is the body of a divine will, not in the sense that it may be sluffed off as a transitory means or an irrelevance but because its very existence and use attest a will and a purpose. At their best the Hebrews knew that they were not to worship the stars but to witness that the heavens declare the glory of God. One may assume that in the beginning the creation in all its glory was a perfect expression of God’s power and love, but the long course of His redemption of the world in the wake of our rebellion has been ordered toward the gentle transformation of the human will, toward causing the smoking flax to burn brightly and things bent to stand straight. For as Our Lord said, it is not what goes into a man but what comes out of his mouth that attests our character (Luke 6:45). And was this not the mistake of the Pharisees; the conviction that making a fair outside, observing acutely all 513 propositions of the law, fulfilled God’s purpose? And was not the fault of Israel that often the heart was not laid on the altar with the sacrifice? And surely the purpose of the magnificent text of Matthew 5:17 following is to teach that it is the will that gives moral weight to any act; not committing murder is a good thing; loving one’s enemy is a holy thing. Of the many remarkable texts in Isaiah’s prophecies, the fifty-third chapter is singularly rich in meaning, for it offers the image of divine gentleness, of the servant whom God upholds, upon whom God’s Spirit rests, who will bring forth justice not by crying out or shouting, who will not break even a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick. We, like the inhabitants of Jerusalem whom Isaiah addresses, are bruised reeds and smoking flax; bent but not broken, smoldering but not extinguished, waiting for the touch that will make us straight and enkindle in our lives the fire of the Holy Spirit promised by John in today’s Gospel. When the Blessed Apostle Peter answered those who had come to doubt the Lord’s return because of what they conceived as long delay, he reminded them that God’s judgement was forestalled by His desire that many should find salvation (II Peter 3:9). And so it is with every life in its relation to God’s loving purpose. We can know that it is His will to deal patiently with our sins as long as the wick smolders and as long as the bent reed is not broken. The New Testament uses a word sometimes translated ‘longsuffering,’ sometimes ‘kindness,’ to describe God’s gentle dealing with broken mankind. Any move from worse to better He welcomes. He will always go out to meet the prodigal son (Luke 15:20). What is required is the grace-given ability to say, “Lord, I am a bent reed, the light that is my life flickers.” It is certainly part of the gracious mystery of the Gospel that the Servant who comes to save comes for those who can find themselves in the great image of Isaiah 43, who can see themselves as flickering lights and bent reeds. It is God’s way to lift up the lowly and to put down the mighty from their seat. The one thing that surely stops the flow of grace is the conviction that we do not need it. But God has so arranged the world that through His mercy we cannot be good without Him, and so that every attempt to do so ends in frustration and finally in desolation. It is natural to mankind to seek competence and control, and it is possible to build that fair outside cherished by the Pharisees while within we are dead men’s bones (Matthew 23:27). It is supernatural to have in our hearts the gift of the knowledge that we cannot add a day to our years or achieve the good that we intend (Romans 7:19), the good that must flow from a straightened heart, without the renovation that works gently from the inside out. God’s condescending gentleness is longsuffering but has an end. He will come in glory and majesty, his winnowing fan in His hand (Matthew 3:12). Then every knee will bow and every tongue confess (Romans 4:11). Our time for soul-making is limited, and He will not allow us into His presence until He is our desire and our reward, until we have allowed humility to work holiness in us and love for God to locate in our lives all other loves.