Living in Pattern (Isaiah 42:1-9)

Just about a week ago, my family gathered in Kansas City, Missouri, to celebrate Christmas—but more importantly, to celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. Christmas comes but once a year, as the saying goes, but a golden anniversary is once in a lifetime and only then if you’re lucky. So I hope Baby Jesus will forgive our skewed priorities just this once!

Because I’m a knitter and we had nearly 40 total hours of road trip driving ahead of us, I naturally took along a sweater project to work on. I made sure all the tricky parts were done before we left, so all I had to do in the car was what knitwear designers call “knitting in pattern.” Knitting in pattern means that whatever stitch you come to in the previous row, you make that same stitch again. If you worked a v-shaped knit stitch the last time around, you work in pattern to make another knit stitch in the row above it. When you get to a purl bump in the row below, you work in pattern and purl another stitch on the current row. Knitting in pattern is easy if you can “read your work”—that is, if you can recognize the difference between knit and purl stitches—if you can read your work, you can knit in pattern without referring back to the written instructions. It’s a great skill for long, boring car rides, like the ride from DC to KC.

When I was growing up we moved a lot, but no matter where we lived, we went back to Kansas City for Christmas. Every time we were there, we’d visit the cemetery where my grandfather is buried. We’d visit my great-aunts and -uncles in their homes full of faded photographs and family heirlooms. We’d get temporarily reacquainted with our cousins, who were growing up and away just like we were. Our trip this year felt like “knitting in pattern,” or maybe like Christmas-ing in pattern. All my grandparents are gonenow, and so are my great-aunts and -uncles—the generation of relatives who witnessed my parents joining their lives together fifty years ago. But in many ways this trip felt just like every Kansas City Christmas of my childhood: we got reacquainted around the table with people we hadn’t seen in years, even decades. We felt the absence of those who were missing. We hugged each other and exclaimed at how we’ve changed and how we’ve stayed the same and how big the kids have grown. We said out loud the things we have in common and kept our mouths shut about the things we knew would reignite old conflicts. Just like every Christmas, just like every visit. And I’m guessing just like every family.

Maybe that all sounds familiar to you. Maybe you saw it too over the holiday season, wherever you were gathered, whoever you were with, whatever you were remembering. Maybe, like me, you looked around a table and saw where you came from, patterns that were set in place long before you came into the picture, patterns that knit together the generations of your family, past, present, and future.

I know Advent seems like a long time ago, but you probably remember that in the season of Advent here at church, we explored the theme “From Generation to Generation.” Advent is over now, and Christmas has come and gone, all twelve days of it, but we know that “from generation to generation” never really ends. Our own stories continue, just as Jesus’s does. Just this week was Epiphany on January 6, when we remember the story from the Gospel of Matthew of how the magi visited the holy family and brought the child Jesus some rather odd gifts and then went “home by another way” to avoid King Herod’s horrors. 

After the magi’s journey, in one quick chapter, Matthew tells a bunch of short stories: of Herod’s violence, two different angelic visits, the holy family’s escape to Egypt as refugees and their eventual safe return to their homeland after the awful king’s death. Then, in the blink of an eye—the way all children seem to grow up—by chapter 3, little Baby Jesus has become a man. He goes to the riverside where his cousin John the Baptist is hanging out proclaiming the kingdom to come. All four Gospel writers describe Jesus’s baptism by John; Matthew’s version is just five verses. Listen to 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 is fitting that every year on the first Sunday of the season of Epiphany we remember Jesus’s baptism. This is his first adult action, as far as the Bible records it. Mary and Joseph had received angelic messages that prepared them for their unique child, but this is apparently the first time Jesus gets a divine direct message that he is God’s beloved Son. Talk about a lightbulb moment! Talk about an epiphany!

But I wonder if this is really when Jesus first understands who he is and what he is called to do? Because, as we saw as we awaited his arrival during Advent, Jesus didn’t suddenly appear on the scene out of nowhere. He was part of a family of faith, a biological lineage and a spiritual ancestry. He was part of a pattern that God had been—dare I say knitting—from generation to generation.

In Kansas City last week, I saw patterns in real life, in real time. Just being there reminded me of visiting the grave of the grandfather I never knew. He owned a stamp and coin store; maybe it’s perfectly in pattern that one of my favorite places in DC is the National Postal Museum. It reminded me of my grandmother, the quilter, who was always busy with her hands; maybe it’s perfectly in pattern that I too am always stitching. I watched my kids getting to know their great-aunts and -uncles and their cousins and it reminded me how perfectly in pattern this visit was, even as they all grow up and away. It also reminded me that they’ll have to have their own lightbulb moment—their own epiphany—about the pattern they are part of.

Of all the many patterns that shape our lives, some patterns are simple and delightful, like stamps and stitching. But the truth is, some are painful patterns that we cannot change; we have to learn to work them with gentleness and grace, to accommodate them even when it is hard to accept them. Some are harmful patterns that must be recognized so they can be broken, turned into something new or unraveled completely. 

And some are patterns we can trust, patterns we can learn to read so we can take up the work and continue them faithfully, one stitch at a time. The Scripture we heard this morning from Isaiah 42 is this kind of pattern. This is one of four “servant songs” in the book of Isaiah. The prophet Isaiah lived around seven centuries—many, many generations—before Jesus came into the picture. Isaiah’s prophecies span the time when the people of Israel lived in exile in Babylon, and Isaiah proclaimed messages of both judgment and hope to God’s oppressed and dispersed people.

The “servant song” in Isaiah 42 describes a special servant of God who will “bring forth justice to the nations,” who will “not cry out or lift up his voice,” who will “not grow faint or be crushed.” When Christians hear the prophet’s pattern for a humble servant who comes to bring God’s justice, we recognize a picture of Jesus. Especially on this day, Isaiah’s description of the servant “whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights” reminds us of Jesus’s baptism, and the astounding voice from the heavens breaking through the clouds to declare that Jesus is God’s Son, whom God loves, with whom God is well pleased. But this “servant song” is not just a picture of Jesus. Isaiah 42 is a pattern for all God’s people.

Seven-hundred-something years before Jesus’s advent, when the prophet Isaiah first delivered these words from God to the exiled people of Israel, the people needed hope and promise and direction and renewal now, not just in a distant future, not just for generations they would not live to see. They were defeated, separated by force from their homeland and from the center of their spiritual life. They needed to see the strands that joined them together with the generations of faithful servants who came before them. They needed to see themselves in the work that God was still knitting, even through hardship and harm’s way, to bring justice and righteousness to the whole world. They needed to hear the prophet’s call to live faithfully in pattern, because God intended to keep working even in and through them. 

From generation to generation. To Jesus. And even to us.

Over and over again Matthew’s Gospel points out the pattern that knits the life of Jesus together with the ancient Hebrew Scriptures. Matthew expects his readers to be familiar with the exodus and the exile, with the Promised Land and the prophets’ proclamations. With Jesus’s baptism, Matthew’s audience is supposed to have this epiphany: that Jesus, standing in the river with John the Baptizer, is the servant described by Isaiah, the beloved one whom God upholds. For Matthew, Jesus’s conception, his birth, his baptism, his ministry, and his suffering all bear out the messages of Isaiah and the other Old Testament prophets.

Yes, Jesus lived and served and suffered in ways that were completely unique, but he also lived and served and suffered in ways that were completely “in pattern.” He did not come out of nowhere. Jesus’s way was God’s way, and God’s way is the way of God’s people, all God’s faithful servants who take up the pattern, from generation to generation. 

Listen again to some of Isaiah 42; can you hear the pattern?

Thus says God, the Lord, “I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.” (Is 42:1-2a, 3b, 4, 5a, 6-9)

Knitters “read the work” so we can pick up yarn and needles and add to the stitching that has already begun. When we “read the work” of Isaiah’s “servant song” we see the pattern established, the “former things” that make the way for God’s ongoing work of delight, of justice, of restoration. We recognize this pattern in the lives of faithful servants like Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David. We recognize it in faithful prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Isaiah himself. We recognize it in faithful women, like Deborah and Esther, Ruth and Rahab. We recognize it in Jesus, the Beloved Son, and in those who joined the pattern through Jesus’s ministry: the fishermen who became disciples, the women who served and followed and led, the zealous persecutor who became the zealous apostle, all the visionaries and the letter-writers and the very first church folks. 

In the prophet’s words and in the Bible’s stories we recognize all God’s faithful servants and God’s beloved Son. And around the table—this table, and every table wherever, whenever we gather with family, friends, and communities of faith—we recognize the generations of people who take up God’s work today. We see where we came from, the former things come to pass, and we see where new designs are springing forth, ready for us to join in. God, who has worked this pattern from the beginning, is working it still, even in and through us. The pattern that was set in place long before we came into the picture continues when we learn to read the work, then take up the strands and knit together, one fumbling stitch at a time.

God, where there are patterns in our lives, in our communities, and in our nation that need gentle care, give us grace to tend them. Where there are patterns that must be broken, give us courage and strength to unravel them. And where you have set patterns of faithfulness, of justice, of restoration, of deep love and delight, teach us to read your work so we can join you in making things new. Amen.

And now may the Lord bless you and keep you—and keep you in pattern. May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and uphold you be gracious to you. May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and delight in you, and give you peace, now and forever. Amen.


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