The First Sunday after the Epiphany - The Baptism of Our Lord, 10 January 2010

Isaiah 43:1-7
Psalm 29
Acts 8:14-17
Saint Luke 3:15-17, 21-22


It is unfortunate that the Epiphany of Our Lord (6 January) is all but forgotten in many of the churches today.  It is valuable not only because of its message of inclusion (the Magi from the East) but also its use as a theological corrective to the excesses of Christmas in the Western Church.  Christmas in our culture is all about babies, and farm animals, simple shepherds, and angels – lots of angels.  Epiphany is about something entirely different.  It is about being made manifest.  In the Eastern Church (Orthodoxy) the word “Theophany” is often used to describe the day.  A theophany is the appearance or manifestation of a god.  In the Eastern Empire, when the emperor visited a city, it was an “epiphany” because now the rule of the realm was not just a name, an inscription, or at best an image, but was an epiphany (was made real, manifest) in their presence. 

The real message of Christmas is not that God was a cute little baby with a little drummer boy measuring out a beat – but rather that God is made manifest (real) in the person of Jesus.  In this humanity, Jesus will encounter many conditions and situations that are familiar to all of humanity.  In his realness, Jesus will confront life the same way we do.  The First Sunday after the Epiphany is a Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord.  In this observance we see a Jesus who does all the necessary things under the Law, including the Baptism of John.  This day celebrates his baptism, and by extension, our baptisms as well.  Each of the readings will comment on baptism, water, and life.

Isaiah 43:1-7


Thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
nations in exchange for your life.
Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, "Give them up,"
and to the south, "Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth--
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made."

This Isaiah picks up a familiar theme, and for his readers, harks back to an event that every Jewish man or woman knew was integral to them as a people.  This event is the crossing of the Red Sea, and as Christians, we will read into these images notions of Baptism.  “I have called you by name.”  “When you pass through the waters.”  “When you walk through fire.”  All of these statements are evocative of the outpouring of both water and Spirit at Baptism.  The later verses of bringing sons and daughters from far away also brings to mind sponsors and parents bearing children to the font.  To all of us, this creating God says, “You are mine.”

Breaking Open Isaiah:

  1. What do you think this reading meant to the people of Isaiah’s time?
  2. What waters, fire, or rivers had these people crossed?
  3. Why is Isaiah so insistent that these readers are God’s and are precious in God’s sight?
  4. What does the mention of Egypt call to mind?

Psalm 29 Afferte Domino

Ascribe to the LORD, you gods, *
ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.

Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his Name; *
worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness.

The voice of the LORD is upon the waters;
the God of glory thunders; *
the LORD is upon the mighty waters.

The voice of the LORD is a powerful voice; *
the voice of the LORD is a voice of splendor.

The voice of the LORD breaks the cedar trees; *
the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon;

He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, *
and Mount Hermon like a young wild ox.

The voice of the LORD splits the flames of fire;
the voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; *
the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.

The voice of the LORD makes the oak trees writhe *
and strips the forests bare.

And in the temple of the LORD *
all are crying, "Glory!"

The LORD sits enthroned above the flood; *
the LORD sits enthroned as King for evermore.

The LORD shall give strength to his people; *
the LORD shall give his people the blessing of peace.

The Hebrews had a healthy respect for the Sea, and that respect and fear is reflected in the opening verses of this psalm.  Often the waters are used to portray death, or the threat of death.  These people did not see the sea as a friend. In this psalm, which parallels other Ancient Near Eastern hymns to deities, God appears as not only the cause but also as the continuing master of nature.  Following the Genesis image, the voice of God is not only thunderous and loud, but is also the creative voice that speaks things into being.  Thus, the voice upon the waters in verse 3 is mindful of the Spirit moving over the face of the deep in the first Creation Story in Genesis 1.  The use of the psalm here, on this particular Sunday, is to remind us not only of the power of water, but the power of water connected with God’s word.  Thus Christians can use that same image of water as both life and death, as we are “baptized into the death of Jesus.” 

Breaking open Psalm 29
  1. What waters might the psalmist have in mind in this psalm?  Can you think of various “water events” in the Old Testament?
  2. The psalm pictures God as enthroned – upon what is he enthroned?
  3. How do you understand this psalm?

Acts 8:14-17

When the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

In Acts (the second volume of the Gospel of Luke) we follow an on-going development of the early Church, and in particular, the ministry of St Paul. As the Gospel of Jesus spreads across Palestine, and later into Asia Minor, the leaders in Jerusalem begin to react to the new demands. In this reading, however, we learn something about early Christian baptismal practice.  The Jerusalem party finds out that the Christians of Samaria had only been baptized in the “Name of Jesus”, and had not received an out-pouring of the Holy Spirit.  As the notion and doctrine of the Trinity develops during this time, the liturgical words that enclose Baptism will change so that all the persons of the Trinity are connected to this act. 

Breaking open Acts:
  1. Where were you baptized?  At what age?
  2. What do you think it means to “receive the Holy Spirit?”
  3. What does this reading say about the role of Peter and John?

Saint Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

The Baptism of Jesus in Luke is almost a non-event.  It is sandwiched in between the “the expectation of the people” and John’s preaching, and a rather long genealogy, explaining exactly who Jesus was in terms of his ancestry.  The placement of the Baptism at the beginning of the long list of ancestors, however, says more about who Jesus was.  John, like the prophet that he is, proclaims dire consequences that come with the Coming One, Jesus.  Jesus, however, simply acquiesces to John’s baptism, and then has two visions (do the people share them?)  The first is the descent of the Spirit, in the form of the dove.  The second is heard – a voice from heaven telling exactly who Jesus is. 

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What were the people expecting?
  2. What do you think that John was expecting?
  3. What was Jesus expecting?
  4. What do you expect from your own baptism?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.


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