The Baptism of Our Lord, 12 January 2014

Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
Acts 10:34-43
St. Matthew 3:13-17

Background:  The Baptism of Our Lord
Although the Baptism of Jesus was one of the texts associated with The Epiphany (along with the Visit of the Magi, and the Wedding at Cana) it was only in the middle of the 20th Century that the Gospel text became a focus of a day set aside to honor it.  In 1955 Pope Pius XII set aside a special day to honor the feast.  Later, John XXIII, set aside 13 January to honor the feast, followed by Paul VI’s directive to honor the day on the Sunday following The Epiphany of Our Lord.  As these revisions made their way into the Lectionary and Calendar following the reforms of Vatican II, Lutherans and Anglicans began honoring the day in their Calendars as well.  The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) brought the day to Protestant denominations.  With the celebration of the Baptism of Our Lord, the season of Christmastide comes to an end, with the following Sundays falling into Ordinary Time.

Isaiah 42:1-9

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;

I have put my spirit upon him;

he will bring forth justice to the nations.

He will not cry or lift up his voice,

or make it heard in the street;

a bruised reed he will not break,

and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;

he will faithfully bring forth justice.

He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

Thus says God, the LORD,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,

who spread out the earth and what comes from it,

who gives breath to the people upon it

and spirit to those who walk in it:

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 the 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.

This reading is composed of two pericopes.  The first, “Behold my servant” is comprised of verses 1-4, and the second, “I call you in righteousness” is includes verses 5-9.  Thus begins the first of the so-called “Servant Songs” of Deutero-Isaiah.  The theme of the first pericope is quite simple – God designates an individual as God’s servant.  Such servants were not unique to Isaiah, as others had preceded this revelation.  Consider Gideon in Judges 6, who is selected to deliver the people of Israel from the fear of and oppression by Midian.  There are other individuals that appear during the time Israel moved from charismatic leadership to the Monarchy.  So what is the task of this servant? There are three specific tasks, which can become grist for the preacher’s mill: 1) verse 1c: “to bring forth justice to the nations.” 2) Verse 3c: “brings forth justice in truth.” and 3) verse 4b: “establishes justice in the earth.”  If we are content to deal with “justice” as the prime descriptor of the task, we will have missed a great deal.  The other meaning of justice (mi˘spat) is judgment.  The audience of this judgment is not Israel but rather “the nations” and “the earth.”  In other words, the servant is to judge the nations concerning their knowledge of YHWH.  The intent of this task can be seen again in Isaiah 45:20-25.

The second pericope expands on the servant’s task, which is put into the context of creation.  It is the Creator-God who asks for this person’s commitment, and it is God’s creative intent and on-going care that forms the background to the servant’s work.  Of importance are not only the creative acts (“the heavens, and stretched them out”, and “spread out the earth”) but also the role of the Spirit as breath and as life itself.  The assumption here is that not only the people are enlivened with this breath, but that the servant is also anointed for this work.  The work is not only that of the servant but of the entirety of Israel.  Perhaps the servant is the model of this creative agency.  Both are called to be lights to the nations.  Other verbs follow: “open the eyes,” “bring out the prisoners”.  These are themes that would speak powerfully to those who had been in exile, or in “darkness” as Isaiah puts it.  All that was, is now gone, and something new is expected.  These are appropriate thoughts at the Baptism of Jesus.

Breaking open Isaiah:

1.     Whom do you think Isaiah’s servant is?
2.     Is it a single person or the whole people?
3.     How are you a servant?

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 opening line of this psalm immediately immerses us in a discussion about the origins of Hebrew biblical poetry, for this psalm seems to indicate to us (as do others) that the psalmists used the models in Canaanite and other literatures as they produced their own hymns and psalms.  Some have felt that this is a “remodeled” hymn to one of the Ba’alim, namely the one associated with thunder.  Regardless of the template, we have here a psalm devoted to YHWH’s voice, the breath that enables all of creation.  The aspects of God here are also represented in the creation stories.  From a vision of God in glory we take a journey through the God who is “over the mighty waters” – a reference to the God who brings order from chaos.  The appearance of the Lebanon cedars gives us a sense of the scope the psalmist wishes to afford YHWH, literally from the north to the south, from the heights (Lebanon) to the depths (the Kadesh wilderness).  The voice is ubiquitous not only in the places of the earth, but also in its creatures (“the birth-pangs of does”) (see Robert Alter’s translation).  The enthronement above the flood reiterates YHWH’s place among the gods, as the One who sits above the disorder of the primeval world, and begins creation.  And here is the probable reason that this psalm was chosen for this day, where water, once the threat of death, becomes the reality of new life.  I especially like the line of verse 9, “And in the temple (or palace) of YHWH all are crying, ‘Glory!’”  It is not only God who has voice here, but the people as well.  The final gifts are strength and peace, pronounced over the turmoil of the world.

Breaking open Psalm 29:
  1. How does God rule over the chaos in your life?
  2. How do you see God active as a force in the world?
  3. What does God’s voice say to you?

Acts 10:34-43

Then Peter began to speak to them: "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ--he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name."

Here Luke sees the mission of Christ beginning with the Baptism of Jesus.  A more pertinent idea is introduced before that, however: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality…” The baptism of Jesus, and the pronouncement from heaven are seen as no longer the property of Jesus, but the acceptance of all “who fear him and do what is right.”  Luke sees God anointing Jesus “with the Holy Spirit and with power,” and then continues on in an almost creedal formula about the works of Jesus.  Soon, however, he introduces a role for us, just as Isaiah introduces a role for “the servant”.  The roles are: “witnesses”, “preachers”, “testifiers” and finally, “believers.”  These roles flow from our own baptism, and the forgiveness of sins that comes “through his name.”  This is a good time to review the baptismal vows and covenants that we have made.

Breaking open Acts:
  1. Are there any that you see outside of God’s grace?  If so, who are they?
  2. How is that you are among those who have been saved?
  3. How do you enact the baptismal vows and covenants in your life?

St. Matthew 3:13-17

Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

There are several things that can send us on a journey of discovery here.  As a background to this text we might want to explore the evangelist’s fascination with Deutero-Isaiah, specifically with chapter 43, and especially with verse 2,

When you pass through waters, I will be with you;
through rivers, you shall not be swept away.
When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned,
nor will flames consume you.”

This verse associated with the servant, can inform us of God’s intent toward us, especially as we begin a new life through either Baptism itself, or our remembrance of Baptism.  Matthew’s view is that Jesus begins something new, and it is informed by Jesus’ answer to John, when he objects to Jesus coming for baptism by him: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”  We may quickly link “all righteousness” with the Law, and we would be wrong.  The righteousness that Jesus sees here is the same that Deutero-Isaiah sees – and that is God’s intents for God’s people.  Luke’s vision of Jesus ministry in the reading from Acts underscores this connection.  As in Isaiah, God calls a servant, her Jesus.  What the servant is to do, in Matthew’s view, is laid out in the Prophets, in the Law, and in the Writings. 

Of special interest to me is what follows the baptism itself.  If we look carefully at Matthews’s review of what follows it appears that the pronouncement from the heavens is a largely interior event on the part of Jesus.  Like the call of Jeremiah or Isaiah or the servant, the validation of mission and ministry is held in the heart and in the mind.  Like those before him he is blessed with the Spirit and announced as God’s Son.  For those interested, and for another psychological view of this transaction, you may wish to read the initial chapters of Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ, where a dark figure pursues Jesus in the wilderness.  Satan?  No, it is the Spirit who pursues him with mission and destiny.  Who will pursue us following our renewal of baptismal vows?

Breaking open Gospel:
1.      What does “righteousness” mean to you?
2.      In what ways did Jesus “fulfill all righteousness”?
3.      How does the Spirit pursue you?

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.

All questions and commentary copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller


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