The First Sunday after the Epiphany, The Baptism of Our Lord, 11 January 2015

Genesis 1:1-5
Psalm 29
Acts 19:1-7
St. Mark 1:4-11

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.

Genesis 1:1-5

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

I wonder who the genius was that selected this reading as the first lesson for the Baptism of Our Lord. All kinds of things resonate here – the opportunity represented by the tohu wabohu, the presence of the Spirit hovering over the face of the deep, the first day, the beginning day, the wind and the waters, and the light and the darkness.  All of these connect in one way or another to the situation at the baptism of Jesus, and send our minds off thinking of the possibilities.  I am reminded of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism and his reference to our daily rising as a new man or a new woman.  Baptism sweeps us back to the beginning of things, and this reading functions for us liturgically much in the same way as St. John’s prologue. Most telling for me, however, is the wind over the waters. When Fr. Kenneth Schmidt, Rector of All Saints Church in San Francisco performs a baptism there is always insufflation (quite vocal) over the waters of the font. It fills me with the mystery of baptism, and almost primal sense of awe. I hope that is what the lectionary is driving us to here.

Breaking open Genesis:
  1. How is Baptism like creation?
  2. In what ways have you been recreated?
  3. How is the Spirit active in your life?

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.

If the first lesson has not brought us into the realm of the primordial myth, then this psalm certainly must. The image of God here is the image that the ancient near east shared in common – the God who subdues the deep and orders the flood. That image will continue from its Mesopotamian and Canaanite roots into the literature of not only Israel but the Church as well. Again, I am reminded of Luther, and his catechetical question, “How can water do such great things?” There is an implicit power in water, a power that held the ancient Hebrews in a certain sense of awe. So the God we see here, “sit(ing) enthroned above the flood,” invites that power into our lives as well. “The Lord shall give strength to (God’s) people.” The first reading and the psalm set up a context of symbol and myth into which we can place the episode of Jesus and the Baptist. The nuances of both are worthy of spiritual exploration.

Breaking open Psalm 29:
  1. How is each morning new for you?
  2. What does the Spirit drive you to do?
  3. How is God enthroned in the midst of your life?

Acts 19:1-7

While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. He said to them, "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?" They replied, "No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit." Then he said, "Into what then were you baptized?" They answered, "Into John's baptism." Paul said, "John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus." On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied-- altogether there were about twelve of them.

By this time we should be fully aware of the Spirit’s role in Baptism and in the new creation. If we are not, Luke/Paul will certainly make that happen. There is another revealing as well, and that is the continuing influence of the Baptist, his teaching, and his baptism. In this pericope we meet “some disciples”, but as we hear their story we realize that they are disciples of John. And once again we are reminded of the Prologue of the Evangelist John,

A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. (John 1:6-9)

Even in this period at some distance chronologically and geographically, Luke/Paul has to make corrections about John, and to insert a proper understanding of what was entailed in baptism. That John (the Evangelist) must do so also some decades later, discloses the power and attractiveness of the Baptist’s message. It is Paul, however, who wants to order things correctly, and more importantly, to not just teach, but to demonstrate as well, “the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.” What that might mean for us today would make for a powerful discussion.

Breaking open Acts:
  1. Why was the teaching of John the Baptist so popular?
  2. Why does Luke/Paul insist on the laying on of hands and the gift of the Spirit?
  3. Do you feel a power in your baptism?

St. Mark 1:4-11

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

To sense the note of expectation and fulfillment that Mark invokes here, read Malachi 3:1, or Isaiah 40:3 to see the role that Mark has the Baptizer play here. Even more interesting is the passage from Exodus 23:20, where the expectation of a messenger, an angel is pronounced. The appearance of this messenger is tied then to the appearance of Jesus who comes to John with the people who are drawn to the Jordan Valley, and to John. Mark does as Luke and John the Evangelist later do by describing John the Baptist’s relationship with (or perhaps “attitude” in a relational/spatial sense) Jesus.

The transaction between John and Jesus is simply noted. There is not theological discourse about the appropriateness of the actions, but rather a simple action – baptism. It is in the realizations that Jesus has that we come to the import of the pericope, and even here it is a hidden sense. It is Jesus who sees and realizes these things – not the people. That will come later, a true Marcan feature.  What happens, however, happens quickly with the vision of the descent of the Spirit, and the heavenly voice. The blessings that the voice imparts will be visited again on the Mount of the Transfiguration, but a lot will have happened between those two points. The verse following the pericope poignantly describes the affect of the Spirit, “And just then the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness.” Mark has us begin an adventure.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What do you think the people were thinking while Jesus was having his vision?
  2. What was John thinking?
  3. What kind of example does Jesus set?

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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2015, Michael T. Hiller


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