The Baptism of Our Lord, 10 January 2016

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

The Baptism of Clovis

Background: Baptism

Christian baptism does not emerge as a totally new thing as the rites and sacraments of the church evolve in the first century, but rather come out of a cultural context that had various ritual washings. We know this intuitively from the Gospels themselves that describe the ministry of John the Baptist. The nomenclature itself is borrowed from the ordinary usage expressed in the Greek Bapto (to dip). From this verb the noun Baptisma came into being. 

Jewish rites, which prefigure the Christian rite, signaled conversion to Judaism and were a repeatable event. The ruins at Qumran suggest a community that had many baptismal rituals that may have influenced John the Baptist in his ministry. The role, mode, and formula of Baptism have evolved over time. Paul, in commenting on the life of the early church notes “the baptism of John”, and “the baptism in the name of Jesus.” Later, baptism was not only in the name of Jesus but also in each of the names of the Triune God. As to mode, there are several developments, immersion, in the morning at cock crow, in “pure and flowing water”, in the nude, children being baptized first, followed by the men and then the water.” Later, baptism was accompanied by instruction, along with anointing with oil, laying on of hands, and exorcisms. The Apostles’ Creed is thought to be largely a baptismal creed.

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."

Often the Scriptures will denote a cusp in time – the emergence of a new reality and experience. We saw that in the birth narrative of Luke who saw the coming of Jesus as the fulfillment of a line of promises beginning with Adam. Paul notes in Galatians 4, “But when the fullness of time had come.” This is the notion with which Second Isaiah is working in this “Oracle of Salvation.” In the previous chapter the prophet has noted a “new song” but here notes a “new hour.” This is a time when fear is banished, and the normal dangers of life are abated. God is in control over the waters, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you:” an allusion to the Red Sea passing – another moment of salvation. The image of God here is not a parochial one – for this God is the God of the nations. Out of God’s love for Israel and Jacob, and possessing lordship over the nation, God chooses to free, and to ransom. Why? “Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” The present of this distinction makes for a new future in which the beloved people are gathered and returned to their own land.

Breaking open Isaiah:
  1. In the passage what “new events” are witnessed by Israel?
  2. What “new things” are evident in your life?
  3. How are they related to your faith?

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.

There is a great deal of discussion and conjecture about the origins of this psalm. Several commentators see in its passages a Canaanite psalm honoring the Canaanite thunder god, Ba’al that has been rewritten to honor YHWH. We see the reference in the first verse, “Ascribe to the Lord, you gods (sons of God)” that allows for the mythic images that informed Canaanite and Israelite religious literature. Others argue that it is only the reflection of the influence of Canaanite culture and literature. Regardless it is a compendium of powerful images that reflect the ancient notion that God orders creation from chaos. There are two geographical references in the psalm that give the reader a notion of the scope of God’s suasion, “The Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.” (the north) and then, “the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.” (the south). Robert Alter[1] suggests that the mention of the “Temple” in verse 9 is better translated as “palace”, thus placing all the action and praise in the celestial sphere, rather than in the localized temple.  Mythic images obtain in the 10th verse, with God enthroned on the waters, and as a king blessing the people with strength and peace.

Breaking open Psalm 29
  1. How do you picture “power” in your world?
  2. How does God fit into those images?
  3. Where do you see God’s glory?

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.

St. Peter baptises Cornelius
What we have here is a Lucan description of how baptism was understood, and re-understood over time. What Luke sees in this event is the completion of the conversion, through Baptism in the Name of Jesus, with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Clearly, this is a facility that is related to the Apostles (and less clearly to the church). Later we will see the same pairing in the baptism of Cornelius (see 10:44ff.). The initiation of the Samaritans and the Gentiles is linked not only to the name of Jesus, but to the gift of the Spirit as well.

Breaking open Acts:
  1. When were you baptized?
  2. Who were your sponsors?
  3. How do your continue to remember your baptism today?

St. 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."

“As the people were filled with expectation,” indicates that Luke too sees a change in times and circumstances. This tension is met with an appearance of John the Baptist who continues here his messianic message. The images that accompany his indication that someone greater than he will follow, are powerful images: winnowing, clearing the threshing floor, gathering the wheat, and burning the chaff.” These are homespun but relate well to the powerful images in the psalm above. John is preparing them to see power. (The consequences of this preaching are outlined in the elided verses (18-20)).

In Luke 1:17, the angel announces to Zechariah the qualities of the promised son, and says these words, “to prepare a people fit for the Lord.” Thus Luke notes, “Now when all the people were baptized.” The scene is complete – the “people fit” are gathered, and in their number is the one “who is more powerful than I.” To the naked eye, all seems ordinary here, but Luke pictures the newly baptized Jesus as “praying.” In that state and status, Jesus experiences something truly shattering. In Isaiah 63:19, the prophet makes a feeble prayer – more of a reckless hope, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down.” Here the language portrays that we all have jumped over a messianic line, “the heaven was opened.” The Voice announces the investiture of Jesus as not only the new servant destined to follow the Lord (as in Isaiah’s Songs of the Suffering Servant) but also as the prophet whose work is deemed excellent.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What kinds of expectations do you have?
  2. In what way is God present in them?
  3. Did baptism make you God’s servant? How?

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 © 2016, Michael T. Hiller

[1]     Alter, R. (2009), The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, W. W. Norton & Company, Kindle location 2742.


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