The Baptism of Our Lord, 8 January 2017

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

Background: The Dove

The dove as a religious symbol appears in many of the religions of the Ancient Near East, signifying or associated with the various fertility goddesses Atargatis, Ishtar, Astarte, and Aphrodite. In the Gilgamesh Epic as in the Noah story of the Hebrew Scriptures, a dove is released to find land. It is in the Talmud that we first begin to see the association of the dove with the Spirit of God, although in subsequent Jewish literature the dove is associated with the human soul. In the Matthean baptismal account, Jesus is blessed through an appearance of a dove, which lights on his shoulder and is followed by the Voice, which announces Jesus as “beloved Son”. Mark and Luke also share the imagery of the dove, and also the connection with the Voice – an evocation of the connection of the mighty wind (ru’ah – spirit) in the Genesis first creation account. Later use of the dove in Christian literature takes the dove and olive branch of the Noah story and aligning it with the ideas of peace and amity.

First Reading: 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.

There are two “songs” here, the first (verses 1-4) from the author we have designated as Second Isaiah, and the second (verses 5-9) from Third Isaiah. They don’t date from the same period and have very different emphases. The first pericope is one of the so-called “Servant Songs” in which there is a royal designation of a servant who will “bring forth” justice (mišpāt) in the nations, in truth, and in the earth. These words of justice are all encompassing, in that it is available to those who are troubled in life, or as the commentator Claus Westermann says, “already under sentence of death.”[1] The servant does not dispense justice as a king or a judge would, but rather announces by word of mouth the justice of God.

The second pericope was written by another author, and comes from a different period in the history of the collection we know as Isaiah. The initial verse describes the attributes of the YHWH who then calls Israel to be a sign to the nations of the earth. The signs are the unmistakable signs of messianic presence: “to open eyes,” and “to bring out prisoners.” In verse 8 we have the reason that the framers of the Lectionary have used this passage on this day. The great Name is invoked, and it stands in contrast to others who would be gods, and distinguishes those that follow God. The previous verse describes the deeds that set both nation and God apart, and the final verse describes future action that will continue to make God known among the peoples. They are not a surprise, for the promise is that they will be announced – “I tell you of them.”

Breaking open Isaiah:
1.          What does justice mean to you?
2.          How might a religious person “bring forth” justice?
3.         How do you promote justice?

Psalm 29 Afferte Domino

     Ascribe to the Lord, you gods, *
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
2      Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his Name; *
worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.
3      The voice of the Lord is upon the waters;
the God of glory thunders; *
the Lord is upon the mighty waters.
4      The voice of the Lord is a powerful voice; *
the voice of the Lord is a voice of splendor.
5      The voice of the Lord breaks the cedar trees; *
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon;
6      He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, *
and Mount Hermon like a young wild ox.
7      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.
8      The voice of the Lord makes the oak trees writhe *
and strips the forests bare.
9      And in the temple of the Lord *
all are crying, "Glory!"
10    The Lord sits enthroned above the flood; *
the Lord sits enthroned as King for evermore.
11    The Lord shall give strength to his people; *
the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace.

Artur Weiser describes this psalm as a hymn of praise of the theophany of YHWH. Others see in it a reworking of a hymn in praise of the Canaanite thunder god. The first verse hints at a remembrance of a polytheistic practice in its, “Ascribe to the Lord, you gods”, which Alter translates as “Grant to the Lord, O sons of God,” and Weiser as “Ascribe to the Lord glory, ye sons of gods.” Whatever its provenance, this psalm glories in a cosmic God, who manifests power over who aspects of the creation. “The voice of the Lord is upon the waters,” recalls the primordial battle that brings chaos into order, and God’s power is seen as encompassing a wide area – from the forests of Lebanon to the wilderness of Kadesh (Sinai). The vision is of the God who is enthroned on the flood, once again an ancient image common in the Ancient Near East. But this is a God who is not separated or removed from the people, for the final verse describes the gifts that God does bring to them. From the Christian perspective the numerous references to water speak powerfully of the gift of baptism.

Breaking open Psalm 29:
1.     How do you image God’s power?
2.     Does God still “shake up” the world? How?
3.    What do the “waters” signify to you?

The Second Reading: Acts 10:34-43

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.”

The context for Peter’s speech here is the conversion of Cornelius, and in it we see not only the conversion of Cornelius and his household, but of Peter as well. It is best summarized as, “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives the forgiveness of sins through his name.” It is the “everyone” that interests Luke here, making his case for the inclusion of Gentiles in the Jesus movement. Peter’s sermon is redolent of both salvation history and creed. To that end he speaks of the authority in which he makes this pronouncement, “We are witnesses to all that he did.” With that history and with that authority, Peter reaches out to a new component of the church.

Breaking open Acts:
  1. What is Peter trying to prove in his sermon?
  2. How is Peter a witness?
  3. What is Cornelius’ response?

The Gospel: 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.”

Jesus models several behaviors for Matthew’s readers – humility and identification with everyman or woman. John understands what lies beneath Jesus’ humility and his divine mission, and he also understands his own unworthiness to honor Jesus’ request to be baptized. What follow after the baptism appears (at least in Matthew and in Mark) an interior theophany in which Jesus becomes aware of the heavens being opened and the voice announcing him as the beloved son.  Matthew’s rendition of the voice seems more like a pronouncement, however, while Mark’s seems more private. Both reflect the first verse of Isaiah 42:1.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     Why does Jesus seek baptism?
2.     Why does John object?
3.    What does Jesus expect?

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]Westermann, C. (1969), Isaiah 40-66, A Commentary, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, page 97.


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