The Baptism of Our Lord, The First Sunday after the Epiphany, 13 January 2019

The Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, 13 January 2019

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

Something New: A Sermon based on these Texts: Baptism of Our Lord.

Background: The Baptism of Our Lord

This feast day which is central to the celebration of the Epiphany in the Eastern Church, has seen a great deal of evoloution in the Western Church. It was Pope John XXIII who began the revisions of this feast day as the “Commemoration of the Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ”, kept on 13 January, seven days following the Feast of the Epiphany. Later, Pope Paul VI reset the date as the first Sunday following the Feast of the Epiphany. The Baptism of our Lord is celebrated in Anglican (Episcopal) and Lutheran Churches following the Roman rule. 

First Reading: 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."

In this wonderful text, Isaiah explores the relationship that the Creator has with the created (see especially verses 1 and 7 which make for a chiasmus on this theme). There are references not only to the creation story, but to events in Salvation History as well: “You have passed through the waters, rivers, fire”. Redemption is taken quite literally with Egypt, Ethiopia, and Seba given “in exchange for you.” The latter days are not forgotten either, as the prophet looks forward to the return of the exile – a universal expectation from both the north and south. This remembrance, and the new expectations urge Israel to review its relationship with God. The realizations are stated succinctly in the initial verses of the pericope. God redeems, calls by name, and intimately knows (calls by name) God’s people. These understandings of relationship are paired with God’s having created and formed the people. 

The water references certainly refer to the Red Sea story, and its subsequent events at the Jordan River. They also, in their intimation of God’s conquering of the deep see God as one who redeems from death (the sea). These references make this an appropriate reading for this feast day.

Breaking open Isaiah:
  1. What does water mean to you?
  2. How does water save you?
  3. How do you remember your baptism?

Psalm 29 Afferte Domino

1      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.

We last saw this psalm on Trinity Sunday, where it was used to extol the greatness of God, and God’s power. In all three cycles of the lectionary, it is used on this feast day especially with regard to verse 3 and verse 8. Verse 3 reminds us of the ancient conquest of God conquering the ancient chaos, dividing the land from the water, “The voice of the Lord is upon the waters.” There are several instances in the ancient texts where God prevails upon the waters both universally is in creation, and particularly as at the Red Sea and at the Jordan River. Even more evocative on this Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, is the reference to the writhing of the oak trees in verse 8. Robert Alter has an alternative translation that literally leaps off the page on a day such as this, “The LORD’s voice brings on the birth-pangs of does and lays bare the forests.”[1]Water is very much a part of birth, and the womb – baptismal font connection is helpful. I like Alter’s rendition in that it high-lights the role of God, water, mother, and birth – a helpful constellation on this day.

Breaking open Psalm 29:
  1. How is Baptism like a birth?
  2. What are the birth pangs that accompany it?
  3. What can women teach us about Baptism?

Second Reading: 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.

If the Epiphany makes us aware of the universal appeal of the Gospel, in this text we see both the spread of the Gospel and the evolution and spread of Baptism. Samaria would indicate the radical nature of the Gospel being given to those outside of the traditional realm of Judaism. Samaria, ancient capital of the Northern Kingdom, and seat of the Samaritans, target of the animosity of Jerusalem, becomes the place where a baptism has been celebrated. Peter and John bring an additional gift – the gift of the Holy Spirit. In this quick comment, Luke makes us aware of how the understanding and practice of Baptism was changing and developing. Also of importance is the apostolic laying on of hands. We see a church growing not only in its evangelism, but liturgically as well. 

Breaking open Acts:
  1. When were you baptized?
  2. What do you remember about it?
  3. What gifts did the Spirit give you?

The Gospel: 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. " 

This reading begins with a crackle and buzz, “As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning…” It’s a fluid situation that Luke presents here – Jesus’ baptism amongst an energized and wondering people. There is expectation about John which he quickly redirects to Jesus. What is grist for the mill here is the mindset of the people who witness the baptism – their hopes and expectation. John’s explanation is equally vibrant with the Spirit, the winnowing, the gathering, and the chaff burned in the fire. All of this surrounds the national quest for the Messiah – what will this Messiah be? Who will be this Messiah? John brings the question down to earth, down to sandals and threshing floors, down to the ordinary. 

Luke’s baptism happens in a flash, almost a sidelight in this buzzing scene of expectation. What the people are seeking, Jesus also seeks. However, what the people are hoping for will be radically changed by this Jesus who comes to the Jordan. In Mark’s version of the baptism, a great deal of it is an interior vision, “he saw”. Here in Luke the vision is shared with the people, the Spirit descends in bodily form, and the voice is heard. Is the creation story here as well? That possibility broadens Luke’s rendition of the Baptism of Jesus. All are involved, all are witnesses.

Breaking open the Gospel: 
  1. What did Jesus experience at his baptism?
  2. What did the people see and hear?
  3. About what do you have expectation?

Initial idea:                  The voice of God.

Idea One:                     The voice of God creates and redeems (Isaiah)

Idea Two:                    The voice of God makes things happen (Psalm 29)

Idea Three:                  The voice of God is universal (Acts)

Idea Four:                    The voice of God shows the way to come (Luke)

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 © 2019, Michael T. Hiller

[1]       Alter, R. (2009), The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, Kindle Edition, Kindle Location 2706. 


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