The Baptism of Our Lord, Epiphany I, 10 January 2021

The Baptism of our Lord, 10 January 2021

 

Genesis 1:1-5

Psalm 29

Acts 19:1-7

Mark 1:4-11

 

The Collect

 

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.

 

Background: Baptism and Life

 

This particular Sunday leads me to the baptismal font, and to an understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit. What we teach about baptism is that we are adopted into God’s kingdom, and into Christ’s body, the Church. In addition there is an inward and spiritual grace given in baptism, namely, “union with Christ in his death and resurrection, birth into God’s family the Church, forgiveness of sins, and a new life in the Holy Spirit.” (italics mine).[1] It is this new life in the Holy Spirit that interests me, not just theologically, but also practically. How is this new life, in the Church, a resource for all the people of God?

 

In Isaiah 11, the prophet dreams about an ideal Davidic king who will lead Israel back into their relationship with God. As he describes this ideal ruler, he lists the attributes that will be given as the ruler is endowed with gifts of the Holy Spirit. 

 

“The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him: 

a spirit of wisdom and of understanding,

A spirit of counsel and of strength,

a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD,

3and his delight shall be the fear of the LORD.

Not by appearance shall he judge,

nor by hearsay shall he decide,”[2]

 

St. Thomas Aquinas understood these gifts to be: Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel (Right Judgement), Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety, and the Fear of the Lord. These are the gifts that we look for in ourselves and in others as we seek to do God’s will in our lives, in the Church, and in our Community. Thus, Baptism is not the end, but rather the beginning of growing in faith, self, and love of God and neighbor. It is a process of knowing and learning again what we have been given.

 

Saint John Chrysostom gives the example of ten blessings of Baptism:

 

“Let us say again: Blessed be God, who alone does wonderful things, who does all things and transforms them.  Before yesterday you were captives, but now you are free citizens of the Church; lately you lived in the shame of your sins, but now you live in freedom and justice.  You are not only free, but also holy; not only holy, but also righteous; not only righteous, but also sons and daughters; not only sons and daughters, but also heirs; not only heirs, but also brothers and sisters of Christ;  not only brothers and sisters of Christ, but also joint heirs; not only joint heirs, but also members; not only members, but also the temple; not only the temple, but also instruments of the Spirit.”[3]

It is his notion that Baptism makes us “instruments of the Spirit” that interests me, and is the heart of this project. The temptation when we hear such a phrase is to think only of holy and spiritual instrumentation in our lives. I think it is beyond that however – it is really quite ordinary in nature. If we look for holiness in our lives, we may also find it in the gifts we have seen in our selves. Paul, in writing about the gifts of the Spirit, sees it in the usefulness that we have with one another in the gifts we have been given. He writes in I Corinthians,

 

There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone.To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit. To one is given through the Spirit the expression of wisdom; to another the expression of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit; to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit; to another mighty deeds; to another prophecy; to another discernment of spirits; to another varieties of tongues; to another interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit produces all of these, distributing them individually to each person as he wishes.[4]

 

That we should know these gifts in our lives or in our actions is not necessarily a given, and that is why this Sunday is particularly important. In the Gospel we see John’s baptism as formative in the life and mind of Jesus. Might Baptism have a similar effect in our lives as we live into our baptism, not just move beyond it. As you study these readings, find in the encouragement to live in your Baptism, for others.

 

First Reading: 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.

 


 

This is such an amazing text, filled with so many images and sensations. First there is the setting of absolute nothingness, the tohu wobohu, that Robert Alter translates as “welter and waste”[5], and our translation as formless void. Robert Alter also notes that the term tohu translates as “emptiness” or “futility” and is used to depict the wastelands of the desert.[6] Over all of this is the hovering spirit, or ruah. If there is agency in this pericope it is both here and in the breath that is the word. Of course they are a cojoined entity in this reading, as the breath ruah of God the Creator speaks things into being.

 

It is interesting that the framers of the lectionary didn’t just end it there, an elegant and intriguing termination. But no, they continue on with the creation of light. As we look back on this text through the liturgical lens of this Sunday, the Baptism of Jesus, the inclusion of the light passage makes sense in that it is a foreshadowing of what John says in his Prologue (which is modeled on the Creation Story). 

 

“Through him was life,

and this life was the light of the human race;

the light shines in the darkness,

and the darkness has not overcome it.”[7]

 

That John sees Jesus both as the light, and Creation’s Word as well adds mystery and wonder to our meditation on this text. I once was reading a text on physics by Elaine Pagels husband, now passed, Ernst Pagels in which he commented that in order to explain and talk about quantum physics one needed to resort to theological language. In this reading we almost have not only the language of science, but the language of wonder as well. Dean Alan Jones quotes Leon Bloy in his book on “common prayer”. It seems to fit here:

 

“In every soul there is an abyss of mystery… When these hidden things shall have been revealed to us, according to the Promise, there will be unimaginable surprises.”[8]

 

Yes, indeed. So may it be!

 

Breaking open Genesis:

 

1.     What does creation have to say to you?

2.     How are you a creature in creation?

3.     How are you formed by the Voice and the Spirit?

 

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!"

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.



 

So many images from the first reading are mirrored in this psalm. There is the image of God/Creator enthroned above the waters, and the voice of God causing both disruption and creation. Finally it is the voice of the people affirming it all by crying out “Glory!” If you have never heard it, you might want to listen to Gustav Holst’s Hymn to Jesus. It gives the emotional jolt that I experience in this psalm. God displays such majesty in the face of his rivals, before the “sons of God.” We are not talking about humankind here, but rather the heavenly council that we also see in the Book of Job.  Several commentators see this psalm as a reworking of a Canaanite psalm, a hymn to Ba’al as a thunder god. At the very least the author used images and passages from the local culture to produce this praise of YHWH. 

 

For the purposes of this Sunday, we should pay special attention to the Voice and what it accomplishes in the Psalm. It reminds me of one of the ceremonies at the Renewal of Baptismal Vows, or of Baptism itself at the Great Vigil of Easter where the priest insufflates the waters in the Font. Luther used the notion of the fusion of Word and Water in his explanation of Holy Baptism in his Small Catechism. That is where the lectionary wishes our mind to go as we sing this psalm - the God who disturbs the waters with the Spirit.

 

Breaking open Psalm 29:

 

1.     When and where were you baptized?

2.     Do you recall anything, or have mementos?

3.     How do you continue in your Baptism?

 

Second Reading: 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.

 



 

This is interesting in that it not only teaches us what Baptism is, but also how it developed in the early church. Also interesting is that even at this time there are active followers of John, although even to this day we have shadows of this in Mandaeism. Paul (or Luke) makes it clear that the baptism of John is fundamentally different than that of Jesus. The forgotten element was the Holy Spirit, and perhaps we need to say, the laying on of hands as well. The Baptism of John was centered on repentance and as a means of preparation for The-Coming-One. A look backward reminds us, “John baptized with water, but…you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit”[9]

 

Once again, we have the voice, here in the speaking in tongues and prophesy. The number is significant, 12. They are the New Israel, a special theme of Luke both in the Gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles. 

 

Breaking open Acts:

 

1.     Why is the laying on of hands so important?

2.     Where do you hear the Spirit?

3.     To what or whom does the Spirit call you?

 

The Gospel: 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.”

 



 

The Baptism of Jesus in Mark forms a central part of his Prologue (Mark 1:2-15). Here Mark is setting up a stage setting for his audience, formed after the Easter event. It is with Easter eyes that Mark wants his readers to perceive Jesus and his ministry. The scene is simple and brief, filled with the ordinary things of life. In his commentary on Mark, M. Eugene Boring, sees the audience, and the characters of the Gospel as having different orientations and perceptions.

 

 

“The reader, but not the participants in the body of the narrative, is party to these extraordinary scenes, events, and voices, and is prepared to understand the story in a way that they cannot—until after the cross and resurrection.”[10]

 

So we read and perceive with a different knowledge or experience of the characters. This is especially clear in the Baptismal story where the Spirit and the Voice are internal perceptions on the part of Jesus, and not of John or the other witnesses of the Baptism. Mark focuses on Jesus, and has John say almost immediately, “One mightier than I is coming after me.”[11] This internal experience is followed after the Baptism in the Temptation with the note, “At once the Spirit drove (Jesus) out into the desert.”[12] It reminds me very much of the early chapters in Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ, where Jesus is pursued by a dark spirit, which in my thinking, turns out to be the Spirit/Voice of God. 

 

So if we follow Mark’s urging, we can only read/hear/pronounce this story with Easter eyes, ears, and lips. We know the outcome, so that this Jesus, The Risen One, can mold for us a way of living in life with both a holy call, and the troubles of life. Baptism sends Jesus into both temptation and ministry. And that is where we live – in the midst of both.

 

Breaking open the Gospel:

 

1.     What do you Easter eyes have you see in Jesus?

2.     Could the Voice be talking to you as well?

3.     How are you a beloved son or daughter?

 








General Idea:              Experiencing the Spirit

 

Instance 1:                   Knowing the Spirit in our very existence, a creature in Creation, (First Reading)

 

Instance 2:                   Hearing God’s voice in Creation and in life (Psalm 29)

 

Instance 3:                   Feeling God’s touch in the Laying on of Hands, and in the Spirit, (Second Reading)

 

Instance 4:                   Listening to our internal experience (knowledge) of God (Gospel)

 

Questions and comments copyright © 2021, Michael T. Hiller



[1]     Book of Common Prayer, page 858f.

[2]     Isaiah 11:2-3

[3]     Daily Readings from the Writings of Saint John Chrysostom, page 15f.

[4]     I Corinthians 11:4-11

[5]     Alter, R. (2004), The Five Books of Moses, A Translation and Commentary, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, Kindle Edition, Location 969.

[6]     Ibid, location 998.

[7]     John 1:4-5

[8]     Jones, A. (2006), Common Prayer on Common Ground, A Vision of Anglican Orthodoxy, Morehouse Publishing, Harrisburg, Kindle Edition, page 1.

[9]     Acts 1:5; 11:16

[10]   Boring, M. (2006), Mark, A Commentary, Westminster John Know Press, Louisville, Kindle Edition, Location 1562.

[11]   Mark 1:7

[12]   Mark 1:12

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