Lectionary Commentaries for January 12, 2020
Baptism of Our Lord

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 3:13-17

Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder

God is not ecstatic. The Creator is not jumping for joy.

The Divine is merely pleased. The Holy One simply says, “Very well.”

This is the response of God at the baptism of Jesus. The heavens open. There is a dove. God speaks. Well, technically a voice from heaven speaks (Matthew 3:17). It is as if there is another “epiphany” or “divine show” as discussed last week. This is part two of a seraphic demonstration. Nonetheless, God’s response is not of exponential proportions. It is not like the response shouted by fans at athletic events or concerts. No, in a kind of anthropomorphic coolness, the Creator is merely pleased or as the Greek eudokeo notes, content.

One would expect more. After all according to Matthew Jesus has been through a lot since making his journey to from heaven to Bethlehem. He was almost killed by a deranged tyrant (Matthew 2:16). He had to travel hundreds of miles to Egypt and live as a refugee there (2:13). His parents could not return to their paternal birthplace because even the new ruler of Judea had some surly insecurity issues (2:23).  Now, a few decades later Jesus travels from this place, Galilee, to be baptized by John in the Jordan. His vicissitudes in human form have not been light. Surely, a baptism in the wilderness (3:1) would garner more applause.

Matthew continues this keen approach to literary parallelism. The writer pushes further the correlation between Israel’s past and its present condition. The past few lessons focused on Egypt as a refuge for Mary, Joseph, and Jesus as it was a place of safety for Joseph after his brothers sold him into slavery. A pharaoh in Egypt feared Hebrew children as Herod displayed much angst over Jesus. After the Exodus the Israelites spent forty years wandering in the wilderness. Now in Matthew’s narrative, almost thirty years after his sojourn in Egypt, Jesus meets John in the wilderness. Matthew situates Jesus as the literary embodiment, theological fulfillment, and messianic answer to his primarily Jewish audience’s needs. The New Moses has come to deliver God’s people.

Thus, it is almost anticlimactic that the Divine’s only response to the baptism of Jesus is that of “being pleased,” “content,” or “very well.” To be fair, Jesus has done nothing—yet. He has merely appeared. Perchance this is a post-epiphany text. According to Matthew, Jesus has not performed any miracle. At this point Jesus has not even spoken. A voice from heaven gives utterance. Jesus is silent. There is no record of a parable, prayer or axiom. He has just “shown up.”

While the Gospel of Matthew avers that Jesus will save, thus far in the narrative, he has nothing to show for it. It does not mean that Jesus will not do anything. The birth story is clear that Jesus has much on this place. He will deliver people from their sins (Matthew 2:21). As this text nudges the reader to think of their own baptism experience, it is also a passage about moderation. It provides handles on temperament in one’s approach to ministry:

  • Embrace people. Jesus is Jesus. He really does need John to baptize him. John and Jesus recognize this. However, in order to align and “fulfill all righteousness,” Matthew’s Jesus does things in order. As preachers and leaders, we have to humble ourselves enough to allow those we serve to also equip and nurture us. One of our tasks is provide the space for people to be whom God has called them to be.
  • Embrace a proper way. Jesus could have baptized John. However, by allowing John to take the lead, Jesus acquiesces to what John is called to do. He surrenders to John’s work in the wilderness. Jesus honors the ministry of one person and does not discount its significance or viability. Jesus does not circumvent the process so that he can get to his mission. He honors the path that must go to John and baptism in the wilderness.
  • Embrace the place of preparation. Jesus is in the wilderness. This is a place where the outcasts, those on the margins, and the decentered reside. Since his birth Jesus has learned to live on the run. His foray into ministry is no different. Although he received treasured gifts from the Persian elite as a child, his task as an adult would be to challenge classism and imperial regimes. What better way to accompany the left-out, then to dwell where they dwell.
  • Embrace living with a little pleasure. John baptizes Jesus in the Galilean wilderness. There is no trumpet sound. No archangels herald this watershed moment. The Spirit of God descends, and a voice affirms that all is well. God is pleased. Our world demonstrates that excess is a sign of success, and numerous tweets speak in calliopean fashion. However, Matthew’s baptism narrative contends a little moderation is good for ministerial fashioning. God is content with what Jesus is about to do.

God is not ecstatic. The Creator is not jumping for joy. The Divine is merely pleased. The Holy One simply says, “Very well.” This is my Beloved in whom I am well pleased.


First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 42:1-9

Juliana Claassens

Louis Stulman and Hyun Chul Paul Kim describe prophetic literature as “meaning-making literature for communities under siege.”1

A prophet like Deutero-Isaiah who speaks to the exiles who are still recovering from the trauma of the Babylonian invasion indeed can be characterized as “a map of hope for disoriented and dislocated people at risk of losing their bearings.”2

So how does a prophet go about talking to people who have been completely traumatized by seeing their city destroyed, their family and friends killed or taken away in shackles to a foreign land and who even feel that God has deserted them? The prophet in Deutero-Isaiah definitely did not have an easy task. But throughout the chapters of Deutero-Isaiah, the prophet is using some very creative imagery to help people think anew as to how to live in the midst of the terrible chaos that unexpectedly broke into their lives. For instance, in Isaiah 40:10-11, God is depicted in one breath as a mighty warrior who will come deliver his people as well as a shepherd who presses the little lamb tightly to his bosom. And further on in Isaiah 42:13-14, the prophet is using yet another unexpected combination of images when the divine warrior image is juxtaposed with the image of God as a woman in labor.

For instance, in the lectionary text for today, Isaiah 42:1-9, we for the first time encounter the image of the (suffering) servant of God that serves as a wonderful example of the meaning-making nature of the prophetic task (see also Isaiah 49:1-13; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12). In Isaiah 42:3, the servant is described as “a bruised reed” and “a dimly burning wick.” However, because of God’s spirit that works through him, the servant will not be broken or quenched, rather he will faithfully continue his mission, establishing justice on the earth.

The servant offers a profound example of power in the midst of vulnerability. The power that is held up in the servant is a different kind of power though. It is a power that does not scream or shout (verse 2), which offers a sharp contrast with the brutal force executed by the empires of the day. However, the servant in Isaiah 42 that is continued in Isaiah 49 and 50 reaching a nadir in Isaiah 52-53 encapsulates a life-giving power that will have an impact far beyond the narrow confines of Israel. Continuing the radical reversals that mark Deutero-Isaiah, e.g., (1) a highway through the desert in Isaiah 40:3-4; (2) water in the wilderness in Isaiah 44:3-4; (3) the wilderness becoming like Eden in Isaiah 51:3, and (4) fertility where there was barrenness in Isaiah 54:1-3, the servant is said to give sight to the blind, bringing light and life to those who find themselves trapped in dark dungeons (verses 6-7).

The remarkable thing we see in this text is how the people who have been traumatized are called not to do the typical human thing of what has been called “circling the wagons.” Edward Said warns that nationalism quite often tends to be a natural consequence of collective trauma. It would be so easy to find in these texts what Said calls “an exaggerated sense of group solidarity, passionate hostility to outsiders, even those who may in fact be in the same predicament as you” (“Reflections of Exile,” 178). However in Isaiah 42, the prophet offers a vision of the world in which an individual or a group of people in the midst of brokenness, in spite of brokenness, and maybe even because of the brokenness, will be a light to the nations.

For people today who all too often find themselves in a state of chaos and despair, this powerful depiction of the (suffering) servant in Isaiah 42 may speak in the following ways: First, in the midst of those times when chaos is rampant, when we are weighed down by the forces that seek to destroy life as we know it, we need to accept the fact that we often are no more than “bruised reeds” and “dimly burning wicks.” As the songwriter and theologian Leonard Cohen says so beautifully in his song, “Anthem”: “Forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, but that is where the light gets in.” That is where the light comes in. God’s grace and power works exactly there where we are broken, where we are most fragile — a perspective compellingly captured in the New Testament text of 2 Corinthians 4:7-9:

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.

Second, in the midst of these most difficult times, when we feel helpless and out of control, we learn from the example of the suffering servant that we should seek to cultivate the power that we do have in the midst of our current state of vulnerability. Even in the midst of the most dire of circumstances, we still have the power to make a difference in the lives of the people around us. As we have seen in the case of the suffering servant, this power is a remarkable power — not like the power of the worldly institutions but a power that grows out of compassion, out of being concerned with the needs and concerns of the other. Even if we find ourselves in a completely hopeless situation, we can nurture compassion’s power that means that even in the most disturbing of days, we have the ability to do good things, to look beyond our own problems, and to direct our focus to the other.


Notes:

  1. Commentary first published on this site on Dec. 14, 2014.
  2. Louis Stulman and Hyun Chul Paul Kim, You Are My People (Nashville: Abingdon, 2010), 22.

 


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 29

Jason Byassee

If there’s one word to describe this psalm, it might be “loud.”

The God of glory “thunders” (verse 3). That voice breaks the cedars, and not just any cedars, but the mighty ones of Lebanon (verse 5). It’s loud enough to make mountains skip and to shake the wilderness, to cause the oaks to whirl and the people to cry out. This is no quiet, reserved voice. It is a booming, cascading, thundering cry.

Historians trace the psalm’s origins to the north of Israel, with such geographic references as Lebanon, Syria, and Kadesh. It may have had its birth in reference to a Canaanite storm god or a more general religious sense in the Mediterranean that God appears in natural phenomena. These origins are often obscure and debated, but of course biblical texts do not sit still, they move forward and not just back. The god of thunder once had to subdue the gods of rivers and seas—now the Lord simply reigns majestic, without need to conquer his own creation.

The reflections on the “voice” of the Lord are particularly important for Christians, for whom the Word of God is fleshed in Jesus of Nazareth. The stories we have heard over the last few weeks are of a baby born in surprising circumstances to be king of Israel and savior of the world. They include notes of hushed noise, stillness amidst the storm, not even the baby or the animals are crying. Those are appropriate to the ‘loquacious God,’ Luther’s deus loquens, here born without the ability to speak. But before the eternal Word gestated in a Jewish womb, he already was a voice, stripping forests and whirling oaks. This is a powerful word, a crashing voice, temporarily quiet, but soon to preach, to summon forth the dead from their very tombs.

And now a voice thunders over the waters of the Jordan. But that thunder is somewhat ambiguous. In some of the stories of Jesus’ baptism it seems only he hears the voice. In others, everyone seems to. But this voice is subtle, missable, more a mother’s coo than a storm god’s gauntlet splitting the earth’s crest. “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him.” The command is direct and strong, yet most of humanity has done anything but listen to him, in that day or since. The baptism of the Lord is impressive for its trinitarian theophany. All three persons are on the stage of salvation history: the Father (voice), the Son (fleshed), and the Spirit (the dove). Yet the enfleshment of God’s own Son has an unassuming way about it. Most folks don’t ever notice. Those that do notice often misinterpret, while those who linger with him still fail, disobey, deny, or abandon the Son. This theophany is unbearably gentle, suggesting that God is unbearably patient.

But not in Psalm 29. The voice strips forests and makes mountains dance. The cedars of Lebanon were known throughout the Bible’s world as giant, load-bearing behemoths, worthy of building into a temple for God. Where I live in British Columbia, we also have enormous red cedars, some nearly 1,000 years old, still smelling sweet and reaching toward heaven. They evoke awe, passion in their defense, money in their clear-cutting, and love from our poets. Nearby in a botanical garden there is a bona fide cedar of Lebanon, planted by Lebanese-Canadians in gratitude for Canada’s welcome of refugees. It is not a great tree yet, only a few decades old. But it is already mighty, dozens of feet high, with branches like a canopy. It will tower—several human lifetimes from now.

The mountains of Lebanon skip like a calf, Sirion like a young wild ox. It is a delight to human beings to watch animals frolic and play, for no other obvious reason than that they like to. Here the image is of enormous and ancient mountains doing the same. Jesus would later promise that faith the size of a mustard seed could make a mountain skip off into the sea. Interpreters have often wondered what he means—ok, if so, why don’t we ever see it? Psalm 29’s answer is clear: the mountains already do skip and dance at the voice of the Lord. Can’t see it? Look again. In Moses’ day, when he climbed the mountain to speak with God, it shook with noise and fire. The psalmist praises the way mountains continue to smoke (Psalm 104:32). God turns what seems solid to liquid and vice versa.

And now God does the same with the water of the Jordan. God is poised above it, as God once was about the waters of chaos in creation, as God was after the flood that cleansed the world (verse 10). Only the words this time are of belovedness. Listening—to a voice rather more subtle than quaking oaks or skipping mountains. The God of unmistakable theophany thunders … in an underwhelming peasant preacher from nowhere important.

Strength and silence: both aspects of God’s self-manifestation are important. The psalm will remind you of the loudest thing you have ever heard (for me, calving glaciers—the sound still rattles in my skull). And the baptism will surprise you by its modesty. James Mays, the great dean of Psalm scholarship in his generation, ties the pieces together this way:

The liturgical setting connects the psalm’s mighty theophany with the quiet epiphany in the waters of the Jordan. The voice of the Lord in the thunderstorm is paired with the voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son.” The storm says “This is my cosmos”; the baptism, “This is my Christ.” The two go inseparably together. The Christology is not adequate unless its setting in cosmology is maintained.1

And, we might add, the setting in cosmology is inadequate unless the Christology is maintained. This is an odd case where the Old Testament cries out fulsomely and the New whispers gently. The tree-smashing, storm-inducing God of thunder is fleshed in an easy-to-reject uneducated itinerant preacher.

One cannot explain these things. One can only marvel at them.


Notes:

  1. James Mays. Psalms. (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1994), 138.

Second Reading

Commentary on Acts 10:34-43

Raj Nadella

Peter had a rather quiet afternoon planned: a time of reflection on the roof followed by a traditional meal at the home of Simon the tanner.

His plans were interrupted dramatically. He was confronted with a bizarre trance in which someone invited him—three times—to dine on food he considered impure. He declined the invitation each time. It did not take him long to realize that this was no ordinary moment but one that would radically alter his mission as well as the nature and trajectory of the early Church.

Peter was being asked to expand the mission and welcome Cornelius and many like him. The newly forming church had already expanded beyond Jerusalem and was well on its way to including many non-Jews. The good news had spread to many marginalized individuals and ethnic groups like the Ethiopian eunuch and Samaritans. Peter was instrumental in these efforts.

Seen in light of these developments, it is a bit surprising that the idea of ministering to someone like Cornelius would have seemed so radical to Peter. Cornelius, who is described as devout and God-fearing person, should have been an easy candidate for admission into the Jesus movement. Caesarea Maritima where he lived was not too distant from Jerusalem geographically or culturally.

Perhaps it was the scale of the proposed mission as well as its multifaceted nature that made Peter deeply uncomfortable. In a clear reference to the extent of Gentile mission Peter was asked to undertake, Luke tells us that Peter saw a large sheet descending to earth containing all sorts of four-footed animals, reptiles, and birds (Acts 10:11-12). Megaleyn, the Greek word for large suggests that it was a massive sheet. The description of animals highlights the expansive nature of the mission. It was no doubt a shocking sight to Peter both because of the contents of the sheet and because of its magnitude. Luke describes the moment as a trance, an out-of-body experience, but it was likely a nightmare for him to imagine a multitude of outsiders joining the church.

Peter was apparently fine with admitting a few outsiders as token Gentiles but was wary of admitting such a large number that would have radically and irreversibly altered the ethnic composition of the church. It must have seemed to him like an invasion. The shocking image likely raised many questions for Peter. Can the church admit so many others and still remain Jewish? How would such a scenario impact the ethnic makeup and purity of the church? Can the interests of “insiders” be safeguarded if so many “outsiders” joined? Who should be part of the church and who should be excluded if status were to be largely maintained? Such questions would have been frequently discussed in the historical and ecclesial contexts of Acts. And Peter’s dilemma is reflective of many in his time.

But as the story makes it clear, Peter does not get to decide who is included in the church or how many. God does not believe in tokenisms. Accordingly, Peter was being challenged to move beyond tokenism and embrace diversity in all its forms to its fullest extent. He has no option but to eat all sorts of animals, reptiles and birds.

Although most readings of this story focus on the conversion of Cornelius, it is equally, if not more, about the conversion of Peter. The Greek word katalambanomai (Acts 10:34) is often translated as “I understand” but it literally means “I am gaining the understanding.” It describes Peter growing in his understanding of himself, “others” and the community. Peter’s initial idea of community is shattered and transformed. He confronts his fears of the other, his ethnocentrism and envisions a new community based on new criteria. He not only invites Cornelius and many of his relatives to join the Church but, later in Acts, becomes an advocate for the Gentile mission. His initial dilemma that is followed by full embrace of Gentiles highlights the possibility that people can overcome their fears of the other and envision an expansive community. All this was possible because of Peter’s willingness to unlearn and an ability to turn a nightmare into a transformative vision.

From nightmare to vision of new community

Peter’s nightmare that turned into a transformative vision was a tide-shifting event in the early church and it has lessons for the society today that is increasingly defined by ethnic nationalism and fear of the other. From Peter’s initial stance of reluctance, making room for the other undermines purity of one’s community and potentially threatens its welfare and perhaps even its very existence. In such a worldview, the purity and welfare of a community is directly contingent upon keeping the other out or at bay.

But a transformed worldview is able to see that the arrival of the other enriches and strengthens one’s community. It imagines a different reality in which the arrival of the other adds to the community and makes it complete. A community needs the other for it to be full and is incomplete without the presence of the other. These are two very contrasting worldviews based on different visions of what community that will continue to characterize our national debates.

The story of Peter’s encounter with Cornelius also offers lessons for today’s church, especially mainline American denominations that often demonstrate a proclivity for tokenism and embrace limited diversity but rarely make an effort to become truly inclusive.

Fostering a truly inclusive church that moves past tokenism requires courage to embark on initiatives that might make people in power deeply comfortable. It requires going out of one’s comfort zone, entering into the spaces of the other on their terms and inviting the other into one’s own spaces and ultimately ceding some of that space as well as power to the other. Such radical inclusiveness requires willingness on the part of dominant groups to be honest about their perceptions of the other, their fears about welcoming the other and their limited and outdated vision of community as well as a willingness to unlearn.

The church today needs imagination that would allow it to turn fears about the other into generative possibilities for a new future. It needs a willingness to actively unlearn and an ability to imagine a new, different community. For that to happen, the church must have an out of body experience, akin to Peter’s, that can force it to confront its fears and turn its worst nightmares into transformative visions so that it can build inclusive communities.