Lectionary Commentaries for January 13, 2019
Baptism of Our Lord (Year C)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Ronald J. Allen

On the Baptism of Jesus, a lot of preachers and worship planners encourage congregations to remember their baptisms.1

Many congregations use actual water as a part of the remembrance, perhaps using a piece of greenery to splash water on the congregation or passing bowls of water among the congregation so people can put their fingers in it and perhaps apply it to their faces. The gospel readings for today could help frame such a practice.

Luke pictures John the Baptist as an end-time prophet who announced that the apocalypse was about to occur that would end the present evil age and finally and fully bring about the realm of God, a new world in which all things would live forever in love, peace, justice, mutual support, freedom, and dignity.

John called people to repent and to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins in order to be part of the coming new world. Repent is to turn away from complicity with the old age and its values and behaviors and to turn towards the coming realm. Baptism gave baptisands a physical assurance that their final destiny was no longer determined by the brokenness of the old age (and its heinous rulers) but would be the realm God. Baptism was an invisible mark initiating those who received it into a community anticipating the realm.

According to Luke 3:15-17, however, John is not the one through whom the apocalyptic transformation will take place. The coming one — Jesus — will baptize the community with the Holy Spirit and fire and will carry out the final judgment (separate the wheat and chaff), i.e. the coming one will be the catalyst for the realm and will leave the Holy Spirit to empower the community to continue to witness to the realm after Jesus ascends.

In many congregations, repentance has been reduced to feeling sorry for personal moral transgressions. A preacher might help a congregation reflect on the wider ways in which the community is complicit in old-age practices and values, and hence. As the congregation enters the new year, perhaps they could repent of such connections.

When Jesus came to be baptized, he came to be publicly identified as the pivotal figure in the movement towards the realm. Moreover, his baptism signaled that God was now taking steps through the ministry of Jesus to signal that the turning of the ages expected by John has now begun to take place. As preachers are want to say, it is both present and future: its signs in the present point to the future consummation at Jesus’ return.

Jesus’ baptism takes place in community. It is not a private occurrence. This communal dimension reminds listeners that they when they are baptized, they become part of a new social world. My sense is that a good many people today are moving away from the radical individualism of modernity and are longing for community. A preacher could help folk identify the church as such a body.

The voice from heaven (God’s voice) identifies Jesus as God’s son, in whom God is well pleased. In first century context, these words have less to do with the nature of Jesus and more with his purpose. God’s words recall two texts. The Jewish people used Psalm 2 at the coronation of a new monarch. In 2:7, God adopts the monarch as God’s son. Thus, God adopts Jesus as divine representative in the final transition from old age to new age.

Isaiah 42:1-4 is the first of Isaiah’s servant songs that describe the vocation of Israel as a community to serve God’s purpose, which is to bring justice to the nations (gentiles). Justice here refers to qualities of life similar to those of the realm — communities with covenantal support for all. As the gospel of Luke unfolds, we will learn that Jesus will suffer because other people oppose the realm in the way that Isaiah saw Israel suffer for standing up for God’s justice.

Apocalyptic theologians of antiquity anticipated that God would begin the apocalypse by opening the barrier between heaven and earth and sending angel hosts to destroy and reconstruct. Luke draws on this motif by describing the heavens opening over Jesus. However, the Spirit descends without the angelic hosts. From Luke’s point of view, that will occur only when at the second coming.

Of course, according to Jewish tradition, the Holy Spirit has been in the world since creation. The difference for Luke is that the Spirit now adds eschatological manifestation to its repertoire. The Spirit falls on Jesus not because the Spirit was not otherwise present but with apocalyptic intensification. For Luke-Acts, Jesus is the model for the apostles who are the models for the church. The apostles and the church do everything Jesus does because they have the same Spirit.

The reference to the bodily form of the Spirit in the form of a dove puzzles many Christians. Why “in bodily form?” Luke uses the literary device of the bodily form to reassure listeners that that the eschatological Spirit had in fact filled Jesus. Bystanders saw the Holy Spirit enter Jesus. They could have confidence, then, that Jesus embodied the life of the Spirit by manifesting the qualities of the realm. Indeed, the realm of God takes on bodily form in Jesus and in the life of the church.

A preacher might help a congregation recognize that in the Gospels and Letters, repentance, baptism, and life in the Holy Spirit have little to do with institutional affiliation (e.g. becoming a member of a church). At one level they are saved from being ruled in the present by brokenness, and from ultimate condemnation at the apocalypse. But from a more important level, according to Luke, those who repent, are baptized and realize they are empowered by the Spirit not only to become part of a movement towards the new world but to invite others to join the movement, to work the signs of the realm, and to embody the qualities of the realm in their common life.

As a process theologian, my impression is that increasing numbers of Christians no longer subscribe to a pure apocalyptic worldview. However, those who do not anticipate a singular apocalyptic event often recognize the brokenness of our world, and believe that God is present now and always to lure the world towards values and practices that more fully reflect the characteristics of the realm. In this frame of reference, people still need to repent of complicity with brokenness and to join in community with one another and with God in the movement towards a better world.


Notes

1 Commentary first posted on this site on Jan. 10, 2016.


First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 43:1-7

Charles L. Aaron, Jr.

If we think of the prophets as thundering proclaimers of collective sin, which they often were, this passage shows the capacity of one prophet to offer reassurance.

Just as the ancients in Israel and Judah needed to hear divine judgment against injustice, so does the contemporary church. Nevertheless, dispirited people also need to hear reassurance of divine love, protection, and presence. This poem from the prophet scholars call II Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) speaks tender, encouraging, empowering words to those who faced an uncertain future. In their original context, the words in this passage helped motivate Judean exiles to embrace their faith and return to Jerusalem to rebuild. The wise and brilliant prophet evoked images of divine love and care to speak to the exiles who tentatively considered whether to leave the stability of life in Babylon to return to the rubble of their former home (or the home of their parents).

His first words contain multiple meanings. By using the verbs “create” and “form,” II Isaiah recalls the creation stories in Genesis. The verb “create” contains the same root as Genesis 1:1 used for the creation of heaven and earth. The verb “form” contains the root for God forming the human from the dust of the earth (Genesis 2:7). God created heaven and earth, as well as shaping the human into life.

These verbs also speak to the formation of Israel and Judah as a people, a community. God took them from servitude to become God’s people. God has a claim on the people, but also a commitment to them, emphasized by the verbs in the second half of the verse: “redeemed” and “called.” The verb “redeem” alludes to a family member who frees one from debt or slavery. The relationship is deep, but also comes at a cost. “Called” refers to God’s choice of the people for God’s purposes.

As the people embark on the journey back home, the poem confirms divine presence and protection with them. The people will face dangers and obstacles along the way. They will not face them alone. Besides communicating protection for what the people face in the future, the words of the second verse recall the exodus event of their past. To gain entrance into the promised land, the people passed through the waters of both the Sea of Reeds and the Jordan river.

The three titles for God in verse 3 give a comprehensive understanding for the people. The term YHWH (Lord) evokes the exodus, the burning bush of Moses, and the giving of the teaching at Sinai (Exodus 20:2). The title “Holy One” refers to God’s distinctiveness. The first part of Isaiah uses this title (see 1:4). “Savior” alludes to God’s protection for Israel and Judah.

Verse 4 states the divine love in explicit, tender, straightforward ways. The word “precious” was used of such things as expensive building material (I Kings 7:9) or life itself (Proverbs 6:26). God will call the people from wherever they live to join the community. Verses 5 and 6 engage in hyperbole to describe the extent of God’s call to the people. The diaspora was not that extensive in all directions. Nevertheless, the use of all four directions speaks to the wide range of God’s call to come join the community. The use of “sons” and “daughters” alludes to the comprehensive nature of the call, including everyone. This part of the poem ends with the repeated use of the verbs “form” and “create.”

Typical of poetry, the passage speaks in art, not in precision. Neither the prophet nor the contemporary preacher can promise that God will protect from all danger. Rather, the poem assures the people and the contemporary church of God’s presence along the journey. The poem does not suggest that God’s people have a guarantee against danger. By winter (when this passage will be read), the contemporary church will still remember the damage of hurricanes just a few months ago. People did not pass safely through the waters. Fires of various kinds have done extensive damage. Nevertheless, the preacher can apply as an analogy the words of the poem to the church.

God promised to guide the community back home. The community itself would survive and perform God’s mission. The contemporary preacher can assure the congregation of God’s presence with the church. God will work through the church despite the dangers it faces. The church can do its ministry without paralyzing fear, because of God’s presence.

We read the prophet on the Sunday celebrating the baptism of Jesus. Just as the prophet reminded the people of God’s call on them, baptism establishes God’s claim on the church. The words of God at Jesus’ baptism in Luke confirm the relationship between God and the Son. The prophet speaks of the tender relationship between God and God’s people, including the church of the baptized. This passage enables the preacher to flesh out the relationship between God and the church on the Sunday when we focus on Jesus’ baptism.

God formed the church, loves the church, calls the church, enables the church to survive to do its work. Even if the church passes through the rivers of controversy and the fires of conflict, God will be present with the church. God’s affirmations of Jesus at his baptism confirmed God’s work through Jesus, but certainly did not protect Jesus from harm. The church may face danger, but God will be with the church, empowering its ministry and work.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 29

Rebecca Poe Hays

In many ways, Psalm 29 conforms to typical expectations for the book of Psalms, which bears the Hebrew title “book of praises.”

Though much of the Psalter is more lament than praise, Psalm 29 pours forth beautiful poetic language and imagery in a hymn to Yahweh — the God who speaks. Preaching Psalm 29 invites preachers and their congregations to join in the worship of the God of water and Word whose voice echoes throughout history: over the face of the deep, at Jesus’s baptism, and to us today.

The text

As is typical of hymns of praise, Psalm 29 unfolds in three major sections:1

verses 1-2: Opening call to praise Yahweh

verses 3-9: Reasons to praise Yahweh

verses 10-11: Reaffirmation of Yahweh’s glorious reign and its implications

The opening section comprises a summons to give (or “ascribe”) to the LORD the worship due the one who possesses glory and strength (verses 1-2). The emphatic language repeats the imperative “ascribe” three times and gives the command to “the sons of gods” (also, “heavenly beings”). Some scholars recognize in this language — particularly when coupled with the rest of the psalm’s imagery — a building polemic against Canaanite deities such as Baal who must give way before the one true God.2 Whether “sons of gods” refers to pagan deities, angels, or earthly kings, the point is that Yahweh is at the center of all things, and the repetition of God’s name (eighteen times in eleven verses!) underscores this reality.

The body of the psalm centers around the power of “the voice of Yahweh” as the reason to answer the opening summons to praise (verses 3-9). The psalmist fleshes out the concept of Yahweh’s voice with dramatic descriptions of how it impacts creation: Yahweh’s voice rumbles out over the chaos waters (verses 3-4) and is able to uproot and bring down things that should not be susceptible to such destruction: the strongest trees, the tallest mountains, and the earth itself (verses 5-9).3 These descriptions reflect the violence of thunderstorms, and voicing the seven-fold repetition of “the voice of Yahweh” (qol YHWH or qol ’adonay) might even be meant to reverberate richly through a congregation like thunder through a still summer evening.4 All of this power and majesty builds and builds until a climactic moment when “all say, ‘Glory!’” (verse 9b).

The psalm concludes by briefly restating what has come before: Yahweh reigns supreme over all things in the natural world (“the flood”) and in human hierarchies (“as king”), and so is the one who can give strength, blessing, and peace to those who worship accordingly (verses 10-11). Yahweh’s enthronement “over the flood” recalls both God’s creative work and God’s judgment in the days of Noah, and it taps into common Canaanite mythologies about deities battling with the floods of chaos to gain dominion over the pantheon. The psalm’s final benediction is a prayer (“May the LORD give strength to his people…”) and a promise (“the LORD gives strength to his people”). Yahweh’s reign is not a distant, irrelevant abstraction but has concrete implications for life on earth. As Brueggemann and Bellinger observe, this conclusion “invites YHWH to channel the great power imagined in this psalm toward granting shalom, peace, to the faith community. The hope is that YHWH will bring the same order both to life and to creation.”5

The context

In Psalm 29, the psalmist draws upon common ancient Near Eastern imagery for theophanies, or appearances of God in the world, to urge those who read or hear the psalm to worship Yahweh as the one true God. Some scholars even argue that Psalm 29 was originally a Canaanite hymn to the storm god Baal — the imagery of mighty waters, thunder and lightning from the heavens, torrential winds, and reverberations in the earth certainly sounds like something that might be used in worship of a storm god.6 But the psalmist leaves no room for confusion about which God commands the heavens. Psalm 29 stands as a powerful polemic against those who might be tempted to “ascribe” strength and glory to other forces at work in the world (whether supernatural, natural, or human).

Psalm 29 and the baptism of the Lord

The emphasis on the power of “the voice of Yahweh” in Psalm 29 stands as a powerful foundation for Luke’s account of the baptism of Jesus. The voice of Yahweh shakes the heavens and the earths, brings both destruction and creation, and provides strength and peace to those who heed it. The God whose voice “flashes forth flames of fire” in Psalm 29:7 breaks open the heavens in Luke 3:21-22 to announce the identity of the man from Galilee who has just emerged from the baptismal waters. Psalm 29 imbues these heavenly words with authority and reminds us of the promise of shalom the voice of Yahweh ensures.


Notes:

  1. Walter Brueggemann and W. H. Bellinger Jr., Psalms, New Cambridge Bible Commentary (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 146.
  2. See, for example, J. Clinton McCann Jr., “Book of Psalms,” in Leander E. Keck, ed., The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 4:792 and Nancy L. deClaissé-Walford, Rolf A. Jacobson, and Beth LaNeel Tanner, The Book of Psalms, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 283-84.
  3. “Sirion” is another name for Mt. Hermon, which stands on the border of Lebanon and is associated with one of the traditional boundaries of Israel (see Deuteronomy 3:9, Joshua 11:16-17; see also Psalm 42:6, 89:12, 133:3).
  4. Nancy L. deClaissé-Walford, Rolf A. Jacobson, and Beth LaNeel Tanner, The Book of Psalms, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 284.
  5. Walter Brueggemann and W. H. Bellinger Jr., Psalms, 148-49.
  6. See Nancy L. deClaissé-Walford, Rolf A. Jacobson, and Beth LaNeel Tanner, The Book of Psalms, 281.

Second Reading

Commentary on Acts 8:14-17

Israel Kamudzandu

Acts 19: 1-7 has the message of the Holy Spirit as the promise to all believers and read in the context of Acts 8: 14-17; one wonders as whether the Holy Spirit needs a human being to authenticate the reception on others who are deemed outside of the pillars of the church.

The Samaritans and any other group of people, nations, tribes, ethnicities, male and female could surely be baptized and receive the Holy Spirit at the same time. Whether God delayed the Holy Spirit among the Samaritans for purposes of building relationships with Peter and John, as well as the entire Jerusalem apostles is indeed a puzzle to 21st readers of this narrative. As a way to move us forward, we should accept the fact that, the delay is a literary device to assists readers establish the linking role of the Holy Spirit in building bridges of reconciliation among all Global peoples, nations, tribes, ethnicities, male and female. While Acts 8 is inconsistent with the Holy Spirit agenda of Luke, readers should be open to the very fact that all human beings are open candidates to receive God’s power.

In other words, Acts 8:14-17 is probably an invitation to cross-cultural discipleship models. Considering the long history of hostility between Jews and Samaritans, the delay of the Holy Spirit is indeed a literary device meant to summon believers to recognize the role of the Spirit in opening worship doors to all people (see John 4: 7-26). Keeping with the missionary focus of the book of Acts, the message of this chapter might also be revolving around outreach as the central axiom of mission.

In some way, mission in Acts involves entering unfamiliar cultures with the hope of sharing the gospel with others. With calling to mission comes also the sensitivity to courage on the part of those who seek to contextualize the gospel in all parts of the world. The challenge to readers of this part of the narrative of Acts is on “becoming all things to all people” (1 Corinthians 9: 22) with the only purpose of building the Kingdom of God in the world.

The presence of Peter and John in Samaria among Samaritans may be interpreted as call to reconciliation and peace building among nations once hostile to each other. Mission work, especially in the 21st century, maybe envisioned as a process of reconciling all peoples to God and each other. In this episode, Peter and John had no negative feelings toward Samaritans but instead the laying of hands signals new forms of fellowship between the Jerusalem and Samaritan Church.

It is, therefore, fitting to mention that the role of the Holy Spirit in reconciliation building was needed then and is deeply called for in the 21st century Church. Where the Holy Spirit has acted, believers are also transformed and if that is the case, we can confidently say that, ‘faith in Christ,’ is incomplete without the authentication of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8: 14-17; Acts 18: 24-19:7). Our identity as Christians in the Global world should be marked by the Holy Spirit and this identity sets us apart as a family of God.

The laying on of hands upon Samaritans by Peter and John is worth noting in the sense the two are signaling the equalizing power of the Holy Spirit in making anyone a believer and disciple without racial, cultural and gender distinction. Luke’s narrative uses the name of the nation and we are not privileged to know the names of actual believers and this could be a way for Luke to express the overall narrative of God’s mission. Through the power of the Holy Spirit and the laying on of hands, we are made to learn that all peoples, regardless of geography, nationality, racial, ethnicity and gender are part of God’s mission. That said, we can surely affirm that the Holy Spirit removes all monopoly on the Church and invites Christian believers to diversified Christian and faith communities.

Lastly, as we read narratives in Acts in the midst of the crossroads of our time, the calling of Jesus for the church to go beyond Jerusalem and Judea to Samaria leaves believers with no option, except to engage and be engaged in or by multicultural and multi- religious missionary work to people we are eager to avoid and not willing to embrace. Without the Holy Spirit’s power to empower the church and effectively transform clergy leaders, the Church will perhaps become self-proclaimed clubs.