Lectionary Commentaries for January 7, 2018
Baptism of Our Lord

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Mark 1:4-11

Cynthia Briggs Kittredge

The account of Jesus’ baptism in the gospel of Mark is read and heard on the second Sunday of Epiphany, a season that expands and unfolds the birth of Jesus highlighting themes of mission to the Gentiles, vision, sight, and light.

The second Sunday, the Baptism of Our Lord, commemorates the occasion when Jesus’ role and ministry is made manifest. Many churches schedule public baptisms on that day for adults, children, and infants. Congregations are conditioned to seeing a sharp contrast between the ministry of John and of Jesus and between the John’s baptism of sinners and the baptism of the sinless Jesus.

The cultural calendar observes the “new year” with celebrations on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. Newspapers feature reviews of celebrities who have died in the past year, and people make unrealistic New Year’s resolutions that are forgotten by the end of the month of January. “Sin” is rarely evoked as a category with which to interpret reality, and repentance is an unpopular notion in a no-fault world.

The world of the text

In the narrative arc of the gospel of Mark, the passage comes just after the announcement of the “beginning of the good news”; the reference to writing (as it is written) and the “sound” of a voice crying from the citation of Isaiah the prophet. The narrator notes John’s location in the wilderness and summarizes content of his preaching (“proclaiming”) repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People from the country and the city flock to the river. The text emphasizes the great number with the repetition of pasa (Judea) and pantes (Jerusalemites). The narrator notes John’s clothing and diet and quotes John’s proclaiming the coming of a more powerful one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.

As in the preceding scene, Jesus’ place of origin is also named — “from Nazareth in Galilee” The sentences begin with the same word egeneto “it happened” Mark 1:4, 1:9, 1:11 an intransitive verb “to be.” The New Revised Standard Version diminishes the repetition by translating, John “appeared,” Jesus “came,” and a voice “came.” The narrator tells what Jesus sees “the heavens torn open and the spirit descending in the form of a dove” and what he hears a voice from heaven say, “you are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Without a birth narrative, this is the first appearance of Jesus in the gospel of Mark. In Mark, Jesus has no backstory and no pedigree. His baptism is God’s “adoption” of Jesus, as he adopts the king as his son in Psalm 2:7.

The details and word choices of the text evoke scriptural allusions and create a web of associations within the gospel of Mark. The “voice” written in the prophet Isaiah (Mark 1:3) is followed immediately by the proclamation of John, then by the “voice” from heaven. The “wilderness” where the voice cries is repeated as the geographical location of John. The wilderness is where Jesus is thrown by the spirit to be tempted (Mark 1:12), goes to pray (eremos, Mark 1:35) and where he feeds the hungry (Mark 6:31). John is described as an ascetic figure resembling Elijah, the northern prophet. John’s words about a “mightier one” sets up the theme of power, mentioned in the parable of the strong man, bound by a stronger one (Mark 3:27) and developing through the gospel in the struggle between Jesus’ power and the power of evil.

The word “torn open” (schizo) used of the heavens occurs again in Mark 15:38 implying a connection between the baptism and crucifixion. The announcement “you are my son,” is one of three moments in the gospel where Jesus is proclaimed “son” — here, at the transfiguration (Mark 9:7), and at the crucifixion (Mark 15:39). The water and the dove evoke the creation story in Genesis 1, the “beginning” of the scriptures. Mark stresses the continuity of the ministry of John and Jesus with the identical introduction, egeneto, the use of the verb “proclaim” for each and the command in Jesus first sermon (Mark 1:14) to “repent.” At one other key juncture in the gospel, James and John’s request to sit at Jesus right and left hand, Jesus associates his baptism with his suffering and death, “are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”

The world behind the text

One of the undisputed facts in historical Jesus research is the baptism of Jesus by John. For Jesus to have been baptized by John suggests that he was a follower of John or a participant in the movement of John for which baptism in water for repentance was the ritual/prophetic sign. All four gospels explain in different ways how Jesus could have been baptized by John and yet be greater. Mark here implies identification with John as the messenger and one who cries out in the wilderness. Historically, Jesus’ baptism was not Christian baptism. Jesus’ “sinlessness” is not an issue for Mark. By the time of Mark’s account the baptismal practice of the earliest church most likely did shape the way baptism is understood in the gospel.

Bringing the text into the present world

The most powerful preaching on Mark in Year B will harness the power, clarity, and authority of Mark’s narrative, the distinctive word choices, evocative imagery from Israel’s sacred text and will preach each episode in the wider narrative arc of the whole gospel. Within the beginning of the gospel, the baptism, the exultant proclamation of Jesus as God’s son, is the reality of Jesus’ death. In the empty tomb, at the end of the gospel, the followers of Jesus are sent meet him in Galilee where the gospel began. Mark’s vision is austere and paradoxical, often troubling, while ultimately affirming human faithfulness and the life giving power of the resurrection.

Any one of the resonant words that occur in this text and echo through the gospel can be brought to life by the imagination of the preacher in the lives of her hearers: “voice,” “wilderness,” “torn,” “son.”

The particular power of Mark’s account of John’s baptism of all the people and the extraordinary vision that Jesus receives to initiate his ministry can be read in creative tension with the occasion of baptism celebrated in the liturgy of the day.

Preachers may invite the hearers to explore what kind of beginning is this for Jesus and for the children who are being baptized. How is it like and unlike the beginning of the calendar year, all those journalistic predictions, the resolutions to lose weight and get more sleep? How is the beginning of a new life, a new “way,” the way of the Lord?

We associate beginning and babies with new life and ongoing life. The close association of baptism with death in Mark opens up and expands the understanding of the baptism of these babies and adults. It is baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus. Suffering and loss are sewn into the fabric of this way of life.

How is repentance a life-giving invitation for the twenty first century? All those people in the Jordan were being dipped in water to signify a movement they were joining — John’s movement of repentance and the forgiveness of sin. What movement of justice or returning to God are we joining when we reaffirm our baptism? Mark reaffirms the covenant values of love of God and love of neighbor (Mark 11:28-34). What does that look like? The crossing of the Jordan meant the liberation of the people and their entry into the promised land. How is baptism liberation?

How are John and Jesus “brothers” in the movement of justice and liberation? What will baptism with the Holy Spirit mean?

What challenges are in store for Jesus, the beloved Son? God called Jesus to a unique role at his baptism. What is the role in the world of Christians who are baptized?

Mark’s gospel provokes the imagination of the preacher and of the reader. What does Jesus see when the heavens are torn open? Why is the word so violent? What is the reader of the gospel going to see in the course of the story? What will the newly baptized and their sponsors and godparents see in the suffering, broken, and redeemed world they walk into when they leave the sanctuary?


First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 1:1-5

Valerie Bridgeman

Whenever I teach Hebrew language, I always give students Genesis 1:1-6 to read before they know much more than the alef bet and how to form sounds in the language.

I choose this passage because I’m assured that it is one part of the biblical text students have heard or read. And the Hebrew is fairly simple and rhythmic. It almost sings. And it certainly dances. This year, while teaching it, students came to the words usually translated “the spirit moved across the face of the deep” or “the wind swept across the face of the waters.” The word translated “moved” or “swept” is merahepet, a piel feminine participle, which could just as well be translated “fluttered” or “shimmied.” Students decided that the spirit of God (another way to translate ruach), danced over the face of the deep. Creation was a joyful party full of cosmic sound and motion of what could be. I liked that. It became our theme for the semester. It reminded me of James Weldon Johnson’s stylistic poem, “The Creation.”

And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I’m lonely—
I’ll make me a world.1

Genesis 1 is a dance between divine desire and creative possibilities. God does not create from nothing, but rather from an untamed something that is formless and void (tohu va-vohu, in Hebrew). Together, this state of the “stuff” with which God has to work, is threatening. But God knows that to do with it. Creation is intentional and relational. The words rhyme as the poet who writes these words intends. It is poetry in motion, metaphorically and literally hovering, fluttering, shimmying in the presence of God/s (The Hebrew word “Elohim” is translated singularly as God, but it also means gods and somethings heavenly being (Psalm 8:5, often, and probably correctly, translated “a little lower than angels or gods, rather than the proper name, “God”). Wild and foaming chaos, but God is there, with Wisdom in tow to make it into what it could be (Proverbs 8).

For Johnson, God does more than speak, and the way the world bustles into being, one can see agree with him:

Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said: That’s good!

The waters roar and need to be ordered, but it does not need to be tamed. Rather than needing to destroy a sea monster, God created Leviathan so that the great creature can play in the waters (Psalm 104:26). But there is chaos and uncharted waters; there is the depths of the sea that requires land for inhabitants of the creation more than what can swim.

God creates in beginnings. The first word in the text is awkward. It’s not “In the beginning,” but rather “in beginning” or “at the first,” a bit of “once upon a time, when the world did not exist.” It’s the beginning of the story of God for a particular people. Myth is not a bad word, though it gets a bad rap. Myth is meaning-making and the first poets wrote these stories under the inspiration of Spirit to describe this glorious beginning. In the midst of other peoples and other deities, they want to know something of their own God.

The journey of creation becomes the journey of a people. Genesis does not intend to be a science lesson, not even a history lesson, but rather a theological treatise. “This is how much God loves and wants the world,” is what the words suggest. God delighted. Readers won’t get to read those words until verse 10, but they are lurking in the evening and morning of every new appearance: Light, which complements darkness. God did not dismiss the luminous darkness, because God dwells in the thick darkness as well as the light (Exodus 20:20-22; 2 Chronicles 6:1), and night and day are the same to God. So, light balances for us the way we experience God. We prefer the light, and God accommodates us. But whether light or dark, God is among us.

It will fall to humans to live in wonder, or risk creation suffering from human hubris. That, too, is in the very first part of this text. Humans are not first, and though theologians like to think that humans are the crowning achievement of creation, there is nothing in the texts to suggest such. People read “very good” in verse 31 as referring on to humans, and yet the text says that God surveyed “everything [God] had made” and declared it very good. From the darkness to the end of every epoch, it is good. Humans are “made in God’s image” (Genesis 1:26-27), but all creation is glorious.

This text comes on the Baptism of our Lord Sunday, in Epiphany. It reminds us that creation began in the watery chaos, and so does our journey in our faith. We are baptized into chaos that God orders our lives with the dance of the Spirit. Sometimes that ordering happens in darkness, but God smiles and darkness rolls aside. We often can’t experience the “order” of what God is doing, but mud-people that we are, we are loved.


Notes

1 https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/creation/


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 29

Bobby Morris

While the pen remains mightier than the sword, neither bears quite the same dynamic power as the spoken word.1

Psalm 29 affirms the fundamental biblical tenet that, in the entire universe, there is only one before whom all other creatures, forces, and even deities are rendered subordinate — the Lord God of Israel. Likely borrowing from Canaanite hymnody that would have sung praises to the storm-god Baal, the psalmist here attributes all the fearsome power of a thunderstorm to the Lord alone. So complete is God’s control over such forces that acknowledgments of “glory” and “strength” are due even from the “heavenly beings” (verse 1). This is no temporary status attributed to the God of Israel, for “the Lord sits enthroned as king forever” (verse 10).

Yet we neither find God riding triumphantly upon the clouds nor wielding thunderbolts in hand as would be the expected norm for ancient Semitic deities. What do we find deployed, instead, by this Almighty One? What is that which brings thunder (verse 3), breaks cedars (verse 5), flashes forth flames of fire (verse 7), shakes the wilderness (verse 8), and whirls the oaks and strips the forest bare (verse 9)? Only a voice.

But this is hardly any voice. It is the “voice of the Lord”! The psalmist’s seven-fold use of the term points to its importance both here and in the rest of the canon. In the Hebrew mind, words are far more than rapidly dissipating sound waves. The Hebrew term for “word” also has the concreteness of “thing” and the dynamic sense of “event.” Words have substance such that they are able to change the reality into which they enter. Psalm 29 demonstrates the propensity for the voice of the Lord to enter into a reality and, in doing so, to radically change that reality.

Scripture bears witness to the reality-changing power of God’s voice on a number of occasions. For example, God’s creative work begins with words. “And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). Speaking later through Moses, God gives words to Aaron and his sons with which they are to bless the Israelites. The words of the Aaronic Benediction (Numbers 6:24-26) are familiar. Less so, however, are those of the following verse (27), which point out that in the bestowing of the aforementioned words, the priests are placing God’s very name upon the Israelites, and in turn God will bless them. Wow, talk about a reality entered and changed!

We should point out that the voice of the Lord need not be loud for a proportionately significant effect. On the run from an angry and bloodthirsty Jezebel, Elijah finds himself at Mount Horeb. Waiting to experience God’s passing, Elijah witnesses great displays of power in wind, earthquake, and fire. Yet, he does not experience God in these. Instead, Elijah’s spirit is uplifted and faith renewed by the “sound of a small whisper” (1 Kings 19:12, my translation). Only a voice.

The Old Testament and Gospel lessons for this Sunday again show God entering our story through spoken words and, in doing so, affecting the character and direction of the story. In a similar way to Numbers 6:27, these texts involve the event of naming by God. While the voice of the Lord here may lack the Hollywood-worthy dramatics of Psalm 29, the impact on reality is no less powerful. “I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1).

The verses that follow this declaration are evidence of the relationship that God’s naming has established. Waters are rendered unable to overwhelm and flames unable to consume those declared to be God’s own (verse 2). Naming affects relationship and a changed relationship changes reality.

Baptism marks just such a changed relationship that shapes the resulting reality. Coincidence has no part in the fact that, in the context of Jesus’ baptism, we again discover a voice from heaven seeking to bestow a name: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). The voice of the Lord speaks, a name is bestowed, and both relationships and reality are changed forever.

We live in a time where individuals are more inundated with words, both printed and spoken, than ever before in human history. An increasing array of technological gadgets make words ever more accessible. While there is something to be said for convenience, herein also lies a danger that words become qualitatively cheapened, quantitatively overwhelming, and even outright annoying. Recall, if you dare, this past election season.

However, the liturgies of the Sacraments are living, reality-changing witnesses to how powerful words can be; and texts such as Psalm 29 demonstrate the ultimate power of the words (and the Word) of God. The voice of the Lord, whether in a small whisper or a flame of fire, remains that which enters history and promises to “give strength to his people” and “bless his people with peace” (verse 11).


Notes

1 Commentary first published on this site on Jan. 13, 2013.


Second Reading

Commentary on Acts 19:1-7

Frank L. Crouch

This passages stands as one of the classic battlegrounds for debates over baptism: whether people should be re-baptized, whether water baptism is enough or if the baptism of the Holy Spirit is required as well, or whether prophecy and/or speaking in tongues are necessary elements of what it takes to be a true believer.1

Those questions have been debated for centuries. Different denominations that each hold to particular interpretations and practices will have plenty of resources at their disposal to bring to bear on this passage.  So, this particular commentary will focus on other aspects that provide starting points for reflection and proclamation.

This passage illustrates that there was a variety of teachings and practices to be found among early Christian communities. In fact, we probably should avoid using common expressions such as, “the early church believed that X” or “in the early church, people did Y.” Those expressions imply that “the” early church had one, uniform set of doctrines or that there was only one way that all early Christians practiced even what came to be called the Sacrament of baptism. 

Apollos — who is first mentioned in the preceding passage (Acts 18:24-28) — was an itinerant evangelist with many gifts, but he only knew “the baptism of John” (18:25).  Apollos, apparently, was the person whose enthusiastic proclamation of The Way in Ephesus led a number of people to believe (18:24-26).  When Paul traveled through Ephesus after Apollos had moved on, he discovered that the believers there had been baptized “into John’s baptism” (19:3).  So, Paul baptized them in the name of Jesus (19:5).

Again, not focusing on whether that constituted a re-baptism but on the diversity of practices among early Christians, one might note that Paul’s “correct” baptismal formula — “in the name of Jesus” — does not correspond to the formula found in Matthew 28:19, where we are called upon to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  All this is to say that, at least when comparing Acts to Matthew, the efficacy of baptism did not depend on the baptizer saying the same set of words in every case. 

Something else was at work besides the form of the baptism. 

The key element was the living presence of God in the life of the believers.  Paul’s first question to the believers is not “how were you baptized?” (although he does get around to that).  His first question is whether they have received the Holy Spirit (19:2).  Do they live their lives aware of, open to, filled with, and guided by the Spirit of God?  That constitutes the key question of this passage, a question worth directing to ourselves and our own communities of faith today. 

Regardless of how or where we were baptized, how is our life in the Spirit now? How are we living out our baptism now? 

And, the key question does not find its final answer in the fact that after Paul laid his hands on the believers they spoke in tongues and prophesied (19:6).  Suppose Paul were to return a year later and ask them again if they had received the Holy Spirit, and they were to answer, “Of course, remember that day when we spoke in tongues and prophesied?”  Most likely, Paul would have then replied, “Okay, but what have you done in the Spirit since that day?”

Ultimately our life in Christ is not just about any particular event(s) that might have taken place in the early (or later) days of our faith.  Those moments — if and when they happen — are gifts from God to be treasured, but they constitute starting points, not ending points.  After Paul laid on his hands and they spoke in tongues and prophesied, they were not, therefore, finished.  Although this assigned pericope ends here, the believers’ stories do not.  They still had much to learn and much to bring to life as the Spirit moved them.

If their active life in the Spirit had ended there, then they would still be missing the point of what the Holy Spirit makes possible.  In fact, as their story continues, after Paul’s initial contact with them, he spent two years in Ephesus in discussion in the synagogue and in a lecture hall, and he took those believers along with him (19:8-9).  One crucial aspect of baptism is not what happens when we’re baptized but what happens after we’re baptized. 

This passage also connects with the gospel reading from Mark 1:4-11 (as well as Matthew 3:11, Luke 3:16, and John 1:33).  In the four gospels and in this passage from Acts (including both Paul’s and John/Apollos’ baptisms), the intent is to focus us on Christ and to share with others what Christ brings into our lives and into the world.  Not to focus on Christ only as someone who did something for us “back then” but to focus on Christ as someone who, through the power of the Spirit, lives in us and moves us forward today.  John/Apollos’ baptism of repentance and Paul’s baptism in the name of Jesus ultimately find their fulfillment — if they do find fulfillment — in transformed lives.

The assigned pericope takes place in the middle of a longer sequence of events.  In the preceding passage, Apollos is instructed in The Way, comes to Ephesus and teaches others with enthusiasm and insight.  People believe.  After he receives deeper instruction from Priscilla and Aquila, Apollos moves on.  Those who had believed on the basis of Apollos received deeper instruction from Paul.  As he moves through various preaching and teaching contexts in Ephesus, those believers move with him.  One transformed life leads to the transformation of other lives which leads to the transformation of other lives, all centered around the questions, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” and “How are you continuing to live in the power of the Spirit today?” 


Notes

1 Commentary first published on this site on Jan. 8, 2012