Lectionary Commentaries for January 10, 2016
Baptism of Our Lord C

from WorkingPreacher.org


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.

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.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 43:1-7

Callie Plunket-Brewton

The words of the prophet of Isa 40-55 to the people living in exile in Babylon are some of the most deeply comforting and profoundly transformative words of Scripture.

To the community, described in 49:7 as “deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, a slave of the rulers,” the prophet claims unequivocally that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, they are not the despised slaves of Babylon. They belong to no one but God. Isa 41-44 is a closely bound group of poems in which the prophet attempts to reshape the people’s self-understanding. The Old Testament reading for this first Sunday after the Epiphany is Isa 43:1-7, which is a part of this complex of poems.

Isa 43:1-7 is a beautifully constructed unit of poetry that attempts throughout its seven verses to reconstruct the exiles’ understanding of their identity. It is a part of a larger poem, Isa 42:18-43:10, in which we find the image of a blind and deaf servant — a condition connected to Isaiah’s call in Isa 6 to prophesy to a people unable to receive his message due to the cursing of their senses — counterpoised with the image of a divinely chosen servant, called to witness to the power of God to redeem. The prophet would seem to me to have several goals in juxtaposing these two servant images, but the overarching purpose is to convince the people to identify themselves as the exalted faithful servant and to distance themselves from their former state of obduracy.

While the word “servant” doesn’t actually occur in this portion of the poem, it does occur within the larger poem twice (42:19; 43:10), and the language used in this unit is used elsewhere in relation to the image of the servant (eg. 44:1-2). The people’s identity as the servant of God is clearly in view here in Isa 43:1-7. In fact, I would say that Isa 43:1-7 is a central part of the poet’s effort to compel the people to take on the role of the faithful servant; its description of the dignified and glorified role of the people stands in contrast to the references to the theme of the blind and deaf servant that surround it (42:18-25; 43:8-13).

Looking more closely at the poetic unit itself makes clear the purpose of the prophet. Notice the way in which vs. 1 and 7 enclose it: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (43:1) and “everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made” (v. 7). You have been created by God, redeemed by God, named by God, and claimed by God, the prophet proclaims. Like the kings of old, who were described as being divinely created and chosen, the servant has a special, honored place among humanity.

That special place also entails special protection. Throughout vv. 2-6, the prophet describes the lengths to which God will go to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the servant. Speaking in the first person as God, the prophet repeats again and again what “I will” do for “my people,” thus, emphasizing the close connection between the servant and God. The midpoint of the reading is also its high point, when the prophet writes: “Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” To a community in exile, which viewed itself — and was likely viewed by others in the same way — as a “despised … 45slave of rulers,” these words of love and honor would serve as an antidote to counteract the poisonous and destructive messages heaped on it by the Babylonian conquerors.

This is a powerful message to preach on the first Sunday after the Epiphany, the Sunday of the Baptism of our Lord. You are “marked as Christ’s own,” we declare in our baptismal services. This is an identity claim: you are God’s beloved child, called to be a faithful servant in order to witness to God’s grace and mercy.

A month or so ago, I met a man who has two names. His given name is Jeremy. He’s been called “Twitch” for years. Twitch, he told me when we met, was the name he went by when he was in and out of jail before he got clean. I said that I would call him Jeremy, thinking he wouldn’t want to be called a name associated with his pretty harsh past. He then said the most extraordinary thing. He said he wanted people to keep calling him Twitch so that it would be clear to the people who had known him before that he was a transformed man. He was afraid that if he started to go by Jeremy people might not realize that he was the same Twitch who’d been in jail with them, used with them. He comes around pretty regularly to the homeless ministry where I sometimes serve and hangs out with our homeless guests. Many of them know him. He wants them to recognize him and to take heart that God can transform their lives, too.

I thought of Twitch when I read this text that is all about identity and grace. When I asked him for permission to use the story of his name for this piece, he said he would be honored for me to mention what God has done in his life. I share his story with you because it seems to me to be a powerful story of redemption and gets to the heart of what the prophet is seeking to do in the poetry of Isa 43:1-7. The prophet calls on the people to recognize that no matter their past, they are loved and chosen by God. They are called by name.


Commentary on Psalm 29

Joel LeMon

Psalm 29 thunders forth a bold proclamation: God’s power reaches into the world and the whole world takes notice.

This psalm has a long history, perhaps one that goes back to a pre-Yahwistic liturgy of the Canaanite god Baal or a similar ancient Near Eastern “storm deity.” In Ugaritic literature, which predates the Hebrew Bible by several centuries, the god Baal rises to prominence within the pantheon through his victory over the chaotic sea. Baal is known by the epithet “the cloud rider,” since he manifests his presence through thunder, lighting, and rain. As a storm god, Baal plays a pivotal role in the cyclical patterns of the fertility of the land.

But of course, Baal is not the subject of Psalm 29. Instead, Yahweh has the central role as divine king. Whatever the prehistory of this text, the similarities between Yahweh and Baal help us understand the structure of exaltation that appears within Psalm 29.

The structure of Psalm 29

The psalm begins with a call to a community, the bene elohim, which the NRSV translates “heavenly beings.” These are literally the “sons of god” or “sons of gods” (v. 1) who comprise the heavenly council and attend to the high god, Yahweh. The Old Testament has a number of references to this sort of community that supports and participates in Yahweh’s activity (e.g., Genesis 1:26). In the context of Psalm 29, the bene elohim are summoned to give glory to Yahweh (v. 1) and Yahweh’s name (v. 2). Indeed, three times at the outset, the psalm summons the voices of these heavenly beings, compelling them to affirm Yahweh’s power.

In the next section of the psalm (vv. 3-9), the focus shifts from the voices of the sons of god(s) to the voice of Yahweh, the most powerful sound in the whole world. The phrase “voice of Yahweh” appears over the course of the psalm seven times. With seven functioning as a number of perfection in much of the Bible, the voice of God can be understood as both powerful and perfect. 

This voice (qol, literally “sound”) is the most immediate and compelling manifestation of the divine presence. In the context of the psalm, thunder represents Yahweh’s voice (v. 3). It was, for the ancients, the loudest sound anyone could experience. You can feel thunder, not just hear it. It shakes your bones. It comes from the sky. It can terrify. It can be a harbinger of destruction and fire (v. 7). And it is also a signal that rain is on the way, refreshing the land and bringing life to the soil. Thus for the psalmist, thunder is the perfect way to describe the complex range of Yahweh’s activity in the world. Yahweh’s tremendous heavenly power can bring forth both salvation and destruction.

The association of thunder and “the waters” in v. 3 also testifies to God’s power. Like the ancient Near Eastern storm gods Baal and Marduk, Yahweh was understood to be the conqueror of the chaotic sea. Yahweh’s power over that primeval force was demonstrated at creation, when Yahweh subdued the sea, bringing order into the midst of chaos. Verse 10 gives yet another picture of God’s triumph over the waters of chaos; Yahweh sits enthroned over the flood. Though the sea roils and threatens to overwhelm the land, the sea witnesses Yahweh’s power and kingship by the very fact that it stays within its borders. These waters also respond to Yahweh in the theophanic storm, becoming agitated and excited when Yahweh’s voice thunders.

“The voice” and all other voices

Yahweh’s voice has an effect on everything, not just the waters. It also booms throughout the countryside (vv. 6-7). It shakes even the biggest living things, the colossal cedars of Lebanon (cf. v. 9). No place is beyond the reach of Yahweh’s voice. Even the wilderness, which like the sea was thought to be a place of chaos and disorder. The thunder of Yahweh echoes through the all wild places, a constant reminder that God is indeed in control.

Verse 9a has posed famously difficulty problems for translators. It might refer to Yahweh’s power over the cycles of fertility in the animal world: “the voice of the Lord causes the deer to calve” (see the footnote in NRSV and the New Jewish Publication Society translation). Or it may continue the idea introduced in v. 5 that even the mightiest trees cannot withstand the storm when Yahweh utters his voice. In either case, the essential point remains the same. The natural world must respond to Yahweh’s power.

The faithful respond too. After the seven-fold description of Yahweh’s voice, the psalm presents the voice of those worshipping Yahweh in the temple. They sound a unison, “Glory!” God’s voice is so overwhelming that it elicits a single human affirmation. The human community in the temple thus mirrors the divine community, the bene elohim (vv. 1-2). All voices glorify Yahweh, whose voice resounds throughout heaven and earth.

The psalm ends with a plea. Verses 1-10 have described the powerful voice of Yahweh, how Yahweh reaches into the world and rules it with unquestioned supremacy. Verse 11 presents the human community making a petition for divine empowerment. Such a plea recognizes that the people exist in great need of God’s power. On their own, they are not powerful. They are not a peace. The community needs the blessing of a powerful God to survive and thrive in this world.

Psalm 29 and the Baptism of the Lord

Psalm 29 relates most obviously to the gospel reading through shared motifs of “water” and “the voice of God.” In Luke 3, the voice of God comes from heaven after Jesus’s baptism, confirming Jesus’ unique revelation of God: “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (v. 22). The psalm is helpful for interpreting the gospel because it reveals the depth and complexity of these motifs. Steeped in the language and imagery of the Old Testament, the reader of Luke’s gospel hears the echoes of God’s thundering voice, the voice that resounds over the waters of chaos, bringing order out of disorder. Indeed, the majestic voice of the Lord reaches throughout the whole world, even the wild, untamed places. And we pray that this powerful voice can even now bring blessing and peace.