Lectionary Commentaries for January 11, 2015
Baptism of Our Lord

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Mark 1:4-11

Michael Rogness

Mark is the only book in the Bible that announces itself as a “gospel” (Mark 1:1), the good news about Jesus, a verse read 5 weeks ago on the second Sunday of Advent.

There is no word in Mark about the birth or youth of Jesus. He starts right in with this “good news” of Jesus’ baptism as the beginning of his ministry. It is the fulfillment of the “messenger” promised by the prophet Isaiah (40:3. Malachi 3:1), a promise reiterated by John’s own explanation of Jesus’ baptism, that his baptism was with water, but “Jesus will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8).

A sermon on this text will begin with Jesus’ baptism, then move to our baptism.

John’s baptism had two components — repentance and forgiveness (Mark 1:4). As John explains what took place with Jesus, he adds that the baptism is not only with water, but with the Holy Spirit. Those elements are still true of baptism today. The baptismal liturgy marks the end of the old life (“Do you renounce … ”) and the beginning of a life lived in God’s grace and forgiveness. Then John adds a new component with the gift of the Holy Spirit, also part of our baptism service (“ … you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit … ”).

Later on, toward the close of his ministry, Jesus himself makes clear that baptism leads to a new way of life. When the brothers James and John ask to be seated next to Jesus in the life to come, Jesus points out that “the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized” (Mark 10:39). To be baptized in Jesus is to follow him.

After Jesus finished with his life on this earth and his followers became the early Christian church, they developed what baptism means for us.

The process starts immediately at Pentecost, when God gives the disciples the gift of the Spirit to carry on this new life in Christ. After his sermon on Pentecost, the listeners ask the apostle Peter how they should respond, he answers with these same three components of baptism: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins will be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

As we continue in the New Testament, our understanding of what baptism means for us continues to unfold. It always follows faith — the faith of the person being baptized (Acts 8:13,36), or the faith of the parents (Acts 16:15, 30-33; 18:8, 1 Corinthians 1:16).

Following what Jesus said in Mark 10, in baptism we die, as Jesus did, but we are also raised to new life, as Jesus was (Romans 6:3-5, Colossians 2:12, Titus 3:5). This great promise has sustained Christians throughout the centuries. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer was led to his death, he said to one of the prison guards, “For some this is the end, but for me it is the beginning.” One of hymn writer John Ylvisaker’s hymns states, “You can’t kill me, I’ve already died.” We die in baptism, but we rise up to new life in Christ!

Furthermore, baptism is more than an individual act. In baptism we become part of a people. The Apostle Paul emphasizes how “we were all baptized into one body (1 Corinthians 12:13). Colossians 2:11,12 compares baptism with the Old Testament rite of circumcision, by which infants were made part of the people of the covenant.

The issue of infant baptism versus believer’s baptism is the fundamental division among churches of the Protestant Reformation. However, both sides agree that baptism is always done in faith — whether the faith of the person being baptized or the faith of those who bring somebody to be baptized. We also agree that children who have faith even before the age of their church’s baptism rite are indeed part of God’s people because of their faith.

The main thrust of today’s text and the meaning of Jesus’ baptism for us is that we are baptized into something. A fundamental change takes place in baptism, at whatever age. An adult who is baptized after accepting faith is changed, and an infant baptized into a family of faith will be brought up in that faith.

An adult who came to faith in our congregation argued that he didn’t need to be baptized because he was now saved through faith. Baptism, he said, “is just a rite; it doesn’t save us.” It was true, I told him, but I also told him that to have faith is to follow Jesus, and Jesus tells us to be baptized, just as he was baptized. He told his night-time visitor Nicodemus that “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, one cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).

In baptism we become part of Christ’s body. Paul writes that “for by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body (1 Corinthians 12:13) and that “as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27).

In the letter to the Colossians we read “you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead (Colossians 2:11,12).

In his last conversation with his disciples, Jesus spoke again about baptism. He told them, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).

A person who had been baptized as a small infant once said to me, “As far as I’m concerned, nothing happened.” She did not have any memory of it, of course, but something dramatic happened, and her subsequent life as a Christian was proof of it.

We often speak of baptism as a “means of grace,” that is, one of the ways that God’s grace comes to us. Physically it’s only a small splash of water, but it marks the beginning of a whole new life — of forgiveness, of the presence of God’s Spirit, of our union with Jesus, and our becoming part of the world-wide Christian church!


First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 1:1-5

Kathryn M. Schifferdecker

Genesis 1 is a grand symphony of a text: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

It is majestic, liturgical, epic prose.

“And God said … ”
“There was evening and there was morning … ”
“And God saw that it was good.”

It is a beautiful passage. Like many well-known biblical passages, however, the very familiarity of this text may lead people to skim over it, nodding in half-somnolent agreement with the pleasant rhythm of the words. Its familiarity is a challenge. How does one preach on such a text?

And what does this very-familiar passage have to do with the baptism of Jesus, which we celebrate in these early January days? Well, perhaps more than a first reading.

We encounter elemental things in both the Genesis and Mark readings for today: water, wind, darkness, light. The Spirit of God (ruach elohim) that broods over the face of the waters at the beginning of creation descends on Jesus as he comes out of the waters of the Jordan. The voice that says, “Let there be light” at the beginning of time now declares, “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

There is an element of wonder and wildness in both texts. I’ll concentrate on Genesis 1, of course. The first few verses could be translated, “When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was wild and waste, utter darkness covered the deep, and the Spirit of God was brooding over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light!’ And there was light.”1

This is a story not so much about creation-out-of-nothing but about creation out of a world that is wild and waste, formless and void (tohu va-vohu in Hebrew). There are biblical texts that support the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo (like Hebrews 11:3 and Romans 1:20), but Genesis 1 is not one of them. In Genesis 1, the world as we know it is created out of formless matter and out of the watery abyss that lies below the earth according to the cosmological worldview of the biblical writers.

To be sure, Genesis 1 does not describe the world of ancient Near Eastern creation myths, where the gods have to defeat the sea or the sea dragon in order to create the earth. There is only one God in Genesis, and that God is the Creator of everything, including the sea monsters themselves (Genesis 1:21). There is no chaos-monster in Genesis 1 that must be defeated. Nevertheless, there is “the deep” (tehom), the watery abyss. These primordial waters described in Genesis 1 are the symbol of chaos in many ancient Near Eastern stories, including some biblical accounts. In the flood story of Genesis 6-9, the waters of the deep (tehom) well up to return the world to primeval chaos (Genesis 7:11). In Isaiah 51:9-10, the deep (tehom) is the setting both for the defeat of the sea dragon and the dividing of the Red Sea.

In the creation story of Genesis 1, then, the raw “stuff” of creation are these primordial waters and the formless “wild and waste” of the earth in verse 2. But over these waters broods the Spirit of God. The NRSV reads, “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” This is certainly a possible translation, but “wind” and “spirit” are the same word in Hebrew (ruach), and the verb translated “swept” is used in Deuteronomy 32:11 to speak of a mother eagle hovering or brooding over her young ones.

The fourth century church father Ephrem the Syrian picked up on this image of a brooding bird when he wrote of Genesis 1:2:

“[The Holy Spirit] warmed the waters with a kind of vital warmth, even bringing them to a boil through intense heat in order to make them fertile. The action of a hen is similar. It sits on its eggs, making them fertile through the warmth of incubation.”2

The Holy Spirit as a brooding hen, incubating her eggs — it is an unusual image, to be sure, but it is also compatible with the later image of those same waters bringing forth life at God’s command, teeming with creatures of every sort:

“And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.’ So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:20-21).

Whales and walruses, sea dragons and squid — the waters teem with life and it is wild and varied and wonderfully free. These primordial waters (as we know not only from Scripture but also from evolutionary science) are the birthplace of life. And that life comes forth at the command of a God who creates it all out of sheer joy and delight. Annie Dillard is certainly right when she claims, “the creator loves pizzazz.”3

Here’s the thing to remember, as you preach this wild and wonderful text on this Sunday of the Baptism of our Lord: The God who calls forth life from the primordial waters is the same God who calls us to new birth in the waters of baptism. Ephrem the Syrian saw this connection, too, with Genesis 1:

“Here, then, the Holy Spirit foreshadows the sacrament of holy baptism, prefiguring its arrival, so that the waters made fertile by the hovering of that same divine Spirit might give birth to the children of God.”4

The Spirit who broods over the primordial waters descends on Jesus in the waters of the Jordan and names him “Beloved.” That same Spirit then drives him out into the wilderness, the wild and wasteland (Mark 1:12). In the waters of baptism, God names us “Beloved,” and then calls us to live out our new birth in this wild and beautiful world that God loves so much. We do so as children of God, in the name of Christ, and by the power of the Holy Spirit.


Notes:

1 My translation, though the phrase “wild and waste” is borrowed from Everett Fox’s translation, The Five Books of Moses (The Schocken Bible; New York: Schocken Books, 1995), 13.

2 Ephrem the Syrian, “Commentary on Genesis 1,” cited in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Genesis 1-11. Ed. Andrew Louth (Intervarsity Press, 2001), 6.

3 Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Harper & Row, 1974), 137.

4 Ephrem the Syrian, “Commentary on Genesis 1,” 6.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 29

James Limburg

A storm scene from our home on Woman Lake in northern Minnesota:

As I write these lines, looking out across the lake, I notice that the wind is coming up in the northwest. Soon there will be rain, and then the storm. The storms always come from that direction and the pattern is the same. First there is an eerie calm. The western sky darkens and then turns black. The storm begins to move closer, with flashes of lightning and the rolling of thunder in the distance. The wind picks up, and quickly there are whitecaps on the lake. That’s my cue to drop the canvas shades over the windows on the screen porch. Last summer there was a flash of lightning, a clap of thunder, and a major branch on a tall white pine near our cabin broke off and crashed to the ground with a tremendous thud.

Each time I watch a storm gathering, the words of a hymn come to mind:

O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder

Consider all the worlds thy hands have made,

I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,

Thy power throughout the universe displayed;

Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee;

How great thou art! How great thou art!

(The United Methodist Hymnal, 77)1

And I often think about the storm described in Psalm 29.

Bravo, God, Bravo! (Psalm 29:1-2)

A storm scene from Psalm 29:           

The Message translation catches the spirit of the psalm. It imagines all the heavenly creatures cheering as God thunders across the waters:

                      Bravo, God, Bravo!

                                 Gods and all angels shout, “Encore!”

Step by step the chorus of cheers becomes more intense; in the NRSV translation:

                        “Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,

                                    ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.

                                                Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name;

                                                            worship the Lord in holy splendor. (vv. 1-2)

The psalm follows the typical pattern of a hymn of praise: calls to praise in the imperative mood (Psalm 29:1-2) introduce a section giving reasons for praising the Lord (vv.3-11; see Psalm 113 for an example of the structure of the hymn of praise).

The “heavenly beings” called to praise are those supernatural creatures who surround the Lord’s throne; we might call them “angels.” The Bible assumes the presence of these creatures; Psalm 82:1 calls them “gods”:

                        God has taken his place in the divine council;

                                    in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:

And Psalm 148:1-2 names them “angels”:

Praise the LORD!

Praise the LORD from the heavens;

Praise him in the heights!

Praise him, all his angels …

Glory” (Hebrew, kabod) is an important word in Psalm 29 (1, 2, 9). The basic sense ofthe word is “heaviness, abundance.” A cloud may be described as “thick” (kabod) with rain (Exodus 19:16) or one may speak of a “heavy (kabod) hail” (Exodus 9:24). The word may be used to designate a magnificent kind of luxury, like the splendor (kabod)of the great banquet given by King Ahasuerus (Esther 1:4; read 1:5-9 and 5:11). Toward the end of the psalm all living creatures are directed to shout “Glory!” (kabod,Psalm 29:9).

The Storm (Psalm 29:3-9)

The call to praisein the imperative mood is now followed by reasons for praise in Psalm 29:3-9. In this case the reasons for praise have to do with the might of the LORD as revealed in a storm. The description enables one to imagine the storm developing in the west, coming across the Mediterranean, then striking land in the territory of Lebanon, including Mt. Hermon (Sirion), and finally moving on toward Jerusalem.

The sound of the storm must have been awesome (Psalm 29:4) and is described as the “voice of the LORD,” fearsome in its effects (vv. 5-9). There is more thunder, then a sharp crack, followed by a thud as a cedar branch hits the ground (v. 5). The word “voice” (Hebrew qol) occurs seven times, perhaps suggesting totality.

The storm makes landfall. The mighty cedars of Lebanon (still the symbol on today’s Lebanese flag) are snapped like so many match sticks (Psalm 29:5). The land shakes and quakes (v. 6). Lightning strikes, and the forests catch fire (v. 7a). Those in the temple shout a word of praise, “Glory!” (v. 9).

Psalm 29 ends with a picture of the calm after the storm. The forests are burned over, recalling television shots of the devastation of forests in Colorado or California. But finally, everything seems to be back in order. The LORD is in control, enthroned as King in heaven blessing the people with shalom (vv. 10-11).

God in Nature (Genesis 1:1-5)

While the Bible often speaks about the mighty acts of God in history (Deuteronomy 26; Psalms 105, 106), in Psalm 29 the focus is on the mighty acts of God in nature. The mood is somewhat eerie, with no human beings on the scene until one hears the word of praise, “Glory” from the congregation gathered in the temple (v. 9). One is reminded of the eeriness on the first day of creation when the earth is “formless and void” (tohu va vohu) before God begins to speak and create (Genesis 1:1-5).

The Baptism of Jesus (Mark 1:4-11)

This is the Sunday observing the baptism of Jesus. Once again, we hear about a voice from heaven; in fact, Mark allows us to hear what the voice says. This time there is no rolling thunder or flashing lightning, though the heavens are “torn apart.” This time the voice (Greek, phone) from heaven is the voice of the heavenly Father addressing Jesus as a beloved Son, affirming him as he begins his mission.


Notes:

1 1953, renewed 1981 Manna Music Inc. Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989.


Second Reading

Commentary on Acts 19:1-7

Jacob Myers

How can you tell if someone is a Jesus-follower?

It’s not that easy to spot, especially at a glance. After a few minutes of conversation, however, you can usually tell; their speech gives them away.

In Act 19:1-7, Paul encounters a dozen men in Ephesus who claim to believe in Jesus. When asked if they had received the Holy Spirit when they became believers, the men scratch their heads, confessing that they’ve never even heard of the Holy Spirit. Perplexed, perhaps perturbed — this is Paul, after all — he asks, “Into what then were you baptized?” The men respond that they were baptized under John’s ministry. Paul then explains the difference between a baptism of repentance and the kind of baptism inaugurated by Jesus.

A baptism of repentance (metanoia) signifies a change of mind that is at once intellectual and existential. Such is an ingredient in a baptism in the name of Jesus. We see this throughout the Book of Acts. In Acts 2:37-8, for instance, we find a group of three thousand people who were “cut to the heart” in response to Peter’s preaching. Peter tells them to “repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” We witness a similar scene in Paul’s own conversion and baptism in Acts 9. So, the baptism that these twelve Ephesian men received was only a partial baptism: they had in fact turned from their old way of being-in-the-world, but they had not yet been empowered to effect kingdom change for the good of the world.

It is easy to misconstrue Acts 19:1-7, along with all instances of tongue speaking in the book of Acts. Pentecostals tend to valorize such texts to bolster certain ecclesial practices while non-Pentecostals, sadly, skip over the speaking in tongues part. In the space that remains, I would like to offer a way of thinking about this narrative that avoids one or the other extremes. More concretely, I’m interested in ways that this pericope can shine fresh light upon contemporary ecclesial thought and praxis. This is not otherwise than textual exposition, nor am I aiming to decontextualize the text. The text decontextualizes itself, as reception-historian Brennan Breed argues, “The skill of escaping contexts is not an anomaly or problem but in fact a central feature of texts.”1 Reading Acts 19:1-7 today we are able to discern an undeniable truth: inauguration into the way of Jesus empowered by the Holy Spirit disrupts and deconstructs the status quo linguistically (tongue speaking) and ethically (prophesying).

Speaking in tongues, inasmuch as it circumvents and destabilizes conventional patterns of discourse, can pave the way for kingdom change in the world. Tongue speaking can be construed as a mode of discourse that refuses to conform to reificatory patterns of thought and speech. It overwhelms speech by exposing it to an otherness beyond convention. Such discourse, empowered by the Holy Spirit, can dismantle systems of thought that subjugate and marginalize human others. We catch a glimpse of this in the work of womanist and black feminist writers, writers who endure a double marginalization on account of their race and gender. As Mae Gwendolyn Henderson observes,

What distinguishes black women’s writing, then, is the privileging (rather than repressing) of ‘the other in ourselves.’ … Through the multiple voices that enunciate her complex subjectivity, the black woman writer not only speaks familiarity in the discourse of the other(s), but as Other she is in contestorial dialogue with the hegemonic dominant and subdominant or “ambiguously (non)hegemonic” discourses.2

African American women writers — with Audrey Lorde and Toni Morison as privileged examples — display a way of thinking about language that refuses to participate in systems of thought that favor patriarchal, heteronormative, and Anglo-European modes of thought. It is a kind of speaking and writing that embraces difference and multiple identities through discourse. As such, it showcases a way of thinking about speaking in tongues that does not devolve into the inanity of charismatic expression, but is nevertheless productive in the lives of men and women.

Baptism into the Holy Spirit, as Luke teaches us, also manifests as prophetic speech. This is a mode of discourse that directly challenges systems of oppression and marginalization. Luke doesn’t go into detail here, but in the very next verse we discover that Holy Spirit empowered discourse is “bold speech” that is inextricable from the “kingdom of God” (Acts 19:8). As Gustavo Gutiérrez observes, “By preaching the gospel, by its sacraments, and by the charity of its members, the church proclaims and welcomes the gift of the kingdom of God at the heart of human history. The Christian community professes a ‘faith which works through charity.’ It is — or at least it ought to be — efficacious love, action, and commitment to the service of others.”3 We see such efficacious love at work in Paul’s ministry in Ephesus, where he heals the sick and offers psychological relief for the afflicted — tangible acts of care.

How can you tell if someone is a Jesus-follower? Well, from Luke’s narratological vision we see that one way that you can discern the work of the Holy Spirit in a person is by observing how s/he employs language — either capitulating to hegemonic speech and writing or resisting such oppression through discursive acts of deconstruction and fervent denunciation. May God’s Spirit move the church beyond mere repentance and toward such action for the good of the world!


Notes:

1 Brennan W. Breed, Nomadic Text: A Theory Of Biblical Reception History (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2014), 93.

2 May Gwendolyn Henderson, “Speaking in Tongues: Dialogics, Dialectics, and the Black Woman Writer’s Litearry Tradition,” in Changing Our Own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women, ed. Cheryl Wall (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989), 19-20.

3 Gustavo Gutiérrez, “Theology: A Critical Reflection,” in Gustavo Gutiérrez: Essential Writings, ed. James B. Nickoloff (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996), 32.