Before we plunge into the Baptism of Jesus, it’s worthwhile to step back and note some of the unique features of Epiphany in Year C of 2013.
First, Epiphany was actually on a Sunday this year. There was no need for liturgical mechanics to acknowledge the event that’s the reason for the season. Last week the wise men really did visit Jesus. How might that shape our hearing of the subsequent texts?
Second, while Easter in 2013 is not the earliest it can be, it is certainly more so considering that in 2011 Easter was the second latest date possible. Calculated as the first Sunday following the first full moon that falls on or after the vernal equinox, Easter can occur anytime between March 22-April 25. What might this mean on this Baptism of our Lord Sunday? It means that we have only five Sundays in Epiphany. That’s not a lot of time for a church season and it means Lent is upon us, sooner rather than later. This could be the year to make the most of Epiphany and to imagine possible themes that might tie these five texts together.
Third, this year we have readings from three of the four Gospels. Albeit gently, could we celebrate the distinctive epiphanies of Jesus to which each of the four Gospels witness?
What Happened to John? Since it is Year C, the year of the Gospel of Luke, we hear Luke’s version of Jesus’ baptism. It is always a helpful exercise to dust off one’s Gospel Parallels when it comes to a story that appears in all four Gospels. A comparison of the versions of Jesus’ baptism yields several differences in Luke’s account. Moreover, the baptism of Jesus in Luke points to a major theme for the Gospel, but also for Epiphany — what happens when what is revealed is not what people actually want and even reject?
Noticeable about Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism is that John is nowhere to be found. Reading the verses that the lectionary omits, 3:18-20, is essential because they tell us what happened to John. He’s in prison. What might this detail overlooked by the lectionary reveal to us about Jesus’ baptism in the Gospel of Luke? First, since John is shut up in prison, he is not present at the baptism of Jesus nor does he baptize Jesus. Well, then. Who does?
Second, the reason John is put in prison foreshadows Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth. John has told Herod the truth about his life. Herod doesn’t like the truth and gets rid of the evidence. How do we do the same? Third, while John had a major role in the first chapters of the Gospel, including the story of his mother and father, his birth, his relationship to Jesus, now that Jesus will be baptized, it’s just Jesus, and there will be no confusing the two.
John is not the Messiah and the first clue in distinguishing between Jesus and John is oddly baptism. Jesus’ baptism will be different and Jesus will baptize differently. We will know they are not the same by how they go about baptizing people. John’s baptism is just with water. But Jesus? Well, that’s with the Holy Spirit and with fire (think Acts 2).
Of course, this anticipates the scope of Luke’s vision reaching back to Adam and then forward, far beyond the confines of Luke 24:53 into the book of Acts. As a result, the Spirit takes center stage here, and reminds us of the unique function of the Spirit in Luke-Acts. Reading the Gospel of Luke through the lens of the Spirit’s role generates the following, yet only a sampling, of the Spirit’s presence:
The second person address to Jesus by the voice from heaven is the same as in Mark but in Luke it seems to have a different meaning. Whereas in Mark, such secrecy plays into the general cover-up about Jesus’ identity, in Luke, that Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit appear to be the only ones present at the baptism foreshadows a similar moment at the crucifixion, a “last word” found only in Luke (23:46). There is promise in the presence of the Spirit here and at the end of Jesus’ life that will be true for all believers.
We Can’t Handle the Truth, or, Anything Else Jesus Says The verb translated in the NRSV as “filled with expectation” (3:15) will be used again in Luke 7:19-20, where two of John’s disciples, sent by John, approach Jesus with this question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” The differentiation between Jesus and John will need further clarification down the road. Jesus’ response to John’s disciples is revealing because it is a restatement of his inaugural address in 4:18-19. If what you are waiting for is release for the captives and good news for the poor, then I’m your guy. If not, well, then you will need to wait for another.
The imprisonment of John reminds us of what happens to those who tell the truth, or, to those whose words we don’t want to hear. This will certainly be the case for Jesus. Hearing Jesus’ first sermon, the hometown folks want to throw him off a cliff. Jesus will be rejected by his friends, his family, his community before he even does anything. The same will be true for the women who report about the empty tomb. The women go to the disciples, the ones who should believe, who should be open to this news, who should actually know something and they call the women’s words an “idle tale.”
This is a PG way of translating leros which appears only once in Scripture. A better translation is crap, garbage — you get the drift (see Preaching Moment 10 on our website). In other words, John’s absence at this moment in Luke’s story is a pointed truth-telling of how we might respond to Epiphany.
Like other prophetic writings, Isaiah 40-55 (which scholars call Second Isaiah) aims to change people’s minds.
Unlike most other biblical prophets, though, Second Isaiah is filled not with warnings over wrongdoing, but with encouragement to reevaluate Judah’s past and future. Composed for exiled people in the mid-sixth century BCE, just as the international tide is turning, just as the possibility of returning to the broken city of Jerusalem is reopening, Second Isaiah soars with inviting poetry of hope, offering to pave the way homeward with confidence and expectancy.
More than any other biblical prophet, this writer tends to employ a first-person divine voice, as here. Whereas Jeremiah and Ezekiel portray themselves in dialogues with God, in Second Isaiah the divide between divine and prophetic speech is so thin that they are sometimes indistinguishable, as in the preceding chapter, where a divine voice in verse 19 suddenly becomes a human voice in verse 21. Here, though, the divine voice is announced in verse 1 and carries at least through the end of the chapter, punctuated only by reiterations of “thus says the Lord.”
Because the words of Second Isaiah are overwhelmingly positive and comforting, it is one of the portions of the prophets most frequently quoted in the New Testament, in the Jewish Haftarah lectionary, and among Christians and Jews since. To view words offered to ancient people in a very particular crisis as God’s words to believers in many situations since has precedence in second temple writings such as Third Isaiah and Baruch, in which descendants of the exilic community, even though back in Jerusalem, still consider themselves exiled from full restoration.
I used to caution myself and others not to adopt the language of exile and promise too glibly for ourselves. We were America, after all, the most privileged nation ever known, more Babylonian than Judean. Americans who call ourselves exiles are like the tenured professors I once heard about who, losing all perspective, spent a faculty meeting fighting over who among them was the most marginalized. To equate our own problems to those of exiled Judeans trivializes the carnage, the displacement, the multiple layers of loss — loss of homeland, loss of temple, loss of neighbors and family members, loss of identity, loss of trust in God.
If we want to learn about exile, I said, we should study the Lachish frieze, the Assyrian portrayal of the destruction of a major Judean city in the late eighth century BCE, depicting soldiers impaled on enemy spears and children guided out of the burning city by parents in chains, carrying all that refugees can carry in their two hands. This is a scene some people know today, but not Americans.
Though we still risk trivializing by applying these words too freely to ourselves, if we keep in mind the differences in scale, exile may nevertheless be an increasingly apt metaphor for contemporary experience. Americans still want to be exceptional, but jobs have left us, educational systems have failed us, and we are no longer first in technology, or ideas, or health, or well-being. And what we may become is still yet to be seen.
On an environmental scale, nature itself is suffering decline. The age of innocence, of a world shared with abundant sturdy species enjoying their ancestral habitats, has ended, and thousands of species are dying or at risk. On a more intimate scale, many congregations know or fear that theirs is the generation that will close down the building. And on the most intimate scale possible, many among us grapple with lost opportunities, lost jobs, lost homes, lost hope. The new experiences of exile that we face are both widespread and personal.
Into this despair comes a preposterous word — neither fire nor flood will separate exiles from God and God’s saving acts of grace. The passage doesn’t promise there won’t be fire and flood, but rather that they will not be faced alone, and they will not overpower the faithful.
Both flood and fire figure heavily into Israel’s story. It was through the water of the Reed Sea (Exodus 14-15) that Moses brought their ancestor from the “iron furnace” of Egypt (Deuteronomy 4:20, KJV). God’s presence was made known through a burning bush (Exodus 3:2), a pillar of fire (13:21), and a fire on Mount Sinai (19:18), and it was through the waters of the Jordan that the Israelites eventually entered the promised land (Josh 3:15-16).
It was enemies, whose overwhelming hoards were often compared to floods of raging water (Isaiah 8:7-8; Psalm 124:4; Jeremiah 47:2), who had burned the city with fire (2 Kings 25:9). In earliest stories it was through the flood that Noah and his family were saved (Genesis 6-9); in latest stories it would be in the furnace of blazing fire that Daniel’s companions would be found alive and praising God (Daniel 3). In today’s lectionary psalm, Psalm 29, God’s power is associated with both fire and flood (verses 3, 7), as God presides over weather powerful enough to break the cedars of Lebanon and cause the oaks to whirl.
Most pertinent to the placement of this passage on the Sunday celebrating Jesus’ baptism, early Christians experienced themselves as renewed through the waters of baptism (Romans 6:4), just as the Jewish ritual of purification in the waters of the mikveh continued and still continues to cleanse the whole self. But it isn’t only water that purifies. The prophet Isaiah spoke of smelting Jerusalem’s dross (Isaiah 1:25), and John the Baptist himself said: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16).
Believers in every generation have seen in fire and flood all that is larger than ourselves, all that consumes not only hope but life and limb as well. Yet Scripture, including Isaiah 43:1-7, transforms these elements from threats into sources of healing through adversity.
While the pen remains mightier than the sword, neither bears quite the same dynamic power as the spoken word.
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).
The reading catches us up in the midst of a veritable whirlwind of events in the early post-resurrection church.
The simple newspaper-like report of the opening verse points us in two directions at once. We want to hear more of what has been so significant as to call for the “sending of Peter and John”; we anticipate hearing more of what the actions and effect of the visit of these signal leaders will be.
Reading only the few short verses of the assigned text is hardly enough to capture the emotions that carry this narrative. It will be helpful to read (not just once but several times) the rapid sweep of events that moves from Saul’s “dragging off both men and women” believers to prison (8:3) to Peter and John’s return to Jerusalem having preached the word and now still testifying to the good news along the way (8:25).
Two different kinds of noteworthy events accompany this preaching. One is signaled in the rounds of persecution that continue to scatter the young believers; the other belongs to the continuing response of those who are baptized upon hearing the good news of Jesus (8:12). It is striking that by the end of this section of the narrative (8:25) we no longer hear any mention of the persecutions, but only of the continuing success of the word.
Proclaiming the Word
Thus, in case there is any wonder why all the fuss and what motivates this narrative, the answer rests in the central focus of the reading, captured so well in its deceptively simple report: “Samaria had accepted the word” (8:14). The energy that authorizes, occasions, and empowers this narrative is clearly the “preaching of the word” (8:4). The power of that word of God in the face of all obstacles fairly breathes through this narrative. The proclamation of the “good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ” cannot be deterred even by the threats of persecution that meet it on every front.
Linked to the baptismal theme of this day, some reflection on the power and promise of the word of preaching would be fruitful for the preacher, both in preparation and in the preaching of the good news itself. Though it might seem too simple, the lesson encourages a renewed confidence in the “good news of the word” to establish a place for its own hearing even in the face of obstacles of whatever kind that might seem to call for the preacher’s magical wit or rhetorical sleight of hand. This is after all the season of Epiphany and still the occasion for telling the good news of Jesus one more time.
The compelling companion to the preaching of the word is the overwhelming force of its effect on the hearers: “The crowds with one accord listened eagerly” (8:6). The most telling comment of the narrative on that effect is that “even Simon,” the popular worker of magic, and thus potentially the chief voice of opposition, is silenced by the power of the word (8:13). Simon believes and is baptized right along with the others.
All of this exciting promise in the preaching of the word now greets the apostles Peter and John as they arrive from Jerusalem. We might be permitted to wonder for a moment about what more they might be charged to do in response to the powerful events that have already transpired. Will they hop on the bandwagon and join in the excitement of a word that seems unable to be held in check, or will they bring with them some counsel of caution or restraint on behalf of the apostles at Jerusalem?
A Surprising Spirit
The answer comes swiftly in the second verse of the lesson. Peter and John seem to know exactly what is needed in this situation. Without hesitation they pray for all those who have heard the word and been baptized “that they might receive the Holy Spirit” (8:15). We are invited to join in the excitement that their prayers are answered and the people indeed do receive the Holy Spirit (8:17), though we receive no details regarding what the effect or the signs of the reception might be. Perhaps the silence intentionally leaves us to imagine on the basis of other portions of the narrative of Acts what the presence and power of that Spirit might be in the lives of this new community of believers.
What we are told in the narrative that lies beyond today’s assigned reading is the unpredictable and surprising effect that comes in the relapse of Simon. Simon now seeks to capitalize on the Spirit’s power and offers money for the rights to God’s gifts. Peter chastises Simon for this change of heart for the worse and calls for his repentance. A repentant Simon pleads to the apostles for prayer on his behalf that nothing evil befalls him. Though the narrative is silent about what eventuates, perhaps this silence is meant to suggest that his prayers are indeed answered.
What we do see in this narrative is a brief vignette of the role of the Spirit in the life of this new community. The Spirit is present and active from the beginning in the ongoing rhythms of repentance and forgiveness that will shape this community in its continual hearing of the good news of God’s kingdom.
Baptism in the Name
Amid all the power of preaching and response to the word that accompanies this narrative, there are some questions that continue to circle around the edges. It suggests that there is a power and a presence in this Word of God that precludes any facile parsing out of the rules for its management, even for the apostles. It is clear that power accompanies the preaching and the hearing of the word, and that powerful change will accompany the new beginnings of baptism. One of the signs of that change may be seen in the careful notation that it is “both men and women” who are included within the sweep of this new kingdom (8:12), just as it has been “both men and women” who have been threatened by the effects of the persecutions that sought to limit its reach (8:3).
But what of this baptism? And what of the associated Spirit? In response to the word of preaching these people had been baptized, but we are told that they had been baptized “only in the name of the Lord Jesus.” Is there still something more? Apparently so, since Peter and John now lay hands on them and pray that they might also receive the Holy Spirit.
We may be permitted to wonder a bit, especially when we note that in all the other instances in Acts where the “name” of Jesus and baptism are associated, there is no indication that such baptism is lacking in any way (see, for example, 2:38; 10:38; 19:5; 22:16). At Jesus’ baptism we hear of the Spirit’s presence and of God’s delight in a chosen Son. Yet we hear nothing as yet about where that Spirit will now lead this chosen One.
Perhaps this “addition of the Spirit” in this narrative instance now suggests that, even when having received the outpouring of God’s gifts in baptism, one should not be surprised to see that God’s Spirit still awaits with even more wondrous gifts for us. Such is the promise that will continue to accompany and empower this community and our communities of faith for the life and mission to come.