Lectionary Commentaries for January 12, 2014
Baptism of Our Lord

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 3:13-17

Karyn Wiseman

Water is one of the most powerful elements on the face of the planet.

The flow of water over the ground for an extended period of time will result in a riverbed and possibly, over a significant enough period of time, a river valley. Water is important to industry, fishing, recreation, boundaries, crop irrigation, and transportation routes. In homes, water is used for cleaning, bathing, and preparing meals.

Our body weight is made up of about sixty percent water. Our health and survival is determined in many ways by water and hydration. Science and experience has shown us that a person can survive without food for about three torturous weeks. But humans can only survive approximately three days without water.1 We need it for life.

Water is powerful and fragile at the same time. Seventy percent of the earth is covered by water and it is one of the most important natural resources we have. The lack of availability of clean water is one of the causes of poverty and disease in the world today. Questions related to water rights and pollution are part of the modern ecological movement. Water is vital to the sustenance of humans, animals, and vegetation. Care for the Earth’s water supply is essential to the continued survival of the planet.

Images of water are part of the Hebrew and Christian texts. Genesis 7 provides us a glimpse of water as both deliverance and destruction. Water is the means of deliverance of the Israelites from their captors in Exodus. Isaiah 35 and Amos 5:24 depict God’s justice in water imagery. John 4 provides the story of living water and the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus is found teaching and travelling along water, he utilizes it for healing, and he uses the image of water as a teaching tool. And the images go on and on.

Water in this passage is for the purpose of baptism (verses 13, 16). Jesus arrives at the Jordan River to be baptized by John, who feels unworthy to perform the baptism (verse 14). In the waters of baptism we are connected to God, to our community, and to all of salvation history. In the waters of baptism we are infused with the Spirit to do God’s will.

Jesus submitted himself to baptism, despite the fact that he was sinless according to most traditions (verse 15). He was embodying a behavior he would later command his followers to do as they took up his cross to follow him.2 Baptism is an important sacrament in the life of the church. For many it is a cleansing of sins, for others it is an entry rite into membership in the community of faith, and for others still of the faith it is a dying to sin and rising in faith and righteousness.

Through the revelatory events of this text, the opening of the heavens, the descent of the dove, and the affirmation of Jesus and his coming ministry, we see that this is no ordinary baptism (verses 16-17) This baptism is different. In it we get a clear sense of who Jesus is as God acknowledges Jesus from the heavens as “my Son” (verse 17). It is a profoundly important moment as Jesus is about to encounter the testing in the wilderness (4:1-11) and the beginning of his public ministry (4:12-17). We hear the affirmation of Jesus and witness the preparatory act for completing the tasks before him. And we also hear God who says to anyone being baptized, “I love you,” “You are mine,” and “I am pleased with you.” Powerful affirmations to receive from our Creator.

Jesus submits to this baptism as a fulfillment of God’s righteousness (verse 15). Some believe this act was not only a modeling of submission and a consecration to his coming mission, it was also an act of being in “solidarity with sinners.”Standing in solidarity with those who often feel unworthy of God’s love and grace is a powerful act that is vividly portrayed in this text and throughout the ministry of Jesus.

As a pastor, you will baptize numerous persons over your career. You will baptize infants with smiling parents standing by your side. You might baptize youth in a river near your church or in a water trough at an outdoor worship service. You will baptize adults who have come to faith. In my own ministry, I have baptized persons with water from the Jordan River, from Russia, and from a local river. I have been the parent watching my son being baptized by my own father and I have baptized a father and his infant daughter he just met after returning from military service in Iraq. All of these moments are part of the sacramental life of the church.

Being part of these moments as pastor, parent or congregant means witnessing the magnitude of God’s redeeming love and abundant grace in the baptismal waters and rite. Witnessing the coming of the Spirit in this text (verse 16) reminds us that the Spirit comes to all those baptized to empower persons for ministry in the service of God in a variety of ways.

Infant baptism is the primary baptismal practice in my tradition, but for others believer’s baptism is preferred. As a Methodist, we sprinkle candidates with the baptismal water. Other traditions utilize pouring or immersion. Some have deeply rooted feelings about the modes of baptism. While sprinkling is part of my tradition, the baptismal axiom I favor is “the wetter the better” — splash audaciously.

Whatever the practice or mode, no matter how much water is used, and regardless of the location of the event — the Spirit, like the dove descending on Jesus in Matthew, is present in the act of baptism and infusing the baptized with the possibilities of a new beginning to follow Jesus and do God’s will (verse 16). And that is more powerful than any flowing water on the face of the Earth.



2 “Baptism” in Wesley Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Abingdon, 2009), 1165.

3 Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 21.


First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 42:1-9

Amy G. Oden

This passage in Isaiah shows God speaking into the pain of exile to send a servant who will bring justice, and not to Israel only but to all nations.

Dramatic and powerful! But we’ve entered in the middle of the story of God’s people, so the point will be lost if the preacher doesn’t state the obvious. Many — maybe even most — folks in the pew do not know the story of Israel, its deliverance, covenant, monarchy, exile, and return. Even if this backstory is obvious to you as preacher, take a moment to sketch the narrative arc so your audience can become part of the story, too.

 

God delivered his people from bondage in Egypt, made a covenant with them, and brought them through wilderness into the land of Canaan. They became a nation and built a temple for the Lord. For centuries they saw military victories and defeats under kings and generals. They strayed from God’s covenant but prophets called them back. Then, in the sixth century BCE, the unthinkable happened.

 

The Babylonians defeated Israel. They destroyed the temple, plundered Israel’s treasure and livelihoods, took them into bondage, and marched them back to the gates of Babylon in chains, prompting “By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion” (Psalm 137:1). The Babylonian victory over Israel was absolute. This was utter, complete devastation of the political, social, economic and religious life God’s people had known for centuries.

 

For Americans who have not experienced combat and defeat on our own soil, it may be difficult to imagine just how devastating it was for God’s chosen people to be handed over to enemies, humiliated and destroyed, taken into bondage, all while God did not intervene to stay with His divine hand the terrible defeat.

 

Preachers must set up this scene, Israel abandoned to its enemies: How could the Mighty Deliverer allow this to happen? Had God abandoned them? Removed from access to the temple and to the land, were they still God’s people? Was God still God? In exile they could only conclude that God had withdrawn favor and allowed the Babylonians to punish them for their sins and disobedience.

 

Into this identity crisis Isaiah speaks a word. The prophet reminds the people who God is and how God works. He draws their attention from this particular, historical moment, to the larger purposes of God. As Isaiah speaks, it’s as though we see the camera lens zooming slowly out from a close-up shot to a wide-angle view, a cosmic view. By reminding Israel of who God is, how God works, and what God is doing by sending a servant, Isaiah expands the frame of reference, re-locating and purposing Israel’s particularity within God’s cosmic frame.

 

God is the God not of Israel only or even of Babylon, but the one who “created the heavens . . . and stretched out the earth” (verse 5). This is the God of creation, who made everything that is, and who dwells in this wide, open cosmic space, not contained by the cramped space of exile. This is the God “who gives breath to the people upon [the earth] and spirit to those who walk on it” (verse 5). God’s breath animates not only the people of Israel, but every living, breathing creature on the planet. And finally, this is also the God who has reached out to create the particular people called Israel, to call them to righteousness, and to keep them (verse 6). This is the God of the expansive universe and the God of these very particular people.

 

Isaiah proclaims this God acts in particular ways. First, God sends a spirit-filled servant not a conqueror or tyrant — (“a bruised reed he will not break,” verse 3). This agent of God is a liberator who will bring justice, not domination.

 

Second, God works to bring justice “in the earth,” that is, to bring it to all, everywhere. God sends this servant to persevere until justice is done all the way “to the coastlands” (verse 4).

 

Third, God purposes God’s people, to be “a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (verses 6-7). God calls them to righteousness not for themselves alone, but for the nations. Isaiah reminds this exiled people that God has not abandoned them but is indeed at work among them, restoring them to be a blessing.

 

This is good news! God is still God. God’s people are still God’s people in their particularity, yet with a purpose that extends beyond themselves to all the earth.Notice that the reassurance Isaiah offers is not triumphalistic. There is no talk of revenge, of turning the tables on the Babylonians, no “let’s kick butt and take names.”

 

Rather Isaiah shifts Israel’s gaze here from themselves back to the wide casting of God’s promise and plan. The horizon of possibility is no longer the hand in front of my face but the very edge of the earth’s curvature. A roomy expanse for God to “declare new things” that “spring forth” (verse 9). This is a vision that is full of future.

 

We celebrate Jesus’ baptism this first Sunday of Epiphany. Jesus has come into the world as a light that “darkness cannot overcome” (John 1:5), “a light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6). Matthew 3:13-17 marks the baptism of Jesus with an echo of Isaiah 42:1, “the Spirit of God descended upon him,” and “a voice from heaven” announces, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

 

The pattern of servanthood continues from Isaiah to Matthew. In Jesus, God again sends a servant who will bring justice, who God “anoints to bring good news to the poor . . . proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and declare the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). During Epiphany we recognize and receive Jesus, the servant of God for the whole world.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 29

James Howell

The 29th Psalm is notorious for being an originally Canaanite psalm, adapted by the Israelites.

Who can know such things? Elements of the Psalm’s content, and also its poetic structure and style, are reminiscent of poems we have found from Ugarit and other Canaanite sources. If Israel borrowed solid, admired styles of poetry from their neighbors, then good!

And it is theologically profound to think of the average Israelite in a small farming village, with neighbors who were worshippers of Baal, the god of thunder and rain, singing a Psalm that suggests that the true God of thunder and rain is not Baal at all, but Yahweh, the Lord of the Israelites!

It is not difficult to sympathize with the average Israelite, who was sorely tempted to worship not only Israel’s Yahweh, the unique, only true God, and also Baal, the Canaanite deity of the rain. Your fields are lying parched, desperate for a shower or two. You hear about Baal, the god who brings storms and thus rain and vitality to your crops, but you desist. Then one night, when no one is looking, you slink off, dabble in a simple worship service to Baal, and then the next day, behold, the clouds gather, and it rains! Green peeps up from the ground, and you are hooked.

Israel’s God did provide rain but was more than a machine to do the bidding of farmers. The hard lesson, which proves to be the only hope we have as mortals, is that Yahweh is God even when it doesn’t rain, through drought, war (win or lose), illness, and death.  

Psalm 29 conceives of a God of glory, and yet one who also delivers. Water was scarce in ancient Israel, and so rain was desperately needed. The Psalm imagines Israel’s God as the true Baal, the one who brings rain as needed. Is thunder truly “the voice of the Lord”? It is not that we vainly fantasize that our Lord controls the weather? God does not hurl a vicious storm at the ungodly, but before the power of wind and water, we are humbled. We ineluctably come to the realization that we cannot manage the universe to suit us. Wind and water overwhelm the strongest levies and the best laid plans.  

The Psalm depicts God as “above the flood,” that unseen but believed cosmic body of water that functioned like a moat, a kind of reflecting pool around the heavenly throne. The “voice of the Lord” is above the mightiest water phenomenon: flood, torrential downpour, thunderstorm, raging stream. This voice “splits the cedars of Lebanon” — those impressively tall trees, proverbial as lofty, high, downright haughty. God brings to naught all that is arrogant or overly lifted up. Only God is God.

Psalm 29 invites us to listen to all the sounds out there in the world, not the manufactured sounds of the media or on your iPod, but the chirping of crickets, the whirr of the wind, the clap of thunder, the rush of a stream, the lowing of cattle, and the din of a village celebration. All these sounds, together, can be summarized in a single word. That word is “Glory!” How hard it is to find music nowadays about the Glory of God! Many popular Christian songs suggest that we may glorify the Lord! But the glory of God? Perhaps we are more obsessed with our glorifying God than the actual, lovely, wonderful glory of God?

We take a functional view of religion. We do this or that, and God responds as we hope God will. But to contemplate the glory of the Lord? The sheer grandeur, wonder, unbeheld, incomprehensible, and yet revealed greatness of God — what might we do but join with that chorus of angels and saints in Psalm 29:9 who, overwhelmed by the unutterable magnificence of the Lord, cry out a single word: “Glory!”

Of course, we know God’s voice is not in the thunder or in any meteorological phenomenon. Elijah pointed the way at Mt. Horeb (1 Kings 19) when, virtually annihilated by earthquake, thunder and storm, he discerned God was not in the frightening weather, but in the “still small voice” (or perhaps better translated as the “sound of utter silence”). At the Jordan, when Jesus was baptized, a voice was heard from the heavens — or was it? Who heard the divine voice from heaven say, “This is my beloved Son”? Surely Jesus heard, perhaps John, but for the onlookers it is unclear.

We read Psalm 29 on January 13, the calendared “Baptism of our Lord.” Jesus came to the Jordan “to fulfill all righteousness.” Why was he baptized? Karl Barth (in the little slim volume of Church Dogmatics, volume IV, part 4, published not long before Barth died) said Jesus was not being theatrical, but that he was baptized for the forgiveness of sins.

When Jesus was baptized, he needed to be washed of sin — not his sin, but our sin: “When faced by the sins of all others, he did not let these sins be theirs, but as the Son of His Father, ordained form all eternity to be the Brother of these fatal brethren, caused them to be His own sins. No one who came to the Jordan was as laden and afflicted as He.”1

Having borne our sins into those baptismal waters, Jesus heard a voice from heaven: “This is my beloved Son.” Enough said. Did others hear the voice over the water? Did Jesus hear other voices from the heavens, such as those of angels and saints gathered around the throne singing Hallelujahs and choruses like “Amen! Blessing and glory and honor and power be to our God forever and ever!” (Revelation 7:12), or “Salvation and glory belong to our God… the Lord our God the Almighty reigns, so let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come” (Revelation 19:6)?


Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.4 (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark, 1969), 59.


Second Reading

Commentary on Acts 10:34-43

Richard Carlson

This particular text has been chosen for Baptism of our Lord Sunday because it refers both to John’s baptismal mission and to God’s anointing of Jesus with the Holy Spirit as part of a kerygmatic speech by Peter.

On the surface nothing too controversial leaps out of the text to assault the contemporary hearer’s theological sensibility. When one considers the context of this speech within the flow of Acts, however, Peter’s speech is monumental. It reflects Peter’s gigantic “aha!” moment when he has come to realize that, within God’s missional program of salvation, all really, truly means all.

At the beginning of Acts 10, those who believe in Jesus as Lord and Messiah and who are now members of God’s reconstituted Israel have been Jews and Samaritans. Both groups have had the word preached to them by God’s commissioned agents. Both groups have been baptized and received the Holy Spirit (especially see Acts 2:37-42; 8:14-17). By Acts 10:33, however, everything is now being changed forever as God has forced Peter to come to the astonishing realization that God has decided to include Gentiles as part of God’s people.

The physical setting of Peter’s speech is exclusively Gentile in two ways. First, Peter is in the city of Caesarea Maritima. This was the coastal city that King Herod had built for his Roman patrons (ca. 22-9 BCE). Not only was this the capital of the Roman province of Judaea, it was also thoroughly Roman in its character and structures. The city’s crowning building was a grand temple dedicated to Caesar Augustus and the goddess Roma perched on a hill overlooking its newly engineered harbor.

Up to this point in Luke and Acts (recalling that they are two-volumes in a single narrative), neither Jesus nor his followers have set foot in such a pagan location. Second, Peter is in the house of an Italian officer in the Roman army named Cornelius (10:1). Jews do no visit the homes of Gentiles as Peter initially reminds Cornelius (10:28). Previously in Luke 7:6-7 a centurion living in Capernaum had messengers tell an approaching Jesus that it was inappropriate for Jesus to come to his house. So Peter is in a city and a house where God’s people should not be. Indeed the only reason that Peter is in such a Gentile location speaking to a house full of Gentiles is that God has arranged this encounter (see 10:3-8,17-24,29-33).

The emphatic first words out of Peter’s mouth in the Greek of 10:34b are “by truth.” Here Peter has now perceived the truth of what God’s impartiality entails. That God shows no partiality is not a new theological claim (see Deuteronomy 10:17; Sirach 35:12-13).

What is absolutely new here are the implications of divine impartiality. The character of God as an impartial God now means the character of God’s community is impartial. The dividing lines separating Jew and Gentile based on who is clean and who is not according the law have been obliterated. This does not mean Israel as God’s people has been obliterated. Rather the basis for membership is now radically redefined. God accepts people not on the basis of ethnic identity.

An example of this radical new divine inclusivity is the phrase “every nation” in 10:35a. That exact same phrase was previously used in the Pentecost story when it was reported that there were pious Jews from “every nation” in Jerusalem (2:5). There “every nation” was the geographical home for pious Jews. Now, however, “every nation” includes the pious and righteous people whom God finds acceptable be they Jew or Gentile (10:35b).

Likewise in Peter’s Pentecost speech he opened with a “you know” to his Jewish audience highlighting their familiarity with Jesus’ ministry (2:22). Now he uses the same “you know” to his Gentile audience regarding their familiarity with Jesus’ ministry (10:37 in the Greek but 10:36 in English translations).

Thus the assumption being made is that the story about Jesus is familiar both to Jews and Gentiles. What has now changed is that salvific access to Jesus is now available both to Jews and Gentiles. This is demonstrated in another parallel between Peter’s Pentecost speech and his speech to Cornelius’ family and friends. The former speech ended with an announcement of forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name to Peter’s Jewish audience (2:38).

This speech ends with an announcement of forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ name for everyone who believe in Jesus (10:43). What has changed is the scope of everyone. At Pentecost, everyone meant Jews from every nation. Now, however, everyone means everyone in every nation who believes in Jesus. Unfortunately the climactic connection to the Pentecost story comes just beyond the lectionary boundaries when the Holy Spirit suddenly falls onto these Gentiles resulting in their speaking in tongues and their baptism in Jesus’ name (10:44-48 recalling 2:1-4, 37-42).

Again this radical inclusion of Gentiles does not mean the exclusion of Israel as Peter’s speech and its links to previous aspects of Luke-Acts makes clear. God sent the word to Israel (10:36a). John’s baptismal ministry was in fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel (10:37; Luke 1:67-80; 3:1-17; 7:24-27). The liberating mission for which Jesus was anointed with the Spirit involves God’s restoration project in fulfillment of Isaiah 61:1-2; 58:6 (10:38; Luke 4:16-21). In Paul’s subsequent ministry narrated in Acts 13-28, Paul always goes first to a Jewish audience because there remains a salvific priority for Israel.

What has changed is the scope of “all.” In Luke 24:47 Peter and the other disciples were commissioned by the risen Christ to preach repentance and forgiveness in Jesus’ name to all nations. In fulfillment of this commission Peter told his Jewish Pentecost audience from all nations that Joel’s prophecy regarding the outpouring of the Spirit had been fulfill so that all who call upon the name of the Lord would be saved (Acts 2:21; Joel 2:32a).

In each case, the perception of Peter and the rest of Jesus’ followers was that all only meant Jews (and Samaritans as noted above). Because Jesus is the Lord of all (10:36b) and is the one God has ordained to be the judge of the living and the dead (10:42b), all Jews and all Gentiles who believe in him receive forgiveness of sins through his name (10:43). In God’s salvific plan, all now really means all.