Lectionary Commentaries for January 10, 2010
Baptism of Our Lord (Year C)
Commentary on Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Roy Harrisville III
Commentary on Isaiah 43:1-7
“But now” — hear the jarring declaration of reversal (43:1). Whatever has gone before is now swept away.
To proclaim the good news in this passage, the preacher must understand and convey the desolation that precedes it: God “gave up Jacob” (42:24). God poured out on God’s chosen people the heat of divine judgment, burning them with the fire of war (42:25). Forsaken, brutalized, and conquered, God’s people became prisoners in foreign lands, where no one, not even God, would claim them. No one would speak for them and say, “They are mine, give them back to me, free my people” (42:22). The new divine word — “But now” — breaks the devastating silence that haunted God’s people through generations in exile. The new word announces an end to judgment and proclaims the promise of life from captivity and death.
Yet while God promises to speak to the nations and demand the return of God’s own (43:6), the gulf, the hurt, and the silence between God and God’s scattered and distant people demand that God speak first to Israel, in language that proclaims again and again the intimacy between them.
The preceding chapter named God as creator of the heavens, the earth, and all people upon it, source of breath and life for humankind (42:5). Now God reveals the divine self strictly in relationship to God’s chosen ones. The God who speaks the new word of freedom, life, return, and redemption is “the creator-of-you, Jacob,” “the shaper-of-you, Israel” (verse 1). This is the transcendent God whose word created all that is good (Genesis 1). This is also God the potter — immanent, intimately present with God’s creatures — who formed humankind from the clay of the earth and breathed God’s own spirit of life into the human’s mouth (Genesis 2:7). This God will declare to Israel, “I shaped you for myself” (Isaiah 43:21). Like the book of Genesis, Isaiah moves from a panoramic view of God’s universal providence to focus on the radical particularity of God’s love for Israel.
And so in these verses God speaks to God’s people not like a king on a throne pronouncing an edict, but like a lover whose heart is bursting, who has waited an eternity just to say their name. In this act of speaking their name, God claims Israel as God’s own and sets them free. “You are mine” means also “I have ransomed you” (43:1). Maker, lover, and redeemer, God will pay any price and overcome every obstacle to be reunited with God’s own.
God says to Israel, “You are precious in my eyes, you are honored, and I have loved you” (verse 4). What does it mean to be precious? When we consider other biblical passages where someone is declared precious in the eyes of another — or where this status is in question — we realize that God’s declaration of love for Israel is no mawkish treacle, nor should it be preached in sentimental fashion. It is a matter of life and death. When Saul realizes that David spared his life, he declares, “My life was precious in your eyes today” (1 Samuel 26:21). Later, one of Ahaziah’s captains begs Elijah to intercede for him and his men in order to preserve their life from the fire of divine judgment. He pleads, “Let my life be precious in your eyes” (2 Kings 1:14). When Ahaziah’s petition is denied, his life is forfeit. The outcome makes the meaning of the phrase clear: to be declared precious means to find mercy, a stay of execution.
But even if one finds mercy, “precious” literally means there is a price, a ransom that must be paid. God’s love for Israel prompts God to redeem them, and this is good news, but this love is costly. The psalmist declares, “Precious is the ransom of a life” (Psalm 49:8), so valuable that no one can pay the price to redeem her own life (Psalm 49:7). And because Israel cannot redeem themselves, God will pay their ransom.
What is the cost? Here is the shock of God’s love. God declares, “I have given the price of your life: Egypt” (verse 3). The regions of Cush and Seba are also named, in parallelism to Egypt, as an exchange for the life of Israel. Later, God raises the stakes further still: “I give Adam, humankind, in exchange for you, peoples for your life” (verse 5). God loves this one people, Israel, so fiercely that God will give all others to win their freedom.
Yet by loving Israel, God does not abandon Egypt. Egypt’s story with God contains far more than this one moment. Isaiah 19:22 tells us that, as with Israel, so with Egypt, God wounds and heals. God promises to listen to Egypt’s voice and heal them, and they too will worship the Lord and be a blessing; God calls them “my people” (Isaiah 19:22-25).
Later, Isaiah pictures people of Egypt, Cush, and Seba coming to Israel in chains, bringing with them the wealth of their lands (Isaiah 45:14). They bow down and make supplication, acknowledging God just as God had promised. It appears that they have come to present themselves as slaves to the Israelites, reversing the earlier relationship of Israel’s slavery in Egypt (cf. Isaiah 52:4). God tells Israel, “they will be yours” (Isaiah 45:14). But remember what it meant when God said to the prisoner Jacob, “you are mine.” Not slavery, but freedom. Egypt, Cush, and Seba will come to Israel not to be enslaved, but to be freed from their chains. They proclaim God as “Savior” (Isaiah 45:15).
Isaiah’s understanding of salvation is filled with tensions: the God of glory, Creator and Savior of all, speaks here to one people in particular with longing and determination. In preaching this passage I would keep God’s broader plan of salvation in view, while focusing attention on the shocking particularity of God’s love for this one people, Israel, for whom God would pay any price.
Commentary on Psalm 29
There are a number of directions that the interpreter of psalm 29 could take.
For example, it is generally a matter of consensus among scholars that this Psalm was originally a Canaanite text celebrating Ba’al or a similar storm god. At one point, it was then brought into Israel’s use by replacing Ba’al’s name with Yahweh’s. Presumably, one could launch from this point into an examination of Israelite religion in its context or the polemical “replacement” of Canaanite deities by Israel’s God.
Similarly, much ink has been spilled in controversy over the meaning and implications of the title of those addressed by the Psalm. The variety of translations offered of bny elohim — “heavenly beings” in the NRSV and RSV, “ye mighty” in the KJV, “mighty ones” in the NIV, etc. — attests to the potential for a discussion of the nature and character of the denizens of heaven who are here called to worship the Lord. Are these angels? Other gods? Something else entirely?
But, while such approaches to Psalm 29 do have a certain interest of their own, they clearly do not address the main concern of the Psalm itself.
By dint of sheer repetition (not to say brute rhetorical force), the Psalmist focuses the attention of the reader squarely on what matters most here: the voice of the Lord. Six times in the eleven verses of the Psalm, the divine voice and its effects are the center of attention. So it seems that faithful exposition of this text ought to focus there as well.
What does Psalm 29 have to say about this voice and, by extension, about the Lord whose voice it is?
The voice thunders over the waters. The voice shatters trees and lays forests bare. It causes earthquakes and shoots forth flame (likely intended to be lightning). This is not, to say the least, the “still, small voice” of 1 Kings 19:12. There is nothing evidently comforting or comfortable about this voice. Here, instead, is a God whose very voice is laced with all the terrifying, numinous power of the thunderstorm, the earthquake, and the flood.
This is a voice able to rip creation apart, just as it brought creation into being. The particular objects of this vocal assault are also of interest.
The voice does not break just any little, scrubby tree but rather the cedars of Lebanon — the largest, strongest, and most famous trees in Israel’s experience.
The voice does not cause just any old piece of land to shudder and shake but rather Sirion, also known as Mt. Hermon, the largest, tallest mountain in all the Levant, and the wilderness of Kadesh, the anvil on which Israel was forged.
The Psalm, with its repetition of “The voice of the Lord…the voice of the Lord…the voice of the Lord,” is relentless in driving home the awesome power and terrible majesty of that voice and of its owner. There is nothing else that compares.
In the wake of the storm, as the echoes of the voice still ring from the heavens, the focus of the Psalm suddenly turns to the hearers, to those who worship in the Lord’s temple. Whether these worshipers are the “heavenly beings” of verse one, the people assembled in Tabernacle or Temple, or the members of a contemporary congregation; there is only one possible response to what has just been experienced: doxology.
Doxology literally means “speaking about glory,” and Psalm 29 claims that in the face of what has come before, there is nothing else to do.
The voice that strips the cedars and the forests also strips away all human pretensions of power, control, and agency. The voice that flashes fire and lightning erases any notion of our own insight and understanding. The voice that shakes Lebanon, Sirion, and Kadesh shakes all human sureties, assumptions, and plans. Before this revelation of even a tiny fraction of the full reality of the Lord, we are undone.
We are left with no possible defense, no possible rejoinder, and no possible response, except one. All we can do is say “Glory.” And mean it. This is not an empty cheer, not an antiphon or rote liturgical response. Our doxology, our saying “glory” after hearing the voice of the Lord, is simply a fact; the only fact left standing.
It is only when we are thus utterly reduced, when all that remains is doxology, only then can we utter the prayer with which the Psalm ends.
It is not the strong, the confident, or the self-assured who can, with hope and propriety, ask the Lord for strength and peace. It is, rather, the weak, the helpless, and the chastened, those who have truly heard the voice, and have been brought to realize their utter dependence on the one who utters it.
This is the message at the heart of Psalm 29: humble doxology, followed by trusting prayer, is the first, best, and only response to who God is and what God has done.
Commentary on Acts 8:14-17
Acts 8:14-17 is situated in a section of Acts that is both extraordinary and ominous (8:4-9:31).
With no less than three conversion stories in this unit, one has to wonder in what way four little verses in the midst of such a monumental shift in the mission of the Gospel might have some impact in this transitional time in the growth of the church. In this portion of Acts, the focus of the Gospel moves from concentration in Jerusalem to the regions beyond. 8:4-40 comprises Philip’s mission, first in Samaria (8:4-25), then to the Ethiopian eunuch (8:25-40). 9:1-31 narrates the conversion of Saul, Saul’s presence first in Damascus, and his first visit to Jerusalem. The text designated for the Baptism of our Lord is located just after the conversion of the Samaritans, baptized after hearing and believing Philip’s testimony.
A Mission for the Truth
Verse 14 returns to Jerusalem where the apostles find out that Samaria has accepted the word of God. In a sort of disciple reconnaissance mission, Peter and John are sent to check things out. It is important to remember the historical, social, and religious context of this story. The Samaritans and Jews have been enemies for centuries. The shock of Luke’s parable about the Good Samaritan and John’s story of the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42) tends to have little effect on our 21st century ears that know little of the rancor and resentment between the Jews and the Samaritans in first century Palestine. What? Samaritans accepted what Philip had to say? Disbelief, dismissal, and disregard necessitate a fact-finding mission to sort out the truth of the incident.
For all intents and purposes, this is a bizarre text when it comes to its selection for the Baptism of Our Lord Sunday. Whereas our theology of baptism claims particular biblical authority and mandate, theological truths, and ritual enactments, the two-fold, two-step baptism recounted in the text from Acts seems to call into question all we know, believe, confess, and rely on about baptism. So, the baptism of the Samaritans did not take the first time? Something was missing? There needed to be “official” church officers present to make the baptism of the Samaritans legitimate? What was the Holy Spirit doing at the time of the baptism, anyway? Busy with other things? If you cannot rely on the Holy Spirit to be where you need it to be, especially at critical “Holy Spirit” kinds of things, in what can you put your faith?
Indeed, these tend to be our own questions when it comes to baptism. How do we know that the Holy Spirit is present? What is the guarantee? For centuries, and even today, the stories surrounding the necessity of baptism have shaped our faith and our constructs of God. It would be surprising to learn of someone who had not heard of a story of an emergency baptism and question the validity of the sacrament depending on the officiant.
I have shared the following story on our Sermon Brainwave podcast, so to those who have already heard it, my apologies. I do, however, believe it is worth repeating on this particular Sunday in the church year.
Several years ago, my husband, also a Lutheran pastor, and I preached a dialogue sermon about baptism. It was a script that I wrote when we were pastors in a Lutheran church in a suburb of Atlanta where Lutherans were few and knowledge of Lutheranism even more rare. I decided that such a Sunday in the liturgical year would be an ideal opportunity to teach what Lutherans believe about Baptism. After the church service, a long-time member of the church, 90-years-old, came up to us and the other pastors and asked, “Is it really true? That God is the one who baptizes you?” We soon learned that her older sister was born extremely ill. There was neither hope for her survival, nor for her to be able to leave the house. As a result, the grandmother baptized her. When the baby died, and her parents approached the pastor about the funeral, the pastor refused to perform the funeral in the sanctuary because he had not baptized the baby. The funeral for our member’s 3-month-old sister was held in the church basement. Ninety years later, she wondered, she prayed, “So, my sister is OK?” The sister she never knew; the sister for whom she still shed tears.
Gerhard Krodel describes this moment as a breakdown of barriers. “The anomaly of a separation of Baptism from the gift of the Holy Spirit occurred (verse 16) so that the representatives of the apostles would experience the breakdown of the barrier between believing Jews and believing Samaritans.”1 The necessity to send the apostles to scope out the event of the Samaritan baptism was not for the sake of legitimizing or authorizing the efficacy of Philip’s act, but for the sake of the apostles’ belief that God can indeed work outside of the bounds, boundaries, and limits that we so desperately want to place on God. This is one of the central themes of Acts and one of the extraordinary claims of today’s liturgical focus. The love of God, the desire of God to make every single one of us God’s child, is intentionally, and thankfully, beyond the scope of what we have in mind for the extent of God’s love.
Preaching the Day
While it is likely that this reading from Acts will not be the primary focus of today’s liturgical emphasis, it most certainly can reinforce the preaching on Luke’s story of Jesus’ baptism and the meaning of baptism for the Christian life. The unique perspective that the story from Acts can offer, however, is the extraordinary claim that God’s Spirit will fall on who God wills, as much as we try to circumvent such reckless grace.
1Gerhard Krodel, Acts, 164
Great expectations have always been part of the human story.
Charles Dickens wrote an entire book with that as its title. Anyone can relate to looking forward to or anticipating something. In Luke’s Gospel, the people were expecting a Messiah and wondering if John the Baptist could be he. Luke and the reader both know he is not. Therefore, the mention of messianic expectation is ironic because the Messiah does appear in the next few verses. However, his actual appearance is wholly unexpected as is his redefinition of “Messiah” later on.
Luke has built up the expectations in his Gospel thus far by relating the pre-history of Jesus, his birth, early trip to Jerusalem, and the appearance of the Baptist. In this passage, however, the expectations of the people are shattered without their knowing it. Whereas they had probably been expecting an apocalyptic messiah figure that would restore their political fortunes, they got an apocalyptic figure who redefined apocalypse, the messiah, and their expectations.
First, the Baptist dampens the anticipations of his listeners when he mentions the “wrath to come” in the preceding verses. He is by no means gentle with his listeners when he predicts fire for those trees that bear no fruit. If they thought that John was looking forward to a serious drubbing of the Romans or other traditional enemies of the Jews, they would be sorely disappointed. He is more concerned with personal spiritual transformation within Israel itself.
At this point, Luke explicitly mentions expectations. He is the only evangelist to do so. In 1:21, the people expect Zachariah to emerge from the temple and speak. Later in chapter 7, the Baptist asks Jesus if he is indeed the expected one. Each time the result or the answer is a surprise. Zachariah cannot speak and the people know that he has seen a vision. John receives an enigmatic reply from Jesus, as though the question were absurd. The reply in this story is both more subtle and more powerful. It is subtle in that it is not what the crowd expected nor was the reply meant for them. It is powerful in that the reply comes from an impeccable source. All human expectations will be redefined in this Gospel.
John first replies to the expectations of the people by telling them that someone greater than he is coming. This message is shared by all three synoptic Gospels, but the reply concerning the threshing floor occurs only in Matthew and Luke. The Baptist mentions the baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire. Perhaps this is a reference to Pentecost in Acts 2. Perhaps it is a reference to Jesus’ powerful life and teachings. The preacher may want to make the point that every baptism in the Lutheran church is a baptism of the Holy Spirit. That is why it is taken so seriously. It is a miracle each time it occurs.
The seriousness of baptism is made clear by the metaphor of the threshing floor. It is a discriminating rite. It is not an act that one may undergo lightly, but is linked to salvation in opposition to judgment. The Holy Spirit is not inclusive but excludes all unrighteousness and sin. Baptism is not a mere welcoming rite but a rite that signifies one’s separation from evil. Any theology of judgment has fallen on hard times recently in favor of a softer and gentler message of peace and justice. But with justice comes judgment. It cannot be otherwise.
To ignore judgment leaves the preacher with no reason for preaching the gospel. It is not a matter of scaring people into heaven. It is a matter of revealing the need for salvation and why Jesus is so important. If he is only a common messiah who does what the people expect, then he is no use to us. But if, on the other hand, he is the Messiah who lays bare the pretenses and false expectations of the people and reveals their deep seated need for personal and inner transformation, then he is someone surprising and filled with ultimate and eternal meaning. For preachers to leave out the fire is to let go of the reason for the gospel and thereby cheapen the good news.
Luke is careful to sequence his verbs in verse 21. While Jesus was being baptized and praying, the heavens were opened. Praying is very important in Luke’s Gospel. It signifies Jesus’ deep devotion to God, the Father, and also signals important events.
The baptism itself signifies Jesus’ solidarity with sinners. The descent of the Spirit in bodily form may be a concession to Luke’s ancient Gentile readers who would appreciate such a detail after hearing about so many animal omens in their lives. It is clearly not the dove that is important however, but the Spirit’s descent upon the “un”-expected one. Jesus’ identity is confirmed by this event when the voice from heaven marks him out as not only a man of great worth and note, but as the very offspring of God.
Such titles belonged only to men of great renown such as the emperor Tiberius who had the title “Son of the divine Augustus” placed on his coins. For a commoner from Galilee to receive such a title from such a source is beyond credulity. Yet, as in Mark’s Gospel, only Jesus hears the voice. It is not for the people’s consumption. The reader is privy to the voice, but not the crowds.
At this point, all the expectations of the people have been left in doubt, but not for the reader. The baptism is Jesus’ inauguration in Luke, but it is not an apocalyptic event such as the people would have preferred. One dove hardly signifies the end. Nor is this Messiah someone who merely exacts vengeance upon the enemies of Israel. He is another kind of figure, approved of quietly by heaven, having the power to divide between good and evil, devoted to sinners and to his Father’s will.