Lectionary Commentaries for January 11, 2009
Baptism of Our Lord (Year B)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 1:4-11

Stephen Hultgren

On the first Sunday after Epiphany, we recall Jesus’ baptism.

This day, coming soon after Christmas, provides rich opportunity to reflect on the meaning of Jesus’ divine sonship (cf. Luke 1:32, 35), as well as the meaning of our own adoption as children of God through baptism into Christ.

The gospel text can be divided into three sections: the appearance of John in the wilderness (1:4-6); his preaching (1:7-8); and Jesus’ baptism (1:9-11). Any one of these sections could become the basis for a sermon. However, the special character of this Sunday (and knowing that John’s appearance and preaching were featured on the second Sunday in Advent) may encourage the preacher to focus on Jesus’ baptism.

There is a certain irony in Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism being chosen as the text for the first Sunday after Epiphany. In the church’s tradition, Epiphany is the season when we recall the manifestation (epiphaneia) of Jesus to the world. Yet Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism, like his gospel as a whole, has an air of secrecy. In Matthew, God’s declaration about Jesus, “This is my son” (Matt 3:17), reads like a public announcement to John and the crowds gathered at the Jordan. In contrast, Mark portrays God’s declaration of Jesus as though it were a private transaction between God and Jesus: “You are my son.” Likewise, it is apparently Jesus alone who sees the heavens split open and the Spirit descend upon him. In the three other gospels, these events seem to be portrayed in more objective terms (Matthew 3:16; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:32-34).

This feature of Mark’s account is probably related to Mark’s famous secrecy motif. Not until the second half of the gospel is Jesus’ messianic identity unveiled, after Peter confesses Jesus to be the messiah (8:29). Indeed, only then will God publicly announce to the disciples on the mountain that “This is my son” (9:7). Still, the disciples will not understand what it means for Jesus to be the messiah (9:32; cf. 8:31-33). Ironically, in the end it will be only the Roman centurion, witnessing the death of Jesus, who confesses Jesus to be son of God (15:39). As Mark sees it, Jesus’ identity as messiah and Son of God will be revealed and can be known only through his death on the cross.

But this feature of Mark may have an additional explanation. The words, “You are my son,” recall God’s declaration to the messiah (the anointed king) in Psalm 2:7: “You are my son; today I have begotten you.” It was an early Christian conviction that God had raised up (anestēsen) Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit and appointed him as God’s Son (Acts 13:33; Romans 1:4). Thus, God fulfills his promise to David that he would raise up (anastēsō; 2 Samuel 7:12) his offspring to rule over Israel forever (2 Samuel 7:13; Acts 13:34; cf. Luke 1:32-33). God’s relationship to that Davidic king would be as a father to a son (2 Sam 7:14). Therefore God’s words to the king of Israel, “you are my son” (Ps 2:7), are fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 13:33).

This early Christology seems to have influenced Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism. Portraying the baptism as a private transaction between God and Jesus suggests that Mark does not treat the events surrounding the baptism in strictly historical terms. Instead, Mark has a different agenda. But to be sure, there is no reason to doubt the historicity of Jesus’ baptism. Nor is there reason to doubt that Jesus saw his own ministry taking place under the power of the Holy Spirit (cf. Luke 4:18; Matt 12:28).

Considering the influence the early Christian tradition had on this account of Jesus’ baptism, Mark’s “different agenda” arises in a rich theology of baptism. God’s words to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” allude not only to Psalm 2:7, but also to Genesis 22:2 (Isaac as the only [Greek: beloved] son of Abraham), Isaiah 11:2 (God’s spirit resting on the king of Israel), and Isaiah 42:1 (God’s spirit resting on the servant in whom he delights). Thus, Mark is subtly telling us that, already in his baptism, Jesus’ future course is laid before him: he will be the servant of God, who will offer his life as a sacrifice. Like Isaac, he is the son of promise, a promise that nothing, not even death, can break. In fact, it is precisely through his death and resurrection that Jesus’ sonship and messiahship will be confirmed and God’s promises fulfilled.

Jesus’ baptism is fulfilled in his death and resurrection. According to Peter, in his resurrection Jesus received the Holy Spirit from the Father, and his installation as messiah was complete (Acts 2:32-36). Moreover, because Jesus has received the Holy Spirit from the Father, he can give the Holy Spirit to those who believe in him (Acts 2:33), sharing with them this precious gift. Consequently, John’s promise that the “more powerful one” would baptize with the Holy Spirit is also fulfilled (Mark 1:8). Those who are baptized in Jesus’ name receive the Holy Spirit (Galatians 3:14, 29), become sons and daughters of God (Galatians 3:26), and share in Jesus’ destiny of death and resurrection (Romans 8:15-17).

This text is about new beginnings. Mark writes of Jesus’ baptism under the rubric of the “beginning” (archē) of the gospel of Jesus Christ (1:1). This word recalls Genesis 1:1-5, the Old Testament lesson for the day. “In the beginning,” God’s Spirit once hovered over the waters, while God spoke and called heaven and earth into being. So also at the baptism of Jesus, God’s Spirit came over the waters and his voice declared Jesus to be his Son. That was the beginning of a whole new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17; Revelation 21:5). Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, which his baptism already foreshadows, the new creation is fulfilled. For us,we are baptized into Christ, and we all have the possibility of sharing in the new creation that Christ brings. Through baptism, we have all been reborn. In Christ, and in our daily return to our own baptisms, there is an inexhaustible source for the renewal and new beginnings of our lives (Titus 3:5).

A marvelous aspect of Jesus’ baptism is its remind that he is not only our Lord but also our brother. He was baptized, just as we are. He shares in our humanity. Although Jesus is Son of God par excellence and our Lord, he is not these in a selfish way that hoards the Father’s inheritance for himself. We do not need to envy him in the way that Joseph’s brothers envied Joseph, because Jacob favored him (Genesis 37:4).  Rather, just as Joseph’s humiliation (by his own brothers!) and exaltation (God made Joseph “Lord” of Egypt: Genesis 45:9) ultimately led to the brothers’ sharing in Joseph’s bounty (Genesis 45:11), so God’s making Jesus Lord through his death and resurrection (Acts 2:36) and his giving of the Holy Spirit make us co-inheritors with him of everything that the Father has to give his children (Rom 8:17; Gal 4:7), above all, eternal life. There is also a reminder, of course, that our baptisms call us to conform our lives to Jesus, and to live our lives under the cross., for we will not be glorified with him unless we suffer with him (Rom 8:17).

First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 1:1-5

Beth L. Tanner

Both the Old and New Testament texts focus on “firsts.”

The Old Testament lesson is part of a creation narrative, and the New Testament text is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry marked by his baptism. This week gives us the unique opportunity to explore both of these texts together in order to speak of what we believe and why we believe it.

There are few hotter theological-political issues in this country than the question of creation. One only needs to enter the blogging world to see that opinions on when, how, and exactly how long God took to create the world can create a fire-storm. For many people, the issue of creation versus evolution is a litmus test to determine who is really a Christian and who is not. What can be said on a Sunday morning that does not add fuel to the debate?

The Gospel for this lectionary cycle is Mark, and its beginning is markedly different from the other Gospels. Likewise, the two opening chapters of Genesis each tell a story of creation. That in itself should tell us something! Truth is not always found in a single perspective of an event. Truth, in the case of the two creation texts, is less about what actually happened and more about what we believe concerning God as the Creator of all. It is confession, not a historical record.

The context for the writing of the Old and New Testament texts have much in common. First and foremost, God’s people are suffering. During Jesus’ time, Israel is controlled by Rome. It is not an independent state. The people cannot determine their own destiny. Rome is a great world power and the people long for a Messiah who will rise and take back the throne of David so Israel can live free again.

Similarly, Genesis one was written as a statement of faith in the midst of horrific times, not as an answer to the question of how God created the world. The time was either the exilic or the immediate post-exilic period. Jerusalem, the temple, and major cities in Israel had been attacked by Babylon, and its leaders had been taken off into exile. Even the fall of the Babylonians did not spell freedom, just domination by another group, the Persians. In that time, the country that won the war and conquered the area was seen as the one with the strongest and most powerful god. Questions hung in the air. Is our God strong enough to protect? Did God go away or just not care anymore? Should we abandon the God of our ancestors for other gods that are seemingly in control of the world? Is YHWH a lesser god who cannot protect or control world events?

The beautiful prose of Genesis 1 gives one answer. It is not about how long a “day” is or if there were dinosaurs in the created order. The answer is not meant to equal historical fact. In fact, it might be better to think of Genesis one as answering to the question, “Do you still believe that our God is strong enough to protect us and bless us?”

The answer to present day doubt is reaffirming what you know about the past. Today’s lectionary reading is the first five verses of the chapter, but as a confession, it should be heard as a full piece. Heard in this way, it confirms that God is indeed great and the creator of all things. Furthermore, despite all of the difficulties of today, God created humans and pronounced everything “very good.” Paired with the Gospel, it is a reminder of why Jesus came to earth. Regardless of our shortcomings, God loves us and sees us (or at least our potential) as “very good.”

Both of these reflections are on “beginnings.” One has to wonder, did everyone present for Jesus’ baptism hear those great words from the sky? Or was it only upon reflection about what happened that the people realized “the heavens are telling of the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1)? Likewise, even with no stenographer at the creation, the writer(s) of Genesis 1 know that God creates order out of dark chaos. When doubting God’s power, the writer(s) know to look to the wonder of God’s created world, with all of its lights and stars, all of its plants and animals, all of its symmetry and seasons and wonder. The answer to fear and doubt is actually all around us. We know God created the world, just as we know God holds a place for us beyond this physical life, even if neither can be definitively proven in our tangible world. What we “know” by faith is a different reality than what see on CNN. We know people in our lives love us, but there is no “test” to prove that to a skeptical world.

As preachers, we need to encourage our hearers to affirm Jesus’ importance to them and God’s ability to create our beautiful world without getting caught up in human arguments that turn us into enemies instead of grateful creations of our Creator. Did God create the world? Of course. Did Jesus come to earth to save us? We have bet our lives on it. Instead of arguing over the details, we should simply offer our thanks and praise, as our ancestors did in their time and place.


Commentary on Psalm 29

Wendell Frerichs

Psalm 29 is a call to worship, not only by the assembled congregation in the Jerusalem Temple, but also by the angels in God’s heavenly court.

In all likelihood, the context of this powerful piece was someone experiencing the lightning, thunder, and wind of a storm coming in from the Mediterranean Sea. The Psalm found its way into the Psalter, not to provide a fitting song for the choir on a rainy day. More likely, it proved appropriate for a festival where Yahweh’s Kingship (verse 10) or glory (verse 9) was celebrated.

When and by whom was the Psalm written? Verse 1 suggests it belongs to a collection for the king. Few scholars think that David is the author, though it may well be an early piece. More likely, it was written by a worship leader at an Israelite worship center.

Several rare words are traceable to Canaanite sources. Some even think that a non-Israelite song was rewritten to claim that Yahweh is the God who sends storms, rather than some storm god in a heathen pantheon.

There are various types of Psalms in the Psalter (praise, thanksgiving, lament, and wisdom to name a few). Psalm 29 fits the ‘praise’ category, though its structure and content are unique. The opening two verses serve as an Introit or call to worship. Three imperatives of the word ‘to give’ or ‘to render,’ plus one of the verb ‘to bow down,’ set the stage for the rest of the poem. Three strophes (verses 2-4, 5-7, 8-9) follow, in which the author’s experience and Yahweh’s self-disclosure or activity are described. Eight occurrences of the noun ‘voice’ secure the content under Yahweh’s control. Not all translations agree as to the areas of Yahweh’s activity, but that does not alter their intent. Finally, a postlude (verses 10-11) sets the stormy content of the center section to rest in the peaceful conclusion and future situation of God and His people, and the heavenly court as well.

Now for a closer look at the sections” Verses 1-2 call everyone to worship. Did Temple worshippers bow down (verse 2) as Muslims now do? Yahweh is the God of glory, power, and holiness. There are ample reasons to worship. Nothing is left over for other gods. Whatever is seen or experienced as good in history, nature, music, or architecture, is a reflection and gift of God. Thus, the name of Yahweh became too sacred even to pronounce.

The body of the Psalm divides into three parts−verses 3-4 preview the coming storm as if it is still over the sea. But, the sounds and sights are not just natural phenomena. They disclose Yahweh’s glory and power. Yahweh’s voice is heard, in addition to waves crashing on the shore and thunder. It is doubtful that the pre-scientific ages actually thought that the LORD’S vocal chords enunciated words which a prophet could interpret.

Verses 5-7 see the storm come inland and wreak havoc in the mountain forests. Now, it is the falling timbers as well as the thunder which are Yahweh’s voice. The mountains, including the highest, Mount Hermon, seem to jump and skip. Lightning sets forest-fires ablaze. But it is Yahweh, not just nature, who is at work.

Verses 8-9 describe the movement of the storm further inland, into arid lands which usually are anxious to soak up downpours. Are people in their towns and tents afraid? The poet still hears God’s voice in the powerful display. Nature is upset and suffers, but no one cries for justice or mercy. Later, those on a festival day, who earlier feared for their lives, worship Yahweh with but one appropriate response: Glory to God!

Lastly the postlude sets the entire universe at rest. God sits enthroned above the waters and above the firmament. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He who displayed his power and glory, which so moved heaven and earth, now shares his strength with Israel and blesses them with shalom.

How many will hear a sermon on the Old Testament lesson for the day? It is rarely the case in most of our churches, but this psalm is a powerful word. No, it is not like Jesus, an apostle, or a prophet speaking a word from God. It is some unknown poet followed by a choir director or worship leader calling every living being in heaven and earth to worship the Creator. We may have confessed Him in the creed. We may have lived through a tornado, as two families of my children have. Every time a dark cloud appears on the horizon, we may relive a powerful storm we experienced in the past. But did God speak to us in it?

We modern folks are so secularized that we may not even have prayed when the storm struck. If we go to church, we expect God to speak to us in the texts for the day or the sermon. We may admire God’s handiwork in a sunset or a nature scene, but mostly we do not reflect on God’s work in nature or history. Most people believe that history is humanly determined, and nature evolved without divine interference or creativity. Yet, we know far more about the extent of the universe than any people did until recently. The power released in an exploding supernova, or every second by the billions of stars in the Milky Way should get our attention. Let’s cry, Glory!

How do we Christians interpret Psalm 29 differently than Jewish people? We too are God’s people, but chosen and elect in Jesus Christ, not covenanted because of Sinai. God’s glory is revealed to us in the face of Jesus Christ. What we know of our pre-Christian ancestral religion probably discloses a storm god, a war god, etc. No wonder our ancestors long ago were converted. But, secularism has taken hold of us and we do not hear God’s voice in nature anymore.

Second Reading

Commentary on Acts 19:1-7

Arland J. Hultgren

This episode in the Book of Acts stands as a sequel to the account of John the Baptist’s ministry, including the baptism of Jesus, that is narrated in the Gospel for the Day (Mark 1:4-11).

Appearing in the two-volume work of Luke-Acts, it’s more precise antecedent is the account in Luke 3:1-20. The sequence of readings at worship necessitates that this passage from Acts will precede the Gospel for the Day. While this passage refers to John and his ministry, that era is now in the past tense. It is already the time of the church. Nevertheless, this account does prepare the listener for the Gospel reading by its reference to John and the kind of baptism that he performed.

If we follow Luke’s account of Paul’s journeys, the story related in Acts fits within his third missionary journey (18:23-21:16). Just prior to it, attention is upon Apollos of Alexandria, already a Christian, who was preaching in Ephesus (18:24-28). But his knowledge of the faith was inadequate, and it fell to Priscilla and Aquila to explain “the Way of God to him more accurately” (18:26). One of the things lacking in his understanding was a fuller view of baptism, for “he knew only the baptism of John” (18:25).

When Paul arrives in Ephesus, where our story takes place, Apollos had left for Corinth. But Paul meets a group of Christians there who, like Apollos, had an inadequate understanding of baptism. They had never heard of the Holy Spirit, and they had been baptized “into John’s baptism” (19:3). Paul has to explain to them that John’s baptism was a “baptism of repentance” anticipating the coming of the Messiah. Subsequently, Paul baptizes them into “the name of the Lord Jesus” and lays hands upon them. The Holy Spirit comes upon them, and they speak in tongues and prophesy.

The story highlights both the continuity with and the difference between the ministry of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. John anticipates the coming of the Messiah, “who will baptize…with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8). There lies the continuity. However, there is a difference between John’s baptism, a “baptism of repentance,” and that of Jesus, a baptism in which the Spirit is bestowed. It becomes clear that baptism “into Jesus” or “into the name of Jesus” is accompanied by the gift of the Spirit. Paul rebaptizes those who are already called “disciples” (19:1), but who have not yet received the Spirit, in order to bring them into the fullness of life in Christ.

The Baptism of Our Lord is a Christological festival, and a sermon on this text from Acts (or reference to it in a sermon) should not diminish that. Still, there are themes within it that complement the Christological emphasis. The baptism of Jesus by John inaugurated Jesus’ earthly ministry. It marked the moment when he was designated God’s Son by a voice from heaven, and was endowed with the Spirit to carry out his work on earth (Mark 1:10-11). Likewise in Christian baptism, the event marks the inauguration of a new life and vocation for the one being baptized. These points can all be inferred and developed out of the Gospel for the Day.

The story in Acts can be used to supplement that basic point. Luke writes that those who were baptized “spoke in tongues and prophesied” (Acts 19:6). The speaking “in tongues” recalls the speaking in “other tongues” in the Pentecost story (Acts 2:4). Curiously, the word for “other” (heteros) is left out in our text. The “other tongues” of Acts 2:4 meant foreign languages, as subsequent verses make clear. But in Acts 19:6, the expression “they spoke in tongues” may be closer to the gift of ecstatic speech some have, which Paul writes of in 1 Corinthians (12:10, 28-30; 13:1; 14:1-6, 18-19, 22-26), and which Paul considers a gift that some have, but not all. In addition, the people baptized “prophesied.” They give testimony in their own language concerning Jesus. Paul also considers “prophecy” essential for Christians at worship (1 Corinthians 14:1-5, 39).

While not all baptized Christians have the gifts of tongues or prophecy, the giving of them reminds us of two things. First, all Christians are endowed by the Spirit, and there are many gifts. Tongues and prophecy are not the litmus test of whether or not one is a Christian. The true test is whether that person makes the confession that “Jesus is Lord,” which is prompted by the Spirit and cannot be made otherwise (1 Corinthians 12:3). Secondly, we are reminded that being baptized entails the use of whatever gifts one has to witness to what God has done in Christ.

Another theme that emerges from this text in Acts is that baptism presupposes catechesis. Paul takes time and effort to speak to the disciples at Ephesus about the meaning of baptism into the name of Jesus. A sermon cannot do everything, but as a congregation celebrates the Baptism of Our Lord, it is an opportunity for the preacher to speak about the many levels of baptism. One can teach, not only about its obligations (as above), but also about baptism’s significance as an event where we are incorporated into Christ and, consequently, share his destiny. If we were baptized as infants, we were “handed over” to Christ. If we were baptized as adults, we entrusted ourselves into the care of the one who baptized us (as well as to the community of believers), and then were “handed over” to Christ.

Baptism is to be remembered and celebrated. As we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord, and focus on that event for our salvation, it is only natural that we reflect on our own baptisms. A fine resource for that purpose is what Paul says in Romans 6:1-14, which can be paraphrased and summarized: As we have died with Christ in baptism, we now belong to him. We share his destiny, and know for certain that we shall live with him in eternity. And in the meantime, we walk in newness of life.