Lectionary Commentaries for January 9, 2011
Baptism of Our Lord
Commentary on Matthew 3:13-17
Commentary on Isaiah 42:1-9
For too long has Isaiah 42:1-9 been read solely within the context of the so-called “Servant Songs” (Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12).
Certainly these are important intertexts, but by reading Isaiah in such a manner one’s understanding of the concept of the Servant in Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) will be reductionistic.
Today’s reading ought to be interpreted within the context of chapters 40-42, which form a chiastic structure with 41:8-20 as its focal point. These early chapters of Second Isaiah introduce Cyrus the Persian king as the agent of Yahweh’s deliverance of Israel in exile. In 45:1 Yahweh grants Cyrus the title of “Messiah” and in 48:14 he declares his love for the Persian ruler. It would be Cyrus who defeats the Babylonians, releases Israel from its captivity, and provides the returnees the means to rebuild the Temple. Second Isaiah’s task is to convince a dubious exilic community that Yahweh is using a pagan king to accomplish his redemptive purposes for his chosen people.
Oddly enough, embedded within a text focused on introducing Cyrus, are texts that introduce the Servant of Yahweh. The Servant is first identified as Israel (41:8), but through the course of Second Isaiah the identity of the Servant becomes enigmatic and more individualistic in nature. Significant overlap exists between language regarding Cyrus and the Servant. According to Second Isaiah Yahweh holds both the Servant and Cyrus by their right hand (42:6; 45:1), calls upon them by name (43:1; 45:3-4), and calls them in righteousness (42:6; 45:13). Cyrus, like the Servant of Yahweh, will bring forth justice (42:1, 3-4) and liberate prisoners (42:7).
What is striking about Isaiah 42:1-9 is that the Servant is never clearly identified. What is emphasized is the activity and character of the Servant. It seems at this point Yahweh is interested more in what is accomplished rather than who does so. Yahweh’s main concern is for his just and righteous purposes for the nations.
Earlier Israel questioned the justice of God (40:27), as they lingered in exile. Yahweh’s response to his people comes in the form of a pagan king who does not know Yahweh (45:4). The people of God do not hold a monopoly on justice. In fact they are at times in need of the nations to bring justice to them. Israel was called to be the primary agent of God’s justice and righteousness in the earth (2:1-4), yet they abdicated this responsibility (1:16-17, 21-23) and they need to be redeemed by justice (1:27). Isaiah 42:1-4 reminds the people of God to be humble since they are not God’s sole agents of justice and righteousness. In some cases God may be accomplishing his plans for his people through the nations (e.g., 44:28).
Could Cyrus, a pagan king, be the Servant of Yahweh? In a one sense, the answer is “yes” as argued above, but a progressive reading of Second Isaiah will result in a “no.” Cyrus is characterized as an efficient conqueror who mightily wields the sword and the bow as he tramples upon his enemies (41:2, 25). It appears that the Servant similarly encounters no opposition since the verb to “cry out” (ṣā’aq) in 42:2 refers to the cry of the oppressed (cf. Isaiah 5:7). Whereas the Servant in chapters 40-48 will “not cry or lift up his voice” (42:2), in chapters 49-53 he will face fierce persecution and suffering.
Due to the growth of the prophetic book, Isaiah 42:2 is eventually to be interpreted in light of 53:7, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” The Servant of Yahweh will indeed experience persecution, but he will endure it in silence.
Isaiah 42:2 describes how “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” Bruised reeds and dimly burning wicks signify people who may seem strong but are actually weak (cf. 36:6). In contrast to the might of Cyrus, this Servant is gentle. Lastly, unlike people who fade and grow faint (40:7, 30), this Servant “will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth” (42:4). It is clear Yahweh is not merely concerned about what is accomplished for the sake of his plan, but the manner in which ministry is conducted. Justice is not to be accomplished through force but through meekness.
Matthew’s Gospel quotes an abbreviated version of Isaiah 42:1-4 and relates it to particular events in Jesus’ life in Matthew 12:18-21. Jesus’ decision to remain with the crowds even when his life was in danger (Matthew 12:14) and cure all of them of their diseases and evil spirits is in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. The first Sunday after Epiphany commemorates the Baptism of Jesus, which signifies the commission to his Messianic vocation. The Gospel reading for the day, Matthew 3:13-17, contains echoes of Isaiah 42. Jesus’ anointing by the Spirit of God (Matthew 3:16) recalls Yahweh’s declaration in 42:1, “I have put my spirit on him.” The affirmation of Jesus as God’s “Beloved, with whom [he is] well pleased” (Matthew 3:17) evokes Yahweh’s designation of his Servant as “[his] chosen, in whom [his] soul delights” (Isaiah 42:1).
The ministry of the Servant signifies the dawn of a new era of salvation for the people of God (42:9). The commissioning of Jesus to a vocation of Servanthood at his Baptism indicates this new age has begun. Epiphany marks the beginning of a new year, and for Christians each new year is a reminder that the new creation, which Isaiah 42:10-12 goes on to celebrate, has been inaugurated in the Baptism of our Lord Jesus the Christ.
Commentary on Psalm 29
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.
Commentary on Acts 10:34-43
Our text begins with Peter addressing a most unlikely audience.
He is speaking to the household and friends of Cornelius, a notable leader of Roman soldiers who is nevertheless described as “God-fearing” (10:2, 22). This means that he helped the poor and was also known for his regular prayer life (10:2, 32). Peter’s “sermon” is startling and even destabilizing. He announces God’s radical love is on the move, breaking down cherished and long-held borders and categories.
Your God Is Too Small
Peter begins by saying that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (10:34). God shows no partiality! Think of how that statement challenges and undermines our tendency to confine God to the comfortable categories of our own “religions.” In Peter’s day, the inclusion of Gentiles in God’s mission was profoundly controversial. Many of the original followers of Jesus could not conceive of a messiah meant for non-Jews, even though God’s promises to Israel have always had universal trajectory (Genesis 12:3).
We are not that different. We tend to build our own “private” faiths, drawing lines around who is “in” and who is “out.” And we get upset when people mess with our religion. Some years ago, J. B. Phillips wrote a fine little book called Your God is Too Small.1 Interpreters might want consult it for this week’s text. Using popular images, Phillips provides a long list of the ways we limit God to concepts and images that are safe and comfortable. He argues that we try to tame and domesticate God as we use him to pursue our own independent goals and agendas.
No Partiality–Because Of Jesus
The idea that God shows no partiality has sometimes been misunderstood. This is not an affirmation of a superficial universalism. Peter is hardly claiming the modern creed of many in the West who say that God is all-loving and therefore is far above all human religions. According to this line of thinking, God simply wants us to be kind to others and is fundamentally uninterested in particular religious differences.
But let’s be careful about turning Peter into some kind of Deist. The reason that Peter makes the claim that God is not partial is because of the way that God has revealed himself in the concrete and particular life of Jesus of Nazareth. As Acts 10:40-43 demonstrates, Jesus’ resurrection means that he is a messiah for Jews and Gentiles. And the fact that he is returning to judge all people means that all of human history is headed towards him. Ironically, only the life and ministry of the Jew named Jesus allows Peter to say that God shows no partiality!
You Can’t Box God In
Our attempts to control God and keep God safely within our predetermined categories are contradicted by the early Christian preaching about Jesus. Most commentators on this text agree that Peter’s speech in Acts 10:38-43 is something like an early Christian creed. At the center of this preaching is the fact that this one “anointed” by God ( the messiah) dies on a tree (10:38-39). But according to Jewish law anyone who dies this way is “cursed,” literally cut off from the people of God (Deuteronomy 21:23). So early Christian preaching has God most fully revealed in the most unthinkable of places-in the execution of a criminal on a cross. By whatever measurement-religious, social, cultural–the death of the Jew named Jesus was hideous, shameful, and offensive. But because he bore the sin of the world, the cross becomes a place of forgiveness and reconciliation (I Corinthians 5:21).
God’s love is now at loose in the world–this is what animates early Christian preaching. It is a wild and unruly force, winning over the hearts of centurions like Cornelius. It reverses conventional categories of who is “in” and who is “out.” It eats with sinners and upholds love of enemies as a new norm. Let us be cautious about all human attempts to corral and control this power. The Holy One of Israel has a way of eluding human attempts to hold him tight. Indeed, our “gods” are too small.
A Word About Baptism
This is the text for the Sunday that celebrates the baptism of Jesus. It might be a nice opportunity to highlight the importance of Christian baptism. Though interpretations will differ, most Christian traditions can agree that baptism is the place where God’s love for them becomes personal. The danger of emphasizing a divine love that is “wild and unruly” (see above) is that it is perceived to be forever on the move and never really landing anywhere. But Acts makes clear there is a close link between baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit (10:47). And it is also true that the early mission of the church was inseparable from baptism (Matthew 28:19).
In other words, God’s love takes up residence in human hearts. In baptism we celebrate the new life we have in Christ (Titus 3:5). It is also the place where we are joined to Christ (Romans 6:3-4). When assailed by doubt or overcome by despair, we can always point to our baptism as evidence that God’s love has not passed us by. Paul’s words ring in our ears: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5).
1 J. B. Phillips, Your God Is Too Small (New York: Macmillian, 1961).
As if on cue, Jesus sets foot on the stage immediately after John’s contrast of his baptism and the superior baptism which is to come.
Matthew makes it amply clear that this superior figure of judgment and power is none other than Jesus by linking John’s prophecy and Jesus’ public debut.
The last thing we hear about Jesus prior to this encounter with John is the move of Jesus’ family to Nazareth after the death of Herod (2:23). After leaping over much of Jesus’ childhood and early adulthood, Matthew introduces John the Baptist nearly exclusively to point forward to Jesus’ narrative reappearance. That is, John’s narrative function is solely to “prepare the way of the Lord” (3:3).
“John would have prevented him…”
That Jesus would have allowed John to baptize him apparently poses some theological problem for John the Baptist and even Matthew. Does Jesus need to seek repentance through John’s baptism? If John is incapable of even carrying Jesus’ sandals, why would Jesus seek John’s baptism? If Jesus would bring a baptism of “Holy Spirit and fire” (3:11), why does he need a baptism with mere water? If Jesus would preside over the judgment of the world, why would he need to seek repentance?
It is thus little surprise then that these narrative and theological tensions lead to John’s hesitation. What possible purpose could Jesus’ baptism by John serve? If anything, John is the one in need of Jesus’ powerful baptism, not the other way around.
“To fulfill all righteousness…”
And yet Jesus’ baptism is requisite according to Matthew. This is Jesus’ first public act and thus unquestionably important in the Gospel narrative. After all, the first two chapters of Matthew narrate events which happened to and around Jesus. He is but a child in the travels from Bethlehem to Egypt and finally Nazareth. Now that Jesus acts directly, now that he has stepped foot onto the narrative stage as an adult, what tone does this scene set? Why is this first step in Jesus’ earthly ministry so significant?
Two elements of Jesus’ response strike me as particularly important.
First, is that Matthew indicates that this baptism is a collaborative effort: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (3:15). John must concede to baptize Jesus; Jesus must seek the baptism of John. Together, their obedience to God’s plans is a step on the path of righteousness.
Second is the aim of “fulfill[ing] all righteousness.” What might this mean? The Greek term is incredibly difficult to define, and even more difficult to comprehend theologically. The term can encapsulate complex notions of justice, uprightness, correctness, innocence, and redemption. In Matthew, Joseph is called righteous when he intends to end his relationship with Mary quietly (1:19). In the Sermon on the Mount, those who yearn for righteousness and are oppressed because of their pursuits of it, will receive God’s blessings (5:6, 10). Overall, righteousness is an interior quality (23:28) but also a matter of external practice (6:1; 25:37).
Thus, “to fulfill all righteousness” likely means acting in obedience to God in a way that coordinates internal dispositions and external action. Jesus’ first steps in public ministry are a combination of a compliant spirit and a powerful, public display of his obedience to God’s call.
“…with whom I am well pleased.”
That Jesus’ baptism is essential and a step of righteousness is confirmed by the divine voice. God’s approval is unequivocal. Jesus is reaffirmed as God’s child as he begins his journey to the cross. Moreover, God’s love for Jesus is reaffirmed as well. Though Jesus’ life will be characterized by temptation and suffering, God’s love is no less real. God’s approval of Jesus is multifold. He and John together have acted in obedience to God at this moment, and now Jesus will certainly not divert from the straight path laid before him.
This is the first of three times in Matthew in which God expresses his direct approval of Jesus in these terms. In Matthew 12:14, conspiratorial forces surround Jesus and begin threatening his life. Jesus flees the threat but continues to heal everywhere he goes. 12:17-21 sees in all this a confirmation of the Isaianic oracle which is the first reading this Sunday. Once again, God’s soul is pleased. Finally, God’s voice again commends Jesus’ fealty during the transfiguration scene (17:5). This is the consistent witness of God concerning the Son, a witness further confirmed in the resurrection and perpetuation of the body of disciples in all the nations.
John plays a dual role in these verses. Having proclaimed the power of the one who is to come, he is also faithful to concede to a baptism whose necessity he may not fully understand. In submitting himself to John, Jesus combines great power and acquiescence. Jesus is not a king who won’t deign to tread the humble paths of his servants. Jesus’ hold on his power is not so tenuous that he must zealously hold on to it at all times. For Jesus, power and humility, authority and submission, power and relationship are not at odds.