Lectionary Commentaries for January 8, 2012
Baptism of Our Lord (Year B)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 1:4-11

Paul S. Berge

The text for the Baptism of our Lord, January 8, 2012, is Mark 1:4-11. This is a gospel which begins with words that exclude a main verb.

In other words, the first verse is not a complete sentence but rather the title of the gospel: “Beginning of the good news/gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). A definite article (the) is not present before the noun, beginning.

The evangelist is proclaiming from the opening word that there are no limits to a “beginning” in whatever parable, story, miracle, deed, saying, teaching of Jesus in the gospel. A “beginning” takes place as the good news/gospel of Jesus Christ breaks into our hearing. What remarkable “beginnings” take place throughout the gospel! What an epiphany word to proclaim on this Sunday of the baptismal voice from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved!”

We hear prophetic voices of Malachi, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way,” and Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight'” (Mark 1:2-3). With these prophetic words of call we enter into our text as John the baptizer is identified and emerges on the scene as the one who fulfills this prophetic role as forerunner of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Following this prophetic identity the narrative begins with the appearance of John in the wilderness. John’s message is one of proclaiming the coming one. His words proclaim a baptism of repentance, a call to turn around from their ways and receive the forgiveness of sins. His call is dramatic and claims the attention of “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem.” The scene of response is no less dramatic as they “were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Mark 1:4-5). To us this looks curiously like the scene of a contemporary tent revival on the sawdust trail of religious revivalism in American history.

John’s identity is marked by the wilderness as seen by his apparel and diet: “Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey” (Mark 1:6). Perhaps it was curiosity that brought the people from the country and city. He certainly stood out in some fashion as a prophetic figure who challenged the people. But his role was not to draw attention to himself but to the coming one: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandal” (Mark 1:7). The role of John is a servant or slave of the one to whom he bows down in service.

At this point we only know that this one whom John announces is “more powerful.” What type of power will be demonstrated by this one? To our question we now hear the focus of this narrative: “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8). John’s water baptism is the Elijah-like preparation of Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit.

As we read further in the gospel of Mark, we will hear that Jesus identifies John in the Elijah role. Elijah will be with Moses on the mount of Transfiguration when Jesus is identified by God in the voice from heaven: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 9:4-7). On the way down from the mountain Jesus will reveal to his disciples that Elijah “has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it was written about him” (Mark 9:13).

The narrative of the beheading of John will appear later in the feast of Herod (Mark 6:14-29) where they did “whatever they pleased” to John. This is the true identity of John the Elijah-like forerunner. He will suffer the same fate as the one for whom he prepares and proclaims: “Elijah is indeed coming first to restore all things. How then is it written about the Son of Man, that he is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt?” (Mark 9:12). As readers of the gospel of Mark we know that John and Jesus will both be treated with the same contempt and their lives concluded by beheading and crucifixion.

The scene changes once again and we are now at the Jordan with our two figures: “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan” (Mark 1:9). But this is no ordinary baptism for as Jesus comes out of the water the heavens are torn apart: “And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (Mark 1:10).

The translation “just as” in the NRSV is better rendered “immediately.” This adverb (Greek, euthus) occurs for the first of 41 occurrences in the gospel of Mark. The evangelist is drawing us into the drama of the gospel with each occurrence of this word. The word “immediately” both expresses a chronology (Greek, kronos) in the gospel story but also expresses an opportune time (Greek, kairos) of God’s kingdom breaking into our world in the stories, parables, miracles, deeds, sayings and teachings of Jesus throughout the gospel.

One such opportune time is this story when the heavens are “torn apart” (Greek, skizo) and Jesus alone hears the voice of God at the baptism bestowing upon him the identity: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). We will hear this verb only once again in the gospel of Mark when the temple curtain is “torn apart” at the moment when Jesus breathes his last (Mark 15:38). Now the confession of Jesus’ identity will come in the words of the centurion: “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mark 15:39). The gospel of Mark is dramatically framed by these two events of the in breaking of the kingdom and Word of God present in Jesus Christ.

The identity of Jesus is now known for the entire gospel story and will take us from his baptism to the cross. In this story the engagement with the power of Satan now begins: “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tested by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him” (Mark 1:12-13). Jesus’ Spirit-empowered ministry begins as he proclaims the good news, calls people to repent and believe (Mark 1:14-15), and calls the first disciples immediately (1:18, 20) to follow him (Mark 1:16-20).

This is the concluding framework for our January 8, 2012 text. Stay tuned, there is more to come, as we pick up this action packed drama of epiphany in two weeks as we work with the January 22, 2012 text of Mark 1:14-20, which is another great Epiphany text!

First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 1:1-5

Terence E. Fretheim

In the opening verses of Genesis, God exhibits a certain creative style.

On the one hand, it is an orderly, light-filled moment (hence the choice of this text for Epiphany). On the other hand, God’s creational work exhibits a certain messiness, with the wind sweeping across the face of the waters. And who knows what will come of that! The wind blows where it wills (John 3:8).

Creation is not a sudden one-day affair; God doesn’t snap the divine fingers and immediately bring the creation into being. God takes time in creating: There was evening and morning, one day, two days… and given that God has been creating through the millennia, I wonder what number today is for God. Bringing the creation into being over time signals that creation is a dynamic process and not a finished product. 

Moreover, this Creator God chooses not to take an “I’ll do it by myself” kind of approach to creation. God catches up the creatures along the way to participate with God in ever new creations: let the earth bring forth; let the waters bring forth… Let us create humankind. God invites the earth and waters and microorganisms and you and me into the creative process. 

And, then, at the end of each day, God makes an evaluation of what God has observed: it’s good. The word “good” includes a range of meanings, but one sense of the word is aesthetic — like looking at Rembrandt’s Jeremiah or hearing Mozart’s clarinet concerto. Yes, that’s just right! 

But, pray tell, why would God ever need to evaluate what God has done? Wouldn’t it inevitably be perfect? Well, apparently not (see 2:18). God commanded the humans to “subdue” the earth. The verb is here used in a pre-sin context and no enemies are in view; it has the sense of “to bring order out of continuing disorder.” The command assumes that the earth was not fully developed at the end of the seventh day. 

God’s creation is going somewhere; it is a long-term project, ever in the process of becoming (as the history of nature shows, with the earth-changing activities of such creatures as glaciers, earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis). There is continuing disorder in God’s good world that needs to be subdued — yet, that very disorder is also evaluated as good. As Sibley Towner (Genesis [Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2001] 21) explains: “If there were no freedom in this creation, no touches of disorder, no open ends, then moral choice, creativity, and excellence could not arise. The world would be a monotonous cycle of inevitability, a dull-as-dishwater world of puppets and automatons.” 

God’s observations of the creation lead to the conclusion that something is not good (Genesis 2:18). And so God has to make further creative moves before that part of the creation could be called good. Whereas God had done all the evaluating in Genesis 1, God now gives to the human being the evaluative role in the next stage of creation. The animals: No, they won’t do. The woman: Bingo!

And, similarly, along the way God certainly will evaluate each of us. Almost certainly at one time or another that evaluation will be: not as good as it might be, improvement is needed here or there, or perhaps a lot. But certainly many times that evaluation will be: very good. 

Your writing, your speaking, your actions, or your way of being with others may be revealing of creative activity that God treasures and honors. Indeed, God so values you that God will confidently entrust you with creative tasks and responsibilities beyond your present knowing. That evaluation may run something like this: what you do and say is good, but the way in which you say it and do it may make the “what” even better. Style counts with God.

Some details. This text does not refer to the absolute beginning of all things, but the beginning of the ordered creation. Following the Revised Standard Version, but unlike the New Revised Standard Version, 1:1 is likely an independent sentence in view of the pattern of other genealogies (5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10).

Verse 2 describes the conditions before God began to order the cosmos. The “formless void” is not “nothing” (earth, waters, wind, and darkness exist), but that which awaits further creative work.

God’s speaking in 1:3 is a personal, deliberate divine act. God’s speaking does not stand isolated from God’s making (or separating, 1:4); God’s word is not the only way of expressing God’s creativity. God often speaks with that which is already created (1:11, 20, 24, 26, 28), so creatures participate in the creative activity initiated by God: The recurring divine evaluation of God’s own work implies an ongoing process, within which improvement was considered possible (as in 2:18). God’s naming in 1:5-10 is a part of the creative process, discerning the place of creatures (parallel to human naming in 2:20). 

This evaluation “good” is not taken away when sin enters the world. Sin negatively affects the life of human beings, certainly, and through them the life of other creatures.  But nowhere does the Scripture take away the evaluation “good” from any creature. In fact, many texts in the wake of sin will reinforce that evaluation. With respect to human beings:  “you are precious in my sight, and honored” (Isaiah 43:5) and “crowned…with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:5).

The image of God’s spirit/wind that “sweeps over” the face of the waters (1:2) suggests creative action that has an ever-changing velocity and direction. Even more, the spirit/wind works with already existing matter such as earth and water; in fact, much of what is created in the balance of Genesis 1 is created out of material already present in Genesis 1:2.

Out of the mess of Genesis 1:2 (understood as chaos/disorder, not evil) comes the orderliness of 1:3-31 — though not without continuing disorder, evident in the omission of certain words and phrases in its normally regular structure. 

In sum, God takes the ongoing creational process into account in shaping new directions for the world, one dimension of which is engaging creatures in creative activity. Divine decisions interact with creaturely activity in the becoming of the world. Creation is process as well as punctiliar act; creation is creaturely as well as divine. God’s approach to creation was and continues to be communal and relational.


Commentary on Psalm 29

Fred Gaiser

The Bible speaks often of the effective power of the word of God.

The word of God is not about things, the word of God does things. We meet that word, that voice, in all its terrible power in Psalm 29.

The voice of the Lord is “heard” in this psalm in its effects on creation itself. The voice is “powerful” and “full of majesty” (verse 4), and that mighty voice is heard or seen in the thunderstorm that gives rise to “mighty waters,” that breaks the largest trees, that “flashes forth” lightning (verse 7), stripping forests of their bark. We meet the voice in the earthquake that causes the greatest mountains to “skip” (verse 6) and the deserts to shake (verse 8). And we say, “Wow!” — or “Glory!” (verse 9).

What else is there to say? We are overwhelmed — as people always are when they see the power of earthquakes and eruptions, hurricanes and hail. Wow! First, this is more a “wow” of wonder and smallness than a wow of joy and celebration. All humans, believers and nonbelievers alike, will bow in awe at the power displayed in nature’s fury. But Israel says, “Glory!” — that is, glory to God in the highest. The voice of awe becomes a doxology of praise.

But why would people praise the God of such unleashed power? Part of the answer lies in the fact that, though retaining its power, God’s creation is brought into a certain measure of control — it is “leashed” in this psalm in several ways. First, the power is taken away from Baal and given to Yahweh. Those conversant with ancient Canannite literature easily see the parallels between Psalm 29 and its earlier counterparts:

Now at last Baal may appoint
a time for his rain…
and for the sounding of his voice in the clouds,
for him to release (his) lightnings on the earth….
Baal uttered his holy voice,
Baal repeated the [issue] of his lips;
(he uttered) his [holy] voice [(and)] the earth did quake,
[(he repeated) the issue of his lips (and)] the rocks (did quake);
people afar off were dismayed [           ]
the peoples of the east;
the high places of the earth shook.1

Now, in Psalm 29, the voice is Yahweh’s, but the power is the same. The name of God matters. Do we trust Baal? Probably not, but Yahweh is the one who brought us out of Egypt, the one who knows our name and loves us (Isaiah 43:1-4). Yahweh is not “raw” power; Yahweh is the power of love and promise. The power remains real, but with Yahweh our ultimate safety is secured.

Second, the power in the psalm is not left to its own devices. “The Lord sits enthroned over the flood” (verse 10). Everything that happens here happens in, with, and under God. It is no longer the random chaos of tohu vavohu (Genesis 1:2), but it is power within God’s creation, power under God’s throne. Again, the power remains — even the terror for those who have seen nature turn against them. But they are never abandoned by the redeeming God of promise, so their lament can finally be turned into praise.

And third, the power in the poem is tempered by the careful structure of the poem. Psalm 29 is oxymoronic: it speaks of power untamed, yet it speaks of power within the taming structure of careful poetic parallelism. The psalm falls into three main parts:

Ascribe to the Lord… (call to praise) (verses 1-2)
The voice of the Lord… (the descriptive praise of this mighty “storm God”) (verses 3-9)
The Lord sits enthroned… (reason for praise and concluding petitions) (verses 10-11)

Numbers matter in this structure. In parts one and three, we find four mentions each of the name Yahweh. In the middle section of the psalm, we have ten more namings of Yahweh, and we hear seven “voices” — four Yahwehs, ten Yahwehs, four Yahwehs, and the middle ten caught up in a cacophony of seven voices. Four, ten, seven — all “complete” numbers in Israel’s symbolic use of numerology. The poem about uncontrolled power (which could be chaos) becomes an artistic creation that holds, describes, limits, and hems in the power. God creates order; so does God’s poem.

In the end, we probably don’t want God’s power to be fully tamed. God is a dragon whose fire can and should never be put out. The psalm tells us without question that God is God and we are not. But the poem ends with the petition that God give God’s strength to God’s people, that God bless us with peace — not wimpy peace, apparently, but peace that passes understanding. The power of God’s word to make things happen — power like that of the rain and the snow — retains its awe, but it all functions to accomplish God’s purpose (Isaiah 55:10-11), and that purpose is always life, always love.

That same power and purpose get taken up in the liturgy for the Baptism of Our Lord. We don’t want Jesus’ baptism or ours to be tamed. Water kills and cleanses, and it must do that in order to give birth to new life. Something big is going on here, something like a fierce storm — the voice of Psalm 29. But now, at Jesus’ baptism, a new voice speaks. The voice of God in Psalm 29 says, “This is my cosmos.” The voice of God at Jesus’ baptism says, “This is my son.”

As James Luther Mays (who makes this comparison) says, “The two go inseparably together. The Christology is not adequate unless its setting in cosmology is maintained. The Old Testament doxology is necessary to the gospel.”2 In other words, what does it look like when God shows up? It looks like a wild uncontrollable storm, and it looks like a Nazarene teacher wading into a river. For the fullness of biblical theology, you can’t have one without the other.

1“The Palace of Baal,”  4.68-71 and 7.29-35, in J. C. L. Gibson, Canaanite Myths and Legends, 2d ed. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1978), 60-61, 65.
2James Luther Mays, Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994), 138.

Second Reading

Commentary on Acts 19:1-7

Frank L. Crouch

This passages stands as one of the classic battlegrounds for debates over baptism: whether people should be re-baptized, whether water baptism is enough or if the baptism of the Holy Spirit is required as well, or whether prophecy and/or speaking in tongues are necessary elements of what it takes to be a true believer.

Those questions have been debated for centuries.  Different denominations that each hold to particular interpretations and practices will have plenty of resources at their disposal to bring to bear on this passage.  So, this particular commentary will focus on other aspects that provide starting points for reflection and proclamation.

This passage illustrates that there was a variety of teachings and practices to be found among early Christian communities.  In fact, we probably should avoid using common expressions such as, “the early church believed that X” or “in the early church, people did Y.”  Those expressions imply that “the” early church had one, uniform set of doctrines or that there was only one way that all early Christians practiced even what came to be called the Sacrament of baptism. 

Apollos — who is first mentioned in the preceding passage (Acts 18:24-28) — was an itinerant evangelist with many gifts, but he only knew “the baptism of John” (18:25).  Apollos, apparently, was the person whose enthusiastic proclamation of The Way in Ephesus led a number of people to believe (18:24-26).  When Paul traveled through Ephesus after Apollos had moved on, he discovered that the believers there had been baptized “into John’s baptism” (19:3).  So, Paul baptized them in the name of Jesus (19:5).

Again, not focusing on whether that constituted a re-baptism but on the diversity of practices among early Christians, one might note that Paul’s “correct” baptismal formula — “in the name of Jesus” — does not correspond to the formula found in Matthew 28:19, where we are called upon to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  All this is to say that, at least when comparing Acts to Matthew, the efficacy of baptism did not depend on the baptizer saying the same set of words in every case. 

Something else was at work besides the form of the baptism. 

The key element was the living presence of God in the life of the believers.  Paul’s first question to the believers is not “how were you baptized?” (although he does get around to that).  His first question is whether they have received the Holy Spirit (19:2).  Do they live their lives aware of, open to, filled with, and guided by the Spirit of God?  That constitutes the key question of this passage, a question worth directing to ourselves and our own communities of faith today. 

Regardless of how or where we were baptized, how is our life in the Spirit now? How are we living out our baptism now? 

And, the key question does not find its final answer in the fact that after Paul laid his hands on the believers they spoke in tongues and prophesied (19:6).  Suppose Paul were to return a year later and ask them again if they had received the Holy Spirit, and they were to answer, “Of course, remember that day when we spoke in tongues and prophesied?”  Most likely, Paul would have then replied, “Okay, but what have you done in the Spirit since that day?”

Ultimately our life in Christ is not just about any particular event(s) that might have taken place in the early (or later) days of our faith.  Those moments — if and when they happen — are gifts from God to be treasured, but they constitute starting points, not ending points.  After Paul laid on his hands and they spoke in tongues and prophesied, they were not, therefore, finished.  Although this assigned pericope ends here, the believers’ stories do not.  They still had much to learn and much to bring to life as the Spirit moved them.

If their active life in the Spirit had ended there, then they would still be missing the point of what the Holy Spirit makes possible.  In fact, as their story continues, after Paul’s initial contact with them, he spent two years in Ephesus in discussion in the synagogue and in a lecture hall, and he took those believers along with him (19:8-9).  One crucial aspect of baptism is not what happens when we’re baptized but what happens after we’re baptized. 

This passage also connects with the gospel reading from Mark 1:4-11 (as well as Matthew 3:11, Luke 3:16, and John 1:33).  In the four gospels and in this passage from Acts (including both Paul’s and John/Apollos’ baptisms), the intent is to focus us on Christ and to share with others what Christ brings into our lives and into the world.  Not to focus on Christ only as someone who did something for us “back then” but to focus on Christ as someone who, through the power of the Spirit, lives in us and moves us forward today.  John/Apollos’ baptism of repentance and Paul’s baptism in the name of Jesus ultimately find their fulfillment — if they do find fulfillment — in transformed lives.

The assigned pericope takes place in the middle of a longer sequence of events.  In the preceding passage, Apollos is instructed in The Way, comes to Ephesus and teaches others with enthusiasm and insight.  People believe.  After he receives deeper instruction from Priscilla and Aquila, Apollos moves on.  Those who had believed on the basis of Apollos received deeper instruction from Paul.  As he moves through various preaching and teaching contexts in Ephesus, those believers move with him.  One transformed life leads to the transformation of other lives which leads to the transformation of other lives, all centered around the questions, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” and “How are you continuing to live in the power of the Spirit today?”