Lectionary Commentaries for January 10, 2021
Baptism of Our Lord

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Mark 1:4-11

Melinda Quivik

This Sunday’s Prayer of the Day, with language that echoes all three appointed readings, orients us to the powerful observance of Jesus’ baptism with these words:

“Holy God, creator of light and giver of goodness, your voice moves over the waters. Immerse us in your grace, and transform us by your Spirit…” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 22). Light and water from Genesis 1 remind us of the eternity in which God resides, creating order out of the chaos of unordered matter. In the context of that immensity, the Son, the Beloved, is baptized to know himself, to be transformed into the subservience John calls all people to engage so that he will carry out the mission he has been given.

When we look just at the Gospel reading for the Baptism of Our Lord, we do not see Jesus as fully as we see John the Baptist, his forerunner. Jesus remains a mystery while John stands before us in all the wildness of a life that shuns the interiors of buildings, eating what God provides in nature, speaking from the humility of a self that knows to whom it is indebted. We know what John wears; we are not told what Jesus wears. It is that clear of a difference. John, though peculiar according to our standards, is a fully human creature while Jesus—enigmatic, given to hearing a voice no one else hears—is identified in this scene in a way no one else has or will be known.

In Jesus’ baptism, as the Synoptic Gospels tell it, nature itself is upended. The heavens are “torn apart” (verse 10). All creation in the moment of Jesus’ baptism is altered. Out of that rupture comes the Holy Spirit in a form that is described as a dove. That dove does not simply alight on Jesus, because in the Greek, eis auton can be said to have come into him. He is infused with the Spirit from God. A new reality has come into the world, transforming all things including the seen (the heavens and a dove) and the unseen (a voice).

As befits this wondrous transformation, it is on the banks of the River Jordan on “the border between the wilderness and the land of milk and honey” where John stands, crying out for the people to repent and be baptized.1 He comes out of the wilderness with a prophetic announcement, that he is “not worthy” to serve, in even a lowly manner, the one who will bring a new kind of baptism.

We do not know why John the Baptist cries out to the people to repent and be baptized or how he knows Jesus is coming and will change the world. But like the earlier prophets, John has a vision that requires the people to prepare themselves through repentance and baptism in water. His washing is more than a ritual bath, more than a repeated ablution required by law. The new bath has become the first sacrament.

John calls the people to faith through repentance and baptism. Out of the wilderness came the voice that knew faith as a gift essential to life. Alexander Schmemann deepens our understanding of the relationship between sacrament and faith in this way:

The essential question about faith in its relationship to the sacrament is: what faith, and even more precisely, whose faith? And the equally essential answer to this question is: it is Christ’s faith given to us, becoming our faith and our desire…

Faith, Schmemann continues, is either a response to God’s call or “the very reality of that to which the call summons.” Faith, in other words, is what baptism imparts to us. Through the Holy Spirit, in baptism we are given the faith of Jesus. “The presence in this world of Christ’s faith is the Church.”2 Baptism opens our hearts and our minds to becoming instruments that bring unity and peace to our neighbors.

Sometimes that reality—the faith of Jesus within the baptized—is not apparent to us. In the words of John the Baptist, we hear the cry to Repent and Be Baptized. The people come to him “confessing their sins” (verse 5). We see a crowd responding to a concrete action that then allows them to be washed in baptismal waters.

John, however, describes a different baptism through Jesus. In Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit has the central role. It is the Spirit rather than the washing that affects the transformation of the baptized. The Spirit creates a profound change in us because, at least in most Christian traditions, we receive faith that does not result from our fulfilling John’s requirement to repent. We baptize infants who have no words of repentance.

If John’s baptism is our focus, we may forget that we have been “immersed” in God’s gracious welcome and “transformed” by the Holy Spirit. We can be caught up in our participation in the work of the Church, failing to acknowledge the mystery itself. We may forget that the mystery, which is God’s defeat of death in the resurrection of Jesus, is the reason we come together to care about the world. The work we do may seem to be the goal rather than the life that grows out from gratitude.

Through Jesus’ baptism, the Church is born and his faith washes over Earth through the baptized. By his baptism in the waters of the earth, the faith of Jesus made all waters sacred. The faith of Jesus is the reason Christians seek to keep the waters of earth clean, nourishing, plentiful, and free for everyone. Water is life itself in more ways than we can fathom.


Notes

  1. Ted A. Smith, “Mark 1:4-11: Homiletical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1: Advent through Transfiguration, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: WJK, 2008), 239.
  2. Alexander Schmemann, Of Water & The Spirit: A Liturgical Study of Baptism (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2000), 67-78.

First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 1:1-5

Cory Driver

Over this last year of uncertainty and anxiety, I have been binging feel-good videos unapologetically.

I particularly have been enjoying videos of elaborate wedding-engagements. Have you seen these? There is something about watching someone prepare for weeks and months for a certain day, hoping that it will be the start of a new, wonderful life, but not really knowing how things are going to go. I love watching folks prepare as well as they can, but then experience a momentous occasion in real time. That sense of hard work and preparation beforehand leading to the excitement, and nervousness, of asking another human being to commit to a different sort of relationship touches my heart every single time.

I see that twin notion of careful preparation and real-time excitement at plans unfolding in Genesis 1. For a myriad of reasons, I think “In the beginning God created …” is a misleading, unfortunate translation that obscures some of the romance and mystery of the first words of our Scripture. First, and this is a tiny bit technical, the first vowel of bereshit is a shva rather than a kamatz. That tells us two things: 1) there is no definite article “the” in the introductory phrase and 2) “beginning” is in construct with another word or phrase, e.g., “beginning of something.

I usually argue for a translation that goes something like: “When God began to create the heavens and the earth ….” In other words, Genesis 1:1 is not speaking about the absolute beginning of all things, but a beginning of certain things. Accordingly, medieval Jewish commentators Rashi and Ibn Ezra both vociferously argued that creation ex nihilo is nowhere to be found in Genesis.1

We do not need to explain Hebrew grammar to know that God had clearly already been at work before the first words of Genesis 1, however. Even a cursory reading of the text reveals that Scripture does not describe how the ocean deep came to be, or how it is that there is some sort of spiritual atmosphere that blows about above the surface of the waves.

The earth is in a strange state of formless non- or pre-existence, but it still “is” somehow. These things are simply taken for granted as already existing in verse two. Genesis starts not with the creation of all matter, but with God making, transforming, moving, and separating what already exists so that all life will be possible. I get the sense that God has been readying the cosmos for some time before Genesis starts. Jewish lore tells of God practicing, experimenting with, and recycling 974 creations before settling upon one (ours!).2 I just love this image of God spending eons planning out everything before the first words of Scripture. Then Scripture opens with water, Spirit, formless earth, and a God who cannot wait to finally get started!

If this is an uncomfortable idea, remember that Jesus prepared and waited until “just the right time” to work salvation (Romans 5:6). We know from Jesus that God has prepared dwellings in God’s Kingdom from the founding of the world (Matthew 25:34). As we celebrate Jesus’ baptism this week, I think about all of the preparation of Jesus growing up, learning wisdom, and readying himself for his ministry. Stories mostly left out of Scripture, certainly in the Gospel according to Mark. God loves to prepare things in advance. Genesis 1 introduces this concept that will be carried throughout Scripture.

But after all that preparing, it was time to act decisively. Just as a lover finally stops planning and embarks on a new stage of relationship by using words to propose to a beloved, God used words to create a new relationship and new reality. God spoke light into existence. Then God immediately made a value judgment. The light, still unseparated from pre-existing darkness, was good. God did not make light become good. Rather God perceived that it was intrinsically good. God distinguished between light and darkness and then named both: Day and Night. Evening came first, and then morning. One day passed.

But why does any of this matter? I think Genesis 1:1-5 reveals something of God’s character and personality. There are ample reasons to think that God has been preparing for and looking forward to this exact moment of creation. God is excited to create life in all its varied forms. And when the moment comes, God notices that the first work of creation is good. When God perceived that the light was good, I have to think that God felt delight.

The good news is this: in the first verses of the Bible we are introduced to a God who has already been at work, creating things even before the story starts. And God continues to act in such a way that eventually plants, wild animals, and humans will come into being. It was not a foregone conclusion that God would like what God created, but God declared it good, and eventually very good. The God we serve plans and prepares good things. And the God we serve delights in creation. Most importantly, Genesis 1 reveals that God prepares and acts in ways that may never be fully revealed in order to cause things to happen at just the right time.

In this period of global uncertainty and anxiety that we continue to live through, wondering and fearing what may come next, seeing God’s thoughtful preparation and actions to ensure the thriving of life at the very beginning of Scripture is profoundly good news.


Notes

  1. Nahum M. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 5.
  2. See Genesis Rabbah 3:7, 9:2; Exodus Rabbah 1:2, 30:3; BT. Hagigah 13b-14a; Midrash Tehillim 90:13.

Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 29

Rebecca Poe Hays

In many ways, Psalm 29 conforms to typical expectations for the book of Psalms, which bears the Hebrew title “book of praises.”1

Though much of the Psalter is more lament than praise, Psalm 29 pours forth beautiful poetic language and imagery in a hymn to Yahweh—the God who speaks. Preaching Psalm 29 invites preachers and their congregations to join in the worship of the God of water and Word whose voice echoes throughout history: over the face of the deep, at Jesus’s baptism, and to us today.

The text

As is typical of hymns of praise, Psalm 29 unfolds in three major sections:2

verses 1-2: Opening call to praise Yahweh
verses 3-9: Reasons to praise Yahweh
verses 10-11: Reaffirmation of Yahweh’s glorious reign and its implications

The opening section comprises a summons to give (or “ascribe”) to the LORD the worship due the one who possesses glory and strength (verses 1-2). The emphatic language repeats the imperative “ascribe” three times and gives the command to “the sons of gods” (also, “heavenly beings”). Some scholars recognize in this language—particularly when coupled with the rest of the psalm’s imagery—a building polemic against Canaanite deities such as Baal who must give way before the one true God.3 Whether “sons of gods” refers to pagan deities, angels, or earthly kings, the point is that Yahweh is at the center of all things, and the repetition of God’s name (eighteen times in eleven verses!) underscores this reality.

The body of the psalm centers around the power of “the voice of Yahweh” as the reason to answer the opening summons to praise (verses 3-9). The psalmist fleshes out the concept of Yahweh’s voice with dramatic descriptions of how it impacts creation: Yahweh’s voice rumbles out over the chaos waters (verses 3-4) and is able to uproot and bring down things that should not be susceptible to such destruction: the strongest trees, the tallest mountains, and the earth itself (verses 5-9).4 These descriptions reflect the violence of thunderstorms, and voicing the seven-fold repetition of “the voice of Yahweh” (qol YHWH or qol ’adonay) might even be meant to reverberate richly through a congregation like thunder through a still summer evening.5 All of this power and majesty builds and builds until a climactic moment when “all say, ‘Glory!’” (verse 9b).

The psalm concludes by briefly restating what has come before: Yahweh reigns supreme over all things in the natural world (“the flood”) and in human hierarchies (“as king”), and so is the one who can give strength, blessing, and peace to those who worship accordingly (verses 10-11). Yahweh’s enthronement “over the flood” recalls both God’s creative work and God’s judgment in the days of Noah, and it taps into common Canaanite mythologies about deities battling with the floods of chaos to gain dominion over the pantheon. The psalm’s final benediction is a prayer (“May the LORD give strength to his people…”) and a promise (“the LORD gives strength to his people”). Yahweh’s reign is not a distant, irrelevant abstraction but has concrete implications for life on earth. As Brueggemann and Bellinger observe, this conclusion “invites YHWH to channel the great power imagined in this psalm toward granting shalom, peace, to the faith community. The hope is that YHWH will bring the same order both to life and to creation.”6

The context

In Psalm 29, the psalmist draws upon common ancient Near Eastern imagery for theophanies, or appearances of God in the world, to urge those who read or hear the psalm to worship Yahweh as the one true God. Some scholars even argue that Psalm 29 was originally a Canaanite hymn to the storm god Baal—the imagery of mighty waters, thunder and lightning from the heavens, torrential winds, and reverberations in the earth certainly sounds like something that might be used in worship of a storm god.7 But the psalmist leaves no room for confusion about which God commands the heavens. Psalm 29 stands as a powerful polemic against those who might be tempted to “ascribe” strength and glory to other forces at work in the world (whether supernatural, natural, or human).

Psalm 29 and the baptism of the Lord

The emphasis on the power of “the voice of Yahweh” in Psalm 29 stands as a powerful foundation for Luke’s account of the baptism of Jesus. The voice of Yahweh shakes the heavens and the earths, brings both destruction and creation, and provides strength and peace to those who heed it. The God whose voice “flashes forth flames of fire” in Psalm 29:7 breaks open the heavens in Luke 3:21-22 to announce the identity of the man from Galilee who has just emerged from the baptismal waters. Psalm 29 imbues these heavenly words with authority and reminds us of the promise of shalom the voice of Yahweh ensures.


Notes:

  1. Commentary first published on this site on Jan. 13, 2019.
  2. Walter Brueggemann and W. H. Bellinger Jr., Psalms, New Cambridge Bible Commentary (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 146.
  3. See, for example, J. Clinton McCann Jr., “Book of Psalms,” in Leander E. Keck, ed., The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 4:792 and Nancy L. deClaissé-Walford, Rolf A. Jacobson, and Beth LaNeel Tanner, The Book of Psalms, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 283-84.
  4. “Sirion” is another name for Mt. Hermon, which stands on the border of Lebanon and is associated with one of the traditional boundaries of Israel (see Deuteronomy 3:9, Joshua 11:16-17; see also Psalm 42:6, 89:12, 133:3).
  5. Nancy L. deClaissé-Walford, Rolf A. Jacobson, and Beth LaNeel Tanner, The Book of Psalms, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 284.
  6. Walter Brueggemann and W. H. Bellinger Jr., Psalms, 148-49.
  7. See Nancy L. deClaissé-Walford, Rolf A. Jacobson, and Beth LaNeel Tanner, The Book of Psalms, 281.

Second Reading

Commentary on Acts 19:1-7

Yung Suk Kim

Luke-Acts is a two-volume work by the same anonymous author, as in the case of other Gospels in the New Testament.

For convenience, we will call the author of this two-volume work Luke. While the Gospel of Luke narrates the distinctive story of Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem, Acts tells the story of the early church from Jerusalem to Rome.

In all this story of Jesus and the church, the central figure is Jesus, who was born as a Savior in the city of David (Luke 2:11), seeking out the lost and saving them (Luke 19:10; see also 4:16-30), dying a prophetic death, asking God to forgive those who do not know what they are doing to him, being raised from the dead, promising to send the Spirit in his absence, and returning to heaven. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples who gathered in Jerusalem (Acts 2:1-13). Afterwards, thousands of people returned to God through the preaching of Peter and other disciples; they repented of their sins, were forgiven, baptized in the name of Jesus, and received the Spirit.

The good news of God spread quickly to other regions because of persecution, reaching Samaria and other Gentile areas. From Acts 9 on, Paul takes up the role of Peter and becomes the most influential Christian missionary at an international level. Acts 19:1-7 falls within this long missionary journey of Paul (Acts 15:36-22:21). In this passage, we learn of Paul’s concern about some disciples in Ephesus and how that concern was well communicated with them, step by step. The topic of this passage is the Spirit and baptism. In the following, we will study the context and message of this passage.

Apollos in Corinth (19:1)

According to Acts 18:24-28, Apollos ministered in Ephesus. He was a Jew from Alexandria, known as a hub of Judaism in the diaspora world. He was an eloquent speaker, knowing the scriptures very well, being well informed in the way of the Lord, and teaching accurately and enthusiastically the things concerning Jesus (18:24-25). In 19:1, we are told that while Apollos is in Corinth, Paul visits Ephesus and finds some disciples who knew only the baptism of John.

Interestingly, we are also told earlier in Acts 18 that Apollos also knew only the baptism of John (Acts 18:25). So, it is necessary to comment on the correlation between Apollos and some disciples whom Paul finds in Ephesus. Observing Apollos’ work in Ephesus, a Jewish couple, Priscilla and Aquila, “took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately” (18:26). Indeed, Apollos knew things about Jesus accurately, but from the perspective of this Jewish couple, he needs more accurate knowledge about Jesus and explanation of “the Way of God.” This echoes “the Way of the Lord” in which Apollos had been instructed in 18:25.

It is hard to know whether Apollos’ understanding of “the Way of the Lord” is (dis)similar to the Jewish couple’s (Priscilla and Aquila) view of “the Way of God,” given the information that Apollos knew only the baptism of John. However, “the Way of God” points to the importance of God’s ushering of the Spirit that came upon Jesus at his baptism, on the disciples in Jerusalem at Pentecost, and now on all who repent and are baptized in the name of Jesus. That is, Priscilla and Aquila help Apollos see the big picture of God’s mission through Jesus and the Spirit together. Now what can we say about some disciples in Ephesus who told Paul that they were baptized only into John’s baptism (19:3)? The answer implies that they did not know the true meaning of Christian baptism, which is through Jesus. As a result, they receive the Spirit.

Paul came to Ephesus (19:1)

Paul as a traveling missionary makes careful, strategic choices about his mission place. He does not try to cover every city in the Roman Empire with his gospel, but goes to big and important cities that give him easy access to many diverse people and cultures. Ephesus is the fourth largest city after Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch.

Paul found some disciples (19:1)

There is no information about some disciples Paul met other than what is given in 19:2-3. They were baptized into John’s baptism, became believers without receiving the Holy Spirit, and even did not hear of the Spirit. While we need not think that they are the disciples of John the Baptist or those of Apollos, what we know from this information is that they are uninformed about the Holy Spirit and yet they became believers.

Conversation between Paul and some disciples (19:2-4)

So, Paul invites them to have a conversation with him. He says, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” and they answer, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” Then, Paul asks, “Into what then were you baptized?” They answer, “Into John’s baptism.” Finally, Paul says, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” Paul’s step-by-step conversations with these disciples are not judgmental but aim to understand them clearly.

Before this conversation begins, Paul found them as they were part of the church. Watching or finding those who need help drives him to engage with them. It is like the shepherd in the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7; see also 15:11-32). They became believers and yet not fully functional because they did not receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

While we do not know their identity or social location, they may belong to the group of people further marginalized by ethnicity or class. After gaining the basic information about “some disciples,” Paul explains that John’s baptism is about God, Jesus, and the Spirit. John testified about Jesus, who received the Holy Spirit and worked as the Messiah. Now the same Spirit comes to all who turn to God, repent of their sins, and are baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.

On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus (19:5)

The disciples took action and were baptized in the name of Jesus. Their voluntary response to Paul implies that they were thirsty for the Spirit, as they were lost somewhere in their faith. They could not resolve problems by or for themselves. Now with Paul’s help, they are baptized in Jesus’ name and find the true meaning of baptism. It is not merely about the forgiveness of sins as in John’s water baptism, but about Jesus in whose name one may be reborn with the Spirit. Rebirth in Jesus’ name means one must follow his way. In other words, baptism is not a mere ritual but an event of transformation that needs Jesus who came to seek out and to save the lost.

Laying on of hands, the Holy Spirit’s coming, and its manifestation (19:6)

Paul’s laying on of hands signifies that he participated in the work of the Holy Spirit, who confirms the love of God and the grace of Jesus. The Holy Spirit came to them not because of Paul’s hands but because of the disciples’ submission to God through Jesus. As the Spirit leads Jesus to bring good news to the poor and proclaim release to the captives (Luke 4:18), they must be led by the same Spirit of God as they follow the Lord Jesus. The Spirit equips them with the gifts of speaking in tongues and prophesying. These gifts are needed to do the work of God through Jesus and the Spirit. Luke thinks these gifts are the most typical sign that God’s Spirit works with his people. But we should not limit the work of the Spirit or the manifestation of the Spirit to only speaking in tongues and prophesying.

Altogether there were about twelve of them (19:7)

The number of “some disciples” may point to the twelve disciples of Jesus or the twelve tribes of Israel. It implies that Jesus works through these disciples to achieve God’s end-mission for the world, as he says in Acts 1:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”