Lectionary Commentaries for January 9, 2022
Baptism of Our Lord

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Shively Smith

What role might the actions of posing questions, nurturing kinship connections, and praying around water play in this moment of our Christian year and at the beginning of the new calendar year?

Luke’s account of baptism, starring both John the Baptist and Jesus, invites just such a moment of pause and reflection. It links the story of Jesus’s baptism with the stories of others, some of whom are named, and many who are not.

If one is reading straight through the Gospel of Luke, by this moment in the story, to reference John the Baptist is to allude to the story of his parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:5-25, 57-80). Likewise, to reference Jesus is to allude to the stories of his parents, Mary and Joseph (1:26-38; 2:1-52). Similarly, as John and Jesus are coupled in this baptism story of questions, family, and water; their pairing alludes to the kinship and sisterhood of their mothers, Elizabeth and Mary. Before John and Jesus shared the stage in their collective moment of divine encounter and recognition, Elizabeth and Mary shared a similar moment of questions, affirmation, and celebration (2:39-56).  Three chapters into the Gospel of Luke, the story of John and Jesus invites us, as readers of the gospel, to wonder, why is this baptism both vaguely repetitive and familiar and why is it inventive and new?

Moreover, running like a silver thread through all these interlinking stories are the divine encounters (theophanies) that produce questions, nurture kinships, and offer assurance for the unknown future. First, Zechariah has a divine encounter in the temple (1:8-21) and is inspired by spiritual reflection and recognition (1:67-79). Second, Elizabeth also had a moment of spiritual deliberation and appreciation (1:24-25). Third, Mary, has a theophany (1:26–38) and her own moment of assurance and celebration mediated by Elizabeth (1:46-55). We are even introduced to other divine encounters and moments of recognition occurring with working people like the shepherds (2:8-20) and the seers Simeon (2:25-32) and Anna (2:36-38). The latter are not minor characters, but exemplars of the interconnected and broad ripples of questions, encounters, and pronouncements operating as standard features of the story by the time we reach John’s proclamation, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming…” (3:16).

In the story of Jesus’ baptism, water is both a site of religious activity as well as a topic of theological discourse and spiritual experience. Three points are worth noting about the thematic workings of questions, kinship, and water in today’s passage.

  • Let them ask! Luke 3:15-22 opens describing “the people,” not John or Jesus. Those observing John’s actions asked questions filled with expectation and introspection. In the gospel of Luke, the Greek term, prosdokaō, means waiting, expecting, and giving thought to something that is, yet, unknown or manifest. It is to look toward future possibilities with either fear (Acts 27:33), longing (Luke 8:40; Acts 10:24), or even a neutral state of mind (2 Pet 3:12-14).

    In Luke’s gospel, the action of waiting and expecting is frequently deployed as the posture of a general group, like the unnamed crowds or unnamed disciples of John the Baptist. They are not passive observers. Rather, they are active participants in the episodes in which they are featured. They often advance the storyline with their own questions and musings. For example, in the story of Zechariah, the general populace was waiting expectantly for his timely exit from the temple, and they noticed when it did not occur.

    Their waiting expectation marked the passing of time in the story. Similarly, in another John and Jesus episode, some messengers approached Jesus saying, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’” Luke 7:19-20).
    Group questions in the Gospel of Luke are not a sign of doubt, faithlessness, or even ignorance. Rather, it represents a collective participation and interest in the current moment of God’s revelation and action. With its initial focus on the people’s expectation and questions, Luke 3:15 highlights the important role of our faith communities’ questions. It is a tool for discerning the movements and messages of Spirit and faith in our contemporary time.

  • Don’t confuse the roles! Another important element of the baptism story is the distinction made between Jesus and John. The Synoptic gospels emphasize the related, but distinct roles between Jesus and John (Luke 3:16-18; Matt 3:11-12; Mark 1:7-8), but only Luke develops the family ties and overlapping stories of the two figures. Luke 3:16-18 deploys a series of pictorial contrasts or metaphors to depict the distinct roles, which are: (1) a baptism of tangible water contrasted to an intangible baptism of Spirit and fire; (2) wheat contrasted to chaff; and (3) a series of minor images that include a winnowing fork, threshing floor, and a granary.

    In terms of the first contrast (baptism of water versus baptism of Spirit-fire), scholars have offered a variety of interpretations. For example, some understand the fire as an image for the purifying work of God’s spirit. Others, make a different translation decision, translating Spirit into “wind.” In this interpretation, the saying, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire,” foreshadows the windy and fiery showcase of the Holy Spirit in the Pentecost episode (Acts 2). Another interpretation juxtaposes the repentant versus unrepentant posture. From this reading, the end of days (or eschatological moment) marks the great separation or decoupling of repentant people (those purified by God’s fire) from unrepentant people (those unrefined by God’s fire).

    Verse 17 leverages the agricultural context of John and Jesus, placing us at a harvest moment. Imagine a farmer with a pitchfork in her hand as she throws the grain up in the air, letting the wind assist in the sifting process. The wind blows the lighter fibers (“the chaff”) from the pile of grain, which drops, because of its weightiness, to the floor in front of her. Her process creates two separate piles. The first pile is composed of the weighted grain, which is a useful food and textile resource. The second pile is composed of the lightweight fibers blown all over the floor and in need of collection. From today’s passage, this sorting technique had already occurred. Now, the task before the farmer is to gather them in two different places—namely, the grain goes to the granary for storage and the chaff to the refinery for burning. In other words, in Luke’s account, baptism is not cast as the sifting process; but as a moment after the initial sifting when the relocation process is commencing.

  • Prayerful stillness. Luke narrates a four-part baptism sequence in which (1) the people who asked questions were baptized, followed by (2) Jesus’ baptism, and (3) his prayerful moment, accompanied by (4) a visual and auditory revelation. Luke does not describe the form of baptism, only that Jesus and the people were baptized. Similarly, we are not told what Jesus prayed, only that he prayed immediately after baptism. Nonetheless, Jesus’ prayer is a uniquely Lucan detail because neither Matthew nor Mark report it (Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11).
    What is the purpose of prayer in Luke’s baptism story? Perhaps, Howard Thurman offers an insight in his meditation called, “Who, or What, is to Blame?” when he says,  “Through prayer, meditation, and singleness of mind, the individual’s life may be invaded by strength, insight, and courage sufficient for his needs” (Thurman, Meditations of the Heart).

Today’s passage is a Gospel story for which seasoned lectionary preachers are familiar.  We are challenged, therefore, to try to read it with fresh insights and interpretive possibilities for our communities’ present and future moments. Instead of simply retelling the story of Jesus’s baptism, we can use it as an opportunity to narrate the matrix of stories constituting the subtext of this Jesus-John episode. Using it as a foundation, we can invite our hearers to consider the matrix of family stories and questions that they carry into the new experiences of faith awaiting us this calendar year. Secondly, the passage creates the opportunity to embrace the necessary and generative work of our faithful ponderings. The questions of our congregations, families, friends, and institutions can contribute to our spiritual encounters and faithful work in the world. It can be a tool that moves us closer to God’s spirit, preparing us for any number of sensory experiences of the divine. It also can be an instrument for expanding our faith communities in the work of our hearts, heads, and hands.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 43:1-7

Cory Driver

Isaiah 43 is simultaneously a comforting passage describing God’s redemptive love for Israel, and a deeply troubling passage, possibly referencing God’s willingness to trade one people for the safety of another. Does God’s intimacy with Israel necessitate rejection or at least devaluing of other peoples, namely Egypt, Cush and Seba? As a seminary professor in Cairo, I want to proclaim a resounding, “No!”

We must note in Isaiah 43, the verbs of creation in verses 1 and 7 form an inclusio that helps the reader focus on the actions of the maker of the universe. Bara (create) and yetzer (form) are words used in Genesis 1:1 and 2:7, respectively, to describe phases of God’s creative work. But rather than talking about the universe as a whole or even just the earth, these words are personalized to the people of Israel in Isaiah 43. The God who made all that is, is the same God who made a people for Godself. And yet, this passage hinges on an even more intimate work than creation: redemption. 

The notion of the goel, or kinsperson-redeemer is central to the poetry of Isaiah 43. The goel was a relative who was responsible for protecting, defending, avenging and redeeming the members of an extended family. If Christians know the concept of a goel, it is usually from how that role is conflated with that of yibbum [brother-in-law-child-bearer] within the book of Ruth. Boaz did not just provide for Ruth and Naomi in their poverty, but also raised up children for Ruth’s deceased first husband, Mahlon, after Ruth convinced him (Ruth 4:10). However, the main duties of a goel fell in two categories. The first duty was to provide a credible threat of vengeance that would prevent violence during times of decentralized power (Numbers 35:9-30). The second duty of the goel was to redeem relatives from economic destitution (Leviticus 25:48-49). If a person became impoverished, such that they had to sell property, or even their own freedom to pay for their debts, the duty of their goel was to pay a ransom so that the person’s property or liberty may be restored to them. It is this last role of redeemer that God speaks of in Isaiah 43. 

God insists that Israel should not fear, because God has redeemed (the verb form of goel) them (Isaiah 43:1). And then God goes on to claim Israel as God’s own and calls them by name. I understand the calling by name as a marking of familiar intimacy. The person is no longer called “slave” or “Judahite,” but restored to their whole personhood by the use of their name. God is assuring Israel that God has already acted as a kinsperson redeemer to them, and will continue to do so. When they walk through mighty seas, small rivers, great fires or little flames, the God-who-redeems will accompany them and protect them. No matter in what direction they have been spirited away, God will redeem children from their bondage and captivity and restore them to their families (Isaiah 43:5-6). This is the duty of a goel and it is the promise of God: to free family members from bondage and to redeem those who have been taken away. 

But what was the price of such redemption? Is God really willing to trade away Egyptians, Cushites and Sebans for Israel? Interpreters have long struggled with this passage. Particularly perniciously, this passage has been used to support dehumanization of folks from Africa, as interpreters argue that “the whole of Africa” is worth less to God than the tiny nation of Israel.1  Thankfully Rabbi David Kimhi rescues readers from such scandalous and baleful interpretations. As far back as the 13th century CE, Rabbi Kimhi noted that the list of three nations must not be read as a generality (about Africa or anything else). Rather the list of three nations had a specific meaning to Isaiah’s hearers that was not to be generalized. Just as the oracles against nations earlier in Isaiah referenced different nations’ actions vis-à-vis Israel and Judah during their conquest (Isaiah 13-23), Rabbi Kimhi argues that Isaiah 43:3-4 is a reference to the actions of nations during Judah’s redemption. 

Rabbi Kimhi recalls that when Cyrus was allowing Jews to return to the Holy Land and to reconstitute worship of the LORD, lands further south, namely, Egypt, Cush and Seba, were fighting against the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Rabbi Kimhi argues, persuasively in my opinion, that it was precisely the looming military conflict with the countries to the south of the Persian province of Yehud that provoked Cyrus the Great to be so magnanimous to the Jews in allowing them to return and rebuild. In other words, Isaiah 43:3-4 is not about differential human worth to God, but specifically about how God worked for the good of Jewish non-combatants in the choices of countries to wage war among themselves. In this way, Persia paid bellicose attention to Egypt, Cush and Seba. These three countries were, figuratively, “ransom” for the gifts and benign neglect given by Persia to returning Jews. God was not trading peoples, but working through the events of international politics to provide relief to a displaced people while the nations raged.

The image of the opening verses of Isaiah 43 are of a God who redeems what and whom God has created. God gets intimately involved, and is willing to pay the price to set the captives free. If other nations choose to wage war, then so be it. God will work, in the meantime, to bring freedom and redemption to the downtrodden.   

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  1. Smart is particularly helpful in pointing out injurious interpretations and their destructive fruits. Smart, James D. 1965. History and Theology in Second Isaiah. (London: Epworth). 97.


Commentary on Psalm 29

Jerome Creach

Psalm 29 is a hymn that praises God as ruler of the universe. Like other hymns, this psalm begins with a call to worship (verses 1-2) and then identifies divine qualities and attributes that justify that praise (verses 3-10). Unlike most hymns, however, Psalm 29 calls heavenly beings, not humans, to worship (verse 1). The expression “heavenly beings” may refer to those who attend God’s throne (as in Isaiah 6). More likely, however, the expression refers to the gods of the Canaanite pantheon. These gods exist, the psalmist believes, but their role is merely to do the bidding of Israel’s God. Thus, the psalm calls on them to render praise to the LORD (see also Psalm 82).  

This interpretation arises from the fact that Psalm 29 is an adaptation of a Canaanite hymn that praised Baal as the great storm god. Baal was a fertility deity, thought to bring rain that caused crops to flourish. Psalm 29 declares that Israel’s God is the true master of storm and rain and is the only one who has power to help human beings. Nevertheless, the psalm does not just present Israel’s God as more powerful than Baal. 

The LORD is also profoundly different from Baal in at least two ways. First, Baal was of the same substance as the elements he ruled over; he was “husband” to the earth, and the rain represented his seed that fertilized it. By contrast, the LORD is separate from the creation though the creation gives evidence of his might. Second, while Baal mainly provided material wealth, the LORD mainly seeks “peace” (shalom) which includes justice and righteousness (verse 11). Thus, the LORD’s action for humankind ties directly to expectations for humans to treat each other rightly.    

The personal name for Israel’s God appears in every verse of the psalm except verse 6, and thus marks one of the most important words in the psalm. Most English translations render the term with the word LORD because the scribes who preserved the Hebrew text placed vowel points under the word that signaled the common term Adonai, meaning “lord” or “sovereign.” The practice of replacing the divine name with another word showed reverence for the name. Originally, however, the name was probably pronounced Yahweh, a causative form of the verb meaning “to be” or “to happen.” The name probably meant something like “he causes (things) to happen” or “he brings into being.” Thus the name originally identified Israel’s God as the Father of all things, the creator and chief among all powers in the cosmos.1

In Psalm 29 God acts mainly through God’s voice (verses 3-5 and 7-9). The powerful and active nature of the divine voice is apparent in the verbs that describe its impact: “breaks”; “makes to skip”; “flashes forth flames”; “shakes the wilderness”; “causes to whirl”; and “strips the forest”. The psalm says the voice of God masters the waters (verses 3-4). This language portrays God as lord of creation, the one who rules over the chaotic and untamed elements. God’s voice also governs the wilderness, another part of the untamed world. 

Finally, God’s voice dominates Lebanon and Sirion (verse 6). These two names probably represent lofty and proud areas of the world. Lebanon, with its lush forests, represented wealth and luxury. Sirion is another name for Mount Herman, the highest peak in Israel (Deuteronomy 3:9). God’s voice sends these two mighty places skipping like a calf out of the stall. Thus, the voice—of the God known by his ability and willingness to act—shows God’s ability to act on behalf of God’s people.

We should understand the descriptions of God dominating and devastating the non-human world in the context of a world in which Canaanite religion flourished. Psalm 29 declares that Israel’s God is not like Baal and other ancient Near Eastern deities who had to battle the elements (often personified as gods) for control of the world. Rather, Yahweh stands above and apart from the creation and suffers no threat from it. The fact that the psalm does not include any reference to battle indicates that God does not have rivals (as did Baal, Marduk, and other ancient gods).

Another key word in the psalm is “glory.” In the context of Psalm 29, the word has a two-fold meaning. First, it connotes the sum of the LORD’s attributes of power and majesty that the Psalm celebrates. The label “God of glory” (verse 3) is a unique title that suggests power characterizes God (as verses 3-9 describe; see the similar expressions “king of glory” in Psalm 24:7-10). Second, glory refers to the manifestation of God’s royal power in natural phenomena such as the storm and to the worshipful response of God’s subjects.  The knowledge of God’s majesty in natural phenomena is especially associated with the worship of the temple. So, while God’s might in the storm is evident throughout creation (Isaiah 6:3), it is experienced and celebrated in the place of God’s earthly throne. Thus, verse 9 declares, “in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’” (see Psalm 66:2).  

The notion of the glory of God as a tangible manifestation of power appears clearly in John’s gospel. John identifies Jesus Christ as the glory of God, the power of God revealed to humankind (“we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,” John 1:14). John links the glory of Christ closely to his baptism, and the synoptic Gospels likewise present Jesus’ baptism as a revelation of his cosmic role as God’s servant who ushers in the kingdom of God. Psalm 29 provides an appropriate backdrop for the truth that at his baptism Jesus appeared as the bearer of God’s glory (Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22).


  1. Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press 1973), pp. 65-69.

Second Reading

Commentary on Acts 8:14-17

J.R. Daniel Kirk

If we pull together various baptism passages from the New Testament, a picture starts to emerge. Jesus’ baptism and the baptism of Jesus’ followers bear a striking resemblance. Baptism by water is assumed or supposed to be accompanied by baptism of the Spirit. 

In addition, baptism is the means by which God’s family is demarcated on the earth. It starts with Jesus as the beloved son, receiving the Spirit (see Luke 3:22), and expands to everyone who receives the Spirit of adoption as God’s children (see Romans 8:14–15; Galatians 4:6). Baptism is about belonging to God. Because of this, baptism is also about belonging to a community. Baptism is about following Jesus. Because of this, baptism is also about receiving the Spirit. 

This web of interconnections can help us navigate the significance of our story in Acts 8, in which people don’t receive the Spirit when baptized, but only after the apostles came from Jerusalem, prayed, and laid on their hands.

Spirit arrivals in Acts

Perhaps the single most important thing to know about dramatic arrivals of the Spirit in the book of Acts is that they happen when the gospel breaks through a new geographical or sociological barrier. Put differently, Acts does not show that the Spirit comes dramatically and tangibly on each individual when they come into the community. 

Instead, the Spirit serves as proof that the gospel has, in fact, reached a new group of people. It starts with Jerusalem at Pentecost (Acts 2). In our text the Spirit comes to the people of Samaria (Acts 8). Next we see a dramatic arrival when Peter preaches to the Gentiles (Acts 10). Finally, a group of disciples who traced their lineage to John the Baptist’s baptism receive the Spirit when Paul updates their baptism to that of Jesus (Acts 19).

That’s it.

The Spirit does not fall visibly on each individual who comes to faith in Jesus. We hear of it when people are newly incorporated into the body. There is one more level to this observation. These incidents map remarkably well onto Jesus’s commission in Acts 1:8. “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Jerusalem was home base for the Jewish apostles, located in the region of Judea. On the day of Pentecost, they receive the Spirit (Acts 2).

Samaria was a region of contested Jewish identity. Samaritans were worshippers of the same God but with different beliefs from other Jews. When the gospel goes there, God affirms its arrival with the gift of the Spirit (Acts 8, the text for today).

The ends of the earth are Gentile territory: that of the non-Jews, the people who never worshipped the God of Abraham. When Peter preaches to these people, God affirms their embrace into the community through the gift of the Spirit (Acts 10). The Spirit marks the advance of the gospel into new places. It is also tied to baptism (Acts 2:41; 8:16; 10:47–48; 19:2–6).

Gospel in Samaria

In Jerusalem and at Cornelius’ house the Spirit arrives prior to water baptism. Here it is reversed. The Samaritans have been baptized with water but have not yet received the Spirit. In part this seems to be due to the fact that the apostles were not the ones who brought the message. Despite Jesus’ charge to them that they should take the message to “all Judea and Samaria” (Acts 1:8), we find that the twelve hunker down in Jerusalem while everyone else gets scattered throughout Judea and Samaria during a time of persecution (Acts 8:1). 

So it is Philip, one of those chosen to “wait on tables” so that the apostles could focus on the word of God and prayer (Acts 6:2, 5), who ends up taking up the mantle and preaching in Samaria (Acts 8:5). And baptizing. 

Verse 16 is in parentheses in the NRSV, telling us that the Samaritans hadn’t received the Spirit but had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. The interesting thing about this aside is that it shows us the assumption that someone who was baptized should also have received the Spirit. The two go together. But it’s only when the apostles come up from Jerusalem and lay their hands on the people that they receive the Spirit. Despite the apostles missing out on their calling to preach in Samaria, they maintain their role of mediating the Spirit. At least for now.

Spirit, baptism, community

Spirit and baptism are markers of a people. Not just persons. Not just children of God, but the family of God. Maybe this is why it was so important for the apostles to come and participate in the ingathering of Samaria. Not because of their authority. Not because they control the Spirit.On the contrary, in every case, bestowing the Spirit is the free act of God. The disciples did not control it on their own but prayed to God for the Holy Spirit to be given. 

The disciples come and mediate the gift of the Spirit because it needs to be clear that those who were formerly the “other” are now part of “us.” The old divisions that kept Samaritans and Jews at odds would be undone in the family of God baptized into Jesus. The same baptism, the same Spirit, would mark them all as beloved children.

Even as baptism and the Spirit had marked out Jesus as God’s beloved son.