Baptism of Our Lord (Year B)

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

January 11, 2009

First Reading
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Commentary on Genesis 1:1-5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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