Epiphany 1A: Water-born

Baptism imageOLD TESTAMENT: Isaiah 42: 1-9

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage for this week, click here

We are used to reading this passage and immediately going to the context of Christ. In the preceding chapter, though (verses 8-9), the name “servant” refers to the Jacob-Israel-Abraham covenantal relationship with God. This means that the “servant” is not only the ancestors but also the nations that derived and benefited from that covenantal relationship. (the “nations” to which justice shall be brought forth.). So, in its original context, the “servant” is thought to be Israel or the prophet as a representative Israelite.

The main purpose of this passage, though, is to draw attention to the One God who is theirs (over and above other “gods”). This passage is the first of the four “servant songs” from Second Isaiah. (Remember that Second Isaiah encompasses chapters 40-55 and was probably written at the end of the exile, perhaps about 540 BCE.) The other “servant songs” are 49:1-6, 50: 4-11, and 52:13-53:12. These were first isolated in the 19th century as one literary unit. The thinking was that they were from a hand later than the original author. But it’s still important to think of them as set within the other writings.
Yahweh presents the servant as his chosen agent. Gifted with the Spirit, the servant will execute the divine plan for the world and bring forth justice to the nations. It is interesting to note that God does not openly “delight” in just anything according to the Scripture. But God delights in the created world, the creation of humans and now, the Servant. So the whole idea of how the Servant delights God is something that we should consider. What does it mean to “delight”?

In verse 5, God is identified as Creator and the one who empowers the people. On this basis, God calls and protects the servant, which has social consequences in the opening of blind eyes and liberating of prisoners. Verse 8 is an affirmation of the one true God against all the other deities who were being presented to Israel during the Babylonian exile. At the end of the passage, God announces that what was promised before has already happened and now new things are being promised. In essence, the “servant” introduces a new way of looking at God and our relationship with God. The traditional image of God as a “warrior” becomes the image of God as one who is birthing something new.

Now remember that the people to whom this was directed had never actually seen the Judean Promised Land. They had heard about it from their grandparents and parents but they themselves had spent a lifetime living in what was essentially a sort of Judean ghetto in the midst of Babylon. They were used to living within the worship of the Babylonian god Marduk and it seemed more and more that YHWH had been defeated and was long gone. So, the idea of God bringing comfort was indeed something new. It was always good to remember the past and to bask in it, but God is calling us to step forward into newness.
These servant songs, and probably this one in particular, have had much to do with the shaping of our own development of who we as Christians think Jesus Christ is. Remember that they were not necessarily written with the intent of prophesying the birth of Christ, although we have sort of “usurped” them with that meaning. But the idea of one who brings comfort and justice and a new way of being is exactly what we got. Whoever the servant is, God uses this one to bring justice and righteousness and peace and newness into a hurting world.

a. What comes to mind for you in reading this passage?
b. What does the use of the term “servant” mean for us?
c. What does it mean for us that the “servant” delights God?
d. If we look upon the “servant” as Israel and Israel’s ancestors, what does that mean for us?
e. How does this passage speak to us today?
f. What does this vision of a just world mean for us today?

NEW TESTAMENT: Acts 10: 34-43

To read the Lectionary New Testament passage for this week, click here

Even though it is sparsely used in the weekly lectionary readings, the writing known to us as The Acts of the Apostles is important for us. It began as a written conversation between a storyteller (Luke) and his story’s first reader (Theophilus). But it is essentially an anonymous book. The traditions assert that the evangelist Luke wrote both the Third Gospel and Acts, but that is not definitely known. But the fact that we are not given definitive information as to who the author was (or even exactly when the work was written) indicates that the focus is (and should be) on the story rather than the writer’s identity.
Theophilus, the first reader of Acts, is otherwise unknown to us. Evidently, Theophilus is a new, although socially prominent, believer. His name, in Greek, means “dear to God”, leading some to speculate that the name is the writer’s clever metaphor for every new Christian seeking theological instruction. (Not unlike the use of the “servant” as a metaphor for all of God’s followers.)

Acts was apparently written with several focuses in mind: (1) To bring unity and reconciliation to faith communities, (2) To challenge idolatry and other theological crises, (3) To underscore the authority and importance of faith traditions for the future of the church, (4) To guide the church in its evangelistic mission. (Go make of all disciples.), and, probably most importantly, (5) To deepen the faith of new believers. The passage that we read begins with the realization that the mission of God is inclusive. But the Biblical principle of divine impartiality comes with a critical aspect: Although God does not discriminate by ethnic group or nationality, God does indeed single out those “in every nation…who hear him and do what is right.”

The passage recounts the message of God’s perfect peace as coming first to Israel and is then spread through Judea and then throughout the world. Essentially, God is Lord over all. Peter’s witness to the resurrected Jesus presumes a special relationship with him and a privileged knowledge of him, which obligates him “to testify”. Those believers who count themselves among God’s “elect” are often including the notion that God has not chosen anyone else who disagrees with their beliefs and their customs. Yet what became crystal clear to Peter is that to do so is not our prerogative. It is God alone who judges the living and the dead. One of the most surprising features of Acts is the diversity of people God calls to be included among God’s people. God has no favorites. God delights in what is right and just. Essentially, it is not about us. Rev. Rev. Bill Long said that “we miss more than half of the message of the resurrection of Christ if we view it as a story of our own personal salvation.” Perhaps our spiritual walk is not so much about doing what we think God wants us to do as it is about being awakened to the way God is leading us through our life.

a. What does this passage mean for you?
b. This seems to debuke the idea of God choosing a specific group of people. What does that mean for you?
c. What does it mean to think of the Gospel as something more than a personal salvation story?

GOSPEL: Matthew 3: 13-17
To read the Lectionary Gospel passage for this week, click here

This passage is pretty interesting the way it begins. Think about it…we’ve heard the birth story. We’ve lived with mangers and shepherds and magi for the last several weeks now. But then, the story seems to stop, suspended for thirty years while Jesus grew and matured (with the exception of the eleven-verse glimpse that Luke gives us with the story of a twelve-year old Jesus going into the temple.) And then…look at the way it begins. Then…as if now was the time. As if now Jesus is finally ready. As if, finally, the world has room. Then…

Thirty years was the traditional time for a rabbi to wait to commit himself to God. Jesus would have been caring for his mother, making a living, and preparing himself for ministry. I don’t really think that, contrary to what some may say, Jesus was confused about these roles. He was always serving God. But now…then…the time had come. And as eternity dawns, Jesus is ready to begin. And so he goes to John at the Jordan to be baptized and for a very short amount of time was then actually a disciple, a follower, of John’s. Then…Jesus is ready to begin. Eternity dawns.

John was used to baptizing people as a sort of ritual cleansing of those who had repented, who had turned their lives around. Cleansing was usual throughout the Old Testament. (“Create in me a clean heart”…”Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity.”) But that was a action of John’s. So you can understand why he was so uncomfortable. But Jesus reassures him. And as Jesus is baptized, the action shifts. Then…the heavens open up and spill into the earth and the Spirit emerges. And we hear what all of Creation has strained to hear: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” The work has begun.

In her book, Calling: A Song for the Baptized, Caroline Westerhoff says that “at baptism we are incorporated into Christ’s body, infused with Christ’s character, and empowered to be Christ’s presence in the world. Ministry is not something in particular that we do. It is what we are about in everything we do.” In other words, our own Baptism sweeps us into that dawn that Jesus’ baptism began. Westerhoff also refers to our baptism as our “ordination” to ministry.

When God calls, people respond in a variety of ways. Some pursue ordination and others put pillows over their heads, but the vast majority seek to answer God by changing how they live their more or less ordinary lives. It can be a frustrating experience, because deciding what is called for means nothing less than deciding what it means to be a Christian in a post-Christian world. Is it a matter of changing who you are—becoming a kinder, more spiritual person? Or is it a matter of changing what you do—looking for a new job, becoming more involved at church, or witnessing to the neighbors? What does God want from us, and how can we comply? (Barbara Brown Taylor, in The Preaching Life, p. 26.)

This story of Jesus’ Baptism calls us to remember our own. It, too, is our beginning as the gift of God’s grace washes away those things that impede our relationship with God and gives us new birth, new life. It is our own beginning, as we are named “Christian”, begin our own journey toward God, and become who God intends us to be. And for each of us, whether or not we noticed it, the heavens opened up and the Spirit emerged. And we, too, were conferred with a title. “This is my child, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

“Remember your Baptism”. Martin Luther said that “A truly Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism once begun and ever to be continued.” It is remembering every single day who we are, whose we are, and how beloved we are. God has made something new. But we have to be willing to let go of the old. Nelle Morton said that “you are destined to fly, but that cocoon has got to go.” So, let go. Then…the journey begins. You are part of something beyond yourself, beyond what you know, and beyond what you can remember. Rainer Maria Rilke once said that “the future enters into us, in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens.” And from the water, our future happens and we are made into something new, and once and for all, we see that we are truly a beloved son or daughter of God, with whom God is well pleased. From the water, we become who we were meant to be.

a. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
b. What meaning does this bring to the remembrance of your own baptism?
c. What does the notion of your being “ordained” to ministry mean for you?
d. In what ways do we as a community fall short of realizing that?

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
The desire to find God and to see God and to love God is the one thing that matters. (Thomas Merton)

Later, after the angels, after the stable, after the Child, they went back…as we always must, back to the world that doesn’t understand our talk of angels and stars and especially not the Child. We go back complaining that it doesn’t’ last. They went back singing praises to God! We do have to go back, but we can still sing the alleluias! (From “Later”, in Kneeling in Bethlehem, by Ann Weems, 86)

What we are looking for on earth and in earth and in our lives is the process that can unlock for us the mystery of meaningfulness in our daily lives. It has been the best-kept secret down through the ages because it is so simple. Truly, the last place it would ever occur to most of us to find the sacred would be in the commonplace of our everyday lives and all about us in nature and in simple things. (Alice O. Howell, The Dove in the Stone)

Closing

Think about it…Jesus was still wet with water after John had baptized him when he stood to enter his ministry in full submission to God. As he stood in the Jordan and the heavens spilled into the earth, all of humanity stood with him. We now stand, wet with those same waters, as we, too, are called into ministry in the name of Christ. As we emerge, we feel a cool refreshing breeze of new life. Breathe in. It will be with you always. Then…it is up to you to finish the story. Then…the journey begins. So remember who and whose you are. Remember your baptism and be thankful for it is who you are.

“Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so for now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

More than once today I have thrown down my notebook, my pen, and finally myself onto this bed. Jordan springs from either eye, and it may look like I am weeping from this wrestling, but really I am standing at the water, looking for the one who will pull me under and holler out my name. (“Jordan”, in In Wisdom’s Path, by Jan Richardson, 36)

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

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