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Baptism of Our Lord / Epiphany 1, Cycle A

by Mark Ellingsen

Baptism and new life! This is a Sunday to explore the meaning and significance of baptism, which entails attention to Sanctification and Christian life (a core theme of the Epiphany season) as well as to Justification by Grace Alone.

Psalm 29
This is a hymn attributed to David, though it is unlikely that he is the author or even the agent in collecting this and other Psalms attributed to him (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 512). The text sings of God’s control of all nature (vv. 3, 5-6, 8-10), even of storms, and yet we are assured that Yahweh blesses us with peace in the midst of storms (v. 11). The Psalm begins with a call to worship, where there is a reference to “heavenly beings,” which is a bad translation for what should be rendered in English “sons of mighty ones.” This insight suggests that in the temple era and perhaps in earlier periods Hebrews believed that there was a heavenly court of lower gods or semi-divine beings who acknowledged Yahweh as supreme ruler (Psalm 82:1, 6; Exodus 15:11; Deuteronomy 32:8).

The Lord seems to rule with his word. Of course the reference to his voice [gol] (vv. 2-5, 7) could refer to his manifestation through thunder in thunderstorms (v. 7). The cedars of Lebanon noted in verse 5 refer to the principal mountains in Syria. Sirion noted in verse 6 is the Phoenicain name for Mount Hermon on the eastern border of Israel, and the wilderness of Kadesh in verse 8 is a reference to a desert in Syria. The Lord’s voice in this storm is not just powerful, but hadar in Hebrew (majestic, even beautiful) (v. 4). God’s rule over nature and over waters in particular could be interpreted as a prophetic reminder of his use of water in baptism to proclaim his word and will. The Psalm concludes with petitions that the Lord may give strength to and bless his people (v. 11).

Application: The text provides opportunities to preach on creation and God’s providential rule over it by his word. His control over natural elements opens the way to sermons on how God can use water in baptism to give life.

Isaiah 42:1-9
This lesson, the famed first Servant Song, is not written by the historical Isaiah, an eighth-century BC prophet to Judah, but is embedded in a literary strand of the book (one of three such strands) written soon after the conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 539 BC and the so-call Babylonian exile. There are four Servant Songs in Deutero-Isaiah (the other three found in 49:1-6; 50:4-11; 52:13–53:12).

There is much debate over the identity of the Servant in these songs. It seems responsible to regard them as messianic prophecies. But although many in the church have traditionally regarded the Servant as an individual, there is a growing consensus that the author intended to regard the Servant as a reference to the nation of Israel. References to the chosenness of the Servant in verse 1 remind us of God’s eternal covenant with Abraham and so with Israel (Genesis 12:1-3). The reference to God’s “soul” in verse 1 is not to be understood as teaching that God has a soul (in the sense that Greek philosophy and the New Testament teach). The Hebrew word that appears here is nephesh, which refers to the life force. And God does have life, which is delighted with his Servant. Anointed with this Spirit, the Servant will bring forth justice among the nations (vv. 1, 3), not growing faint from the task (v. 4). God is proclaimed as the Creator of all and source of all life, giving breath to all (v. 5). The Servant is said to have been called in righteousness as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, setting people free (vv. 6-7). (The light imagery is traditional imagery for a king’s establishment of justice. Becoming a light to the nations is most suggestive of the Second Servant Song and its attribution to Jesus Christ in Luke 2:32.) The lesson ends with Yahweh proclaiming his name as the only God, with no rival (v. 8; cf. Deuteronomy 4:23-24). With a clear eschatological intent it is proclaimed that former things have come to pass and new things are now declared (v. 9).

The last verse of the lesson is important for addressing the question of who the Servant described is. Old Testament scholar Brevard Childs (Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, pp. 336-337) has suggested that ambiguity about who the Servant is was also experienced by the original readers and hearers of this song. It could not be resolved in their minds except in the future; the future in which the old would come to pass and the new declared shows us who the Servant is. Living in the eschatological era ushered in by Jesus (Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15) has helped us understand that the Servant prophesied here must in fact be Jesus Christ. This of course presupposes that the biblical texts only speak to their original context. But the very fact that the final editor of Isaiah weaves together different literary strands divided by nearly two centuries drives us to conclude that we misunderstand this text if we only try to interpret in light of speculations about what it originally meant. The kingdom of God revealed in Jesus Christ tells us who the Servant is and makes clear how this prophesy is fulfilled in his life and in the lives of his followers.

Application: The last point indicates how this text is legitimately proclaimed as an opportunity to describe the work of Jesus (Christology, Justification by Grace [setting people free], and Social Ethics [bringing forth justice and liberation]). But it could also be a description of what the members of the New Israel (followers of Jesus or they and the Jewish nation) are called to do under the guidance of the Holy Spirit as servants of God (Sanctification). This latter sermon direction could be related to the Theme of the Day by noting how the sacrament launches the faithful into lives of working for justice and freedom, giving light.

Acts 10:34-43
This text is the second half (Luke being the first part) of an account of the early Christian movement from the time of Jesus to the time Paul came to preach in Rome. Though attributed to Luke, a Gentile associated with Paul (Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24), references in the first person plural in telling the story (16:17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1ff) could suggest that the account is from a travel diary that Luke, as Paul’s companion, had drawn up. Others think the work was not composed until after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD. It is a book stressing the universal mission of the church, and its outreach to the Gentiles (1:8).

The narrative clearly illustrates Luke’s agenda. It is the report of a speech by Peter before a gathering of Gentiles assembled by a Gentile Roman soldier Cornelius, a resident of Caesarea [north of Jerusalem on the Mediterranean coast] and the first Gentile convert to faith, which emphasizes the gospel’s outreach to all. Peter proclaimed that God shows no partiality, finding acceptable in any nation one who fears him and does what is right (vv. 34-35). He proceeded to note that God sent this message to Israel through the peace preaching of Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all (v. 36). (The phrase Lord of all may have apologetic implications as it was used in the Roman empire not just to refer to the God of Israel [Wisdom of Solomon 6:7, 8:3; implying here an affirmation of the deity of Christ], but also to the Greek god Zeus and the Egyptian god Osiris [Plutarch, Isis and Osiris, 355e].) The message spread throughout Judea, he contended, began in Galilee after the baptism John announced (v. 37). God is reported to have anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit and with power and then Peter reminded hearers how Christ went about doing and healing all who were oppressed by the devil (v. 38). Peter next reported to being a witness to all Jesus did, including his crucifixion and resurrection. He even claims to have eaten and drunk with Christ (vv. 39-41). He also testifies that Jesus commanded those who walked with him to preach and testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead (v. 42). All the prophets are said to testify about him, so that everyone who believes in him receive forgiveness through his name (v. 43).

Application: The text invites a witness to God’s care for all creatures, a reminder that the gospel is a word for all people. This affirmation of the unity of Christians (Church) might be related to the unifying character of baptism from which such a ministry of unity begins. This stress on human unity might also be developed in terms of its social ethical implications.

Matthew 3:13-17
We turn again to the most Jewish-oriented of the all the gospels, based on oral traditions about Jesus and perhaps based on the gospel of Mark. Matthean authorship is thought to be unlikely, precisely because it was written in Greek, and there is no indication that the Jewish tax collector Matthew understood the language (9:9). But the book does betray some Hebraic and Aramaic influences. This lesson is an account of Jesus’ baptism.

Jesus is reported to have come from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John (v. 13). We have previously noted that John’s practice of a baptism of repentance was not an anomaly in first-century Judaism. Practiced by the Qumran community, which wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls (Manual of Discipline), it was a practice of ritual purity with roots in Exodus 19:10 and Numbers 8:21. It functioned as a ritual of entrance for proselytes. But John would have prevented Jesus from receiving this baptism, saying that he is the one who needs baptism from Jesus (v. 14). Jesus responds that the baptism should transpire to fulfill all righteousness (God’s faithfulness to his prophecies and so his covenant promises), so John consents (v. 15). After emerging from the water, the heavens open and John sees the Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove, and hears a voice from heaven proclaiming him the beloved Son of God (vv. 16-17). (The phrase Son of God had connotations of royalty from a Jewish standpoint, as it was a title bestowed on David [2 Samuel 7:14].) Matthew is more concerned than other gospel writers with sorting out the relation between Jesus’ disciples and those of John, and this is to some extent evident insofar as compared to the parallel gospel accounts of the story. Only Matthew includes a dialogue between Jesus and John regarding the prophet’s sense of unworthiness to baptize the Lord (vv. 14-15).

Application: The text is an opportunity to explore the significance of baptism, how because we share Jesus’ baptism, we receive what belongs to him (Sanctification). The Holy Spirit’s work in making this happen in baptism might also be explored. The continuity in what God does (his righteousness and faithfulness to his promises) might also be explored, pointing out how Christian baptism has continuity with past Jewish practices. God does not disown what he has done in moving us into the future (Providence).

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Authors of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Norman A. Beck is the Poehlmann Professor of Theology and Classical Languages and the Chairman of the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Classical Languages at Texas Lutheran University
Dr. Norman A. Beck
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen