Baptism of the Lord, January 10th, 2021

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We begin our series with the lessons chosen for the second Sunday of the New Year, January the 10th, traditionally associated with the start of the season of Epiphany. The season that shows the earthly Jesus in his ministry as teacher, healer, prophetic presence, son of God in power and in works of mercy.

What I think is helpful is first go wide. Get an overview of the lessons. The scripture readings for Sunday are from Genesis, Psalm 29, Acts 19 and the opening chapter of Mark’s Gospel.

I’ll start with an exploration into why these are the readings and not others, or something of the logic of a lectionary presentation. Mark is the center around which the other three radiate, so why these three?

As we get our bearings we can drill down, and speak to the special notes that are sounded on this Sunday.

My goal is to queue up and stir up your own scriptural reflections. And join up with your own weekly pastoral thoughts and concerns.

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It is useful to think of the main Gospel reading as setting the other readings up. We will see exceptions to this over the course of the year, but some clear principles can still be appreciated. Genesis and Psalm 29 and Acts 19 are read because of their relationship to Jesus baptism.

Over the coming weeks we are going to see the main outlines of Jesus, ministry prior to his turning to Jerusalem, as the Gospel of Mark sets these out. So we begin at the start of his narrative. In that 16 chapter long narrative the announcement of the decision to go to Jerusalem and there be crucified forms a pivot around which the two halves of the book turn.

Mark omits—or presupposes—the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke and gets right down to adult business right at the opening verses of chapter one.

The baptism of Jesus is an inaugural moment in all the Gospels, and significant in a way all four wish to emphasize. For Mark, this significance is enhanced by having the baptism as the very first thing he wishes to say.

Note that cleansing water and cleansing spirit are central to his account. In John’s Gospel one can say that the reason Jesus is baptized is entirely to do with recognition, with God wanting him to be recognized as his son by us. It is for this reason, John the Baptist says, that he baptized with water. So that of the scores who came to him in response to a cry for repentance, one who needed no repentance might be identified by the voice from heaven.

With the baptism of Jesus as the centerpiece for this Sunday, we might imagine a number of supporting passages from the Old Testament. The prophet Nathan’s promise of a Davidic line under the eternal protection of God. Psalm 2’s exalted language to David and that divinely chosen line, “You are my son, today I have begotten you.” It is this language of course that appears verbatim, again on God’s own lips, identifying this Jesus son of Joseph as the Son of his own loving, begetting, and choosing. Combined with language from the prophet Isaiah, for Israel, servant.

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,my chosen, in whom my soul delights;

I have put my spirit upon him;he will bring forth justice to the nations.

And in years other than this one, these OT passages will indeed appear on this first Epiphany Sunday.

So we note with interest the selection from the Old Testament that serves to illuminate the Baptism of Jesus: the opening verses of Genesis. Why Genesis 1?

In Genesis 1 we have, like the waters of the Jordan, the primordial waters divided to fashion a good creation pleasing to God. The waters of chaos and a formless void are made beautiful and good. The Spirit of God is present with God as creation takes form.

But another important feature must be seen in its full significance. The “beginning” of Genesis 1 is not simply a temporal marker. The ‘in the beginning’ is also ‘in the agency of beginning.’ The word is grasped most fully in the light of Christ incarnate, and the meaning was always deeply imbedded in the creation account itself. Through the agency of beginning (arche), an agency eternally begotten in God’s self, God created the heavens and the earth. In the beginning, in reshith, in arche, was the word, as John’s prologue states it. The Jewish metaphysics of Philo saw in beginning the agency of God’s word as well, which was understood to be God’s torah. Proverbs speaks of this beginning within God’s self as a wisdom partner through whom the good creation is brought into being. Colossians speaks of Christ as the arche of creation.

22 The Lord created me as the beginning of his ways, the first of his acts of long ago. 23 Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. 24 When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. 25 Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth— 26 when he had not yet made earth and fields,[d] or the world’s first bits of soil. 27 When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, 28 when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, 29 when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, 30 then I was beside him, like a master worker;

By him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, he is the beginning,

Mark’s Gospel begins with his own special nuance on this theme, “the arche of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” That which was at the beginning with God is now the good news of Jesus Christ in the flesh. At his baptism, Jesus cleaves the waters, just as at the first creation, and what emerges is new life, new creation, the very good of God’s only son. The spirit of God that brooded over the waters, in the company of God and the word, here comes down in full majesty to crown the arche of God in the flesh. The beginning of the gospel of new creation is set in motion.

One point of clarification. The NRSV renders the opening verse of Genesis 1 in the form of a subordinate clause: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void” instead of as a finite clause: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (so RSV, NIV and most translations). This translational difference can open on to a theological disagreement about whether creation is made out of nothing, or out of a chaotic mass, which takes us afield of our task. It is doubtful whether one can made the determination of the matter turn on Genesis 1 alone, for this is not the only place in the OT or NT where the topic is discussed.

Hebrews 11:3—"By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible" and Revelation 4:11, "For you [God] created all things, and by your will they existed and were created."

"I beseech thee, my son, look upon the heaven and the earth, and all that is therein, and consider that God made them of things that were not; and so was mankind made likewise." (2 Maccabees 7:28)

What is to be emphasized is the creation of light, which pierced the darkness for the very first time. This is followed by the division of the waters, so that a stable heaven and a stable pooling of seas makes room for the earth to appear in its own stable form. Again we hear echoes of this when the NT refers to the logos at the beginning as being life and the light of humanity, in John’s prologue. The light shone in the darkness and the darkness did not comprehend it but gave way to it -- its out-of-nothing but the eternal word of God’s power and piercing truth.

It is this light and life that breaks forth again as the waters of the Jordan are divided and Jesus Christ the light of the world emerges. The voice from heaven tells us that this is the beloved Son on whom the Spirit rests.

Let’s move now to Acts chapter 19. As we shall see in the weeks to come, the NT reading, usually from the Letters of Paul or the Acts of the Apostles, moves consecutively through the epistle and so has not been specially chosen to come alongside the OT and Gospel pairing. Instead we hear portions of the letters as they appear sequentially. This Sunday, however, we see a different principle, where a single text from the 19th chapter of Acts has been chosen because of the Gospel account of the baptism of Jesus. The Christian disciples at Ephesus, Paul learns, had been baptized “into John’s baptism.”

Paul rightly tells them that the baptism into Jesus Christ was in fact not John’s baptism, but a new kind of baptism that followed in the wake of Jesus’s own baptism and that it was John himself who pointed to him as bringing about a new order. The gift of the Holy Spirit is inaugurated for the Christian because of the Spirit’s bodily presence upon the Christ emerging from the waters. What John promised—a baptism in the Holy Spirit, made possible by him whose sandals John would dare not even touch—Mark tells us Jesus experienced. “As he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove.” It is this inaugural gifting of the Spirit upon Jesus that in turns transmits the Holy Spirit to those baptized in his name. To be baptized in Jesus name is to have released in real form the selfsame Holy Spirit. Not the heavens are torn this time, but rather the otherwise stable and predictable patterns of speech, which give way to ecstatic tongues and prophecy so as to confirm that this new baptism is indeed not the baptism of John but baptism in the dead, risen and exalted Lord Jesus Christ.

And finally our psalm for today, Psalm 29. With its perfect seven plus one refrain ‘the voice of the Lord’ the psalm offers something like the bass notes supporting the main themes for today. The voice of the Lord is indeed a powerful voice, a voice from heaven, a voice above the waters, the waters of the Jordan, the waters of creation, a voice of splendor, and above all a voice of authority and power, shaking the creation just as once it brought creation into being. At the psalm’s end it is not the voice of the LORD but the Lord himself enthroned above the flood, seated as king, giving strength and giving blessing. No wonder John reckoned with a baptism of the Holy Spirit far greater than his own, for which his own was but a human prelude and pointer. The Lord Jesus and the voice of the Lord are one and the same Lord, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

We can imagine several images or metaphors to capture the way the Bible reinforces itself across its various parts, which the collection of lessons for today seeks to underscore. The church father Irenaeus spoke of pieces of a mosaic, when rightly assembled, bringing to our eyes the King Jesus in splendor. If you are musical, you might think of a beautiful chord, where all the various notes combine to produce harmony and a piercing music. Or a symphony orchestra, whose conductor is the Holy Spirit, bringing what is old and what is new into perfect coordination, brass and woodwinds and strings and even the little triangle attuned to God’s purposes in his Son. Each Sunday will offer its special notes. For this Sunday we catch the majesty of the baptism of Jesus refracted through Genesis 1, Psalm 29, Acts 19 and Mark 1, as individual witnesses and in combination in support of one another.

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