- Isaiah 42:1-9 and Psalm 29
- Acts 10:34-43
- Matthew 3:13-17
The first Sunday after the feast of the Epiphany marks the beginning of a series of Sundays in “ordinary time,” with the utilitarian names, Proper 1, Proper 2, etc. This series will take us through to the end of the liturgical year except for the two sets of special “propers” for Lent and Easter. The first of these Sundays in ordinary time is widely observed as the feast of the Baptism of the Lord.
First Reading: Isaiah 42
As befits the season of Epiphany, with its theme of revelation/manifestion to the Gentiles, the first reading from Isaiah is a classic text for the idea that God’s chosen one (whether an individual or a collective identity) has a mission to the nations.
Isaiah 42 is the first of the Servant Songs that have played such a powerful role in the self-imagination of both Jewish and Christian religious communities. Growing out of a strong sense of vocation/blessing, these songs develop the theme that those called and chosen will find themselves drawn into a ministry of sharing their knowledge of God with others, and for the sake of others. Rather than being a badge of personal distinction, vocation comes to be understood as a commissioning to be there for others.
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.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching. Thus says God, the LORD,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,” (Isaiah 42:1–6 NRSV)
These ancient words were easily applied to Jesus, and especially to the tradition of his baptism by John. While often understood in an exclusive and particularistric way, they can also be understood as aligning Jesus with the shared calling of all Jewish people, and the calling shared with all his followers over time. These are essentially words of solidarity. Rather than marking out Jesus as an exception, they can be understood as celebrating Jesus as an exemplar.
Second reading: Acts 10
This reading comes from the extended narrative in Acts about the baptism of a Gentile household by Simon Peter. It serves nicely as a bridge between the first reading and the Gospel, as it shares themes with each of them. With Isaiah, this story shares the theme of God’s impartial concern for all humankind, and not exclusively focused on blessings for the Jews. With the Gospel, it shares the theme of Baptism. With both readings it shares the motif of the divine Spirit being poured upon the chosen one(s).
Indeed, in a poignant rebuttal of the literalists who insisted on ethnic identity or ritual observance as markers of divine acceptance, this story celebrates the idea that what matters is an authentic experience of the Sacred. The ritual can follow, while other criteria for discriminating between persons can be set aside. At the time when Acts was written, a core issue was the boundary between Jews and Gentiles. In our own time, it may be the boundaries we draw based on sexuality or theological orthooxy?
Gospel: John baptizes Jesus
The baptism of Jesus by John is a tradition that Matthew shares with the other three NT Gospels, and that fact alone puts this story into a special category. Apart from the death of Jesus by Roman crucifixion, there is few other details of Jesus’ life that enjoys such a high level of historical certainty. It is, of course, most improbable that followers of Jesus would invent a tradition about their leader being a disciple of John, and having been baptized by him, unless that was such a well-known fact that it simply had to be acknowledged—and then managed as best one could. As Crossan (Historical Jesus, 232) observes:
The first and most important complex is, necessarily, 058 John Baptizes Jesus. It belongs to the primary stratum, has three independent witnesses, and involves nine separate texts. But it also evinces a very large amount of what I term, without any cynicism, theological damage control. The tradition is clearly uneasy with the idea of John baptizing Jesus because that seems to make John superior and Jesus sinful.
Interestingly, while all the Gospels agree on the tradition that John was baptized by John, they have different stories about the event. The diversity of the stories stands in contrast to the unanimity of the tradition.
Most likely Matthew has inherited his tradition about the baptism of Jesus from the Gospel of Mark. He seems to have no independent traditions (apart from the discourse between Jesus and John to be discussed next), and he makes only the usual Matthean editorial changes to improve the syntax and shorten the account.
However, Matthew does make one very significant change to the story he inherited from Mark. This is to be observed in the protest from John when Jesus requests baptism, and the reassuring response from Jesus:
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 now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
Then he consented. (Matthew 3:14–16 NRSV)
While hardly Matthew’s point, once again Sacrament is subservient to Experience. The rituals will be observed, but only for the sake of piety. What matters most is the authentic experience of God, not the pedigree of the person nor their certificates of liturgical compliance.
Matthew’s concerns are for his readers, here and at other points where Mark’s less sophisticated account is modified by Matthew. Jesus has no sins that need to be forgiven, and he had no preparation to undertake before the coming of the Chosen One. The reader should not think that John ranks higher than Jesus in the divine scheme of things.
After 2,000 years of Christian devotion to Jesus, few modern readers will entertain ideas that Jesus may be subservient to John. To the contrary, our challenge may be that we have exalted Jesus beyond his peers and placed him so securely in a class of his own. Can we reclaim the ancient tradition of Jesus being mentored and ritualized by John, and then imagine ways of telling the story afresh, so that the connections between Jesus and other great spiritual teachers are highlighted rather than minimized? Can the Christ who accepted the devotion of pagan astrologers not also be accorded a place among the sages and prophets and mystics of humanity? And what if the communities of his followers used this Sunday’s celebration to affirm both the distinctive charisma of Jesus and our openness to the wisdom of other spiritual communities?
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site
Other recommended sites include:
See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.