Sermon Seeds: Possibilities Unfolding/Turning Points
First Sunday after Epiphany Year A
The Baptism of Christ
Possibilities Unfolding/Turning Points
by Kathryn Matthews Huey
We might begin our reflection on Matthew’s story of the baptism of Jesus by listening to this Sunday’s Old Testament text from the prophet Isaiah, and hearing it as a poetic suggestion of what is to come in Jesus Christ. The prophet reminds us that God is faithful to God’s promises, and that how we live and order our world matters to God. It matters so much to God that God will send One who will “fix” the mess we’ve made, transforming it into a time of beauty and grace, healing and justice. The very Spirit of God is within this transforming Servant, the chosen one whom God upholds and in whom God’s soul delights. The same themes consistently appear in both Isaiah and Matthew: righteousness experienced as compassionate justice and care for those who are poor and/or marginalized, humility and faithfulness that always point to God as the One who is at work in this transformation, and the hope – better, the promise – of new things that will dazzle us and rattle the foundations of our safe little worlds. When read, and heard, together, the texts from Isaiah and Matthew dramatically illustrate God’s own deep faithfulness and care.
Three chapters into Matthew’s Gospel, we finally get to hear Jesus speak. As Troy Miller writes, “After many years of literary silence, Jesus now comes onto the scene with a paradoxical blend of magnificence and humility” (Feasting on the Word Year A, Vol. 1). We get to eavesdrop on the conversation of these two men, Jesus and John, and John at least is already used to speaking to the crowd, accustomed to speaking “large.” The words he exchanges with Jesus sound quiet, perhaps worried, perhaps awed. In any case, they’re not untroubled. So this baptismal scene, rather than pretty or nice, is full of power and questions, and perhaps even struggle. Magnificence and humility, yes, but full of “trouble and beauty,” as well.
Coming onto the scene and asking for baptism, Jesus is announcing himself as that One promised by God through the prophet long ago. And John’s response clearly indicates his awareness of himself not as the One promised but as the one who prepares the way for that One. Jesus “announces himself,” F. Dean Lueking writes, “as the fulfiller of the grace which gives sinners who have no standing before God a place to stand in a new relationship to God. He himself is that place.” How do you think that might have affected the expectations of the crowd, who were presumably familiar with the promises in Isaiah? When Jesus speaks of “righteousness,” a word that appears often in Matthew, he relates it to salvation, which is another word for healing the damage that has been done to our relationship with God. Lueking sees this baptism of Jesus revealing the purpose of Jesus, “to lay his healing hands upon a broken, alienated world to make it right with God again” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).
But this healing comes not with gentle words and soothing balm; according to Robert Hoch, “we, just as John the Baptist, know these waters to have been sullied by a sin-loving world” (New Proclamation Year A 2011). And then there’s that “cracked” sky, and the voice of God overhead: not your typical church baptism! Commentators observe that the scene offers a response to the ancient cries of the prophets as they observed the broken, alienated world in need of God’s hand: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” Isaiah prayed and, Lueking tells us, “Ezekiel’s vision of the heavens opened to reveal the God who never abandons his people is fulfilled. John called the multitudes to the Judean desert to warn of the cracking open and breaking up of the old order. Now that time has come” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). Cracked skies do not sound lovely and reassuring, but Hoch says that Matthew’s dramatic description draws our attention to God’s voice blessing the scene, and the response of creation itself to what is happening (New Proclamation Year A 2011). Certainly this was a multi-sensory experience!
Scholars suggest, then, that this story reminds us of our humanness, our embodiment as creatures of God. Perhaps the mud and the water and the sounds and sights of a reading like this one draw us back to reflection on the Incarnation itself, which is at the heart of the Christmas and Epiphany seasons. The wonder of God taking on human flesh ought to inspire awe, a state that we rarely allow ourselves anymore (although we do seem to seek it, consciously or not, in one experience or another). Like John, however, we may have mixed feelings about this God-becoming-human mystery. According to Robert Hoch, our initial relief at this good news moves into a “struggle with the complicated (maybe embarrassing) work of using our hands, bodies, and voices (unclean, all of them) to announce the new thing of God in Jesus Christ” (New Proclamation Year A 2011). And yet, Steven Driver notes the close connection between baptism and “the reality, the physicality, of being human” – because that’s exactly what the Incarnation is about. Like ancient Christians – orthodox and heretic alike – we struggle with the relationship between the physical and the spiritual, and how God could possibly have entered into our embodied existence. Perhaps, deep down, we just can’t accept our bodies, or this beautiful earth, God’s own creation, as good and blessed. We put the spirit above the body, as if we are somehow split in two, and our task then is to minimize and subjugate the pesky body and its frailties and needs, its temptations and demands. And yet, Driver writes, rather than being “wispy souls trapped temporarily in a body that is foreign to who we are,” we are physical beings who long to become “fully and completely human” – and to be “renewed” as well, like “all creation” (Feasting on the Word Year A, Vol. 1). So to be both fully human (see Irenaeus) and renewed, it seems that we need to accept our bodies, our physical existence, as good. (Isn’t that what Genesis says?)
We remember that immediately after this passage, Jesus heads to the desert himself and experiences the great temptations to his faithfulness to his call and his sense of who he is. One of the most powerful sermons that I ever heard on this text was by my pastor, the Rev. Dr. Laurinda Hafner, who told us about Martin Luther’s words, “Remember your baptism!” (In my many years as a Catholic, I had never heard Luther quoted so beautifully.) Lueking paints a picture of the “anxious” Reformation leader, “as he struggled through the lonely months of his safekeeping in the Wartburg Castle. ‘I am baptized,’ he would scribble on his desktop, and remember his baptism as he battled back despair” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). Rather than a sentimental journey or an effort to recapture lost enthusiasm (ours or that of our parents and godparents), “remembering our baptism” is seeking equilibrium on a storm-tossed sea, getting our bearings, remembering who (and whose) we are, and grounding ourselves in that assurance.
John Pilch provides background information to the story that helps us imagine the scene, including a geography lesson about the “dry” season when Jesus and the repentant people of Judea could be dipped, “when the Jordan and its streams would have been filled with the winter rains and the sun had warmed the shallow waters to a comfortable temperature” (The Cultural World of Jesus Year A). Have you ever been in a river, or even in a tank, when someone is baptized? Getting soaked is a good reminder of one’s baptism, if it brings home the power of what was once done to us long ago. Pilch also wrestles with that question of Jesus and John, and the embarrassment for early Christians that their leader was baptized by another. This awkward situation, he says, is explained by that cracked sky and voice of God, affirming that “God is pleased by Jesus’ obedience, which in turn suggests that Jesus deserves obedience from his followers.” But Thomas Long’s answers to the question about Jesus and “righteousness” are also illuminating: he outlines “human” righteousness, living “in right relationship with God and others…by being joined to Christ,” who has come to “save the world…through joining himself to sinners” (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion). Perhaps Jesus knows he can’t address our human condition unless he gets down into the mud, or into the tank, with us. Unless he gets baptized, just like the rest of us. But Long also describes “the righteousness of God…the way God works in the world to set things right.” In other words, to respond to that ancient cry of the prophets.
While most commentators on this text address themes like Jesus’ identity as the beloved Son of God (and Matthew’s persistent claim for that), or the presence and relationship of all three persons in the Trinity at this scene (even without an explicit Trinitarian theology being presented), the most interesting and stirring interpretation comes from Richard Swanson. He gives new meaning to the words, “troubled waters” with words like “killed…erupts…explodes…accuses.” And he speaks of John’s fire, and snakes and judgment, but mostly “fire, and fire, and fire, unquenchable fire.” And the winnowing hook, too, to prepare us for the “sharp divisions” brought by “a Jesus who erupts just as John erupts. The face of the earth will change” (Provoking the Gospel of Matthew).
Swanson doesn’t really connect this scene to our own baptisms, and after reading his stirring reflection, it’s hard to see the connection between them. Instead, he sketches a picture of faithful Jews being drawn out into the wilderness, “to volunteer for service, to be washed, purified to participate in the long-awaited new thing that God was doing in the world.” Rather than comforting or sweet, there is a “disturbing force” in “John’s eruption. The face of the earth was changing. Jews came out to enlist.” Swanson’s powerful, if disconcerting, reflection draws us back to fire and water, the many uses of burning (including “Herod’s murderous attempt to defend Empire by burning hope out of the Jewish people”), and the power of being washed and readied for service (Provoking the Gospel of Matthew). It’s another way to remember our baptism, perhaps a different lens through which we might look at it in our memory, and certainly a long way from the beautiful babies in white dresses receiving a gentle sprinkle of water on the forehead (see the photo above).
Still, in the midst of fire and water and snakes, there is that word: beloved. When the skies open, the words we hear are “beloved,” and “listen,” hardly words of judgment or words that should inspire fear. How do you experience God’s loving faithfulness and care in your own life and in the life of your congregation, today? How often do you think about your baptism? When you do, can you imagine yourself as beloved? Can you imagine each person, child or adult, in your congregation, as a beloved child of God, and would pausing to remember that affect how the person is treated? How does this sense of who and whose we are come alive in baptism? Have you ever felt that baptisms have become for many – perhaps even for you – a less-than-powerful ritual, an occasion for gifts and parties, a misunderstood theological statement? Have you ever thought of baptism as conferring servanthood, of all things? Would we throw a party for such a gift? How does lifting up servanthood clash with our modern system of values around position, class, and prestige? What would happen if you pronounced each newly baptized Christian not only beloved, but a beloved servant of God?
When have you or your congregation experienced the hand of God leading you? What does “righteousness” mean to the majority of folks in your congregation? Does it have an ironically unpleasant connotation, as in “self-righteous” religiosity? How have you experienced the Spirit of God within you, at what times and in what circumstances? What difference did it make in your life, and the life of your congregation?
How does God’s Spirit work in us today, move through us today, speak to us still today, calling us in this time and place to do new things? What former things have passed away, or need to pass away, and what new words of hope need to be spoken? What is the transformation that needs to happen, or is happening beneath our gaze, even now?
For further reflection:
Matthew Arnold, 19th century
“Waiting for the spark from heaven to fall.”
Karl Jung, 20th century
“Bidden or unbidden, God is present.”
Leonard Cohen, 20th century
“There’s a crack in everything–that’s where the light gets in.”
Lao Tzu. 6th century B.C.E.
“Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear?”
Hans Urs von Balthasar, 20th century
“The Church does not dispense the sacrament of baptism in order to acquire for herself an increase in membership but in order to consecrate a human being to God and to communicate to that person the divine gift of birth from God.”
The old Irish when immersing a babe at baptism left out the right arm so that it would remain pagan for good fighting.
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,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the Lord, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.
Ascribe to God, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to God glory and strength.
Ascribe to God the glory of God’s name;
worship God in holy splendor.
The voice of God is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
God, over mighty waters.
The voice of God is powerful;
the voice of God is full of majesty.
The voice of God breaks the cedars;
God breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
God makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
and Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of God flashes forth
in flames of fire.
The voice of God shakes the wilderness;
God shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of God causes the oaks to whirl,
and strips the forest bare;
and in God’s temple all say, ‘Glory!’
God sits enthroned over the flood;
God sits enthroned as ruler forever.
May God give strength to the people!
May God bless the people with peace!
Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
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 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.”
Liturgical Notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings.
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
Advent and Christmas
The Violet color for Advent is traditionally connected with royalty and penitence. Blue is symbolic of expectation and hope, not only for the birth of Christ, but also for Christ’s return at the end of history. Rose on the third Sunday of Advent, which was Gaudete (Joy), provided a little relief from the somberness of Advent in earlier times. Some Advent wreath sets include a rose candle. White first appears on Christmas Eve and may be continued through the Sunday after Christmas, Epiphany, and the Sunday after Epiphany (celebrated by many as the Baptism of Christ) to show that all of these events are related in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. White is also used for Easter and Sundays following. (Some traditions use Gold or both for Christmas and Easter.)
Outside the large seasons of Advent-Christmas and Lent-Easter (which concludes with Pentecost), Sundays are numbered, or “ordered,” as Sundays in Ordinary Time (as in 11th, 12th, or 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time). Ordinary Time begins with the Sundays following the Epiphany. In this calendar, they are also listed as Sundays after the Epiphany. The variable date of Easter results in years in which all the Ordinary Time readings are not used. This may cause a gap in numbering Ordinary Time when it resumes after Pentecost and Trinity Sunday. This calendar lists these as Sundays in Ordinary Time (even though they may still be counted as Sundays after Pentecost). The color Green is displayed during Sundays of Ordinary Time to symbolize life and growth and the church in mission.