Possibilities Unfolding (Jan. 3 – 9)

Sunday, January 9
The Baptism of Jesus

Weekly Theme
Possibilities Unfolding

Creator God, our soul’s delight, your voice thunders over the waters, liberating the future from the past. In the Spirit’s power and the waters of rebirth, Jesus was declared your blessed and beloved Son; may we recall our baptism, and be disciples of the Anointed One.  Amen.

Focus Scripture
Matthew 3:13-17

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.”

All readings for this week
Isaiah 42:1-9 with Psalm 29 
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

Focus Questions

1. When have you or your congregation experienced the hand of God leading you?

2. What does “righteousness” mean to you?

3. When you think about your own baptism, can you imagine yourself as beloved?

4. Have you ever thought of baptism as conferring servanthood, of all things? Would we throw a party for such a gift?

5. How does lifting up servanthood clash with our modern system of values around position, class, and prestige?

by Kate Huey

We might begin our reflection on Matthew’s story of the baptism of Jesus by first reading the Hebrew Scripture reading for the day from Isaiah, a poetic suggestion of what is to come in Jesus Christ. The prophet reminds 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. This transforming Servant, the chosen one whom God upholds and in whom God’s soul delights, has the very Spirit of God within him. The same themes consistently appear in Isaiah and Matthew: righteousness experienced as compassionate justice and care for the poor and 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.” 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 the 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, and shared, 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 again: “His baptism is the decisive opening event that further unfolds that for which he came, to lay his healing hands upon a broken, alienated world to make it right with God again.” 

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.” 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.” Cracked skies do not sound lovely and reassuring, but Hoch says that Matthew’s dramatic description “[shifts] our gaze from John’s trembling hand to God’s benedicting voice. Matthew foregrounds the way in which the creation responds to Jesus’ presence.”

Commentators have provided thoughtful reflections on the way 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. Like John, however, we may have mixed feelings about this God-becoming-human mystery. According to Robert Hoch, “One may at first be relieved by the sense of awe that rushes into our awareness of God becoming flesh and then, in the next instant, we may (with John the Baptist) 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.” And yet, “to understand baptism,” Steven Driver claims, “we must understand the reality, the physicality, of being human, and what it means to say that God saved us by becoming just like us.” 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. And yet, Driver writes, “We are not wispy souls trapped temporarily in a body that is foreign to who we are….Our hope is not to become a disembodied soul, for that would mean hoping to become something less than what we are–something less than what God created us to be. Instead, we hope for the renewal of all creation, including the renewal of our bodies. Our hope is to become fully and completely human.”

“Remember your baptism!”

We would do well to 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 who told us about Martin Luther’s words, “Remember your baptism!” Lueking paints of picture of the Reformation leader, an “anxious Luther 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.” Rather than a sentimental journey or an effort to recapture lost enthusiasm (ours or that of our parents and godparents), “remembering our baptism” is closer to seeking equilibrium on a storm-tossed sea, getting our bearings, remembering who (and whose) we are.

As always, John Pilch provides helpful background information to the story, 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.” 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, which says that “Jesus is baptized because God wills it. 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, “the possibility that people can live in right relationship with God and others…by being joined to Christ,” who has come to “save the world, to make righteousness a reality for humanity through joining himself to sinners, and his baptism signifies this identification with all humanity.” It’s as if Jesus knows he can’t address our human condition unless he gets down into the mud, or into the tank, with 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.

“Troubled waters”

While most commentators address things 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, who gives new meaning to the words, “troubled waters.” His commentary is full of 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 let us know that “This will be a Jesus who will make sharp divisions. This will be a Jesus who erupts just as John erupts. The face of the earth will change.”

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 the two. Instead, he draws 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 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. It’s another way to remember our baptism, perhaps a different lens through which we might look at it in our memory.

Beloved servants who listen

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? Have you ever felt that baptisms have become for many–perhaps even for you–an empty ritual, an occasion for gifts and parties, a misunderstood theological statement? What would happen if you pronounced each newly baptized Christian not only beloved, but a beloved servant of God? What are the possibilities deep within our communities, that might be realized by “beloved servants” who listen for the leading of God?

A preaching version of this commentary can be found on http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel

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 water is clear?

The old Irish when immersing a babe at baptism left out the right arm so that it would remain pagan for good fighting.

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Weekly Seeds is a service of the Congregational Vitality and Discipleship Ministry Team, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is © 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.