First Sunday after Epiphany Year A
The Baptism of Christ
Worship resources for the First Sunday after Epiphany Year A, Baptism of Christ, are at Worship Ways
by Kathryn Matthews
If we begin our reflection on Matthew's story of the baptism of Jesus by listening to this Sunday's Old Testament text from Isaiah, we hear 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. Perhaps an even better word would be "heal": this One will truly be a Healer who will bring wholeness to every broken place, to all of our woundedness. The very Spirit of God is within this transforming Servant, the Chosen One whom God upholds and in whom God's soul delights.
Righteousness as justice and care
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--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.
"Magnificence and humility"
Three chapters into Matthew's Gospel, we finally get to hear Jesus speak, with something Troy Miller describes as "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 used to addressing the crowd, accustomed to speaking "large."
The words he exchanges with Jesus sound quiet, maybe worried, perhaps awed. In any case, they're certainly 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.
Jesus "announces himself"
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 the Baptist's response clearly indicates his self-awareness not as the promised One but as the one who prepares the way for that much-anticipated 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).
Cracking open the sky
This healing, however, does not come with gentle words and soothing balm, these waters are not calm or crystal pure, and even the sky itself is scarily broken open by the thunderous 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 reminds us that the prophet Ezekiel had similar visions and hopes, just as John did, when he "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 Robert 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!
Mud and water, sights and sounds
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 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).
What does it mean to be human?
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 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.
Fully human, fully alive
Driver writes that, 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, all the way back at the beginning of everything?)
Remembering our baptism
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 imagined Martin Luther exhorting us to "remember your baptism!" (In my many years as a Catholic, I had never heard Luther quoted so beautifully.)
F. Dean 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.
Remembering that we are loved
Rachel Held Evans' opening chapters to her book, Searching for Sunday, are a moving reflection on remembering our baptism: "Jesus did not begin to be loved at the moment of his baptism," she writes, "nor did he cease to be loved when his baptism became a memory. Baptism simply named the reality of his existing and unending belovedness."
So it's fair to say that we're not necessarily remembering the act of being baptized so much as the naming that occurred: not our given name but the deeper identity that was acknowledged. We are loved.
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? I have, and I found that getting soaked is a good reminder of one's baptism, when it brings home the power of what was once done to us long ago.
Cracked skies and God's voice
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 the voice of God, affirming that "God is pleased by Jesus' obedience, which in turn suggests that Jesus deserves obedience from his followers" (The Cultural World of Jesus Year A).
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."
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 (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion).
While many scholars address themes in this text 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).
Drawn to the wilderness
Swanson doesn't really connect this scene to our own baptisms, and after reading his stirring reflection, it's harder 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.
Still, that word, "beloved"
Still, in the midst of fire and water and snakes, and skies breaking open, 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.
Consider your own baptism (if you are baptized), in light of this story, and whether you can imagine yourself as beloved. Then consider the same question about each person, child or adult, in your congregation, as a beloved child of God, and whether pausing to remember that would affect how you (and others in the church) treat that person--if we see them as God sees them.
Remember whose you are
Not that baptism makes us beloved, but it certainly does remind us that we are. (Marilynne Robinson brilliantly wrote in Gilead, about baptism: "There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. It doesn't enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that.")
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? What would happen if we pronounced each newly baptized Christian not only beloved, but a beloved servant of God?
Righteous or self-righteous?
What does "righteousness" mean to you? 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?
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?
The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
With thanks to Sue McKeon for her photo of water.
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."
Lao Tzu. 6th century B.C.E.
"Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and 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.
Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
"The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others."
Leonardo da Vinci, 15th century
"Water is the driving force in nature."
Abraham Joshua Heschel, 20th century
"Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy."
Brennan Manning, Abba's Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging, 20th century
"Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is illusion."
"Our identity rests in God's relentless tenderness for us revealed in Jesus Christ."
Payne Best, 20th century
"Bonhoeffer always seemed to me to diffuse an atmosphere of happiness, of joy in every smallest event in life, and of deep gratitude for the mere fact that he was alive….He was one of the very few men that I have ever met to whom his God was real and close."
Victor Hugo. 19th century
"What a grand thing, to be loved! What a grander thing still, to love!"
Henry David Thoreau, 19th century
"Life in us is like the water in a river."
Julian of Norwich, 14th century
"And thus I understood that any man or woman who deliberately chooses God in this life, out of love, may be sure that he or she is loved without end....Some of us believe that God is almighty and may do everything, and that [God] is all-wise and can do everything, but that [God] is all love and shall do all, that we fail to see."
Lao Tzu, 6th century B.C.E.
"Nothing in the world is more flexible and yielding than water. Yet when it attacks the firm and the strong, none can withstand it, because they have no way to change it. So the flexible overcome the adamant, the yielding overcome the forceful. Everyone knows this, but no one can do it."
Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, 20th century
"Water is life's mater and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water."
Liturgy Training Publications
"When the convert emerges from the water, the world seems changed. The world has not changed, it is always wonderful and horrible, iniquitous and filled with beauty. But now, after baptism, the eyes that see the world have changed."
Anne Lamott, 21st century
"Sometimes grace works like waterwings when you feel you are sinking."
Jan Richardson, 21st century
"That the small-g graces flow out from Big Grace and come to meet us in the midst of our daily life, helping us know we are beloved and inspiring us to respond in love to an often graceless world."
Marilynne Robinson, 21st century
"Well, but you two are dancing around in your iridescent little downpour, whooping and stomping as sane people ought to do when they encounter a thing so miraculous as water."
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;
in holy splendor.
The voice of God
is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
God, over mighty waters.
The voice of God
the voice of God
is full of majesty.
The voice of God
breaks the cedars;
God breaks the cedars
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
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
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."
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ
(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: "Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place" in Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)
The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about "traditional" colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.
The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.
Before the Reformation's iconoclasm, and Trent's code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of "best," "second best," and "everyday" — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the "best" vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got "second best" or "everyday."