Baptism of Christ/First Sunday after Epiphany – January 12, 2014

Reading 1: Reading 2: Reading 3: Reading 4: 
Isaiah 42:1-9 Psalm 29 Acts 10:34-43 Matthew 3:13-17

By John B. Cobb, Jr.

Today the church celebrates the calling of Jesus to his ministry. This took place in conjunction with his baptism by John. But the gospels are at some pains to assert that it was not the baptism into John’s community that was important but rather the intensely personal vision and audition that came after Jesus returned to the shore. According to the synoptic gospels, Jesus saw God’s Spirit descending on him and a voice proclaimed that he was the “Son of God,” the one in whom God was “well pleased.” Just what this meant he was to do was not immediately clear. But that God called him to something new and of supreme importance, we are led to suppose, was immediately clear. Indeed, the synoptic gospels tell us that after this experience Jesus spent forty days alone in the wilderness considering what his call might be.

To what did God call Jesus? That is a central question for all of us who think of ourselves as Jesus’ followers. Two of the other passages selected for this Sunday address this question. In Acts, we have a report on a sermon by Peter that seems to give his answer. He asserts that all who believe in Jesus will have their sins forgiven. Insofar as Peter’s sermon gives any clue to why this is the case, it seems to be that God made Jesus judge of the living and the dead. That would empower him to forgive sins, and Peter thought that Jesus in fact forgives those who believe in him.

So far as I know, this particular theory is unique to this one passage, although connecting Jesus’ mission to the forgiveness of sins is not. In his ministry Jesus is reported to have announced, in relation to physical healing, that the sins of some individuals were forgiven. His teaching depicted God as forgiving, sometimes on condition that human beings would forgive. In Ephesians we read that God in Christ forgave us.  

But none of this adds up to suggesting that Jesus understood his mission to be providing a way in which individuals could be forgiven. The full-fledged development of that interpretation of Jesus’ mission appeared for the first time in the writings of St. Anselm a thousand years later. It was a brilliant imaginative theory, but if we take the Bible seriously we can only be distressed by the extent to which it has defined the understanding of Christianity in the West.

The Isaiah passage points in a quite different direction. Of course, it was not written about what Jesus had done. It was about what someone, whose coming was passionately hoped for, would do. But that does not make it irrelevant to the question of what Jesus considered his task to be. If the Magnificat is any indication of his mother’s he would have absorbed the prophetic tradition in which this passage stands in childhood.

 According to Luke 4:16-19, on one occasion Jesus read a prophecy of Isaiah publicly and announced that he was fulfilling it. (Is 60:1-2) It was not the prophecy assigned for today, but that Isaiah’s prophecies were on Jesus’ mind when he meditated on his mission is not merely possible, but probable. Further, the Matthean account of the post-baptismal word from God, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased” echoes the Isaiah passage, “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom I am well pleased.” Isaiah reads: “I have put my Spirit upon him.” Matthew tells us that Jesus saw the Spirit descending as a dove.

There are differences that later Christians might emphasize, such as the change from “servant” to “son.” This may have been influenced by Jesus regularly addressing God as “abba,” which we might translate as “papa.”  Later creedal development would give supernatural status to Jesus’ sonship, but Jesus and his contemporaries would not have dreamed of such an interpretation. Today we speak of ourselves as “children of God,” even “daughters and sons of God” without supposing that makes us ontologically different from other people. In Jesus’ day, calling someone a “son of God” singled them out more than this. It was the sort of term they might have used about Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Mandela.

This passage from Isaiah is very clear about the mission of this servant of God.  The expected one will bring justice. This is stated four times in the first four verses.

Those who suppose that only through Jesus did the idea that God cared for all peoples become clear, need to notice that in this passage, the justice is for all nations, it is “in the earth.” The next passage, vss. 5-9, continues this theme that the mission of the servant was to all: “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 dungeons.” This passage could certainly have inspired Jesus to minister to Gentiles as well as Jews. It is quite reasonable to think that Jesus would consider his mission to be bringing justice, healing, and liberation to the world.

Another feature of the prophecy fits well at this point. It has an unusual emphasis on nonviolence. This is depicted in hyperbolic form. The servant will not break even a “bruised reed” or quench even “a dimly burning wick.” One cannot say that Jesus was as nonviolent as that. He threw out of the temple those he believed profaned it. But there is no indication he ever did bodily harm to anyone or encouraged others to do so. The now-and-then recurring effort to portray Jesus as a “Zealot” collides with this aspect of Isaiah and of Jesus.

Given the close fit of this passage in Isaiah, the choice of Psalm 29 for today’s readings is hard to understand. Perhaps its role is to be a contrast. It expresses an entirely different vision of God, the one that is expressed in insurance policies, when they exclude “acts of God” from coverage. God is seen in events that are violent and destructive. The paradigm seems to be an earthquake.

When the United States aims to inspire “awe,” it uses enormous destructive violence. It wants those it attacks to be so awe-stricken that they will give up on any quest for justice and cry “uncle,” as Reagan once said the Sandinistas should do.  This psalm seems to tell us that this is God’s way as well.  The voice of the Lord “makes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all cry, ‘Glory.’”

The history of Israel with God was complex indeed. All kinds of human emotions have been associated with God.  When the Hebrews came to understand that their God was creator of all things, they could focus on the goodness of God’s creation and see God in the life process and the growth of mentality as in the prologue to the gospel of John.

However, they could also image God as cosmic king or emperor. Empires seek to inspire fear and awe by violently overwhelming all resistance. Thinking of God as similar, they could be overawed by attributing natural catastrophes to Him. Against this latter background, the vision of God sending one who would lead the world nonviolently to justice stands out in stark relief.  Understanding this “one” in filial terms, rather than as a servant, further changes the understanding of God.

Sadly, in spite of all of this, Christians have not been free from modeling the “abba” of Jesus after imperial rulers. So many still pray to “Almighty God,” as if controlling power were the God revealed by Jesus! We can be grateful indeed that there is much in the Hebrew Bible to counter this apparently deep-seated human tendency to worship the God revealed in earthquakes.  This counter current is found in many of the Psalms as well as much of the prophetic literature, such as the passage from Isaiah assigned for today.

In the stories of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness that follow immediately on today’s passage, Jesus rejected the imperial way of “shock and awe.” His “abba” was not the God of earthquakes. His inspiration was not this psalm, but Isaiah’s prophecy.