The First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of the Lord, 13 January 2018

January 13, 2019 | by Paul Nancarrow

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Isaiah 43:1-7 Psalm 29 Acts 8:14-17 Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

The month of January in 2019 gives us a rare opportunity to visit all the themes of the ancient Feast of the Epiphany. Epiphany arose in Alexandria, Egypt in the second century of the common era, largely in response to Hellenistic religious festivals clustered around the winter solstice. Various Hellenistic and Gnostic rites noted the position of the star Sirius at the solstice, or drew water from the Nile for ceremonial washings and symbols of new birth, or celebrated the birth of the wine god Dionysos. Christians noted these themes, and fashioned their own feast by gathering from the Gospels stories of star, water, and wine connected to Jesus’ birth, Jesus’ baptism, and Jesus’ “first sign.” Because Epiphany falls on a Sunday this year, the lectionary gives us these three Gospels on three successive Sundays, a rare opportunity to observe all the elements of the original ancient Epiphany.

Isaiah 43:1-7
This passage is paired with the Gospel story of Jesus’ baptism because of the line “I have called you by name, you are mine,” echoing the voice from heaven calling Jesus “my Son, the Beloved.” In its original context, the passage speaks with promise of the return of the Exiles to their home. “I will say to the north, ‘Give them up,’ and to the south, ‘Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth'” God promises; and the promise extends to all who are “formed” by God and “created for my glory.” With God’s call to return comes God’s promise of protection for the journey: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” Passing through waters and rivers in this original context is mostly a negative symbol, deep water being a standard Hebrew poetic image for distress and death; in today’s lectionary context, we might also hear it with a more positive dimension of reference to the waters of baptism and new life.

More problematic than the symbolism of deep water is the apparent ranking of different peoples in God’s favor. “Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life,” God says to Israel, and the prophet names in particular “Egypt” and “Ethiopia and Seba” as nations God is ready to give up in favor of Israel. Egypt is often an emblem of imperialistic and oppressive power in the Hebrew Scriptures, and the notion that God turns away from such power in order to elevate Israel as a community of Torah justice and peace could be attractive to us. But the abandonment of “Ethiopia and Seba” so that Israel can be rescued does not present us with the same opportunity for anti-imperialistic interpretation. The preacher will want to emphasize being called by God by name, and God’s gathering of people into a renewed community, while transcending the particular political inclusions and exclusions of Second Isaiah’s 6th century BCE.

Psalm 29
My Hebrew Scriptures professor in seminary once told us that Psalm 29 can best be understood as an original Canaanite hymn to Baal, the god of the thunderstorm, which the scribes of the Davidic court took and scratched out the name “Baal” and inserted the name “Yahweh” throughout. While Yahweh is often depicted in Hebrew poetry with attributes of the thunderstorm, Yahweh was worshiped as much more than just the genius of the storm. The storm served Yahweh’s purpose, and not the other way around. So as vivid as this nature poetry is, with its images of oak trees writhing and cedar trees breaking, Lebanon skipping and Mt Hermon leaping like young bulls, flames of fire splitting and thunder-echoes rolling across the waters – as vivid as these images are, they are not the central concern of the poem. The central concern is that the “The Lord sits enthroned above the flood,” the Lord is the source and origin of these phenomena but is not identified with or exhausted by these phenomena. The thunderstorm is ambiguous in that it can be dreadfully destructive, but it also brings rain that gives life to crops and pastures. People’s responses to the thunderstorm can be ambiguous, terrified by its destructive power, but also rejoicing in the rain it brings. But throughout this change and ambiguity, God remains constant: God’s will for peace, for shared well-being among people of many interlocking communities, does not waver, whatever the appearance of sky or storm. As impressive as the thunderstorm is, the main truth to which it bears witness is that “The Lord shall give strength to his people; the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace.” A preacher might ask congregants to consider what constant purpose of God for peace is apparent to them in the midst of their own changeable phenomena.

The psalm is chosen for this day also for its imagery of the “voice of the Lord” coming from the heavens, in connection with the baptism of Jesus below.

Acts 8:14-17
This very brief incident from the first spread of the Gospel outward from Jerusalem into Samaria, so much less dramatic than the stories of Philip and Simon the Magician that bracket it, is paired with Luke’s version of the baptism of Jesus in order to highlight the connection between prayer and the gift of the Holy Spirit, to which baptism is a necessary but insufficient condition. The believers in Samaria had indeed been baptized “in the name of the Lord Jesus,” but the power of that baptism to change their lives and give them strength to do as Jesus does and love as Jesus loves does not come to them until prayer (and the prayer-gesture of laying on of hands) brings the gift of the Spirit. Thus this passage serves as a kind of illustration-after-the-fact of the meaning of Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism, to which we turn below.

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Some Gnostic groups in Hellenistic Alexandria regarded the winter solstice as the birth of the Aion, the new Age, and they ritualized this revitalization of time with ceremonies of drawing water from the Nile and washing with it. It was not a large leap for Christians in Alexandria to connect this with the baptism of Jesus, and the baptism became one of the original Epiphany themes. This theme was eventually eclipsed in the Western Church by the story of the Magi; it was restored to attention in liturgical revisions of the 1970s, when lectionaries appointed Gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism to the Sunday after the Epiphany. Lectionary Year C is the Year of Luke, so on this Sunday after Epiphany it is Luke’s account of the baptism that we read.

Luke’s account is the briefest and most enigmatic of the Synoptic baptism stories. (The Fourth Gospel records no baptism of Jesus, but does include John the Baptist testifying to seeing the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus.) It is clear that early Christians felt some embarrassment that Jesus was said to have received baptism from John, as it seemed to make Jesus subservient to John, and put early Christians in direct competition with the sect of Mandeans, who kept the traditions of John. (An echo of this competition is preserved in Acts 19:3-4, when Paul on his travels encounters a small group who had been baptized in John’s baptism but who had never heard of the Holy Spirit.) Matthew deals with this embarrassment by making John subservient to Jesus, wishing instead to be baptized by Jesus, until Jesus persuades him to proceed in order “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Luke goes a step further by effectively removing John from the entire incident. Our assigned pericope gives us a bit of John’s preaching, emphasizing the promise that the One to Come will baptize with the Holy Spirit. But it does not record the moment when John baptizes Jesus. Instead, Luke picks up the story “when all the people were baptized,” Jesus among them, and Jesus on his own is “praying.” It is during Jesus’ prayer, not John’s baptism, that “the heaven was opened” for the theophany of the Spirit.

So while Luke seems to be at pains to minimize the fact of the baptism, he clearly wants the effect of the baptism, the linking of prayer and the gift of the Holy Spirit, to come to the forefront of readers’ minds. The most important feature of the incident for Luke is not the washing with water but the anointing with the Holy Spirit, as he explains again in Acts 10:38, when Peter is preaching to the household of Cornelius, that “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” so that he “went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil.” Moreover, this work of the Holy Spirit in Jesus is replicated in followers of Jesus when they pray like Jesus, as happened to the Apostles at Pentecost and to the Samaritans in the Acts 8 passage above. It is the gift of the Spirit that makes baptism important here.

A preacher might emphasize baptism today as anointing with the Spirit to go about doing good and healing, after the example of Jesus. Just as the heavenly voice declaring sonship to Jesus gave Jesus divine aims to justice and love that he embodied in his deeds, so also now the love of God declared to us in Word and Sacrament gives us divine aims to right-relationships and shared well-being with persons and communities around us. Whatever the facts of our baptisms, it is this effect of baptism we are called to notice today.

The Rev. Paul Nancarrow, Ph.D. is rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Staunton, Virginia. His studies have focused on process-relational interpretations of liturgy, and especially on the co-acting of divine action and human action in sacramental work and worship. He serves as Canon Theologian for the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia, and has taught Theology for deacons’ ordination training in Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia. He enjoys pondering God in Creation from the saddle of his bicycle on the backroads of the Shenandoah Valley.