- Genesis 1:1-5 & Psalm 29
- Acts 19:1-7
- Mark 1:4-11
The focus during this season that comes between Christmas and Lent is on the revelation (epiphany) of God and especially on Jesus as the quintessential epiphany of the divine within the Christian tradition.
The lections during this period will follow two fixed series (one from Paul's letters to the Corinthians and the other from the Gospel according to Mark), while the readings from the Hebrew Bible are chosen to complement the texts from the New Testament:
1. The waters of Creation (Baptism of Jesus)
2. The call of Samuel (Come and see this Messiah ...)8. Elijah ascends into heaven (Jesus is transfigured with Moses and Elijah)
3. Jonah the reluctant prophet of repentance (Jesus calls Simon and Andrew)
4. A prophet like Moses (Jesus in the Capernaum synagogue)
5. The incomparable God (Jesus healing in Galilee)
6. Naaman the leper (Jesus heals a leper)
7. The God who forgive sins (Jesus heals/forgives the paralysed man)
The first Sunday after Epiphany is observed as the Baptism of Jesus. John Beverley Butcher reminds us of the significance of this event in Jesus' life when he describes it as "the primary spiritual event in the life of Jesus." Butcher continues:
According to Luke 3:23, Jesus was about thirty when he went to hear John preach. What might there have been in John's message that prompted Jesus to ask for baptism? And what might have he experienced during his baptism and the forty days in the wilderness that reportedly followed? Might the baptism in the Jordan and the time in the desert comprise a story illustrating his enlightenment? The evidence is clear that something profound happened within Jesus which provided direction and energy for a ministry of teaching and healing. Without Jesus' baptism, there might have been no ministry, no getting into trouble with the authorities, no crucifixion, no resurrection experiences, no church, no Christian religion, and no church history! The course of human civilization would have gone quite differently. (An Uncommon Lectionary, p. 7)
First Reading: The waters of creation
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. (Genesis 1:1-5 NRSV)
The Sea is an ambivalent symbol within the biblical texts: sometimes a source of evil and the home of frightening monsters (for example, Psalm 74; Daniel 7; Revelation 13), a power that is rebuked by God and held at bay so human life can flourish; and sometimes the site of new beginnings as God calms the waves, imposes order on the sea and rescues his beloved from the powers that would hold them back from the blessings of Shalom.
In the ancient poem that opens the Bible, and especially in its opening scene, the waters of the deep become the site of God's creative action. Once (forever?) formless and dark, the primeval waters will become the mother of all life as God the midwife draws out the world as we know it.
Eternal silence is broken with the divine edict to create light. The newly differeniated realities of light and darkness are named (itself a significance act in the biblical narratives), but only the light is declared to be good (Hebrew: tov).
As the poet tells the story, this is Day One. God has begun the work of creation, naming and blessing.
Second Reading: Baptists at Ephesus
While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. He said to them, "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?" They replied, "No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit." Then he said, "Into what then were you baptized?" They answered, "Into John’s baptism." Paul said, "John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus." On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied— altogether there were about twelve of them. (Acts 19:1-7 NRSV)
This story from the Acts of the Apostles makes an unusual second reading for the Baptism of the Lord. It has nothing to do with the baptism of Jesus by John, but it does share a connection with John and the (non-Christian or, better, pre-Christian) baptism rite which he practised. This snippet of tradition used by the author of Luke-Acts (writing, I suggest, around 115/120 CE) suggests a number of questions about what "disciple"may have meant to Luke's Christian audience in the early decades of the second century, but they are not relevant to this week's theme.
What we have here is a text from about a century after the event that distinguishes John's baptism from Christian baptism and, in the process, affirms that the latter is less about repentance/anticipation than it is about a personal religious experience in which the signs of the Spirit's presence validated the Christian identity of the candidates.
Neither the practice of John nor the understanding of Luke seem to cohere with baptism as it is practised today. Baptism has been domesticated in the western Christian tradition, and has become little more than a naming ceremony for families with minimal links to intentional Christian practice. One exception to this decline is the way that the renewal of baptismal vows is given fresh emphasis in the catechumate processes for adults wishing to rediscover and reaffirm their Christian character.
Gospel: The baptism of Jesus
While they handle it differently, each of the NT gospels treats the baptism of Jesus as a key event in his public ministry.
This agreement is important for chronology as well as theology. By associating Jesus with the time of John the Baptizer (killed ca. 28 CE), the early Christian tradition fixes the time of Jesus' own ministry to the late 20s as well. The Jewish historian Josephus writes of John's murder by Herod Antipas, giving us independent evidence of John's activities:
 Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod's suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God's displeasure to him. [Antiquities, 18.116-19]
- More on Josephus
Josephus' account lets us see how an aristocratic Jew, close to the Roman emperor, described John's impact on the Jewish people in the late 20s. Interestingly, the gospels agree that Jesus was himself part of a wider popular response to the preaching of John. This raises the theological question of what Jesus' baptism by John means for our understanding of Jesus.
- See also 213 John the Baptist
Before giving it serious thought, we may be inclined to think that Jesus always had a strong inner sense of destiny as God's Messiah and Son. But the gospels all preserve a tradition that Jesus discovered his calling after being drawn into the circle of people around John. They are somewhat embarrassed by that unwelcome memory, and we can see them engaging in "theological damage control" (as Crossan calls it). But the inevitable conclusion seems to be that Jesus was a disciple of John for at least a period of time before the moment of enlightenment that we know as the baptism.
In Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography (2000), Bruce Chilton went further than most scholars are prepared to go when he proposed that John was engaged in an early form of kabbalah, Jewish mystical practice. Chilton suggests that Jesus found in the circle of John's followers an acceptance that had been denied him in Nazareth growing up as a mamzer (someone whose irregular birth circumstances result in their exclusion from full participation in the life of the community).
Scholars who are not prepared to follow Chilton's specific proposals may still entertain the question of whether the baptism of Jesus was actually a powerful religious experience that became a turning point in his life. Was it, as Butcher suggests in the citation above, the primary spiritual event in Jesus' life? (And if we think it was not, then what kinds of spiritual events do we think played a part in shaping Jesus?)
When we acknowledge that Jesus' sense of self and of God was shaped by his Jewish religious community, and did not drop from heaven insulated in shrink-wrap, it makes sense to explore the significance of his participation in John's baptism movement. David Flusser, a Jewish scholar who devoted much of his professional life to Jesus research, was able to speak of the baptism of Jesus as follows:
We can well imagine the holy excitement of that crowd who had listened to the words of the Baptist. Having confessed their sins and awaiting the gift of the Holy Spirit to cleanse their souls from all the filth of sin, they plunged their bodies into the cleansing water of the river. Can it be that none of them would have had a special pneumatic-ecstatic experience in that hour when the Spirit of God touched them? (p. 40)
... many scholars are right in thinking that in the original account, the heavenly voice announced to Jesus, "Behold, 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" (Isaiah 42:1). This form is probably the original, for the reason that the prophetic word fits the situation. (p. 41)
The gift of the Holy Spirit assumed a significance for Jesus that was different than for others who were baptized by John. Heavenly voices were not an uncommon phenomenon among the Jews of those days, and frequently those voices were heard to utter verses from scripture. Endowment with the Holy Spirit, accompanied by an ecstatic experience, was apparently something that happened to others who were baptized in John's presence in the Jordan. (p. 42)
If, however, the heavenly voice intoned the words of Isaiah, Jesus must have understood that he was being set apart as the servant of God, the Chosen One. For him, the gift of the Holy Spirit, which was part of John's baptism, held another special significance that was to become decisive for his future. None of the designations Son, Servant or Chosen One were exclusively messianic titles--the last two could also denote the special status of the prophetic office. By these titles, Jesus learned that he was now called, chosen, set apart. Nothing we have learned casts any doubt upon the historicity of Jesus' experience at his baptism in the Jordan. (p. 42)
The baptism of Jesus may be an occasion to recapture the insight that Jesus was a man of the Spirit, a holy person. We may wish to use many other labels for him, but this one seems important to rediscover. While we have numerous theological definitions to impose upon this person, his primary character was to be a God person. Likewise, underneath all our theological and cultural baggage lies our primary calling to be Spirit people; participants in the dance of God, not simply technically competent observers.
- More on Jesus as a Spirit person [Marcus Borg]
- 058 John Baptizes Jesus - (1) Gos. Heb. 2; (2a) Mark 1:9-11 = Matt 3:13-17 = Luke 3:21-22; (2b) GNaz. 2; (2c) GEbi. 4; (2d) John 1:32-34; (2e) Ign. Smyrn. 1:1c; (3) Ign. Eph. 18:2d.
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt's web site
Other recommended sites include:
See the following sites for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre: