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Introduction To The Scripture For The First Sunday After Epiphany - Year C
The Baptism of Our Lord
Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
The First Sunday After Epiphany - The Baptism of Our Lord - Year C

 
Isaiah 43:1-7       The passage is the concluding part of a longer poem
beginning in 42:5.  The unknown prophet of Israel's Babylonian exile
authored this poetic promise of the return of the exiles to their homeland.
Like all prophets, he speaks for God, assuring those dwelling in foreign
lands that, in spite of their great difficulties, they would be brought
home.  The basis for this beautifully expressed faith is God's ancient
covenant with Israel as God's chosen people 

     
Psalm 29            This psalm finds more than evidence of God's
omnipotence in a thunderstorm, which it describes very vividly.  The God
who can work such wonders can guarantee the people of God strength and
peace, for the God of the nature is also the God of history.


Acts 8:14-17        The Philip of this story is not one of the apostles,
but an evangelist, one of several Greek-speaking Christians appointed to
help the apostles.(Acts 6:1-6)  He had been forced to flee from Jerusalem
after the death of his fellow evangelist, Stephen.  

This brief note points to a subtle development in the early church's
understanding of baptism and the special role of the apostles.  For some
reason, baptism by Philip "in the name of Jesus" had not been sufficient to
bring upon some new converts the blessing of the Spirit. 


Luke 3:15-17,21-22  Luke gives a much briefer account of Jesus' baptism
than the other gospels.  It seems little more than an ending to his
narrative about the ministry of John the Baptist.  The essential details
are the same, however: the actual baptism, the descent of the Spirit as a
dove, and the divine blessing.

************

AN INTRODUCTION:  Understood from the Christian point of view, the theme of
all these lessons for the First Sunday after Epiphany can be interpreted as
the activities of God who is Spirit as the Creator and Redeemer of Israel
as God's people, and who has come again to recreate the world in Jesus
Christ through the action of the Holy Spirit in ordinary men and women.

In Isaiah 43:1-7 Deutero-Isaiah emphasizes the special covenant faith of
Israel as the people of God who would be brought home from many foreign
lands so that they could fulfill God's redemptive purpose.  Revelation,
creation and redemption form the triple intent of God's activity in
Israel's history.  Redemption is costly, however, as v.4 expresses the true
measure of Israel's value to God.  There is nothing that God will not give
to redeem God's covenanted people.

In a strange insertion in the narrative about the work of Philip the
evangelist, the lesson from Acts 8:14-17 brings out the special
significance of apostolic blessing by Peter with the resultant gift of the
Spirit in contrast to a simple evangelical baptism by Philip.  Some
scholars consider the whole of chapter 8 to be a composite interpolation of
several brief pericopes highlighting Peter's episcopal function intended to
show that Peter as well as Paul carried out a ministry beyond Jerusalem. 
On the other hand, throughout the chapter the Spirit is depicted as the
initiator and guardian of the church's ministry.

Or was this a reverse assignation to the apostolic age of the later
episcopal function in baptism as practiced in the late 1st and 2nd
centuries?  And why is Samaria the locus of all these incidents?  Was this
also an attempt to deal with a known Gnostic heresy in Samaria attributed
to Simon Magus about which both Justin Martyr (c.100-165) and Irenaeus
(c.140-202) referred?

The gospel lesson focuses attention once again on the action of the Holy
Spirit, first verbalized by John, then further evidenced in the descent of
the symbolic dove and the sound of the divine voice blessing the newly
baptized Jesus.  John's prophecy that Jesus would "baptize with the Holy
Spirit" has implications of judgment.  This would  not be lost on Luke's
Gentile audience who would have had to make a clear and often costly
decision to accept Christian baptism.  The descent of the Spirit and divine
blessing on Jesus after his baptism would also reassure them of the real,
spiritual benefits of their decision.

With so much attention being given these days to our struggle with
Christology, it may yield fruitful insights to concentrate for a time on
Pneumatology, the doctrine of the Spirit. 

************

ISAIAH 43:1-7   This passage forms the concluding part of a longer poem
beginning in 42:5.  The unknown prophet of Israel's Babylonian exile,
called Deutero or Second Isaiah, authored this poetic promise of the return
of the exiles to their homeland in Judea.  Like all prophets, he spoke for
Yahweh, assuring those dwelling in foreign lands that, despite of their
great difficulties, they would be brought home.  The basis for this
beautifully expressed faith was Yahweh's ancient covenant with Israel as
Yahweh's chosen people.  No other theme so dominated the Hebrew
understanding of the countless events of their long experience as a much
oppressed people.

This part of the poem emphasized the intervention of Yahweh so that Israel
could fulfill its divinely ordained redemptive purpose.  Revelation,
creation and redemption formed the triple intent of Yahweh's activity in
Israel's history, the one closely following on the other.  Redemption was
costly, however.  Vs.4 expressed the true measure of Israel's value.  Other
nations will be given in return for Israel, i.e. it would be ransomed. 

The element of ransom had always been present in the Hebrew concept of
redemption.  In vss. 3-4, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sheba were the price paid for
Israel's freedom.  This may well reflect the volatile period during which
many Jews did return from exile in Babylon.  The dominant Babylonian empire
had fallen to Cyrus, king of Persia, in 539 BCE.  After the death of Cyrus
(c. 530 BCE) his successor, Cambyses, invaded Egypt, never to return home.
Rival usurpers vied for control of the empire until Darius emerged
triumphant is 522 BCE.  During this period, the returning Jews lived a very
perilous existence as they struggled to reclaim independence and rebuild
their temple under the governor, Zerubbabel, a sion of the house of David.
With little or no national security, Israel's future was in doubt.  The
prophet may well have expected such turbulent times as inevitable or the
passage may have been adapted after the fact to include these references. 

On the other hand, giving other nations or people in exchange for Israel's
freedom does seem strange to our modern view of universal freedom.  Yet in
his New Year's Day analysis and projection of American foreign policy,
Secretary of State Colin Powell made just such an implication as quoted in
the New York Times.  From this point of view, the price of freedom today
means extending the military, economic and political power of the USA to
every continent and especially the Middle East.  Is this the geopolitical
reality of our time as it was in the 6th century BCE?

The repeated imperative, "Do not fear," (vss.1,5) provided encouragement
for Israel.  In both instances, a reassuring proclamation followed the
command.  In vss.1-2, Yahweh claimed Israel as a sacred possession and
promised to accompany them through deep waters and consuming fires.  These
images may be reminiscent of dangers encountered in the Exodus although the
long journey from Babylon to Judea did involved crossing great rivers,
passing through burning-hot desert, and possibly also settled areas where
they would have to fight their way onward.  In vss.5-7, Yahweh promised to
be present with them as the exiles made their way home to Judea.

The 18th century hymn, "How firm a foundation," drew extensively on these
same images.  The unknown author of that hymn, however, made reference to
the grace of God in Jesus Christ as the source of reassurance rather the
covenant of Yahweh with Israel as this prophecy had done.


PSALM 29   This psalm begins with evidence of God's omnipotence in a
thunderstorm, which it describes very vividly.  Before that, however, there
is a description of angelic beings in a heavenly temple robed as
ministering priests in a sacred procession summoned to praise Yahweh (vss
1-2). 

Then the psalmist hears the voice of Yahweh as the roll of approaching
thunder.  Such thunderstorms are not uncommon in Palestine.  During the
autumn and spring, cold fronts do sweep in from the northwest to break over
the mountains of Lebanon and bring much needed rain to the whole of Israel,
especially Galilee and the coastal plain along the Mediterranean Sea.  With
no knowledge of modern meteorology, the psalmist could only see the storm's
effects as lightning flashed and thunder crashed overhead.  His vivid
description in vss.5-9 conveys an unsurpassed realism for anyone who has
ever been out in a violent storm such as this.

Vs.10 refers to the traditional cosmology of the Bible where rain came from
the heavenly ocean or flood above the clouds (cf. Gen 7:11; Ps 104:3).
Yahweh's throne was situated above the ocean from which Yahweh could
command the loosing or restraining of its waters.

This vision of Yahweh in command of a mighty storm reminds the psalmist
that the One who can work such natural wonders can guarantee Israel
strength and peace, for the Yahweh who controls nature is also the One who
controls history.


ACTS 8:14-17   The Philip of the passage immediately preceding this story
is not one of the apostles, but a deacon with particular gifts.  He was one
of several Greek-speaking Christians appointed to help the apostles. (Acts
6:1-6) He had been forced to flee from Jerusalem after the death of his
fellow deacon, Stephen.  Like Stephen, he appears to have preached and
baptized first in Samaria with some startling results.  Despite having
received the apostolic laying on of hands, the apostolic community in
Jerusalem do not seem to have been so sure of his effectiveness.  So they
sent Peter and John to investigate and improve upon the baptism Philip had
offered those who believed.

There is much that is troubling about this pericope.  Why was Philip's
ministry insufficient?  Was Philip regarded as little more than a magician,
by both the Samaritans and the apostles?  Did his miracles (vss.6-7)
attract so much attention that the gospel message did not get through to
the Samaritans?  Did the conversion of Simon the magician detract too much
from Philip's preaching?  If Philip, Stephen and the other deacons had been
chosen because they were "full of faith and the Holy Spirit," how could the
Spirit be under the control of the apostles alone? 

Does this not reflect an ecclesiology of a later period when apostolic
confirmation had become the prerogative of the episcopacy?  Some scholars
argue that Acts - or portions of it - date from the early 2nd century and
that this passage may be one of those excerpts.  This reading, along with
9:32-11:18 and 12:1-23, presents Peter as having the same kind of mission
to the Gentiles as did Paul.  Does this point to a certain rivalry within
the community for which Acts was written or redacted from earlier
documents?

This brief note points to a subtle development in the early church's
understanding of baptism and the special role of the apostles.  In many
respects the lectionary misleads the reader from the intent of the whole
narrative of Philip's ministry and the apostle's confrontation with Simon
(8:4-25).  "Simony" was known to have been a problem within the church at
certain times.

The action by the apostles extends the practice of baptism to include the
laying on of hands.  It may be that this was a unique development by the
apostolic church.  After all, John the Baptist had practiced baptism for
the repentant as had Judaism for proselytes converted from other
traditions.  But these were acts of moral purification.  The unique aspect
of Christian baptism was that by this sacramental act the gift of the Holy
Spirit came upon the believers; they were en-Christ-ed, i.e. christened. 
On the other hand, Paul makes no mention at all of the laying on of hands
as part of baptism.  The practice may well be a later development, although
laying on of hands was common in OT blessings and certain sacrificial
rites.  It was also used for healing in many gospel pericopes.

However, several OT references do relate purification by water to the gift
of a new spirit ( e.g. Ezek 36:25-26; Ps 51)  It was not any power inherent
in the water, but the action of God's Spirit which initiated new life.
Baptism not only symbolized a new way of life, but admission to a new
community, as it did in the Essenes who may have composed the Dead Sea
Scrolls discovered at Qumran.  In Acts, the apostolic church acknowledged
that by baptism God added new members to its fellowship .  But on some
occasions the gift of the Spirit preceded the act of baptism (e.g. Acts
2:4,41; 10:44-48). 

The only satisfactory conclusion is that the apostolic church learned
through practice what baptism is and what it meant.  1 Peter 3:18-22
appears to present a summary of what baptism ultimately came to mean to the
early church and how this related to history, worship and mission of
Israel.  It symbolized the dramatic transformation of each person's life
and his or her inclusion in a new community of faith that bridged the gulf
of human mortality.  This new life in a new community experienced
fellowship with God and Jesus Christ empowered by the Spirit.


LUKE 3:15-17,21-22   Luke gives a much briefer account of Jesus' baptism
than the other gospels.  It seems little more than an ending to his
narrative about the ministry of John the Baptist.  The essential details
are the same, however, if seemingly perfunctory.  Luke records the actual
baptism, the descent of the Spirit as a dove, and the divine blessing.
There are, however, some significant aspects to this brief narrative.

As noted previously, baptism was common in the Jewish tradition; but not
for all people.  Ritual bathing had great symbolic meaning for priests,
Levites and Pharisees.

Considering the shortage of water in Palestine, ritual bathing by the
common people must have been regarded as a significantly holy act. 
However, this was not regarded in the same light as proselytes receiving
baptism marking the cleansing of their pagan ways and acceptance into the
covenant community.  John did preach repentance of sins and baptized those
who responded, thereby acknowledging their sinfulness and being immersed in
water as a sign of their cleansing.  It would appear that Jesus also felt
the need to be cleansed, he whom the whole NT testifies as having no sin or
ever being alienated from God.

Two other possibilities exist: he had reached the point in his own
spiritual growth where he was acutely aware of his filial relationship to
God and of his divinely appointed mission.  Consequently, he felt the need
to identify himself with all the people whom he intended to bring into a
similar intimate fellowship with God.  His messianic role had become that
of a mediator.  In other words, this one act symbolized his solidarity with
all humanity and also his mission.

Luke captured the filial and mediatorial elements of Jesus' baptism in the
tightly worded sentences of vss.21-22.  Behind this profound experience lay
long years of personal development, of growing insight into the scriptures
of his Jewish tradition and their application to his own life.  The moment
had come for him commit himself, to move out into a wider community than
his carpenter shop in the small village of Nazareth.  Henceforth he would
make known to whomsoever would listen what was involved in a life lived
totally within the reign of God's love, to live in such a way that people
would see that Israel's messianic promise could only be fulfilled in such a
totally committed life. 

Jesus' baptizing kinsman provided the opportunity for taking action to
fulfil this commitment.  The vision of the dove symbolized the gift of the
Holy Spirit, something he alone experienced in Luke's account.  Did Luke
describe it this way, perhaps, to identify Jesus' absolute divinity in a
manner corresponding to the narrative of his conception?  The words from
heaven gave final, divine approval to the course he had chosen as a human.
Was he also aware at this time what the cost would be?  Had he yet come to
grips with the implications of being the Servant of Yahweh in the mold of
Isaiah 53?

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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