Year A — The Baptism of the Lord (First Sunday After Epiphany)

Commentary for January 9, 2011

Click here for today’s readings

Isaiah 42:1-9

Isaiah’s text ties directly to the gospel reading concerning Jesus’ baptism. Perhaps we have here an early example of the way the Church read the story of Christ in the scriptures of Judaism. Matthew will certainly echo the words of the prophet in 42:1 in his own account of John’s baptism of Jesus. Jesus is “chosen” by God; the Spirit of God comes to rest on him. 

Each of these phrases serves to tie Christ to the ministry described by Isaiah. Since God has chosen Jesus as not only God’s servant, but…indeed…God’s own Beloved Son, then God will certainly perform the acts of justice and righteousness described by Isaiah through him. 

A note for this Baptism Sunday: the practice of naming a child at baptism is an ancient custom, observed by many to this day (and ignored or only faintly recognized by perhaps as many others! Read an extended treatment on the subject from the Catholic Encyclopedia here.)

One other connection of this passage to the gospel is the “naming” of Jesus as the Beloved by God, an act which ties Jesus to the name of God — which is noted here in Isaiah 42:8: I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols.” The fact that God says, “I am doing new things…” is significant for this naming of Jesus, as well as for the ministry that is inaugurated at his baptism.

What does it mean for us to receive the “new name” of God at our baptisms?

Psalm 29

Part of the power of this psalm for worship is the repeated use of the covenant name, the LORD, in verse after verse. This complements the emphasis on the name of God in the passage from Isaiah. By the sheer force of the repetition, and the descriptions of the power associated with the LORD’s name in Psalm 29, we not only understand some of the majesty of the NAME…we also feel it!

Note words such as “thunders, breaks, flashes, shakes, whirl, strips,” and” flood.” Interpretive reading? Wish I had one written — check back later, maybe we can add it!

Acts 10:34-43

This excerpt from a message by Peter outlines for us the beginning of Jesus’ ministry after his baptism, summarizes the gospel of his death, burial and resurrection, and affirms the fact that God has ordained Jesus for his role as judge of all who live and die. Peter also proclaims the forgiveness of sins through Jesus to “all who believe in him.”

Baptism is such an excellent time to proclaim this good news. It is perhaps the ultimate “evangelistic” moment; there’s news here, folks, and it’s all good!

Matthew 3:13-17

As a Star Trek fan since the inception of the original series (in 1966, for crying out loud!) — I came to appreciate the role of Jean Luc Picard played by Patrick Stewart in the follow-up production, Star Trek: The Next Generation. I never got tired of hearing Picard say, after strategizing with his officers and making yet another daring plan for conquering the challenge of the week: “Make it so!”

When the captain said, “Make it so,” everyone knew the decision had been made. There was really no further debating at that point; all that was left was action — to do as the leader had commanded. This is what makes good military discipline (and pretty good TV drama, as well.)

I think of these things every time I read John’s encounter with Jesus just before Christ’s baptism. There is a bit of a discussion between the officers, so to speak. John thinks that maybe there’s a better way to accomplish what Jesus is trying to do. He dutifully — and quite sincerely, I believe — offers an alternate plan of action.

But Jesus, the captain of this salvation ship, says, “No, I think the right thing to do is to go ahead as planned: you will baptize me, John. Make it so.”

And, that is that. John does as Jesus commands. And then there’s the really cool display from heaven…the heavens open, the Spirit flies down like a dove and lights on him. And Jesus is on his way as the Savior of the world and the Beloved Son of God. Better than a TV script, though everything will take a good deal more than an hour to wrap up.

Baptism is essentially a step of obedience. It brings all sorts of openings for the working of God in our lives. But the power of God for salvation…so tangibly present in the Word made flesh…is always a response of faithful obedience to the love and call of God.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

On the Baptism of Jesus

One Sunday years ago, a woman came to see me in my office after service. She said, “Pastor, I have a grandson named Jimmy. You’ve never met him. He’s 32. He ran away from home at 13. He’s led a bad life. He’s come to stay with me now. He’s dying. He has a brain tumor and there’s nothing they can do. He wanted to know if you would come and talk to him.” 

I went that afternoon. She took me into the living room, introduced me to Jimmy and left us alone.

He looked like an emaciated Hell’s Angel; jeans, black tee-shirt, leather jacket, dirty ball cap perched on his chemo-bald head. “A little boy trying to act tough,” I thought.

He wanted to “get right with God” before he died, he said. He was pulling in every spiritual tradition he could think of. He wanted to make confession and get absolution like a Catholic; get saved and baptized by immersion like a Baptist, and get the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues like a Pentecostal.

I told him I would do the best I could; the confession/absolution and the baptism I was sure I could do, the Spirit thing was up to God. I guess when you’re staring death in the face, you don’t want to leave any salvific stone unturned.

He started talking and talked for a couple of hours. His story was hard for me to hear; I never worked so hard at listening in my life. His sins were real, not imagined; his guilt was deserved, not imposed. There was nothing exciting or interesting or titillating about his sins; they were the ordinary products of lust and desire and a real disregard for the welfare or rights of others. Here was the real character: a sinner!

And it was not humanly easy for me to pronounce forgiveness on his wasted life. He had no time for a true amendment of his life, no time to make restitution or do penance, no time for me to see if his change of heart was genuine. There was no point in corrective therapy, no time for behavior adjustment plans, no purpose to be served in berating him.

There was only time for the working of the Gospel: for repentance and forgiveness, for baptism and grace, for death and the promise of life.

So, I stifled my impulse toward either judgment or comfort and followed the ritual for Individual Confession and Forgiveness. I heard his confession, I decided it was genuine, I pronounced forgiveness. And we set a time and place for his baptism: the next day at 1:00 PM, in his uncle’s above-ground swimming pool.

When I drove up the next day, the “community of faith” had already gathered. Jimmy’s relatives were standing on one side of the pool: stout, plain, sturdy, church-going people. Jimmy’s friends were on the other side: loud, brassy, somewhat sleazy bikers and carnies of questionable taste and character. They had all come together to see Jimmy get baptized.

I went into the water first, Jimmy followed. I said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” and dunked him under the water. He came us sputtering and cussing and said “That water’s cold.” And, on impulse, I said, “Oops, looks like that one didn’t take,” and dunked him again, much to the delight of all around. The second time he came up, he grinned and held his tongue, hugged me, and then pulled me under. It was a good baptism.

Today we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord.

People often ask, “Why did Jesus need to be baptized? John preached a baptism for repentance. Jesus was sinless, what did he have to repent of? He wasn’t like Jimmy, in need of being washed clean of his sins.” It is a good question.

Some people answer it by talking about the other things baptism is and does. It was Jesus’ ordination to ministry. It was his anointing as the Savior. It was the bestowal of the Holy Spirit. Yes, it was all those things, but it seems to me that those answers avoid the question rather than answer it.

John’s Baptism was a baptism of repentance and our text shows that John was the first to ask the obvious question. Verse 14: “Do you come to me (for baptism?)” In verse 15 Jesus gives his answer: it is necessary for me “to fulfill all righteousness.” To fulfill all righteousness means “to do all things necessary to fulfill my calling from God.”

Jesus was called and sent of God to be the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One, the Savior of the world. To do that, Jesus had to “take on the sins of the world.” When Jesus stepped into the river Jordan to be baptized by John, he began the process of taking on the sins of the world, a process that was completed on the cross. 

As the Nicene Creed says, he came down from heaven “for us and for our salvation.” The beginning and end of Jesus’ ministry was the taking on of the sins of the world, in his baptism and on the cross.

When Jesus was baptized, he stepped into the water covered with sin — the sins of the world, my sins, your sins, Jimmy’s sins.

In the Lutheran Funeral Liturgy there is a “Thanksgiving for Baptism.” This is how it reads:
When we were baptized in Christ Jesus, we were baptized into his death. We were buried with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father; we too might live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

In Christ’s Baptism he was baptized into our sins, just as we were baptized into his death. And as he was raised from the grave, we too have been released from sin and death. That day in the swimming pool, Jesus took on the many, many sins of Jimmy; and at the same time, Jimmy took on new life in Christ.

I believe this is most certainly true. So much so that, two weeks later at Jimmy’s funeral, I was confident in proclaiming his presence with Christ in Paradise. 

It may well be that if Jimmy’s not there, then the Gospel’s not true, and none of us has any hope. But on this day, I choose to believe in the God who spoke at Christ’s baptism: “This is my Son, my Beloved, and in him I am well pleased.”

Amen and Amen.

6 thoughts on “Year A — The Baptism of the Lord (First Sunday After Epiphany)

  1. I'm preaching this week and will be focusing on the connection of Jesus' baptism to the Isaiah passage, as John suggests. The idea of Jesus being baptized into our sin is a new one for me. It makes sense to me in some ways, but in other ways I'm not sure whether it is helpful. Hmmm, going to have to keep thinking about that one. Thanks, Delmer, for the food for thought.

  2. "Ellen, thank you for your feedback. I was thinking about Luther's comments that on the cross a divine exchange, a holy swap, took place; Jesus there took on our sin and we took on his righteousness. It seems to me that a similar thing takes place in baptism. I was also thinking about N.T. Wright, "But if he, Jesus, is to do all this, this is how he must do it; by humbly identifying himself with God's people, by taking their place, sharing their penitence, living their life and ultimately dying their death."

  3. I remember few years ago right out of seminary I was attending a pericope study group and we were talking about atonement theory. And the leader of the group, a man who had been many years in ministry, after some of my input to the conversation stands up and screams at me, you believe in a full theory of atonement, how can you be so stupid?! Who doesn’t get that question about Jesus being baptized and sin. The answer has to be somewhere in the question: how can Jesus know the human experience without somehow making the connection with human sin. I think you are making a realistic connection between my human experience and that with Jesus if in the waters of baptism his ministry of reconciliation begins, his connection with my sin and the sin of the whole world begins. As they say “it will preach.” But of course you have already done that.

  4. Pingback: Year A: The Baptism of the Lord (January 12, 2014) | The Lectionary Lab

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