Baptism of the Lord Year C

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

 The Spirit and Voice of God prepare a Servant for God’s people. 

The Sunday after Epiphany is traditionally celebrated as the Baptism of the Lord. 

In all the Gospels, the baptism of Jesus is the time when the Holy Spirit comes upon the Anointed One with power.  This event inaugurates Jesus’ mission of preaching, healing, and bringing hope to God’s elect people,  the poor and neglected. 

Isaiah 43:1-7. 

The prophetic reading presents a gospel in miniature for Israel.  It is this story of Israel that Jesus will re-enact in the Gospel.  

The oracle begins with Jacob/Israel in exile – exile (in Babylon) viewed as a repeat of Israel in captivity in Egypt.  The oracle insists that hopeless, defeated, abandoned Jacob/Israel is still a people.  They still have an identity, and are not just an abandoned mob.  They have an identity because God has “called them by name” – “you are mine” (verse 1, NRSV). 

This “gospel” sees the people passing “through the waters” (verse 2), valued even more highly than other nations (verses 3-4), and being gathered from all points of the compass (verses 5-6) to appear as God’s own created people. 

The reassembled, special people of God are the objects of this new divine movement in history.   

Psalm 29. 

This Psalm is used several times in the Christian year, but it is always read on the Sunday of the Baptism of the Lord, right after Epiphany. 

As the psalm of Jesus’ baptism, its most direct link to the Gospel narratives is the Voice of the Lord.  In the Gospel reading in Luke (below), the voice of the Lord comes quietly to Jesus in prayer.  Here the scripture gives – not the hidden, secret meaning, but – the spectacular heavenly significance of that Voice. 

“The voice of the Lord” (qol Yahweh) occurs seven times in verses 3 through 9.  In so far as this phrase has one meaning, it means the sound of thunder, and the psalm portrays it as wondrous, violent, and astonishing in its power over many grandiose and lofty things in the world.  However, the wild sweep of roaring and flashing across the Syrian heavens culminates in a reverent and liturgical response from the assembled people in the temple – “and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’” (verse 9, NRSV).  The worshiping community thus speaks its awed Amen! as the conclusion of the earthly sweep of God’s Voice. 

With this psalm Christian believers affirm that the mighty sweep of the heavenly powers has also spoken quietly through the dove that brings the Spirit to Jesus. 

Acts 8:14-17. 

The book of Acts, Luke’s sequel to the Gospel, often speaks of baptism and the coming of the Holy Spirit.  In this passage there is a particular relation between baptism and the charismatic Spirit. 

The Evangelist Philip had preached to some Samaritans and many of them were baptized.  Now Peter and John (“Apostles,” not just Evangelists) come down from Jerusalem to inspect this work.  They discover that the Samaritans had not received the Holy Spirit along with their baptism.  Therefore, they pray and lay their hands on the Samaritans and, behold, the new believers receive the Holy Spirit. 

This episode suggests that the laying on of apostolic hands was required for the coming of the Holy Spirit.  Such a view is supported by Paul’s laying on of his hands for the re-baptized disciples of John the Baptist at Ephesus (Acts 19:1-7).  However, Acts has exceptions to this rule.  The original Pentecost has no reference to baptism – only to the coming of the Spirit (Acts 2:1-4).  Cornelius’s household received the Holy Spirit first and only then were baptized (10:44-48). 

The patent fact is that the Spirit comes at the opportune moment.  Behind this literary device is a theological conviction:  the wind blows where it wills.  No institution or person can manipulate the Spirit of God...  (Richard Pervo, Acts, Hermeneia, 2009, p. 213.) 

For Luke, certainly, the Spirit that came upon Jesus was the same Spirit that moved and inspired the churches from Jerusalem to Rome. 

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22. 

Luke’s version of the baptism of Jesus has some distinctive features. 

First, it was apparently important to Luke to round off the story of the Baptist before even mentioning the baptism of Jesus.  We first hear John’s testimony that a mightier One is coming after him who will judge (“baptize”) with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 

Then our reading skips the conclusion of the John story (verses 18-20), where John is imprisoned for criticizing the morality of Herod Antipas, ruler of that region.  This imprisonment could have happened, of course, only after John had baptized Jesus.  Luke, however, wants to get the John story out of the way before beginning the REAL story of Jesus – which starts with the coming of the Holy Spirit and the Voice giving Jesus his true heavenly identity. 

 

Secondly, Luke’s event happens after “all the people were baptized,” after Jesus has gone apart and begun to pray.  Then – “the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove” (verses 21-22).  In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus will usually go apart and pray before any specially important action.  He is a model for later Christian leadership.  

But the main event is that the Holy Spirit – the spirit of the Lord from creation through the whole history of Israel – enters the action and will be directing the mission of Jesus the Anointed (baptized) One from here on.  And with the Spirit came the Voice:  “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased” (verse 22; compare Luke 1:32). 

Luke’s Gospel marks the importance of this turning point by inserting a great Pause here! 

Immediately after God’s Voice from heaven, we hear recited a long genealogy – 77 mostly unfamiliar and unimportant names (Luke 3:23-38).  That will certainly slow down the pace of a dramatic reading!!  It further shows that with the Temptation in chapter 4 a whole new stage of sacred history begins.  Thus, by discrete arrangement of his materials, Luke casts his own particular perspective in the saving activities of Jesus of Nazareth! 

(Readers may be interested in an overview of Luke’s Gospel, “Luke:  a Gospel for Progressives?” in the CRS Blog, “Study Bibles”: 

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