Commentary for Baptism of Our Lord
Commentary for The Baptism of Our Lord 10 January
Texts for this week are Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, and Mark 1:4-11Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, and Mark 1:4-11
By Father Doug Woods
Genesis 1:1-5. One of the things which really blows my mind is photos taken by the Hubble Telescope. We know that many of the stars are very far away. And if they’re that far away, space must be very big. The earth’s sun is a comparatively small star. Other stars are much bigger, and yet from where we are, they’re just little pinpoints in the night sky. What sort of power would it have taken to create all of that?
I’m in no position to give an objectively verifiable answer that question, but what I do come away with is massive size and massive power, regardless of whether I explain all of this via a “big bang” or Creation. For me, an important question is how did the big bang happen? As far as I know, there’s no proof either way, but I can’t believe that it's all just a coincidence, so, I believe that God did it.
Our text from Genesis is the well-known passage about the very beginning of Creation. It introduces three important factors: 1) water – dark, formless, rebellious, and potentially destructive; 2) wind; and 3) God, the Creator.
Water. We know that a storm on a fresh-water lake can be very powerful, potentially deadly. Depending on how big and deep the lake is, the wind can whip up waves big enough that even an ocean-going ship can be threatened by it. But for me, it’s the ocean that’s really impressive. Even if you’ve experienced it only by going to the beach, you have to confess that that much is already enormously impressive. Wind and waves on the ocean can be massive.
Wind. Wind is air moving. Like water, it’s a fluid; it has no fixed shape; it takes the shape of its container. The air has elements which keep us alive, notably oxygen. Our breath is air; if we don’t breathe, we die. Yet wind can be powerful—enough to turn the blades of a wind generator, which can supply us with electric power—a lot of it! Wind, as a tornado or a hurricane, can be massively destructive. So, wind—air—has the power of life or death. Yet wind is God’s life-force. God’s rûaḥ ‘wind’ blows over the water, creating a dry, safe place for life. And apart from all of this is light. We’ve already talked about the importance of light, especially as regards the Epiphany. While the wind was sweeping over the water, “God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” Light is the counterpoint to darkness. Both were created, and both are valued.
God. God creates. God orders, forms, and shapes. God speaks everything into being.
Psalm 29. This psalm speaks of a storm as a revelation of the absolute power of God. I love storms, especially thunderstorms. When I was a kid, I used to go walking in hurricanes. The wind and rain are so powerful that they can knock you down. If you walk into the wind, you have to lean over at a 45º angle just to stay on your feet. As you read this psalm, keep all of this in mind.
The beginning of the psalm is a call to the “heavenly beings” to give glory to God. The middle of the psalm says why: God’s unchecked power.
Perhaps the first thing we notice about the storm is the thunder, the “voice of God”. It’s very loud, especially if you’re at the place where a lightning strike takes place. This is the “word” of God, God’s self-revelation. The other thing is God’s rule. The God who created everything rules over everything—the forests, the mountains, everything—and the power of the storm can move anything.
And yet, this God who has such raw power also has the power to bring peace. “May the Lord bless his people with peace!”
Acts 19:1-7. There’s a very close connection between this passage from Acts and the gospel reading for today. Maybe you’d do well to read both before reading the rest of this.
Even in its earliest days, the Church was not a unified whole. There were factions in it, right from the very beginning, e.g., 1) those who believed that you had to obey everything about the Law, not just the Ten Commandments, but also all the accretions which seemed to flow from them (you’ll read lots about that in Paul’s letters to the Church) and 2) those who followed John the Baptizer. From our vantage point it might seem that the whole world knew about Jesus, especially his crucifixion, but once you got outside Palestine, that might not be so—or only the barest details of the story.
Well, it’s not only Jesus who is in these stories. We’ve already said that John was a powerful preacher—a prophet—and his preaching also got him into trouble with the authorities, i.e., Herod (read the story of the beheading of John in Matthew 14). We also know that John had followers (see, for example, John 1, especially starting at verse 19 and going through to the end of the chapter). We lose track of John after his death, but it seems that he still had followers, even as far away as Ephesus.
It also appears that Paul was not the only interpreter of what I’ll call “Judaism+”; there was also Apollos. Have a look in a dictionary about scripture; the information about Apollos is there, but a little scanty. He’s referred to ten times in scripture, all of them in the NT, of course. What we can say about him is that he was a learned Jew from Alexandria. It appears that he was in contact with John the Baptizer, possibly a disciple; he knew John’s views on baptism. Apparently, he arrived in Ephesus and he began a ministry there. While there, he came into contact with two of Paul’s friends, Priscilla and Aquila, who filled him in on the rest of the story—the bit about Jesus. You can just hear them: “Apollos, we have to talk.” Presumably, what they told him sounded a lot like what we hear about John in today’s gospel reading. Armed with this new information, he went on to Achaia and became involved in ministry there. If you read the epistle reading in the light of the gospel reading, you’ll get it.
Mark 1:4-11. Mark is a man of few words; he has nothing to say about the early life of Jesus and goes straight to his baptism. We don’t know for certain where the baptism took place, apart from the fact that it was in the Jordan. Given that the story says that people came from “the whole Judean countryside” and that “all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him”, it might well be that it took place near where the Jordan empties into the Dead Sea.
About John, we know a little more. He “appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” The “wilderness” is significant for the people of Israel. It’s a place of testing—but also deliverance—in the story of the Exodus. And before that it was, for Moses, a place of escape (after he had killed an Egyptian) and solitude and the place of his first encounter with God (see the story of the Burning Bush). It was also the place where the Essenes retreated to, i.e., the Qumran community. We’ve already discussed the baptism which John advocated—not the same as ritual baths in the Jewish community, nor the same as proselyte baptism.
Some refer to this story as a “handover”. John makes it clear that he’s a forerunner, not the Messiah. The imagery of footcare is dramatic. The Talmud says that a disciple of a rabbi is required to do for the rabbi all the things which a slave would do, including footcare, and John is saying he’s not worthy even to do that. Finally, we need to look at the role of the Holy Spirit in all of this. John says, “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” I specifically emphasize the word “he” here, and that’s what the actual Greek pronoun does; it’s emphatic/adversative “he”. Jews had expected the coming of the Spirit for generations. I won’t get into all of the script; I’ll give you some references, though: Is. 44.3, Ez. 36.26-27, and Joel 2.28 would be good examples.
When you take the baptism story in historical cultural perspective, what Jesus does is a real act of courage. On the one hand, I’ll bet that he knew he was making a break with the past; that was in the very nature of John’s baptism—repentance, turning around, making a break. On the other hand, as the story unfolds, Jesus is making a break; he’s changing families. It’s those words: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” “You are my son.” That was a father’s affirmation over his newborn son, the official affirmation of his fatherhood. This is something Joseph quite possibly said about Jesus. Family is the central social unit of that world. Your entire identity comes from membership in a family. Life outside of family is “death”.
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Now that’s stepping outside of your family! But this is how Mark plays his cards. In his gospel, no one knows, rightly, who Jesus is. That’s the basis of the famous “Messianic secret”. Some of the characters of Mark’s gospel move toward an understanding, but even by the end of the story—the Crucifixion—they still don’t understand—with one exception: the Centurion at the foot of the cross, and he’s not even a follower of Jesus; he’s a Gentile.
Well, there’s a lot more we could say, but maybe, in the style of Mark, we’ll just let it be a secret, for the time being, anyway.
See you later. God bless.
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