Saturday, January 12, 2013

Lectionary: 1/13/2013 - Baptism of Our Lord (C)

Prayer of the Day 
Almighty God, you anointed Jesus at his baptism with the Holy Spirit and revealed him as your beloved Son. Keep all who are born of water and the Spirit faithful in your service, that we may rejoice to be called children of God, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

The main theme this week is baptism, with a lot of Holy Spirit imagery, naming, and promises from God.  We jump back into the chronological order of Jesus' life in the Gospel readings this week.  A few weeks ago was Christmas, and Jesus was born.  Then the second Sunday of Christmas was Jesus as a twelve year old child, asking a lot of questions.  Last week Epiphany, which always falls on January 6, happened to fall on a Sunday, so we got the story of the wise men giving Jesus gifts, which put Jesus back as a baby again.  (Epiphany always falls the day after the twelfth day of Christmas, and the night that might otherwise be known as "Epiphany Eve" is called Twelfth Night.  If you think you've heard that phrase before, it's likely thanks to Shakespeare.)  And now Jesus is an adult, and chooses to be baptized by John the Baptist.

Isaiah 43:1-7
But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth— everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

This text is full of baptism imagery.  The waters and rivers remind us of baptismal waters, and fire has been a symbol of the Holy Spirit since the beginning (see the story of Pentecost, or the symbol of the United Methodist Church, which has a cross with a flame around it- also, many churches give out candles to people when they're baptized).  Here God declares the promises God has made to God's children, which brings to mind the promises that guardians and sponsors make at a person's baptism, and the promises which God and the church make to that child at the same time.  All of these promises are repeated when we do an Affirmation of Baptism during a regular worship service, at confirmation, and also at a funeral- which is of course the end of a baptismal journey.

In the days before government records, a child's baptism was when they were officially named.  And still to this day some people refer to a (Christian) child's first and middle names as their "Christian name", that is the name given at baptism.  Very often when clergy bless someone- for healing, or at baptism, confirmation, or a wedding- they will do so using the person's first or Christian name.  The implication is that what family a person belongs to, and whether that family is rich or poor, well-known or disliked, does not matter to God.  God knows each of God's children as individuals, by the name they were baptized with.

Psalm 29
Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; worship the Lord in holy splendor.
The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest
bare; and in his temple all say, “Glory!”
The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.
May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace! 

When the congregation recites the Psalm together this week, we remind ourselves not only of the power of God, but of the power of God's voice.  We have been called by God to different lives and vocations (from the Latin vocare- to call) and may have heard the voice of God in our lives in many ways.  One of the times when God speaks to us is at our baptism, when God names us a beloved child, and here we again have the baptismal images of water and fire.

Acts 8:14-17
Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. 

The name Samaria may be remembered from the story of the Good Samaritan.  Here we see Peter and John go into a community of people who once had been Jews, but had split off and formed their own temple, and for this reason had been rejected by the Jews of their time, and looked down upon.  Christianity breaks societal boundaries in the name of Christ, just as Christ and the apostles did in their time.

This text is one that Lutherans refer to when explaining why we baptize in the name of the full Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, rather than only in the name of Jesus, as some Christian groups do.  We also only baptize once (you'll note this text doesn't refer to what Peter and John are doing as a second baptism, it really sounds like they're finishing one that's already begun) for reasons I hope to go into further on one of my Friday posts.

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

So John the Baptist (as in, one who baptizes, there was no Baptist church back this far) was called by God to wander the desert and baptize people for the forgiveness of sins.  And the Jews he met, who were (as Jews today still are) waiting for their Messiah prophesied in the book of Isaiah, and elsewhere, where wondering if he was that Messiah.  And we hear his answer.  Interesting that he doesn't point directly at Jesus, who seems to be there, and is only implied (in this Gospel) to have been baptized by John, unlike other Gospels where it is spelled out.

Herodias, the woman mentioned in this text, is at the center of one of the major "sub-plots" (for lack of a better term) of this part of the Bible.  She was originally married off to one of her half-uncles, Herod II, with whom she had a daughter named Salome.  She reportedly divorced her husband (that information isn't in the Bible, but is found in other sources) and then married another one of her half-uncles, Herod Antipas.  (She, both of her husbands, and a lot of other people who pop up in Christian history were all named after her grandfather, who was also her husbands' father- Herod the Great.)

It's this second Herod (Antipas) who is mentioned in this text, and he is also the one who will later send Jesus to Pontius Pilate.  John the Baptist, we see here, had denounced their marriage as against Jewish law, as Herod Antipas had also divorced his first wife in order to marry Herodias, and both he and Herodias were Jewish.  Though of course how observant they were religiously speaking we'll never know.

Anyway, a while from now, Salome will dance to entertain Herod Antipas (her stepdad, basically) and his guests at a banquet (and despite traditions in the Christian church which say otherwise, there really isn't any evidence that this was a seductive dance), and Herod Antipas will be incredibly impressed and offer her pretty much anything she wants as a thank you.  She asks her mother, Herodias, what to ask for, and Herodias tells her to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter.  Which is where the phrase "head on a platter" comes from, and also tells us just how irritated she was by John's denouncement of her marriage.  Thus John the Baptist dies.  (But not quite yet!  That's later!)  Apparently Herod Antipas didn't really want to kill John, but couldn't take back his promise to Salome.  (Though he did already have John locked up, so he wasn't entirely thrilled with him by any means.)

And then we have the lovely bit of God declaring Christ to be the son of God, in front of a crowd of people, and the dove (a very popular Holy Spirit symbol for jewelry, as if you wear a necklace with a fire symbol people will ask some very awkward questions) descends.  In the same way, we are declared children of God at our baptism.

Also, John's baptisms were for forgiveness of sin, and later when Jesus and the apostles baptized people so were theirs, so that's why baptism is a sacrament in the Lutheran church.  Like Holy Communion, it conveys grace (that is, forgives sin), it has a physical element to it (the water, the wine, the bread), and it is commanded in Scripture (elsewhere, the Great Commission at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, for example).  Those are the three requirements for something to be a sacrament in many of the "mainline" Protestant denominations.

Go in peace.  Serve the Lord.  Thanks be to God!

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