7 January 2018
First Sunday after Epiphany
Baptism of Our Lord
Epiphany 1B (RCL)
The passage from Genesis seems an odd choice for the feast of Jesus’ baptism. The links are, I suppose, the Spirit, the water and the voice, but the reading from Isaiah for year A (the first servant song) makes a lot more sense.
Of course, Mark’s telling of Jesus’ baptism is abrupt, and so we have to fill it out with the verses about John the Baptist. John the Baptist, in Mark’s telling, makes the distinction between baptism in water, and baptism in holy breath, a distinction Luke continues with the reading in Acts. Baptism in water is for repentance, but we’re not told what baptism in holy breath accomplishes. Luke fills it out with the speaking in tongues, but Mark knows nothing of that.
In Mark’s telling, the people are going out to the Jordan, and crossing back in to the land having confessed (said out loud together) the sins of the people. They are reclaiming the land for God, just as Joshua did the first time they crossed the Jordan. In the case of Jesus, however, the Spirit drives him out into the wilderness rather than bringing him in to the land. Only after his forty days does he come back. Perhaps Mark wants to see John’s baptism as an attempt to reconfigure Israel, while baptism in holy breath is a complete break with the past, or at least something entirely new. Jesus enters the land as the man of power.
The voice that comes from heaven conflates two images from the Hebrew past; the servant of God, on whom God’s spirit rests and with whom God is pleased, and the King, who is God’s son. Mark’s Gospel forces us to rethink kingship, with the centurion at the cross, recognizing Jesus on the cross as divi filius. Baptism in holy breath is something entirely new.
Psalm 29 speaks of the voice of God, and after reading it, I’m not sure I would want the voice of God coming from heaven, telling me anything. It reminds me of the epiphany to Elijah on Mt. Horeb. The voice of God splits rocks. Perhaps that is why the lectionary committee chose the Genesis passage and Psalm 29 to go with Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism. The voice of God is inaugurating a new creation, while smashing the old one to bits. We don’t tend to think of baptism in terms like these, but it provides the opportunity to wonder what need smashing to bits, and what is being made new.