Isaiah 43 records God’s personal message of redemption to Israel. It is located in the part of Isaiah known as Second Isaiah to the scholastic community. Second Isaiah was likely added to 1st Isaiah (chapters 1-39) during/after the exile to Babylon. Our passage is a beautiful message of hope to any who find themselves seemingly “forsaken” by God and in need of great redemption. Here God, in great compassion, lays out the extent God will go to redeem fallen Israel: “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.” What is especially significant here is God’s very personal admission of “love” (implying commitment) to Israel. It is this same love for all of humanity that will bring about the incarnation which we have celebrated these past two weeks.
Many believe that Psalm 29 was originally a Canaanite hymn celebrating the might of the storm God Ba’al. The Psalm speaks often of the “voice of God” (six times to be exact) in reference to the mighty thunder. This voice is so strong that it breaks the “cedars of Lebanon” the mightiest tree known to the Israelites. It is likely that the Israelites changed this Psalm to praise YHWH as a way of showing YHWH’s superiority over the pantheon of pagan deities. This explains the imperative given to the “heavenly beings” to ascribe to
YHWH glory. In this Psalm YHWH is exalted above all others.
These few short verses in the book of Acts record a puzzling occurrence. Following the preaching of the gospel in Jerusalem the gospel was proclaimed in parts of Samaria and many had come to believe and were baptized. When the Jerusalem church hears of this they send Peter and John to investigate. Upon arriving Peter and John lay their hands on those who were baptized in order that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as the text says in a parenthetical side note “the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.“) One is left to wonder why the Spirit had not simply descended upon these believers as the Spirit had at Pentecost, or as it had at Jesus’ baptism. An answer to this might lie in the history of the Jew/Samaritan conflict. Jews and Samaritans at the time of Jesus had a strong hatred of one another. It is possible that the sending of Peter and John to the Samaritans was a necessary means of showing the Jews the reality of the Samaritans genuine conversion. Peter was not only witness to the first Gentile receiving the Spirit (Cornelius a few chapters later) but also the first Samaritan. He is thus witness to the fact that the gospel was continuing to tear down walls of division. Had the Samaritans received the Spirit in secret (or apart from apostolic
witness) then the validity of their conversion may have been brought into question. We are reminded in reading this text of the wisdom of the Spirit as it built the church.
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
John the Baptist was sent to prepare the way. He came to the Israelites proclaiming a future baptism of fire and Spirit. This is the baptism that will be offered by Jesus’ followers, a baptism that will call forth God’s Spirit to be poured out on humanity but will also usher in a period of divine judgment. Jesus is the first to experience this baptism as he descends into the water and then in a post-baptism time of prayer (a part of the story unique to Luke’s gospel) the Spirit descends upon him. Jesus then receives a judgment as a voice from heaven proclaims, “You are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” These are the words that we all long to hear from God the Father.
Our baptism is likewise a moment of empowerment (Spirit) and judgment (divine proclamation). We are empowered to live “kingdom” lives, and our sin is denounced and buried. We are both made alive in the new birth and killed in our old selves being left behind. Luke is right in that baptism leads to prayer (communion with the Father) and that prayer is a two way street (i.e. God pronounces his blessing upon us). Baptism is to know the Father’s will, and to live Spirit filled lives in compliance with that will.
Celebration of Worship
This is “Baptism of Jesus” Sunday, an annual key day in the season of Epiphany. Epiphany means “manifestation” and it refers, in a sense, to Jesus’ being made known to humanity as the Son of God. The season rightfully begins with the visit of the Magi. This Sunday we continue to see how Jesus was made known as the Son of God in Jesus’ baptism (where a voice of God reveals this to those gathered at his baptism). Epiphany will end with the transfiguration, yet another occasion where the divine proclamation “This is my Son…” will be heard by those gathered. Each Sunday of Epiphany we learn a little more about this mysterious child from Bethlehem. In our learning about him we learn about God and we learn about ourselves. Jesus’ baptism is a key time for us to reflect on our own baptismal experience. In our baptism we are clothed with Christ and we become adopted children of God. Having been filled with God’s Spirit we rise in newness of life to live as Jesus lived. God is well pleased with us. We pray to God and God hears us and God responds. God’s love for us is the same as the love expressed in Isaiah 43. As you prepare your hymns, prayers, hearts and minds for worship consider your own baptism experience. What do you remember about that day? If you were baptized as an infant what have others told you about what happened that day, or what have you observed in the baptisms of others? How has life been different for you? In what ways has baptism deepened your prayer life? In what ways have you heard the divine proclamation of your adopted child-ship?