Saturday, January 5, 2019

Jan 13, 2019 - Baptism of the Lord

                                                            Biblical Words                                                        [585]

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 begins 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! 

Special Note on John the Baptist and Jesus [Last published Jan 8, 2017.]

This note is about an item concerning the historical Jesus, not just Jesus as presented in one or more of the Gospels. That is unusual for me. I mostly treat Jesus as an unknown entity, because we can only see him through several layers of lenses which have shaped him in their own imaginations before telling us what they remembered.

First a few words about the historical John the Baptist.
Two facts in the life of Jesus command almost universal assent.  They bracket the three years for which Jesus is most remembered, his life’s work, his mission.  One is Jesus’ baptism by John.  The other is his death by crucifixion.  Because they rank so high on the ‘almost impossible to doubt or deny’ scale of historical ‘facts,’ they are obvious starting points for an attempt to clarify the what and why of Jesus’ mission.  (J.D.G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, Eerdmans, 2003, p. 339.) 
For Herod [Antipas] had put [John the Baptist] to death, even though he was a good man and had encouraged the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practice justice towards one another and piety towards God, and so doing to join in baptism…. When others too joined the crowds about him, because they were roused to fever pitch by his words, Herod became alarmed.  He feared that John’s ability to sway people might lead to some form of sedition, for it looked as if they would act on John’s advice in everything that they did.  Herod therefore decided that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising … And so John, because of Herod’s suspicions, was brought in chains to Machaerus…and there put to death.  (Josephus, Antiquities 18.115-119, as quoted in Graham Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus, 2d ed., Oxford Univ. Press, 2002, p. 184.) 

So it is historically clear that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist – something he would only have submitted to if he shared John’s basic belief that God’s power was about to break forth in judgment and radical rearrangement of the human realm.

However, we cannot accept the Gospels’ view that John recognized Jesus as the “one mightier than himself” in those early days of Jesus’ baptism. This is clear from the fact that John later, while he was in prison, sends other disciples to ask a now-independent Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11:3 = Luke 7:19). John, while he was living, did not know Jesus as having any special status in the divine plan. (And perhaps his disciples, those who did not join the Jesus movement in the early years, did not know much of Jesus’ special status even many years later; see Acts 18:24-25, and 19:1-7.)

Jesus the healer. Several years ago, studying the miracle stories in Matthew’s Gospel, I was struck by an implication of the difference between Jesus and John the Baptist. Historically speaking – no way around it – Jesus was a healer, big time! That sets him off from his mentor, John the Baptist, of whom no one, Gospels or Josephus, suggests he had any healing powers. The implication of this, projected back into some real Jesus’ early life, is that discovering this power to heal was the beginning of Jesus’ own route beyond where the Baptist had brought him.

One may suppose that as the weeks and months of John’s ministry went on, his disciples (like other assistants at great revivals) worked with the people who came as candidates for the great moment of the dunking. He worked, then, with people who came with disabilities and psycho-somatic disorders (possessed ones). In an excited atmosphere, permeated with expectations of divine relief near at hand (such as those predicted in Isaiah 35), a compassionate and spiritually acute believer (Jesus) might come to realize that healing could come through him – that the power of God’s reign was not only ahead, but for some suffering few could happen NOW. That a pronouncement or a laying on of hands could bring God’s own power into the present moment.

And, if so, a new page of God’s good news would be opened for those seized by the spirit of that place, time – and that special person.

Jesus clearly became a widely-known healer. He had to have started at some time – and he probably did not get it directly from John the Baptist. (In a later view, of course, it came with the Holy Spirit that descended on him at the baptism.)

Since this original study (done in 2004), I have learned that other Gospel readers, reflecting on the historical Jesus, have come to the same conclusion. 
How are these differences [between Jesus and John the Baptist] to be accounted for?  Paul Hollenbach (1982) discerns a shift in Jesus’ ministry from baptizer to healer, and accounts for the change by referring to Jesus’ experience of the kingdom of God in his power to heal and exorcize.  Robert Webb (1994, pp. 225-6) accepts this explanation and adds a further observation:  as a prophet, Jesus experienced God’s call at the time of his baptism by John, and only gradually understood the full significance of that call.  “Jesus’ shift from baptizer to healer and exorcist implies a shift to an increased experience and intimacy with the divine realm.”  (Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus, 2d ed., p. 188.) 
[The cited works are:  Paul Hollenbach, “The Conversion of Jesus:  From Jesus the Baptizer to Jesus the Healer,” Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, II.25.1 (Berlin:  de Gruyter, 1982), pp. 196-219.  Robert Webb, “John the Baptist and his Relationship to Jesus,” in B. Chilton and C.A. Evans (eds.), Studying the Historical Jesus (Leiden:  Brill, 1994), pp. 179-230.]

In the context of the Baptist’s highly public ministry, Jesus obviously shared John's apocalyptic framework.  However, Jesus gradually realized that the power of God’s reign was already available for the suffering ones, through his own compassionate voice and touch. Long after both men were dead, and probably toward the second generation of Jesus followers, Christians had developed a view of John’s subordination to Jesus the Messiah.  That is made clear – though with variations in detail – at the beginnings of all the mainline Gospels.

[Graham Stanton concludes his discussion of John the Baptist with an observation about the greatest difference between Jesus and John. Unlike Jesus, John was not acclaimed by his disciples as raised from the dead (though Herod heard rumors of such a thing, Matthew 14:1-2). Thus John gradually became only a page in history while Jesus became the “one more powerful than” he – and much more! Stanton, p. 189.]

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