Biblical Words 
. Genesis 1:1-5
The first Sunday after Epiphany is traditionally the
feast of the Baptism of the
Baptism involves water and the Spirit. The Genesis
reading sets as vast a context for the baptism of Jesus as possible, the
beginning of all created things and the first rustling of the Spirit in the
affairs of the universe.
There are two material phenomena present in the
formless and dark chaos at the beginning:
water and wind. Water is the Deep
(tehom), and the Wind of God (ruah elohim; also translated
“mighty wind” = divine wind) is “hovering” over this Deep, as an eagle hovers
over its nest (Deut. 32:11, the only other Biblical occurrence of this Hebrew
In Biblical discourse, the work of the spirit looks like the effects of wind or air activity.
When warriors are seized by
the spirit they are inflated; and “spirited” (proud) persons are puffed
up. When persons are abandoned or
defeated, they are deflated and there is no spirit (wind) in them. On a larger scale, strong winds move clouds
and generate intense storms, and quiet winds are soothing breezes. All are understood as the work of God’s
The passage presents the creative act of the first
day: “Let there be light.” Darkness is the state of chaos, and the
construction of a cosmos begins with the most elemental phenomenon of the
physical world, light. The Prologue to the Gospel according to John
builds on this feature of creation. The Logos,
through whom all things came to be, is equated with “the true light...[that] was
coming into the world” (John 1:9, NRSV).
In so far as the baptism of Jesus is the beginning
of salvation, it is like the movement of the Spirit of God to bring light to
This hymn has a framework of worship in the heavenly
At each stage of this stormy passage, the speaker
bursts out, “Voice of the Lord” (qol Yahweh!) and continues with a
clause elaborating the activity of the storm.
Seven times in seven verses the phrase qol YHWH! opens a declaration
of praise. The storm is given as a
revelation of God’s awesome power and vastness.
The physical manifestation that corresponds most directly to the Voice
of the Lord is thunder.
To someone who has lived through many electrical
storms on the shore of Lake Michigan, this psalm evokes sky-splitting and
blinding lightning strokes from clouds to black water surface, utterly
deafening explosions that reverberate over houses and high-rises, and sheets of
water moving horizontally over violently swaying park trees and streets.
In the psalm, all this upheaval in nature is climaxed by the cry of worshippers in the temple, “Glory!” (verse 9). Perhaps today the word would be – “Awesome!”
. Acts 19:1-7
The Epistle reading provides a curious glimpse into the
aftermath of John the Baptist’s work. Paul is described as meeting twelve
“disciples” who knew only the baptism of John and had no knowledge of the Holy
Spirit. (If historical, this would have
been about 25 years after the death of Jesus.)
After Paul re-baptizes them “in the name of the Lord Jesus,” the Spirit
comes on them and they speak in tongues and prophesy.
The book of Acts has a particular view about the way
the Holy Spirit works, which is seen clearest in the Pentecost event (Acts 2:1-13). That understanding of the Holy Spirit and
speaking in tongues, as associated with baptism in Jesus’ name, is applied to
John’s disciples here.
What this passage says about the baptism of Jesus is
that the coming of the Holy Spirit was not a regular part of John’s baptism,
but was a unique endowment for Jesus at his baptism.
. Mark 1:4-11
Our reading covers two main events: the mission of John the Baptizer, and the
divine action at Jesus’ baptism.
John the Baptizer. Mark’s description
of John the Baptizer portrays him as a new Elijah, or an Elijah returned. That is the point of his comments about John
appearing in the wilderness and his dress and food as those of a desert hermit (verses
4 and 6).
What was the significance of Elijah for the Baptizer?
The Elijah (and Elisha) story is contained in I
Kings 17-19, 21, and (Elisha’s part) II Kings 2-10.
Elijah was a second Moses. He won a mighty battle against the Ba‘al
prophets (I Kings 18), trekked through the wilderness to meet with Yahweh at
the holy mountain (I Kings 19:1-14), and received authorization from Yahweh to
overthrow the dynasties of
John the Baptizer had a further authorization in the
prophecy of Malachi. “See I am sending
my messenger to prepare the way before me...” (Malachi 3:1). And, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah
before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (Malachi 4:5; Hebrew text
Mark’s Gospel certainly intends to say that John the
Baptizer was the “messenger” sent before Jesus.
The historical John himself, however, probably thought he was carrying
out the prophecy of Malachi – that he was preparing the way for God’s own
coming to judge the sinners in Jerusalem, as the rest of the Malachi prophecy
suggests (see Malachi 3:2-7). Later disciples
of Jesus recognized that in reality it was Jesus who was coming in judgment –
though with some amazing surprises in God’s way of dealing with the world!
The Baptism of Jesus. Whatever John
may have thought, early Jesus followers learned that the baptism of Jesus was,
at least for Jesus, an awesome revelation of what God was about in Jesus of
Nazareth. Repeating the ancient
declaration to the Davidic king (Psalm 2), God says to Jesus, “You are my
son...” and all that follows is the consequence of that declaration.
Let’s take a slightly larger view of this prologue
to Mark’s Gospel.
It is fair to say that the opening of the Gospel
(1:1-15) is audacious! There was somewhere
between 25 and 40 years of inspiration and reflection behind these succinct
verses – years filled with reflections about Jesus and
A prophet goes before him, linking him to God’s past
revelation. Jesus appears – without
speaking – to pass through the waters, but is greeted with a divine address
giving him a status beyond any other human being. This is Jesus re-doing the exodus.
Jesus is then subjected to trials in the wilderness
(the “temptation”), withstanding the full force of the anti-God forces. This is immediately followed by a simple but awesome
announcement of “the good news of God”: “The
time is fulfilled, and the
The long-hoped-for reign of God in the human scene
has begun. Humans may now re-direct
their lives to be included in that divine regime. This is Jesus’ equivalent of the revelation
at Sinai. The “son of God” here brings a
new reality for God’s people!
The Baptism of Jesus was a declaration of his identity and of his endowment with the Holy Spirit. This revelation is known to the powers of heaven and hell, as later stories will show, though it will take the disciples a long and hard road to fully catch on. The hearer, however, knows from the beginning that the Holy Spirit has entered the human world, which is wracked by demons, sin, and oppressive authorities. Going forward, the Spirit will be working through Jesus’ actions and words.
The mission of the baptized Jesus is to bear the power of the Spirit against the powers that so oppress the world.