The Messiah's credentials

January 4, 2010

Since Jesus’ baptism is featured this week in all three lectionary
years, it’s important to take into account the different emphases and
nuances. Matthew is quite concerned with what John is doing baptizing Jesus, while Mark employs a distinctive verb (schizō, “to rip”) to describe the opening of the heavens, a word that recurs only at the moment of Jesus’ death.

Luke’s concern—seen even more clearly in the passage
that follows today's—is to establish Jesus’ full credentials. Luke’s
overall interest in Jesus as Savior to the nations should not get lost
amid attempts to harmonize the day’s central story.

Isaiah 43:1-7:

  • The
    lesson raises bluntly an issue that most of us would like to avoid
    thinking about: favorite children. Even God has one. To be sure,
    Israel’s special status was, from the beginning, intended as a means to the end of blessing all nations, particularly in the light of God’s abandonment of efforts to deal with humanity en bloc following the Tower of Babel affair.
    But this lesson even speaks of God’s ransoming Israel at the cost of
    others of his children. If there ever was a time for attention to
    context (specifically, the exilic audience), this is it. Still, we ought
    not explain away or otherwise domesticate the image too quickly:
    whatever we finally make of it, God is giving extraordinary expression
    of his power and love for Israel.
  • It’s worth observing that in the Old Testament outreach to the nations usually follows a centripetal vector, while in the New Testament (especially Acts) it more generally has a centrifugal direction.
    Given the Epiphany season’s focus on missions, it’s worth lifting up
    the both/and character of the biblical witness: in the divine economy,
    God both gathers and sends, both buys back and invests anew.

Acts 8:14-17:

  • The
    New Testament—again, especially Acts—shows remarkable freedom in
    describing the link between baptism and the receipt of the Holy Spirit.
    Here there’s a clear separation in time, echoing in its own way John’s
    distinction between his baptizing with water and the baptism by “one who
    is more powerful than I” with “the Holy Spirit and fire.” Clearly, the
    church’s understanding of baptism took some time to develop.
  • While
    scholars debate the origins of the division with what became more
    normative Judaism, Samaritans clearly represent the phenomenon of
    outsider-insiders that has manifested itself in a multitude of forms in
    centuries since. Of course, we can’t simply read into the Samaritan/Jew
    relationship the particulars of other, subsequent human group
    distinctions. But it remains a useful paradigm for the discussion of the
    early church’s struggle with the gospel’s boundaries—and our own
    struggles today.

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22:

  • The
    first thing to do with an appointed lesson that deletes verses is to
    check out the omission. In this case, the lectionary committee was
    apparently seeking to draw together John’s words on baptism with Jesus’
    being baptized, by omitting three verses
    dealing chiefly with John’s entanglements with Herod Antipas. What’s
    potentially lost, however, is Luke’s description of John’s “fire and
    brimstone” preaching as “good news”—how so good, we might fruitfully
    ask?
  • Another point not to be missed is the setup to
    the entire reading: whether the hopes of an expectant people for the
    Messiah’s coming had been met in John. His answer is indirect: he
    insists that a greater baptizer is on the way. By implication, then,
    this question is answered by the opened heavens, the bodily appearance
    of the Holy Spirit alighting upon Jesus and the voice addressed to Jesus
    but overheard by John, the crowds and Luke’s readers through the
    centuries.
  • Why a dove? We’ve become so accustomed to
    the symbol that we may no longer ask. The text doesn’t say, so any
    answer is necessarily speculative, but when did that ever stop a
    theologian? One obvious allusion is the dove released from the ark by Noah (especially given the linkage between Noah and baptism found in 1 Peter 3:20-21
    and often since). But there’s another possibility: the book of the
    prophet Dove (Hebrew “Jonah”) is among the Bible’s clearest and most
    powerful testimonies to the all-inclusive embrace of God—just the point
    that Luke-Acts is intent on making. (Yes, the dove is also there in
    Matthew and Mark, but who’s to say what Luke had in mind?)

Additional lectionary columns by Heider appear in the December 29 issue of the Century—click here to subscribe.

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