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First Sunday after Epiphany: Baptism of Our Lord, Year B

First off, I apologize for the delay in getting this up -- I was without a computer this week until today. Sure is good to be online again!

Printer-friendly version

Isaiah 42:1-9 - link to NRSV text
Acts 10:34-38 - link to NRSV text
Mark 1:7-11 - link to NRSV text

The delay before I got my own trusty PowerBook back was such that I got a chance to do something unusual for me. Before I wrote my own lectionary reflection, I edited another -- Jeff Krantz's wonderful “The God Who Is For Us” in The Witness. Jeff drew my attention once more to something that commentators often note about Mark 1 -- namely the tie between Jesus' Baptism and his Passion, made by Mark's use of schizomai in just two places -- Mark 1:10's “the heavens torn apart” and Mark 15:38's “the curtain of the temple was torn in two.”

I think it's healthy and helpful to have Baptism connected so clearly with the cross on a Sunday when so many will be baptized. After all, the way to which we are committed in Baptism is Jesus' way -- the way of the cross as well as the way of Jesus' resurrected life. I find reflecting on that particularly poignant when infants and young children are baptized. What parent among us would at our child's birth commit him or her to a lifetime in the military? But the Baptismal covenant is in many respects an even more profound and potentially costly commitment. It takes a lot of something -- guts, faith, or both -- to commit our children to that path, and to commit ourselves to equip and encourage them on it.

It's a counter-cultural path, as is clear from Isaiah's description:

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.

As Christians, we hold that Jesus is God's servant, in whom God delights, and our collection of readings for this Sunday invite us to make that connection with the vision at Jesus' Baptism in which it is revealed that he is God's own child in whom God is well pleased. But Isaiah saw all of God's people as “the servant of the Lord” -- as followers of the way of Jesus, we are called to walk Jesus' walk. We are called as agents of justice to the nations -- not just to our own nation, and certainly not just for our own family and friends. God's servants don't break the bruised reed; we are called to lives of nonviolence. God's servants don't quench a dimly burning wick; our manner of living in the world should empower those the powers of this world -- the powers that keep people poor, sick, uneducated, marginalized -- would extinguish.

And something I really want to concentrate on this week: We are called to release prisoners -- and I write that in country with one of the highest proportions of its citizens behind bars. In the U.S., while crime rates have been falling, rates of incarceration have been rising dramatically.  One of 138 U.S. citizens is behind bars. Those statistics are much higher for racial and ethnic minorities, and while they're rising dramatically across the board, they're rising for women twice as fast as they are for men (and these statistics are based on those from the government's Bureau of Justice Statistics -- hardly a bunch of wild-eyed leftists). In other words, the way of God's servants -- the way of Jesus, and the way to which we commit those we baptize -- runs counter to the way of our world, of our rulers, and sometimes of our friends and neighbors.

That's a hard thing. And I think about that every time I see a child baptized. We want our children to be successful, but we are called to the way of Jesus, who found his greatest victories confronting the powers that oppressed demoniacs -- that is, people cast out of society because of their antisocial behavior -- dining with prostitutes and tax collectors, and hanging on a Roman cross as a slave condemned for treason. How can we help them swim against the cultural tide that wants to turn “Jesus” into a code name for abiding by that Protestant work ethic and following the rules, for country as much as for God, for respectability, for privilege, for cultural hegemony?

We don't have a prayer helping our children with this unless we've made a practice of prayer in our own lives, unless we're intentional about making our homes as well as our churches communities of spiritual formation. Perhaps it's needless to say, but I'll say it anyway: our children are observant. They can tell when we're trotting out Jesus' name or claims about “biblical values” solely when it seems to be convenient to keep them in line. A lot of people want to talk about Jesus' and Christianity's uniqueness when it lets them diss other religions, and I'll be the first person to say that anyone who thinks that all religions are basically the same probably haven't studied any of them very closely. But think of it this way -- no parent I've met of any religion wants their children to be smoking, drinking heavily and/or doing illegal drugs, and be having sex outside of wedlock by the time they're twelve. Our kids -- if they're blessed with that much sense, and in my experience, most are -- know darn well that Jesus' way is not primarily about refraining from those things, any more than it's about saying a little prayer to get into heaven. Especially by the time they're teenagers, they've developed excellent b.s. detectors, and the needles on those well-tuned instruments will be jumping all over the place if we try to tell them on one hand that following Jesus is an important commitment around which they should center their lives and on the other hand that following Jesus doesn't include doing anything that wouldn't be a political asset in almost or more than half the country. If our kids have read the bible at all, or even if they've paid minimal attention when the story was read in church, they're going to know at least one fact about Jesus' life and the way to which his followers commit:

They're going to know that Jesus' way leads to the cross. Jesus was born in the reign of Caesar Augustus, the original “family values” politician, whose domestic policies sought to strengthen the nuclear family as the foundation of the empire because all of those families could produce more little soldiers to replace all those who died in bloody wars before. At Jesus' birth he was proclaimed a different kind of king: a Prince of Peace, who was for ALL nations. The degree to which that was acceptable and respectable shows in where Jesus died: on a cross, vulnerable, exposed, and -- to those whose values were of the empire and the world order which produced it -- shamed.

That's not where the story ends, though. As Christians, as followers on the way of Jesus, we believe that the God who created the universe vindicated Jesus, raising him from the dead and appointing him as the judge of nations whose powers derided his refusal to retaliate when struck. When we baptize our children, that vindication is also on their way -- being baptized into Christ's Body, they experience not only the ways in which Jesus was marginalized and persecuted, but also God's presence with them and God's vindication of Jesus' way.

That's something to rejoice in above all -- above the adorable little dresses and suits, and even above the gathering of family and friends at such an important moment. But the deep joy of God's vindication of the Christ and his Body comes into focus much more fully in light of Jesus' cross -- the cross he exhorts his followers to take up. So when I witness a Baptism, I always take a moment to take in the solemnity as well as the brightness of what's happening before me. This is a moment of tearing apart as well as bringing together -- a small sign today of the immense sweep of God's grace through the universe. God shares in the brokenness of the world, and in Christ, so do we. God is healing and reconciling the whole of Creation -- and in Christ, as we walk in Jesus' way -- so are we.

Thanks be to God!

January 5, 2006 in Acts, Baptism, Christian Formation, Isaiah, Mark, Year B | Permalink

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"A lot of people want to talk about Jesus' and Christianity's uniqueness when it lets them diss other religions . . . no parent I've met of any religion wants their children to be smoking, drinking heavily and/or doing illegal drugs, and be having sex outside of wedlock by the time they're twelve."

I had a student ask me what about becoming a Christian made him different than he was before. He knew that it wasn't just "being nice to people" or praying or attending church. He wanted to know how his very essence had changed in the moment of his baptism. He was still working that out, but then he asked the question of ME. I had to stop and think hard about what was unique about my relationship with Jesus that wouldn't be true if I were a faithful Jew or Baha'i or atheist or Buddhist. I think it definitely comes down to what we do with the crucifixion and resurrection.

Posted by: Stacy | Jan 8, 2006 1:13:30 AM

Well, if you are talking about tying one on when Mom and Dad are away one night, or dropping trou in the dunes on summer vacation, OK. But I am very liberal and I DO think that we can honestly tell our kids that Jesus' way fills the emptiness in our hearts in a way that no chemical can... while keeping us out of the police station. Too many people in my parish had to learn that well into adulthood for me not to think it's a very valid perspective on "saved". As for sex, I'm not afraid to tell teens that honoring the dignity of the body is one with honoring the spirit. These are important questions for our kids, and Christian faith does give us a unique stand point to think about them.
"stay clean, stay sober, don't exploit others and fight for justice" That's my take on youth ministry.

Posted by: Lucy | Jan 9, 2006 10:13:40 AM

Thanks so much for the printer-friendly version feature. I know that my godmother doesn't like reading things online, and now I may be able to get her to read your stuff!

Posted by: Abby | Feb 2, 2006 11:48:03 AM

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Dylan's lectionary blog: First Sunday after Epiphany: Baptism of Our Lord, Year B

« Feast of the Holy Name, Year B | Main | Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year B »

First Sunday after Epiphany: Baptism of Our Lord, Year B

First off, I apologize for the delay in getting this up -- I was without a computer this week until today. Sure is good to be online again!

Printer-friendly version

Isaiah 42:1-9 - link to NRSV text
Acts 10:34-38 - link to NRSV text
Mark 1:7-11 - link to NRSV text

The delay before I got my own trusty PowerBook back was such that I got a chance to do something unusual for me. Before I wrote my own lectionary reflection, I edited another -- Jeff Krantz's wonderful “The God Who Is For Us” in The Witness. Jeff drew my attention once more to something that commentators often note about Mark 1 -- namely the tie between Jesus' Baptism and his Passion, made by Mark's use of schizomai in just two places -- Mark 1:10's “the heavens torn apart” and Mark 15:38's “the curtain of the temple was torn in two.”

I think it's healthy and helpful to have Baptism connected so clearly with the cross on a Sunday when so many will be baptized. After all, the way to which we are committed in Baptism is Jesus' way -- the way of the cross as well as the way of Jesus' resurrected life. I find reflecting on that particularly poignant when infants and young children are baptized. What parent among us would at our child's birth commit him or her to a lifetime in the military? But the Baptismal covenant is in many respects an even more profound and potentially costly commitment. It takes a lot of something -- guts, faith, or both -- to commit our children to that path, and to commit ourselves to equip and encourage them on it.

It's a counter-cultural path, as is clear from Isaiah's description:

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.

As Christians, we hold that Jesus is God's servant, in whom God delights, and our collection of readings for this Sunday invite us to make that connection with the vision at Jesus' Baptism in which it is revealed that he is God's own child in whom God is well pleased. But Isaiah saw all of God's people as “the servant of the Lord” -- as followers of the way of Jesus, we are called to walk Jesus' walk. We are called as agents of justice to the nations -- not just to our own nation, and certainly not just for our own family and friends. God's servants don't break the bruised reed; we are called to lives of nonviolence. God's servants don't quench a dimly burning wick; our manner of living in the world should empower those the powers of this world -- the powers that keep people poor, sick, uneducated, marginalized -- would extinguish.

And something I really want to concentrate on this week: We are called to release prisoners -- and I write that in country with one of the highest proportions of its citizens behind bars. In the U.S., while crime rates have been falling, rates of incarceration have been rising dramatically.  One of 138 U.S. citizens is behind bars. Those statistics are much higher for racial and ethnic minorities, and while they're rising dramatically across the board, they're rising for women twice as fast as they are for men (and these statistics are based on those from the government's Bureau of Justice Statistics -- hardly a bunch of wild-eyed leftists). In other words, the way of God's servants -- the way of Jesus, and the way to which we commit those we baptize -- runs counter to the way of our world, of our rulers, and sometimes of our friends and neighbors.

That's a hard thing. And I think about that every time I see a child baptized. We want our children to be successful, but we are called to the way of Jesus, who found his greatest victories confronting the powers that oppressed demoniacs -- that is, people cast out of society because of their antisocial behavior -- dining with prostitutes and tax collectors, and hanging on a Roman cross as a slave condemned for treason. How can we help them swim against the cultural tide that wants to turn “Jesus” into a code name for abiding by that Protestant work ethic and following the rules, for country as much as for God, for respectability, for privilege, for cultural hegemony?

We don't have a prayer helping our children with this unless we've made a practice of prayer in our own lives, unless we're intentional about making our homes as well as our churches communities of spiritual formation. Perhaps it's needless to say, but I'll say it anyway: our children are observant. They can tell when we're trotting out Jesus' name or claims about “biblical values” solely when it seems to be convenient to keep them in line. A lot of people want to talk about Jesus' and Christianity's uniqueness when it lets them diss other religions, and I'll be the first person to say that anyone who thinks that all religions are basically the same probably haven't studied any of them very closely. But think of it this way -- no parent I've met of any religion wants their children to be smoking, drinking heavily and/or doing illegal drugs, and be having sex outside of wedlock by the time they're twelve. Our kids -- if they're blessed with that much sense, and in my experience, most are -- know darn well that Jesus' way is not primarily about refraining from those things, any more than it's about saying a little prayer to get into heaven. Especially by the time they're teenagers, they've developed excellent b.s. detectors, and the needles on those well-tuned instruments will be jumping all over the place if we try to tell them on one hand that following Jesus is an important commitment around which they should center their lives and on the other hand that following Jesus doesn't include doing anything that wouldn't be a political asset in almost or more than half the country. If our kids have read the bible at all, or even if they've paid minimal attention when the story was read in church, they're going to know at least one fact about Jesus' life and the way to which his followers commit:

They're going to know that Jesus' way leads to the cross. Jesus was born in the reign of Caesar Augustus, the original “family values” politician, whose domestic policies sought to strengthen the nuclear family as the foundation of the empire because all of those families could produce more little soldiers to replace all those who died in bloody wars before. At Jesus' birth he was proclaimed a different kind of king: a Prince of Peace, who was for ALL nations. The degree to which that was acceptable and respectable shows in where Jesus died: on a cross, vulnerable, exposed, and -- to those whose values were of the empire and the world order which produced it -- shamed.

That's not where the story ends, though. As Christians, as followers on the way of Jesus, we believe that the God who created the universe vindicated Jesus, raising him from the dead and appointing him as the judge of nations whose powers derided his refusal to retaliate when struck. When we baptize our children, that vindication is also on their way -- being baptized into Christ's Body, they experience not only the ways in which Jesus was marginalized and persecuted, but also God's presence with them and God's vindication of Jesus' way.

That's something to rejoice in above all -- above the adorable little dresses and suits, and even above the gathering of family and friends at such an important moment. But the deep joy of God's vindication of the Christ and his Body comes into focus much more fully in light of Jesus' cross -- the cross he exhorts his followers to take up. So when I witness a Baptism, I always take a moment to take in the solemnity as well as the brightness of what's happening before me. This is a moment of tearing apart as well as bringing together -- a small sign today of the immense sweep of God's grace through the universe. God shares in the brokenness of the world, and in Christ, so do we. God is healing and reconciling the whole of Creation -- and in Christ, as we walk in Jesus' way -- so are we.

Thanks be to God!

January 5, 2006 in Acts, Baptism, Christian Formation, Isaiah, Mark, Year B | Permalink

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