1st Sunday after Epiphany

January 11, 2004
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Isaiah 43:1-8
Reading 2: 
Psalm 29
Reading 3: 
Acts 8:14-17
Reading 4: 
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
By Ronald Farmer

Composed following the rise of Cyrus the Great but before his conquest of Babylon (i.e., between 547 and 540 BCE), this passage is an excellent example of the literary genre known as an Oracle of Salvation. Second Isaiah’s charge to “Comfort, O Comfort my people” and “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem” (40:1-2) find special manifestation in this oracle. For people who had suffered much—indeed, for those who suffer today—these lovingly compassionate and personal words were sorely needed.

Do not fear,
for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name,
you are mine. . . . [Y]ou are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you, . . . Do not fear,
for I am with you (vv. 1, 4-5).

Noteworthy is the fact that the prophet did not say that God would keep them from experiencing tribulation, but rather that God’s presence would see them through whatever might befall them in the coming political and social transformation.

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 note be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior (vv. 2-3).

By means of carefully chosen allusions to the Exodus (e.g., passing through the waters in v.2, and giving Egypt as a ransom for Israel in v. 3), the prophet envisioned a second exodus event under Cyrus, the LORD’s anointed (45:1). The reader should note that in calling Cyrus “the messiah,” the agent of salvation, the prophet clearly viewed God as present and working among and through the so-called “heathen!” Also reflecting Second Isaiah’s universalism, exiles are gathered from the four corners of the earth (vv. 5-6), “everyone who is called by my name.”

The remarkable graciousness of this passage is highlighted in its opening words, “But now.”  Due to spiritual deafness and blindness, Israel had failed miserably in its calling to be the servant of the LORD (Isa 42:18-25); nevertheless, the prophet confidently proclaimed that a redeemed Israel would become a witness to the deaf and blind nations of the earth (Isa 43:8-13). What a creative transformation!

Psalm 29
Because it appears to be an Israelite adaptation of a Canaanite hymn to Baal, the god of weather and fertility, many scholars feel that Psalm 29 is one of the oldest in the Psalter. In the hands of the Hebrew poet, the revised enthronement psalm became a powerful polemic for the supremacy of the LORD over Baal. Indeed, the psalm is addressed to “the sons of god” (v. 1, either members of the Hebrew heavenly council or more likely the deposed Canaanite pantheon) rather than to human worshipers; humans are not explicitly mentioned until v.11. These heavenly worshipers are told to ascribe glory and strength to the LORD, not Baal, and to worship in the “beauty of holiness” or “holy splendor.”  This unusual Hebrew expression may refer either to proper “attitude” or “attire. ”  For meditations on the centrality of beauty (in the Whiteheadian sense) for the spiritual life, see Patricia Adams Farmer, Embracing a Beautiful God (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2003).

Verses 3-9 are a poetic description of an awesome thunderstorm. The storm is pictured gathering “over the waters,” which probably has the dual meaning of the Mediterranean Sea (where the storms that lash Israel form) and the chaotic cosmic waters parted by the creation of the firmament (Gen 1:6-8). Among the Canaanites, thunder was the very voice of Baal. For the psalmist, it is “the voice of the LORD.” Repeated seven times (the perfect number), this deliberate patterning clearly presents the LORD as the sovereign of the world. The storm uproots and shatters the mighty cedars of Lebanon, shakes both mountains (Sirion = Mount Hermon) and wilderness, and flashes forth fiery lightning in awesome display. A text setting forth an ancient depiction of a theophany is highly appropriate for the Season of Epiphany.

The psalm concludes with the confident affirmation that only the LORD can provide strength and the blessings of peace (shalom, all that makes for one’s total well being). Although people today are not tempted by the idolatrous worship of Baal, "This religion was for the Canaanites (and for most Israelites) what scientific humanism and technology are for people of the 20th century: essential to the means of production and for ensuring regular increase of the Gross National Product.’ In short, the religion of Baal asserted what humans are all too inclined to believe in any era, that ultimately we are in control and that our efforts can ensure security. While Psalm 29 is not necessarily anti-science or anti-technology, it does suggest definite limits to both. The universe is the sphere of God’s reign” (H. E. Beeby, quoted in J. Clinton McCann, Jr., The Book of Psalms. The New Interpreter’s Bible [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996] 4:793).

Acts 8:14-17
The persecution that followed the martyrdom of Stephen in Jerusalem resulted in the scattering of Hellenistic Jewish Christians. Among these was Philip who traveled to Samaria where he proclaimed the good news, accomplished mighty deeds of healing, and baptized many (8:5-13). Clearly, the reader is to understand this activity as the next stage in the expansion of the church, as anticipated in 1:8. Nevertheless, the leaders of the church in Jerusalem felt that this new development should be examined (compare the similar examination with respect to the conversion of the first Gentiles in 11:1-18). God’s radically inclusive love was met with amazement and even some resistance, as reflected in the Judaizer movement. (The careful reader of Luke-Acts will note that divine concern for and activity among the “despised” Samaritans was evident in the ministry of Jesus; see Luke 9:52-56, 10:30-37, 17:11-19. Indeed, inclusivism and universalism are two of the dominant themes of Luke-Acts.)

The New Testament closely links three events: believing the good news, baptism, and receiving the Holy Spirit (e.g., Acts 2:38). Surprisingly, however, there are exceptions to this normal order. In Acts, receiving the Holy Spirit can precede baptism (as in the case of Cornelius and associates in 10:44-48) and can be delayed (as is the case in the current passage). This” inconsistency” has occasioned a number of strange theologies—most notably the teaching of some self-styled “charismatic Christians” that the Baptism of the Holy Spirit is a “second blessing” and is always accompanied by miraculous gifts such as speaking in tongues, the ability to heal, and so forth. A second look at the passages in Acts in which the order departs from the norm is far more instructive.

Two points are helpful. First, these departures from the normal order occur when new religious or ethnic groups were first mentioned as being “added to the church”—Samaritans in chapter 8 and Gentiles in chapter 10. Second, the “showy” manifestation of receiving the Holy Spirit in these instances was for the benefit of those who were already Christians, especially the Apostles who had oversight of the nascent church. As skeptics, they (not the new Christians) needed convincing that this inclusive activity was of God. A repetition of the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost provided the necessary evidence to move them beyond their exclusivity and xenophobia.

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
The Season of Epiphany derives its name from a Greek word meaning “an appearance, a showing forth, a manifestation.” In Western churches, Epiphany, January 6, commemorates the appearance or manifestation of the Messiah to the Gentile world through the arrival of the Magi with their royal gifts. The gospel lessons for the first Sunday after the Epiphany, the Baptism of our Lord, and the last Sunday of the season, the Transfiguration of Our Lord, both focus on a heavenly voice proclaiming Jesus as “my son,” a special manifestation, indeed!

Because baptism is connected with repentance, a question naturally arises: Why was Jesus baptized? First, through baptism he identified with “all the people” who had come to be baptized (3:21). His solidarity with humanity was essential for his mission as Immanuel, God with us. Second, baptism was a means of identifying with John’s message and of responding personally and publicly to God’s call. His understanding of what it meant to be God’s Anointed One—that is, what type Messiah he would be—would be tested time and again (the wilderness temptation immediately following his baptism was but the first), but in the waters of the Jordan he accepted his calling.

The Lucan account of Jesus’ baptism focuses on Christological statements about Jesus; the account has very little to say about the baptism itself. In fact, verses 21-22 do not state where Jesus was baptized, nor do they indicate by whom. That information must be garnered from the preceding verses. The fact that John’s arrest is recorded before the account of Jesus’ baptism renders the Lucan narrative even more unusual. The most common explanation for transposing the order of John’s arrest (which is omitted from the lectionary) and Jesus’ baptism is the threefold nature of the “salvation history” set forth in Luke-Acts. For the third evangelist, history can be divided into three periods: (1) the period of Israel, concluding with the arrest of John the Baptist; (2) the period of Jesus, opening with his baptism and concluding with his ascension; and (3) the period of the Church, which begins with Pentecost. Just as Jesus is removed from the narrative before the third period unfolds, so too John is removed from the narrative before the second period unfolds for the reader.

The focus of the Lucan account is on four Christological statements. (1) John’s preaching had fanned the flames of messianic expectation. In denying that he himself was the long awaited Messiah, John the Baptizer testified that the Coming One would be more powerful and worthy than he. (This was an important statement in light of evidence that some had elevated John to a higher status; see Acts 19:1-7; John 1:19-27.) Indeed, John felt himself unworthy even of performing what would be viewed as a slave’s task, untying the Messiah’s sandals. (2) The Messiah will baptize with the empowering Holy Spirit and with purifying fire (instead of with mere water, as John did). The evangelist later recorded the fulfillment of this statement in his description of the Pentecostal descent of the Holy Spirit, depicted in the form of “divided tongues, as of fire” (Acts 2:3). (3) In contrast to the widespread first-century expectation of a militant Messiah, God’s manifestation of the Messiah was by means of an anointing heavenly dove! This radical reversal of expectation deserves special attention. In process terms, this symbolism proclaims that the Messiah will operate through the power of persuasion rather than the coercive power of brute force. (Note:  A comparative reading reveals that what Mark described as a private vision of Jesus was transformed into a public manifestation in Luke and Matthew.)  (4) The heavenly voice proclaims, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. ”  (Note that as in Mark, the voice in Luke’s account spoke directly to Jesus, whereas in Matthew, the voice addressed the crowd. Note, too, that the notion of “calling by name” in Isa 43:1 links that reading with the gospel lesson.)  This divine affirmation of Jesus is rich in scriptural echoes, most notably Ps 2:7 (a psalm used at the coronation of the king of Israel) and Isa. 42:1-2 (a description of the Servant of the LORD who establishes justice). Clearly, Jesus is what John was not: the Messiah. And once again, there is a radical transformation of expectation: the power of the King manifests itself as the power to serve.

A final noteworthy feature of the Lucan account is that the descent of the Holy Spirit is more closely connected with Jesus’ prayer than with his baptism. The Spirit came upon him after he had been baptized (aorist tense) and while he was praying (present tense). The same connection between prayer and the descent of the Spirit is found in Acts 8:14-17, which ties together the two New Testament readings for today. Indeed, an emphasis on the prayer life of Jesus and the apostles is a special characteristic of Luke-Acts; they serve as models for believers. This yoking of prayer (human activity) and the descent of the Holy Spirit (divine activity/empowerment) reveals that the creative transformation of the world is the result of relational co-creativity rather than unilateral (human or divine) creativity—a notion lying at the heart of process theology.

Ronald L. Farmer served as  the Irvin C. and Edy Chapman Dean of the Wallace All Faiths Chapel Chair and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Chapman University. In addition to numerous essays and articles in various books and journals, he is the author of Beyond the Impasse: The Promise of a Process Hermeneutic and Revelation in the series Chalice Commentaries for Today. He now resides in Ecuador with his wife.