St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Isaiah 42.1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10.34-43; Matthew 3.13-17
I always enjoy looking for connections among the lectionary readings. Today’s readings have two connections: the voice of the Lord upon the waters and the significance of righteousness. Let’s begin God’s voice upon the waters.
The psalmist proclaims: “The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders; the Lord is upon the mighty waters” (Psalm 29.3; BCP). This may call to mind the Blessing Over the Water in the baptismal service:
We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water. Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation. Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life” (BCP, p. 306).
In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism, we read that Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were opened, and the Spirit of God descended like a dove, lit on Jesus, “and a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (3.16-17; NRSV). Thus, the voice of the Lord was (and is) upon the waters of baptism.
It is worth noting that Mark (1.9-11) and Luke (3.21-22) both report the voice of God as saying, “Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased” (ASV). As Mark is believed to have been written first, Luke must have copied Mark while Matthew, intent on testifying that Jesus is God’s Son, has the voice of God heard by others as in “This is my Son, the Beloved.” Of course, we cannot know which account is correct, whether God’s voice was heard by many or only by Jesus.
Now, let’s consider righteousness. The reading from Isaiah is one of the “servant songs.” As Christians, we interpret these songs as referring to Christ, whereas Judaism interprets these songs as referring to Israel. Perhaps both interpretations are correct, for the promised Messiah was to come through Israel. In Isaiah we read:
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 (42.6-7; NRSV).
In our unrighteousness, we are blind, imprisoned, and sit in darkness. It is for this very reason that Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not what they are doing” (Luke 23.34; NRSV).
In Matthew, when Jesus came to John the Baptist to be baptized, John objected, but Jesus said to him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (3.15; NRSV). But wait a minute! If John was preaching repentance and baptism, why was it necessary for Jesus to be baptized? If Jesus was without sin, why did John consent to baptize him? This question has long puzzled scholars. In the act of baptism, Jesus accepted and acted in accord with his humanity; he affirmed John’s ministry and the significance of his message, yet John knew that Jesus would initiate a ministry wherein one is baptized with the Holy Spirit. God’s new order had not yet broken into the world, so Jesus acted in accordance with the old order. And God sent the manifestation of God’s Spirit and spoke over the waters. As St. Jerome noted, this is the first instance in the scriptures where all three parties of the Trinity are present.
Now, let’s look at Acts. In Acts 10.34-35, we read, “Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right [i.e., righteousness] is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ--he is Lord of all’” (NRSV). Who is Peter addressing?
Our reading abruptly breaks into the story of Cornelius, a Roman centurion of the Italian Cohort. Cornelius had experienced a vision in which an angel of the Lord appeared and told him to send some men to Joppa to summon Simon Peter. I suspect Peter was rather surprised to have some Roman soldiers come knocking on his door! But God had also been at work in Peter, for Peter had experienced a series of three visions, each of which depicted something like a large sheet descending by the four corners which was filled with all kinds of four-footed creatures, reptiles, and birds. In each vision, Peter was commanded to kill and eat. Upon objecting that he had never eaten anything which was unclean, Peter was told, “What God has called clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 10.15; NRSV). This is consistent with Jesus’ teaching: “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles” (Matthew 15.11; NRSV).
After telling Cornelius of Jesus’ death and resurrection Peter said, “Jesus commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10.42-43; NRSV). Then the Holy Spirit fell upon Cornelius and those who heard the word and they were baptized. Yes, the Holy Spirit fell upon the “unclean” Gentiles.
Baptism, the voice of the Lord upon the waters, the voice which Jesus heard, and righteousness are intimately related. In baptism, we are adopted into God’s family. We, too, are told, “You are my beloved child; in you I am well pleased.” We are made righteous and we hear God’s voice as the voice of a loving parent ((http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-a/epiphany1a/).
God’s justice and righteousness are very different from the justice and righteousness of this world. In this world, we understand justice primarily in terms of forensic, or legalistic justice. This world employs righteous violence, violence administered by the state, as a means of countering unrighteous violence. As James Allison observes, “Just as Jesus came proclaiming the Culture of God as a [sic] order distinct from human cultures, so also a new brand of righteousness is revealed” (http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-a/epiphany1a/). Listen to Allison’s insights:
Jesus’ baptism story — especially in Matthew, where we alone get the comment about “righteousness” — helps us, I think, to read the foundational story of Genesis 2-3 about our beginnings as a species. Adam and Eve listen to the voice of Satan such that God’s true voice is lost to them. Instead of God as a loving parent, Satan the Accuser gets them to hear God’s voice as a Judge who decides good and evil — the significance of the tree from which they eat. A parent loves all children unconditionally. A judge decides between good people and bad people, reward and punishment. The so-called Knowledge of Good and Evil is born out of hearing God’s voice as a judge instead of a parent.
Jesus came to get us to listen to God’s voice as a parent once again, to hear that unconditional love that seeks to move us into being the best that we can be. It’s not that we never do wrong. We are limited creatures in need of constant growth and healing. But when we hear God as a judge between right and wrong, we expect a justice, a righteousness, of retribution, of reward and punishment. If we follow Jesus in hearing God’s voice as a loving parent, it’s not so much about reward and punishment as it is about being loved into more fruitful living. We know God’s justice to be a steadfast love that delivers us, restores us, and transforms us (http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-a/epiphany1a/).
It is tragic that so many of us have been raised in churches where we hear God’s voice as a judge instead of as a parent! Such churches project an image of God as a Cosmic Disciplinarian just waiting for us to get out of line. We focus on earning a reward or avoiding punishment rather than loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and spirit.
Jesus invites us to imagine and to experience God as a loving parent who patiently corrects and forgives that we might have fulness of life. Too many of us Christians have yet to experience this wondrous aspect of God!