Introduction to Epiphany in Year C. The Baptism of Our Lord

 

Ecojustice Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Series C (2015-2016)

By Tom Mundahl

INTRODUCTION TO EPIPHANY

 

If the purpose of the Church Year is to organize community storytelling and worship, what ‘tale’ do we share during the Season of Epiphany? Just as Advent anticipates the light of the Coming One, and Christmas celebrates the brightness of the incarnation, so during Epiphany we marvel at the dynamic brightness of this light bringing peace, healing, and festivity to God’s earth. It is no surprise that this season has provided an opportunity for the church to focus on a mission, which, like light, cannot be contained, but shines across all boundaries.

 

But surely the theme for this season must be more than “going out.” For is not the purpose of mission to provide assurance that because the Word “dwells among us” (John 1: 14), we can be at home in God’s creation. This surprising view can be seen in two of the readings for the Epiphany of Our Lord.

 

The First Lesson for the Epiphany of Our Lord (Isaiah 60: 1-6) describes not only the return of exiles to Jerusalem, but a homecoming for all people (vv. 3-4) characterized by great abundance including offerings of “gold and frankincense” (v. 6) to proclaim God’s praise. This theme is echoed in the familiar gospel reading describing the coming of the Magi (Matthew 2: 1-12).  What is often forgotten is that the Magi have come to the Bethlehem home of Joseph and Mary, in Matthew the birth home of Jesus. Even though Matthew will soon describe their flight to Egypt and resettling in Nazareth, the fact remains that Bethlehem, with all its Davidic resonance, is home.

 

This contrasts with the homelessness we see around us. For months newscasts have shown the harrowing journey made by refugees from Syria and other conflict zones desperately seeking a stable European home. As winter approaches, officials of American urban centers once more admit there are not nearly enough shelters for the homeless—especially women with children. This has all been complicated by the fear of “the other” that has infected the U.S. political campaign, where candidate Donald Trump proposes to ignore this search for a safe home by building walls and banning new Muslim immigrants.

 

If this basic form of homelessness is not enough, there is another mode that infects our culture. Wendell Berry suggests that because of the pervasiveness of media and consumer culture, “...your children will be subjected almost from the cradle to an overwhelming insinuation that all worth experiencing is somewhere else and that all worth having must be bought” (“Family Work” in The Gift of Good Land, San Francisco: North Point, 1981, p. 156). This sense that little good comes from home, family, and neighboring surroundings is examined by Jay Griffiths, who  describes the historical enclosure of lands in the British Isles as metaphorically applying to contemporary children, who because of our “mean world syndrome” are no longer able to “range freely” but are too often “enclosed” in their rooms, entertained by screens, and allowed only the “freedom” of the school, the mall, or adult-supervised activities (Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape, London: Penguin, 2013).

 

It is ironic that the very tools invented to make the world more home-like (technology) now threaten that sense of comfortable dwelling. Philosopher Albert Borgmann suggests that we experience an “inversion”—the very opposite of what humankind intended. “Whereas in the mythic experience the erection of a sanctuary established a cosmos and habitat (home) in the chaos of the wilderness, the wilderness now appears as a sacred place in the disorientation and distraction of the encompassing technology” (Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984, p. 190). Epiphany readings will show us a way through this “inversion” to see the transforming power of “deep incarnation” to make creation new and engender a common home for all living things.

 

As he introduces the notion of “deep incarnation,” Niels Henrik Gregersen of the University of Copenhagen wrestles with Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation (1518) concluding that while Luther used this document to savage the legalism stemming from scholasticism, he did not deny that God could and should be experienced and enjoyed in nature. Gregersen cites Luther’s comment: “Our house, home, field, garden and everything is full of Bible, because God through his wonderful eyes, touches our senses, and shines right through our hearts.” Drawing on Luther’s embrace of creation, Gregersen concludes: “...the incarnation of God in Christ can be understood as a radical or ‘deep’ incarnation, that is an incarnation into the very tissue of biological existence, and system of nature” (“The Cross of Christ in an Evolutionary World,” dialog: A Journal of Theology, 40, 3, Fall 2001, pp. 195, 205).

 

Our Epiphany texts will affirm this deep incarnation with its embrace of creation. Through stories of Jesus immersed in the waters of baptism, the provision of homemaking hospitality of the best vintage, the pain of realizing that “messiahs can’t go home again,” and rejection of mountaintop glory in favor of descending into the depths of actual life, we see a way of emptying oneself so that all that exists may be filled. One of the lessons from these stories is an affirmation of what Celtic thinkers  called the hospitality of the earth (Esther de Waal, The Celtic Way of Prayer, New York: Doubleday, 1997, p. 6). This reminds us that while Pope Frances calls for “care of our common home,” in Laudato Si’, God’s creation cares for us as well.

 

The Baptism of Our Lord

Isaiah 43: 1-7

Psalm 29

Acts 8: 14-17

Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22

 

One cannot appreciate the power of “but now” in Isaiah 43:1 until the context in the previous chapter is examined. Just as the new and tenuous Paris Agreement on climate change depends upon an admission of human responsibility for rapid climate change, so the prophet makes it very clear that the exile is the responsibility of faithless Judah. The result is a people utterly homeless: “. . . all of them trapped in holes and hidden in prisons: they have become a prey with no one to rescue, a spoil with no one who says, ‘Restore!’” (Isaiah 42: 22).

 

Not quite. For Isaiah announces a new chapter in the story of God’s dealing with creation. And “creation” is the watchword here, serving as an inclusio beginning and ending our passage. As the exiles are promised a “new exodus” and return to their home, the initial promise is that no natural forces will impede them. As Claus Westermann suggests, “Verse 2 promises Israel safe conduct on her journey. No force of nature, no hostile element, is to be able to do her any harm as she travels . . . . Water and fire stand for dangers from any element, as in Ps. 66: 12” (Isaiah 40-66), Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969, p. 118).

 

But these images of fire and water may bear additional meaning beyond threatening forces of nature. Paul D. Hanson suggests that fire and water are immediately familiar to ancient peoples as tools of ordeal, “that is, the ancient practice of casting the accused into the river or the fire to determine guilt or innocence.” (Isaiah 40-66, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, Louisville: John Knox, 1995, p. 63). Now this most common of methods of ferreting out guilt are removed. God’s promise, “I will be with you,” (43:2), the promise of Immanuel, trumps these well-deserved threats. Only the removal of these threats will allow the exiles truly to be at home.

 

Clearly, the metaphor of ordeal cannot be simply relegated to a “barbaric” past. The suffering of Syrian refugees in flight from gross civil disorder that likely has partial origin in the last decade’s drought may not be unrelated to human carbon pollution. A rapid increase in asthma suffered by urban children in the U.S. is nothing compared with the yet undisclosed health effects of Chinese air pollution. Imagine seeing a family’s only child failing to thrive because of the by-products of so-called progress.

 

Unfortunately, it is not sufficient to announce “because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you” (Isaiah 43: 4) hoping that these pollutants threatening all life will go away. However, the words “Do not fear, I am with you” (Isaiah 43: 5) free us not only to be at home in this creation, but empower and encourage us to take the steps necessary to tend creation. Surprisingly, it is even possible that out of the evil that has been done and “something new can emerge” (Pope Frances, Laudato Si, 81).

 

Especially important in our shared responsibility to serve and tend creation is to avoid “abstract environmentalism,” the mirror image of the scientific abstraction partially responsible for our predicament. We are called to remember that “the history of our friendship with God is always linked to particular places which take on an intensely personal meaning.” (Laudato Si, 84)  Only when we learn to know the trees, soil types, the birds, pollinators, and the culture of our locale can we fall in love with God’s creation. Perhaps this is why the one we call Immanuel said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” To be at home is to pay loving and affectionate attention to the gifts of creation.

 

This week’s gospel reading sends us into the crowds gathered by the Jordan River to be baptized by John. Not only does John put the damper on a messianic title for himself, at the time of Jesus baptism—narrated almost incidentally in participial form—his arrest (Luke 3: 20) frees the narrator to allow the Baptist virtually to disappear. Before this happens, he makes it clear that while he baptizes with water, “He (Jesus) will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Luke 3:16b). This promise will not be fulfilled until the Day of Pentecost so powerfully described in Acts 2.

 

The beginning of Jesus’ ministry is ignited by the descent of the Spirit “in bodily form like a dove” (v. 22) as Jesus is baptized. This “incarnation” of the Spirit is crucial in moving the narrative forward in Luke’s Gospel. (The importance of the Spirit for baptism is, of course, the issue in the Second Lesson, Acts 8: 14-17). The power of the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted (Luke 4:1). As he addresses the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus announces that “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” In fact, the descent of the Spirit is precisely the event in which God “anointed” Jesus (“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”) and empowered him. (Robert C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts, Vol. 1, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1991, p. 58)

 

That this descent of the Spirit amounts to something like a new creation is underscored by Luke Timothy Johnson when he suggests, “Rather than seeking the meaning of the dove in biblical precedents, the reader may do better by observing the structural similarity between this scene and that of the annunciation (1: 35) and the angelic song (2:14) in the infancy account” (The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 71) All this “hovering” with the “opening of the heavens” cannot help but put one in mind of the Spirit hovering over the waters in the first creation narrative (Genesis 1:2).

 

This newness is attested to by the genealogy and early chapters following our text which answer the questions: Who is Jesus?  He is God’s son (3: 21-28). What sort of son is he? An obedient son (Luke 4: 1-13).  Finally, what kind of messiah might he be? A prophetic messiah (4: 14-30). Johnson argues that the baptism and genealogy should be read together because they make an integrated statement about Jesus’ identity, an identity traceable to Adam. (Johnson, p. 70)

 

By identifying with creation in the waters of baptism, Jesus’ incarnation is deepened. As Celia Deane-Drummond suggests, “Theologically, therefore, deep incarnation can be understood to act at the boundary of creation and new creation, where Christ enters into human, evolutionary, and ecological history in a profound way so that through the living presence of the Holy Spirit that history is changed in the direction of God’s purposes for the universe after the pattern of Christ.”(“The Wisdom of Fools? A Theo-Dramatic Interpretation of Deep Incarnation,” in Gregersen, ed., Incarnation--On the Scope and Depth of Christology, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015, p. 198)  She goes on to describe “sacramental presence” as one way for creatures to participate in this path toward transformation.

 

 Baptismal practice must be in view as we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord. As we gather around the font to initiate and welcome into the community through water and word, the presiding minister invites candidates and sponsors to affirm the new responsibilities they are entrusted with. Among these is the charge “to care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace.” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006, p. 228). It is the presence of the Spirit, “the Lord, the giver of life,” (ELW, 104) which frees the baptized to move beyond one’s self-concern and care for the whole creation.

 

Just as baptism is celebrated in our home congregation, so we begin care of the earth there. Earlier educational media about transforming the congregation into a “creation awareness community” is just as relevant today as it was thirty years ago when first introduced. In fact, the concept of subsidiarity, used extensively in Laudato Si’ suggests that the home and home parish are the primary teachers of eco-justice. Subsidiarity—meeting issues at the lowest level appropriate—does not end there. Whether it is a neighborhood “transition movement,” a city council resolution, a county, state, or national action, this transforming energy makes itself felt where necessary. Even in the international sphere, the power of the Spirit works through word and water to initiate actions preserving and caring for our “common home.”

 

Hymn Suggestions:

            Gathering --”We Know That Christ is Raised”--ELW 449

            Hymn of the Day -- “Crashing Waters at Creation” -- ELW 455

            Sending -- “Let All Things Now Living” -- ELW 881

 

Prayer Petition for Prayers of Intercession (Please use the appointed Prayer of the Day)

Gracious Trinity, by the fire of your Spirit you transform your people into earth servants.  Free us from the confining boundaries of unlimited growth and waste of the gifts of creation so that we may experience the joy of the whole earth community.  Creator, in your mercy; hear our prayer.

 

Tom Mundahl, St. Paul, MN  tmundahl@gmail.com.

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