Old Testament: Isaiah (49:1-7)
Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away. And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified” But I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God.” And now the Lord says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honored in the sight of the Lord, and my God has become my strength—he says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers, “Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”
The Response: Psalm (40:1-12)
1 I waited patiently upon the Lord; *
he stooped to me and heard my cry.
2 He lifted me out of the desolate pit, out of the mire and clay; *
he set my feet upon a high cliff and made my footing sure.
3 He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God; *
many shall see, and stand in awe,
and put their trust in the Lord.
4 Happy are they who trust in the Lord! *
they do not resort to evil spirits or turn to false gods.
5 Great things are they that you have done, O Lord my God!
how great your wonders and your plans for us! *
there is none who can be compared with you.
6 Oh, that I could make them known and tell them! *
but they are more than I can count.
7 In sacrifice and offering you take no pleasure *
(you have given me ears to hear you);
8 Burnt-offering and sin-offering you have not required, *
and so I said, “Behold, I come.
9 In the roll of the book it is written concerning me: *
‘I love to do your will, O my God;
your law is deep in my heart.’”
10 I proclaimed righteousness in the great congregation; *
behold, I did not restrain my lips;
and that, O Lord, you know.
11 Your righteousness have I not hidden in my heart;
I have spoken of your faithfulness and your deliverance; *
I have not concealed your love and faithfulness
from the great congregation.
12 You are the Lord;
do not withhold your compassion from me; *
let your love and your faithfulness keep me for ever.
The Epistle: Corinthians (1:1-9)
Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes. To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind—just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you—so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
The Gospel: John (1:29-42)
John saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
Last Sunday, I pointed out to the participants in our Adult Forum that the gospel according to Matthew actually has no account of the birth of Jesus. After the story of an angel appearing to Joseph in a dream and announcing to him the upcoming birth of a child, the very next verse (2:1) begins: “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem.” Unlike Luke, Matthew skips right over the birth itself. From his point of view, the birth is not nearly as important as what comes after it. It serves as a prelude to the important story that he has to tell.
Today’s gospel reading takes a similar approach in respect to Jesus’ baptism. Unlike the other three evangelists, the author of the fourth gospel has no account of the baptism itself, other than John the Baptist’s retrospective view. For this author as well, what comes after is of greater importance. The baptism sets in motion a series of events in which Jesus fulfills his mission from God to bring and to be the light of the world. What is of central interest here is what Jesus does in response to his baptism. I suggest that there is a critically important message for us in the approach that John’s version of the gospel takes, an approach shared by the other readings that we heard this morning.
Our first reading, taken from the second part of the book of Isaiah, is the second of the book’s so-called “Servant Songs.” They describe the unique role of the servant of God, sometimes equating that figure with an individual; sometimes, with all of Israel. The early Christians saw in them a way to come to understand the role of Jesus. In this particular passage, God has chosen the servant, but not for some sort of privileged position. Instead, God has called the servant to bring and to be God’s light both to Israel and to the rest of the world. “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” God has called the servant to live a life, and if necessary to give a life, for the sake of others.
In the psalm that we prayed together, the author celebrates the deliverance that God has brought to him or her. But here, too, that deliverance has come with a purpose: to proclaim, as the psalmist puts it, God’s “love and faithfulness” to “the great congregation.” Once again, deliverance is given, not just for the individual’s sake, but for the sake of others. What is central is what comes after the saving event.
In our second reading, in the opening of First Corinthians, Paul addresses the recipients of his letter as the “saints,” the “holy ones” of God. But he quickly reminds them that their election by God is for the sake of others: ultimately, for the sake of the rest of the world, not for themselves alone. What comes afterward is of central importance.
Finally, returning to our gospel reading, we see Jesus walking on stage in John’s gospel for the first time. And it is clear from the beginning that he has come, not for his own sake, but for the sake of others: to be the light of the world. The gospel’s focus is on what Jesus does in response to his baptism.
Since I have been a member of the Episcopal Church for only about 35 years, I never used the 1928 Prayer Book; but I do keep a copy in my office, because it helps to explain the ideas and attitudes with which older Episcopalians grew up. Its approach to baptism tends to focus on the individual, to envision it as a rite performed with only family and sponsors present, and as a ritual performed out of fear: “for being by nature born in sin, and the children of wrath, we are hereby made children of grace” (p. 581).
Of all the changes made during the decades leading up to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, probably none is as significant as its recovery of the authentic, early-Church tradition in our understanding of baptism. The sacrament, in its essence, is “full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church” (p. 298). It is to be celebrated within and with the entire church, on a Sunday or major feast day. And it is clear that baptism is not a rite to be approached out of fear that God would reject an unbaptized child or adult: a view that is contrary to the image of the all-loving God described for us in the scriptures. Rather it is a new beginning: the start of a life within the community of the church, of a life lived for others.
As such, while baptism is a beginning, an initiation, what is most important is what comes after the baptism: the life that is lived in fulfillment of its promises. Like the servant of God described in Isaiah, like the early Christians described by Paul, and like Jesus himself, our calling from God in baptism is for a purpose: for us to be a light to the rest of the world in our time and place, to be a people through whom the kingdom of God is proclaimed and brought into being.
What comes after baptism is of central importance. That is the reason why, for example, we no longer simply baptize infants (or anyone else) without some sort of commitment to an ongoing life in the church. Baptism is not some sort of magical rite that is complete in itself. Rather it is our incorporation into the community which God has charged with and empowered for a great responsibility: the responsibility of being Christ in the world in which we live. Its meaning comes from what happens afterward.
Next Sunday, our gospel reading will present us with Matthew’s account of the calling of the first disciples. On the remaining Sundays after the Epiphany, we will hear each week a portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew’s version of the Good News, that sermon calls us to focus on the life that comes after our baptism: a life for others, a life that serves as an alternative to the self-centered way of life that we see in those people whose focus is not on serving the needs of others, but only on accumulating power and wealth for themselves.
As we listen to these words, Jesus calls us once again to respond to our baptism by embracing and living those alternative values in our lives, and in doing whatever we can to ensure that our communities, our state, and our nation live in accordance with those values. They might not be the values that we see exemplified in others, including in some powerful and influential people, but they are the values of the kingdom: the kingdom into which we were baptized.