Before we get started, here is the link to the texts for this week, with thanks to you, Diocesan web site…
And, now let’s dig in.
Isaiah 43: 1 - 7
This passage comes from Second Isaiah, the prophet of the exile. This poem – as some classify it – speaks encouraging and empowering words to a defeated people. The prophet hoped to motivate the Judean exiles to return to Jerusalem and rebuild – to leave the stability of Babylon and return to the ash and rubble of their former home.
Well, so much for the easy part.
There are some other things going on here, not so obvious at first glance, but that beg our questioning on many levels.
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you… when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” Sounds innocent enough – hey, it’s going to be a long hard trip back to Jerusalem – but these are sacrificial images, and there is nothing innocent about them when the victims are human. This reference makes me wonder if the long hard trip back is not so much from a physical exile, but from the depths to which the people had fallen spiritually and culturally. (First Isaiah has a lot to say about that).
This passage is also obviously directed at a people who are victims of other nations; Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon, in particular. They are also ones who are ‘called by my name’ and who were made for God’s glory. And, the prophet writes, “I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.”
So, we ask, in exchange for the release of the exiles, is God going to give to King Cyrus Egypt, Ethiopia and Seba? Is God swapping victims? Does the prophet mean to imply that even though God is the God of victims, it does not prevent God from making more if it is for a good cause – namely, the release of those who are called by God’s name. This favoritism conflicts with the inclusivism with which the passage eventually ends, but why would God favor Jewish victims over Egyptian ones? (Is Isaiah unconsciously setting up Jesus encounter with the Syrophoenician woman in the gospels where this question gets its ultimate expression?)
But, what does it mean to be chosen by God? Paul Nuechterlein says: “This may be the question of the day, because the Baptism of Jesus clearly raises the issue of chosenness. If our Christian belief in Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah is correct, then we should have our best window into the meaning of chosenness through him. Posed against the background of this passage from Second Isaiah, the chosenness of Jesus might first of all be seen as the real answer to salvation for all of God’s creatures: God gives the Son to be the ransom to our powers of sacrifice, not Egypt or Ethiopia or Seba or anyone else. And the Son obediently lets himself be made the ransom. It is the Son’s obedient willingness to be made the sacrifice that can free us from the notion of a God who forcibly makes victims to save others. The necessity of the Cross is not a matter of the Father’s will forced on the Son; it is an agreement of wills, a mutuality of loving desire. The Son agrees with the Father that it will be necessary for someone to willingly accept victimage in order to expose it and ultimately save us from it.”
And what is exposed – as we have mentioned before - is that the necessity of sacrifice comes from us, not from God. We are the ones who demand it – somebody has to suffer, somebody has to die to restore balance. We then project that demand onto God, as we do with so many other of our desires and demands.
Acts 8: 14 - 17
This passage describes an auspicious beginning to the mission in Samaria, where at face value it seems that everyone received the Word of God and then – later - the spirit at the hands of Peter and John.
Pay no attention to the hyperbole of the text – as usual, what is interesting are the other elements. For starters, the author of Luke is also the author of Acts, and in the gospel of Luke’s 9th chapter you get this weird little story about Jesus’ visit to a Samaritan village and we read there that they ‘did not receive him’ to which the disciples – guys like Peter and John – want to respond by calling down fire from heaven upon them. (Nice). Which is an odd reaction in that it is Luke’s gospel that also gives us the parable of the Good Samaritan. And, when ten lepers are healed in Luke’s gospel and only one returns to thank Jesus – wouldn’t you know, it is the Samaritan in the crowd. Is Luke just playing with us to see if we are paying attention?
We might also ask what is the reason for the delay in the receiving of the spirit? They were baptized and as we would theologically argue, the spirit is also present in that transaction (It does descend upon Jesus at his…) So, why does Luke withhold it by saying that they did not receive it in baptism? One thought could be that Luke is by this literary device, using the spirit as a reconciling agent, that is, to bring Peter and John – as representatives of those fire-breathing disciples form the Gospel of Luke – back to Samaria to heal the old wounds. Luke is notorious for exposing an idea in one place and then reconciling it in another place that you least expect.
Luke 3: 15 – 17, 21 - 22
I always wonder…what do we miss when the text is edited? Why are verses 18 – 20 lifted from our consideration? (We’ll touch on this later)
This Sunday in the Church year is one on which preachers normally will reflect on the meaning of our baptism and – as we have done at All Saints in the past – have congregants stand to renew their baptismal vows. But in doing that, we obscure the fact that our baptism is not like Jesus’ baptism. Ours is something akin to the baptism that is given en masse to the inhabitants of Samaria in the Book of Acts. Jesus’ is something holy other.
While ours is basically an initiation rite that identifies us a part of a community that is anticipating the kingdom of God and pledges to work to bring it forth, Jesus baptism, in essence, sets him apart as the pivotal figure in the movement away from the old order and toward that kingdom. It is God’s signal that through the ministry of Jesus, that long-awaited turning of the ages had begun to take place.
Supporting that notion, the voice of God – which comes to Jesus while is praying alone afterward, along with that descending dove – announces that he is God’s son. But, in the first century context, that has little to do with the nature of Jesus and everything to do with his purpose. These same words were uttered by the people (Psalm 2) to adopt the monarch as God’s son, so Luke’s use of them here adds a little authority to that purpose. (Again, this is not what our baptism means)
A sidebar about the dove descending – apocalyptic theologians of the pre-Christian era – anticipated that God would begin the new age by opening the barrier between heaven and earth. Luke draws on this motif by describing the heavens opening over Jesus. (And, you thought that was just the way for the dove to get out, didn’t you?)
Other items to contemplate:
The receiving and offering of the Spirit. Jesus receives it after his baptism, and then – in Luke – gives it back at his death (into your hands I commend… ) The spirit then returns in Acts (written by Luke) to the disciples as they wait in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. (The author giveth and the author taketh away, and then giveth again)
The unquenchable fire. What is it, exactly? (Hint: Don’t immediately assume that Luke is talking about Hell, though for the sake of narrative, it might be on John’s mind). But Jesus is carrying a different playbook. Go back to the Isaiah text – is God really going to create other victims in order to bring release to the exiles? Of course, not. And, there is the Samaritan village incident awaiting us in Luke’s gospel, where Jesus gives the disciples his patented “I’m not even going to honor that suggestion with a comment” look, when they are in the mood to call down a little unquenchable fire of their own.
The clue to its meaning is actually uttered by John. In disavowing his role as the key figure on the ushering in of the new age, he states that he baptizes with water, but the one who is coming will baptize with the spirit and with…. Wait for it… fire! I will spare you the long explanation and simply say that while we may wish the unquenchable fire were meant for those whom we don’t like, our faith -as Jesus did – will ultimately teach us that the unquenchable fire is Christ’s fire of Love.
Oh, and why are verses 18 – 20 missing? Not a scandal that they are omitted, but Luke uses them as a literary device to remove John from the scene. In v. 20, he is even arrested by Herod’s men and taken away. So, with Jesus all by himself, there can be no mistaking his identity and the role he is to play, and unlike the Gospel of John, the Baptist is no where around when the important stuff happens.