Jesus’ true identity, the disclosure of which is the theme of the season of Epiphany, comes to open expression in his baptism by John. Here a divine voice designates Jesus as God’s son. The Spirit of God appears as the key factor in recognizing who Jesus is. Grounded in the New Testament’s portrayal of the Spirit’s significance in Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit remains the crucial, active factor in baptism as a sacrament.
The First Reading
God’s Servant Israel, a Light to the Nations
The servant whom Isaiah celebrates here and in three other songs remains a figure of some mystery. Perhaps it is the prophet himself, or the people Israel, or some anticipated hero. The possibilities do not settle easily into a clear identity, though in each case the servant’s role in bringing God’s blessing into the world stands out. This aspect of the reading comes to the fore on the Baptism of the Lord, since Jesus will also bring God’s blessing in the world.
- 1. This is my servant, whom I support,
- my chosen one, in whom my being delights.
- I have imparted to him my spirit;
- he will bring forth justice to the nations.
- 2. He will not cry out nor raise his voice.
- He will not make his voice heard in the street.
- 3. A crushed reed he will not break,
- and a faintly burning wick—he will not extinguish it.
- According to the truth he will bring forth justice.
- 4. He will not grow faint and will not be crushed until he has established justice in the earth;
- and his teaching, coastlands shall await.
- 5. Thus says God, the Lord,
- who created the heavens and stretched them out,
- who spread out the earth and all that comes from it,
- who places breath in the people who dwell upon it
- and respiration in all who walk on it:
- 6. I am the Lord.
- I called you in righteousness,
- and I have grasped you by your hand and protected you,
- and I established you as a covenant for all people, a light to the nations.
- 7. To bring sight to unseeing eyes,
- to release the imprisoned from the dungeon,
- from the prison those who sit in darkness.
- 8. I am the Lord. That is my name.
- The honor due me I shall not give to any other,
- nor the praise due me to idols.
- 9. The first things indeed have come to pass,
- and new things I am proclaiming.
- Before they spring forth, I shall make all of you hear.
Nature Reflects God’s Power
Rain, thunder, and lightning reveal the presence of the Lord, depicted here as a storm god whose voice, in the form of thunder and lightning, shakes the land and shatters the forests’ trees. God’s power is recognized by the lesser divine beings who comprise the Lord’s court (verses 1-2) and who proclaim God’s glory from within God’s heavenly palace (verse 9). Of particular importance is God’s power as king over the Flood (verses 2, 10)—that is, the primordial waters that God curbed at the beginning of the book of Genesis. Such power proves God’s eternal control over all creation, a power that God’s people pray God will extend to protecting them and granting them peace (verse 11).
- An accompanied psalm of David.
- 1. Ascribe to the Lord, divine beings—
- ascribe to the Lord glory and strength!
- 2. Ascribe to the Lord the glory of God’s name!
- Bow down to the Lord in holy splendor!
- 3. The Lord’s thunderous voice is upon the waters.
- The God of glory thunders!
- The Lord, upon mighty waters.
- 4. The Lord’s thunderous voice, in strength!
- The Lord’s thunderous voice, in splendor.
- 5. The Lord’s thunderous voice shatters cedars!
- The Lord will shatter the cedars of Lebanon.
- 6. God makes them dance like a calf—
- Lebanon and Sirion, like a young wild ox.
- 7. The Lord’s thunderous voice carves out tongues of flame.
- 8. The Lord’s thunderous voice makes the wilderness writhe.
- The Lord makes the wilderness of Kadesh writhe.
- 9. The Lord’s thunderous voice sends ewes into labor;
- it strips the forests bare—
- while, in God’s palace, they all declare:
- 10. The Lord has taken the Throne over the Flood,
- and the Lord will hold the Throne as everlasting King!
- 11. The Lord will grant strength to God’s people.
- The Lord will bless this people with peace.”
The Second Reading
The Power of the Gospel for All who Believe
The book of Acts portrays how the earliest preaching bore witness to Jesus’ resurrection and proclaimed the cleansing of sins for all people who believe. In recounting the message of God’s anointing of Jesus, Rock—that is, Peter—begins with John’s immersion of repentance for the cleansing of sins, continues through Jesus’ ministry of healing and doing good, and culminates in the appearance of Jesus to the witnesses after his death. In that testimony, Rock realizes that, in Jesus, God has sent word to the people of Israel proclaiming that God accepts all people.
Rock—that is, Peter—opened his mouth and said, “In truth, I understand that God is not one who shows favoritism, but in every nation, anyone who fears him and does righteousness is acceptable to him. In reference to the message that he sent to the people of Israel proclaiming peace through the Anointed Jesus—this one is Lord of all: you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the immersion of repentance for the cleansing of sins proclaimed by John. You know how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the holy Spirit and power—who then went around doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, because God was with him. So we are witnesses of all that he did in the region of the Judeans and in Jerusalem. The one they killed by hanging him on a tree—this one God raised on the third day and caused to appear, not to all the people, but to witnesses who had been chosen beforehand by God, to us who ate and drank with him after he arose from the dead. He commanded us to proclaim to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness: all who believe in him receive cleansing from sins through his name.
The Baptism of Jesus
Within the scene of Jesus’ baptism, Matthew’s Gospel uniquely depicts a preliminary discussion between John the Immerser and Jesus. Immersion by John signaled both repentance and the promise of the disclosure of God’s Spirit. Matthew presents John as hesitant to immerse Jesus as he did others. This distances Jesus from the need for repentance, while confirming Matthew’s dedication to baptism within his community as the occasion when Spirit is disclosed.
Then Jesus arrived at the Jordan from Galilee for John, to be immersed by him. Yet John stopped him; he said, “I need to be immersed by you, yet you come to me?” Jesus said to him in reply, “Permit it now, for so it is proper for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he permitted him. When Jesus had been immersed, at once he emerged from the water—and look: the heavens were opened, and he saw God’s Spirit coming upon him, descending as a dove. And look—a voice from the heavens: “This is my son, my beloved, in whom I delight.”