Epiphany 1A

January 02, 2017

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 3:13-17

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Isaiah 42:1-9

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 29

    Author: Stan Mast

  • Lectionary Epistle

    Acts 10:34-43

    Author: Scott Hoezee

    It beats me why the Lectionary—on a Sunday celebrating the baptism of Jesus—cuts this reading off at verse 43 just BEFORE there is a wonderful scene of baptism in Acts 10.  In fact, I was so sure it was a typo on the one Lectionary site I consult each week that I looked up the Lectionary in another source only to find that, indeed, this reading is supposed to stop at verse 43.   So here’s my first sermon tip on this passage: Don’t stop there.  Read on to verse 48.  PREACH on to verse 48!

    This passage is the conclusion to the marvelous, grace-soaked story of Peter’s rooftop conversion experience to reach out with the Gospel beyond the Jews alone.  You know the story: Peter was in Joppa, the very city to which Jonah had once fled to escape his assignment to preach to non-Israelites.   Apropos of that Old Testament background, Peter gets an assignment likewise to break with kosher food laws and with his whole tradition by going to preach to a group of non-Israelites in a city whose very named was a reminder of Gentiles and of Roman occupation: Caesarea.   Caeserville.   It all felt about as wrong to Peter as wrong could be.   You don’t spend your whole life staying away from pork, lobster, and shrimp only to then be encouraged to eat shrimp cocktail and pizza with ham with a bunch of Romans over in Caesarville!

    But that’s what God told Peter to do and by the grace of God, Peter does it.  True, we will find out soon enough in the narrative of Acts that Peter could still be a bit gamey on this front.  He and Paul will get into a bit of a donnybrook over it all when Peter draws back from Gentiles when in the presence of fellow Jews.  But it all works out eventually.  Still, it was a shocker of a lesson for Peter.

    Once he arrives at the home of Cornelius, Peter does not exactly begin with grace, however.  “You know it’s illegal for me even to be here, don’t you?”   That was his opener, but it got better.  He tells the whole Gospel story only to find in our passage today—if you don’t stop at verse 43 anyway—that God does not play favorites.   He pours out his Holy Spirit on these Gentiles just as surely and just as undeniably as Peter and the apostles had experienced at Pentecost some months back.   Once Peter sees this—and once he scraped his jaw off the floor—he does the only holy and sensible thing he can think of: he orders a household-wide mass baptism right then and there.

    If you extend this Lectionary reading to the end of the chapter, it makes eminent sense to see why this comes up on the same day we consider Jesus’ baptism by John in Matthew 3.   What Jesus did in submitting to a baptism of repentance that he did not actually need was meant to fulfill all righteousness.  Indeed, a key lesson of Matthew’s Gospel is that because Jesus turned out to be Israel’s true Messiah, the whole tradition of Israel needed to be re-appropriated, re-thought, re-interpreted.   As John Dominic Crossan has suggested, Matthew’s whole Gospel is premised on the idea that once Jesus advents into our world, this leads to a reversal of prior expectations and thus a new understanding.    The family tree in Matthew 1 begins this lesson by including 4 foreign-born women in the lineage of Jesus.  Then righteous Joseph has to re-think what the TRULY righteous thing to do is in the light of Mary’s apparently scandalous pregnancy.  Then the Magi arrive and before you know it in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is re-appropriating the Law and the traditions of Israel in fresh new ways.

    Righteousness is re-defined.  Or better said, it is brought back into line to what God had hoped for and intended all along.  And it becomes—as God had predicted already to Abram clear back in Genesis 12—a blessing for ALL nations, not just Abraham’s descendants in Israel.

    But the setting of Joppa is a reminder that over time, Israel lost sight of its true vocation as God’s beachhead to reach the nations.   They did what we all do (and what the church can still manage to do even yet today): they became insular, a Members Only club.  Customs and cultural habits that had little to do with being the people of God became enshrined as the only way to live and so those who did not or could not live that way were unwelcome.

    Of course, someone will point out that the #1 thing Peter was told to do broke not some unholy custom but something enshrined in the very Law of God itself: keeping oneself from certain foods.   But if even that had once defined the people of God, it was no longer necessary now that the greater righteousness and holiness of Christ Jesus had come.  Baptism into Christ’s name alone was now the standard for being included in the family of God and in that baptism, all the differences among us as human beings get washed away.   There is not a social convention, status marker, gender identity, socio-economic status, or anything else that survives the waters of baptism.  All those things that keep us apart as people drown, and a whole new, united people emerge.

    I am not sure how many preachers will choose to preach on Acts 10 at the head of the new year of 2017.   But it might be a fine reminder of who we are called to be as God’s church.   We are coming off a year of profound disunity and rancor and we face a new year that has vast uncertainty in terms of how people of different ethnic groups are going to be treated.  There is fear in the land—palpable fear—that we will disrespect anyone we deem as “other” in our midst.   What happened to Peter in Acts 10 is proof positive that God wants nothing to do with that.  And he does not want his people to be part of that, either.

    Illustration Idea

    For an illustration idea on this Sunday focusing on baptism, I will defer to my colleague Roy Anker from another part of the Center for Excellence in Preaching website and his observations on what he deems to be the best encapsulation of baptism ever from the film The Shawshank Redemption.