January 02, 2017
Author: Scott Hoezee
Poor John. It didn’t look right. What was going on here? This was not the public appearance of Jesus that John had set everyone up to see (cf. Matthew 3:1-12 for goodness sake!!!). As Matthew 3 ends, you can almost picture John the Baptist carrying on with the rest of that day’s baptisms with a blank, vacant look on his face. He said all the familiar liturgical words and kept dunking people in the river and all, but his mind was not on his work. Why would Jesus have let himself be so anonymous? Why did he let himself look like any other mere mortal (and a sinful mortal too)?!
It no doubt addled John’s mind because it all ties in finally with the mind-boggling mystery of the incarnation. Jesus was a mere mortal. He really was human. He could blend in with the crowd–he did. Yes, we readers have the inside track on knowing he is also God’s beloved Son, but he’s human, too–so human as to share our lot in a sinful world. Jesus himself was not sinful but he was squarely identified with a sinful race and so, on our behalf, let himself get treated as though he were a sinner. It would not be the last time he was so treated, of course. But that’s why he became human. And it is that very humanness which sets up the opening of also Matthew 4.
After all, prior to Matthew 4 had you ever before heard of the devil tempting God? Of course not. (Even the odd scene that opens The Book of Job is not tantamount to temptation.) When God is shining in all his mighty splendor, the devil cannot even get close to God. And even if the devil could get close, he could never tempt God. There would be no sense in trying in that there would be zero chance of success. Trying to tempt God to sin would be like thinking you could actually pull a mountain behind you by tying a rope to a tree on the mountainside and giving the whole thing a good tug. Only a fool would think you could move a mountain by pulling on it, and so also with God and temptation: the devil would never be able to do it. You’re just not going to move God.
Until Matthew 4. What has happened suddenly to make the devil decide to try to pull the mountain along after all? The Son of God has become human. Suddenly the “mountain” of God has been reduced in Jesus to a significantly more manageable lump of clay. Maybe this one would yield to some serious tugging and pulling. It didn’t work, of course. In the end Jesus proved that he was human enough to be tempted but God enough not to succumb. At the Jordan River Jesus likewise proved that he was God enough to understand why John was protesting but human enough humbly to let it happen anyway. In both cases Jesus cast his lot with us. Jesus looked into the waters of death which baptism represents, he looked into the wilderness of sin and evil which we all face eventually: he looked into both places of death and sin and evil and said to us, his very human brothers and sisters, “Wait here: I’ll go first.”
We, like John, would maybe prefer a Jesus who looks less humble and more proudly powerful; less vulnerable and more self-assuredly victorious. John the Baptist wanted Jesus to take over the preaching that day, to fill the air with words even more fiery and images even more arresting than John’s own sermons had contained. But Jesus declined. Instead he wordlessly waited in the baptism line, wordlessly shuffled into the baptismal waters, and then wordlessly wandered off into the sunset to face God-knows-what in the wilds of the wilderness. Jesus held back. He was silent. He was humble. He was vulnerable.
Yet somehow it is maybe Jesus’ silence that saves. Before the gospel is finished Jesus will quite famously stand in silence before the likes of Pontius Pilate. Jesus quite consistently seems to know more than he’s willing to tell and yet it is somehow precisely this holding back, this willingness to say little or nothing, that manages to make everything work out in the end. Sometimes it’s the silence that saves–or at least there is more going on in the relative silence of things than we know. It’s not empty silence but pregnant silence.
It is fully possible, based on Matthew’s account at least, that Jesus’ baptism was one of dozens that long ago day at the Jordan River. It’s fully possible that few if any noticed anything unusual about that particular baptism. But isn’t that how we view all the baptisms we witness? The parents bring the baby to the font and we’ve seen this sight scores of times before. We don’t expect anything unusual to happen, and to our watching eyes and listening ears, nothing does happen, either—nothing beyond what we expected anyway.
Yet in the silence of the sacrament and even in its ordinary exercise, the triune fullness of God is present. The heavens are opened again so that we can get at God and God can get at us. The Spirit of peace and wholeness descends to make a little one holy. And the Father’s voice issues the decree of adoption into the divine family. At church we don’t typically see much razzle-dazzle glitz and power as the world reckons things. Stones don’t turn to bread nor do angels flutter above our heads. But that hardly means nothing is going on!
As preachers, it’s our privilege to open people’s eyes and ears to see and to hear what is actually taking place.
The text of Matthew 3:16 surely makes it appear that Jesus alone saw the dove come down upon him and heard the voice from heaven declaring his beloved. Often when preaching on an incident like this, we subtly assume that John at least saw the dove and heard the voice (didn’t he so indicate in the Gospel of John?) and so we think that the crowds saw the dove and heard the voice, too. In truth, all four gospel accounts indicate that AT MOST John the Baptist saw the dove but none of the account indicate that anyone else saw or heard anything. Was this all just for Jesus’ benefit? And if so, why? It’s a good question to ponder.
One of the finer films of the last quarter-century is Bruce Beresford’s “Tender Mercies” (our colleague Roy Anker has a few entries about this film in our new “Movies for Preaching” section on this website). The film chronicles the story of Mac Sledge, a one-time country-western singing star whose life later dissolved into a fog of alcohol and shiftlessness. Divorced from his wife and estranged from his only daughter, Mac staggers through life until one night he collapses onto the porch of a small, lonely little motel and gas station out in the middle of nowhere on the Texas prairie. The motel is run by Rosa Lee, a young widow who is raising her boy, Sonny, and trying to make ends meet. Even though Mac is a shipwreck of a human being, grizzled, drunk, and despairing, Rosa Lee takes him in, sets him to work for her, and through this, transformation comes to Mac’s life. Over time he kicks his drinking habit, becomes a kind of father figure to young Sonny, ends up marrying Rosa Lee, and begins to attend the Baptist church in which Rosa Lee is a member of the choir.
In one lovely scene, both Mac and Sonny are baptized one Sunday morning After the pastor dunks him into the waters of baptism, Mac stands back up, blinking and drenched, water dripping down off his balding head and glistening on his grizzled beard. It’s a portrait of grace. But after the service, Sonny and Mac are sitting outside the motel and Sonny says, “Well, we done it. We got baptized.” “Yup, we sure did,” Mac replies. “You feel any different” the lad asks. Chuckling, Mac says, “I can’t say I do, not really.”
But we as viewers know the truth: Mac is different. Deep down on the inside of his heart and soul, Mac is a changed man. But outwardly it’s true: the baptism doesn’t seem to change much, and it surely doesn’t make life necessarily any easier. In the course of the film Mac manages to have a kind of reconciliation with his estranged daughter, now in her mid-20s. But no sooner does this good thing happen and the daughter is killed in a terrible car wreck. Near the end of the film, still grieving, Mac stands in the middle of a vegetable garden and tells Rosa Lee that he doesn’t understand life. He can’t understand the tender mercies of God that led him to Rosa Lee and to the transformation his life so badly needed. But then, he can’t understand why his daughter had to die, either. We often hear people pondering why bad things happen in life, but Mac is honest enough to admit to being equally flummoxed by the good things.
Grace can be as arresting as tragedy.
Mostly, though, grace and tragedy, the good and the bad, co-exist in this life. Yet as Christians journeying through this world, we say that the one thing that makes the difference for us is the one thing that, by all outward appearances at least, seems liked it could not possibly make any difference: baptism. Baptism is a watery sacrament. It is literally watery, of course, but not a few people today would regard it as watery in the more metaphorical sense of being insubstantial, thin, colorless. In a world so full of problems and tragedies, evil and dread, how could baptism make a dent?
But it does. Even Jesus’ baptism didn’t look like much. John the Baptist himself seems to have been a little disappointed. But as readers of the gospel, we know the truth!
Author: Doug Bratt
Christians are sometimes prone to hurdle the Old Testament’s original context in order to sprint to the finish line that is the Jesus to whom it points. We always want, after all, to preach and teach Christ and him crucified.
So preachers and teachers sometimes treat texts like Isaiah 42 as little more than an opening act for the star of the show, Matthew 3’s baptized Jesus. This may especially be tempting for those who preach and teach Isaiah episodically rather than as part of a series of messages or lessons on it.
Yet it’s hard to fully hear what the Old Testament says to us about Jesus if we don’t first hear what it says to its original audience. Perhaps, then, its preachers and teachers might makes a new year’s resolution to spend more time listening to what the Spirit said through the Old Testament to its first hearers.
Isaiah 42 is a good place to start on the second Sunday of the new year. Of course, it, as do most texts, has several contexts, even for its original audience. While scholars wrestle with its exact composition date, they generally agree that it’s broadly set in the context of Israel’s Babylonian exile that has nearly completely devastated her political, social, economic and religious life.
While most westerners who preach, teach and hear Isaiah 42 can hardly relate to that context of defeat, loss and upheaval, most can relate to the questions it raises. How could Yahweh let all of this happen? Has Yahweh abandoned God’s adopted sons and daughters? Is God still God?
Isaiah 42 makes some basic claims about this God that are fundamental to not only God, but also to Israel’s identity. God is not just the God is Israel or even of Babylon. The prophet insists Yahweh “created the heavens and stretched them out … spread out the earth and all that comes out of it, … gives breath to its people and life to those who walk on it” (5).
Yet her experiences with Babylon have left God’s Israelite sons and daughters feeling breathless and almost lifeless. They’re left to wonder if God cares at all about “justice” and “faithfulness.” The Israelites question whether God is interested in, to say nothing of capable of making things right again.
Isaiah 42’s more immediate context is its place within the section of the prophecy that encompasses chapters 40-42. That section’s heart is Isaiah 41:8-20’s promises about the new things that Yahweh is about to graciously do in and for God’s Israelite people.
Yahweh, Isaiah 42 announces, is going to do some of those things through God’s “servant” (1). Verse 6 and following makes some pretty bold promises about what that servant will do. He will “be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness” (6-7).
This sets a bold and ambitious agenda for God’s servant. It, after all, involves nothing less than a complete overhaul of Israel’s existing world. God’s servant’s job description in Isaiah 42 includes reversing much that seems irreversible and settled.
Yet the servant through whom Yahweh promises to accomplish this may not seem up to the job. In the 21st century we’re often drawn to people who make the loudest noises, biggest promises and most audacious claims.
Isaiah 42’s servant does none of those things. After all, the prophet insists, “He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out” (3).
A light for the Gentiles? This servant seems like he could hardly light a corner of a room. Open the eyes of the blind? He scarcely seems like he can even open his own eyes. Free the captives and release those held in dungeons? This servant scarcely seems capable of getting out of his own way.
Is that why Isaiah refuses to identify just who this servant is? Why the prophet emphasizes the activity and character of this servant rather than his identity? One scholar suggests God is much more interested in what gets done than in who does it.
One might argue that this has helped fuel the disagreement between God’s Israelite/Jewish people and God’s Christian people. To hopelessly oversimplify a complicated argument, the Israelites and Jews tend to interpret Isaiah 42’s servant communally. They think of God’s servant as Israel whom God calls to be a servant to the world, a light to the nations.
Christians have, on the other hand, tended to see this servant in individual terms. So we’ve traditionally thought of him as Jesus. We see the fulfillment of Isaiah 42’s prophecy largely in his life and ministry, but especially in his death and resurrection.
Yet might even Christian teachers and preachers see aspects of both in this text? Trying to remain faithful to Isaiah 42’s original context as well as its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, might we see this as both descriptive and prescriptive? That is to say, might we think of our text’s servant as not only God’s only natural Son, Jesus, but also, perhaps secondarily, as God’s adopted sons and daughters?
Those who wish to remain faithful not only to Isaiah 42 but also to the testimony of all of the Scriptures want to focus on God’s work. Those Scriptures emphasize, after all, God’s creative and sustaining work (5). They also emphasize God’s enlightening and liberating work (6-7).
We see that in God’s work in Jesus Christ’s ministering, for example, to both Jews and Gentiles. We see God at work in giving life to people who are dead, sight to people who are blind and freedom to those enslaved by all sorts of evil. We see God at work in the countless “new things” (9) God does in and through Jesus Christ.
Yet by sending the Spirit (1) into the world and God’s people, God also equips God’s adopted sons and daughters to be God’s servants as well. God empowers God’s people to serve the world by working for “justice” (1, 3, and 4). God equips God’s sons and daughters to be “a light for the Gentiles” (6) we not only serve, but also share the gospel with. God empowers God’s people to serve those on society’s margins by helping to “open eyes that are blind … free the captives from prison and … release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness” (7).
Woody Allen ends one of his movies by having a character say something like, “I don’t hate God. I think the worst thing that can be said about God is that God is an underachiever.” As Will Willimon notes, that’s the problem at least some of us have with God. God doesn’t measure up to our expectations for how we think God should be and act.
A few years ago Bart Ehrman, a professor at the University of North Carolina, wrote a book entitled, God’s Problem. In it he says God’s big problem is human suffering and why, though God promises to do something about suffering, God does nothing. God’s problem, claims Ehrman, is that when it comes to alleviating human suffering and anguish, God just doesn’t meet expectations.
Author: Stan Mast
Anyone who regularly preaches on the Lectionary knows all too well that the there are times when the choice of readings doesn’t make sense. That is not the case for this First Sunday after Epiphany when we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus. The “main” reading from the Gospels is, of course, about the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. At that event, the voice of God rang out over the waters of baptism and the glory of the Lord Jesus was manifested for the first time since the three Kings brought their gifts to King Jesus. In Psalm 29 we hear the voice of the Lord ring out over the waters, prompting all the Mighty Ones in the universe to cry, “Glory!” The occasion for this epiphany is not the birth of a baby, but the onslaught of a mighty thunderstorm.
You will probably choose the Gospel text for your sermon today, but preaching on Psalm 29 will give you an unusual opportunity to preach on the glory of God as seen in nature. That might be a very helpful thing in a culture that worships nature, rather than nature’s Creator. And preached well, Psalm 29 will give you an opportunity to show the glory of Christ from a different angle. Let me show you what I mean.
The poetic creativity of Psalm 29 is designed to make a theological point out of a meteorological event. It has a two verse introduction and a two verse conclusion, in both of which the name of Yahweh is heard four times. The number four is not random, being one of the numbers of completion in Hebrew symbolism. The same is true of the number seven. So it is not accidental that the “voice of the Lord” is mentioned seven times in the body of the Psalm. Clearly, the Psalmist wants us to see the complete glory of the Lord as he paints this stunning picture of an awesome thunderstorm. Psalm 29 is not a weather report; it is theological exclamation point focused on an Epiphany of God. Romans 1 accuses sinful humanity of worshiping the creation rather than the Creator. Psalm 29 calls a nature worshiping culture to worship God himself in all his glory as revealed in the natural phenomenon of a thunderstorm.
Above, I used the phrase “theological exclamation point” on purpose. Some scholars see Psalm 29 as the theological conclusion of a small collection of Psalm “of David.” Psalms 23-28 have some common themes, like the house/temple of God and the care of God for his people. “The Lord is my shepherd.” In Psalm 29 “David” demonstrates that our Good Shepherd has the power to care for his people no matter what threatens them. What he shows about God’s power elicits the shout of “Glory!” from all who are in God’s temple/house. Rather than worry about the threats that face us, we are encouraged to shout “glory” because our Shepherd is stronger than all the powers that threaten us with chaos.
What makes Psalm 29 unusual is that the call to give glory to Yahweh is issued not to Israel, nor to the nations, nor to the earth or the universe (as in so many other Psalms), but to “the Mighty Ones (verse 1).” Opinions about the reference of that phrase are varied. The Hebrew phrase is “sons of gods.” Some Christian interpreters think that is an adumbration of the New Testament practice of referring to believers as children of God. But most scholars see this as a reference to angels or, more tantalizingly, the gods of the Canaanites.
Nearly all such scholars see direct parallels between Psalm 29 and Canaanites Psalms of praise to Baal, who was their god of thunder and rain and, thus, fertility. The obvious point of Psalm 29 is that Yahweh, not Baal, is the God of Thunder. So the Psalm opens with a call to those Canaanites “gods” to join Israel and the nations and the universe in praising the only true God. What we have in verse 1, says Robert Alter, is “the flickering literary afterlife of a polytheistic mythology.” David calls on Baal’s “deposed pantheon” to give glory to the only God. In a polytheistic, pluralistic world, this is an important point to make, albeit a controversial one.
The occasion for the writing of the Psalm was, as I’ve already said, the onslaught of a terrible thunderstorm. One can picture David out in the fields keeping watch over his father’s flocks, when he notices a darkening of the western sky over the Mediterranean (“the mighty waters” of verse 3). Fascinated and not a little afraid, he see the storm clouds gather, billowing up into the stratosphere. He hears the first distant rumbles of thunder as the storm comes on shore in the north country of Lebanon. The thunder grows in volume and frequency, the lightning strikes fill the sky, and the winds reach destructive velocity, so even the mighty cedars of Lebanon are broken in pieces. The very earth shakes, so that “Lebanon skips like a calf.” The storm moves through the land even as far as the Desert of Kadesh in the south. Throughout the Promised Land, the voice of the Lord is heard as the storm “twists the oaks and strips the forests bare.”
It is an awesome display of power. No wonder that “all in his temple cry ‘Glory!’” Who is the “all” in his temple? And which temple? Is this the building in Jerusalem filled with believers, or the temple of creation inhabited by every creature great and small, or the heavenly palace of God where the “Mighty Ones” are gathered to witness God’s power? Given our interpretation of “the mighty ones” above, it is probable that “David” is referring to all those competing gods. The point is this. If even those “gods” give glory to Yahweh when they see his glory in the storm, how much more should his chosen people and the rest of the human race. Rather than simply being in awe of a stunning meteorological event, let us give glory to the God whose voice is heard and whose power is seen in the storm.
What we have here is thunderstorm as theophany. Rather than seeing nature as an enemy of belief in God, Psalm 29 challenges us to see nature as the original revelation of God. A word of warning to the unwary preacher. Some may hear Psalm 29 as nothing more than a testimony to the primitive belief that thunder is the voice of God, a belief similar to the childish notion that thunder is the sounds of the gods bowling and that raindrops are the tears of God. So it is your privilege and responsibility to give a more nuanced view of nature and nature’s God, of science and general revelation.
James Luther Mays puts it this way. The science and technology of modern culture move us to “see the world as a complex to be explained and exploited, to take the unnecessary step beyond science of reducing the world to the dimensions of our reason and our needs.” We need to beware that science and technology don’t eviscerate the basic human instinct to shout “glory” to the God who is revealed in nature. Already centuries ago, Calvin saw the looming displacement that was coming. “It is a diabolical science which fixes our contemplations on the works of nature, and turns them away from God…. Nothing is more preposterous than, when we meet with mediate causes [natural events and laws], however many, to be stopped and retarded by them, as by so many obstacles, from approaching God.”
You may face another obstacle as you preach on this Psalm. Not only is the thunderstorm impressive; it is also destructive. As we recall the aftermath of thunderstorms or tornados or, more recently, Hurricane Matthew in the United States, we might respond to such destructive power not with a shouted “Glory!” but with a strangled “Mercy! Have mercy on us, O Lord!” If it is the voice of God that we hear in the thunder, how are we to worship such a God when our homes have been ruined and life has been lost?
If thunderstorms can be a theophany, then we face the age old issue of theodicy. How can we justify the ways of God with us, when those ways are so mysterious. “God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform. He plants his footsteps in the sea and rides upon the storm.” There are many ways to speak to the mystery, and the main one is suggested by the convergence of Psalm 29 and Matthew 3 in our readings for this First Sunday after Epiphany. Matthew 3 reminds us that the voice of the Lord heard over the waters is the voice of the Father who sent his Son to save the world from the chaos produced by sin.
Jesus is the power of God in human form, the power of God enclosed in the weakness of human flesh, the power of God that will save the world not by thunderstorms that break trees, but by a cruel death upon a tree. Rather than explaining the ways of God with us, Jesus shows us God suffering with us. “This is my Son whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
It is helpful to remember that we hear the voice of God thundering in Jesus life only one other time. As he approached his last days, Jesus said, “Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ No, it was for this very reason that I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again. The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered….” (John 12:28, 29)
Where do we see the glory of God most clearly? In storms? In Scripture? In the Son of God sentenced to die in the darkness of God-forsakenness! “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) We see “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” (II Cor. 4:6) Jesus came to bring peace to a world blasted by the chaotic power of sin. No wonder that at his birth, “all in his temple cried ‘Glory!’” Or as Luke reports it, “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.’”
So, you can legitimately use this nature Psalm about a thunderstorm to get to the grace of God in Christ. In fact, there is already grace in Psalm 29. Note how it ends, with Yahweh “enthroned over the flood… enthroned as King forever.” The flood mentioned in verse 10 is probably not the Noahaic flood, nor the flood caused by the thunderstorm that has just swept by, nor the cosmic ocean that floated between earth and God in ancient cosmologies, but the primeval chaotic waters at the beginning of the world (Genesis 1:2). The Psalmist is saying, “Yes, the world can be chaotic. You’ve just seen that in the destructive violence of the thunderstorm. But in the end, and, indeed, right now, your God is ruling even over the chaos.”
Yes, that is hard to explain, but you can be sure of this. “The Lord gives strength to his people; the Lord blesses his people with peace (verse 11).” That is an unexpected ending to a Psalm focused on power and glory, but it shouldn’t be a surprise to those who know the Gospel reading for today. Given the fundamental nature of the God of the storm, we should have expected that the last word of the Psalm would be Shalom, peace. The Son with whom God is well pleased has died and risen so that we may have a peace that passes understanding, even in the midst of the storm. This is the crowning comfort in a world where storms of all kinds seem to make everything uncertain. His “is the kingdom and the power and the glory.”
Anyone who has seen the movie, “Bruce Almighty,” remembers Jim Carry playing an ordinary doofus who is given almighty power by God, who is played by Morgan Freeman. That casting choice led a movie reviewer for the New York Times to reflect on the way Hollywood movies have portrayed God. God, said the Times, is always either a “hairy thunderer or a cosmic muffin.” God is either a threat way up there or a soft comfortable kind of joke right down here.
The great religions take God more seriously than Hollywood does, of course, but those are always the options. Deistic religions see God as so removed that he isn’t involved with the world at all. Pantheistic religions see God as so close that he is the world. Islam has a God so far above us that all we can do is submit to him in fear. Buddhism tells us that God is so close that we are all God, while Hinduism says that God is in everything, so that you have literally millions of gods corresponding to the various parts of the world.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ answers the great question about God’s relationship to the world not with some philosophical treatise or some theological construct, but with a story. It is the story about the awesome power of God that took a man who died as a criminal and not only raised him from the dead, but also rocketed him to a place far above “all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given… and made him the head over everything for the church….” (Ephesians 1:22-23). Neither hairy thunderer nor cosmic muffin, our God has shown his mighty power to save us by becoming one of us. God is both far above and for us. And all in his temple cry, “Glory!”
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.
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.