January 06, 2020
The Epiphany 1A Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Matthew 3:13-17 from the Lectionary Gospel; Isaiah 42:1-9 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 29 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Acts 10:34-43 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Gospel: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 74 (Lord’s Day 27)
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)?! Where was the fire, the axe, the razzle-dazzle John had been hopping up and down screaming about for so long now? It’s like John had been predicting Sylvester Stallone but instead Mister Rogers showed up.
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 since 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 or an adult steps down into the baptismal tub and in any given congregation, we’ve seen such a 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 thirty or so years is Bruce Beresford’s “Tender Mercies” (our colleague Roy Anker has an entry on the role of the Holy Spirit in the film and another on the kingdom of God in our “Movies for Preaching” part of the CEP 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!
(By the way, in the film—after first meeting up with his estranged daughter for the first time after many years—Mac sings a song he had sung to her when she was a baby. And it’s about Jesus’ baptism. It’s worth a listen! )
Author: Stan Mast
On this First Sunday after Epiphany, the world-wide church celebrates the baptism of Jesus because that event was the first manifestation of the glory of God in the adult ministry of Jesus. To help us see the magnificence of Christ’s glory, the Lectionary selects Isaiah 42 for its Old Testament reading. It is a fine choice because Isaiah 42:1-9 reads almost like a commentary on the baptism of Jesus, shedding its ancient light on that event so that we can see it in all its glory.
Of course, reading Isaiah 42 as a prophetic commentary on the baptism of Jesus begs a large question. So we might as well face the elephant in the room right away. Who is the Servant in Isaiah 42 and, for that matter, in the other three “Servant Songs” that will follow (49:1-6, 50:4-11, and 52:13-53:12)? The Lectionary’s pairing of Isaiah 42 with Matthew 3 assumes that the Servant is Jesus Christ, but that is far from clear to many scholars.
In fact, the identity of the Servant is a huge controversy. Some say it is the prophet Isaiah himself, whose mission to Israel was a failure, in the sense that his words of warning fell on deaf ears. Others say the Servant is the nation of Israel, whose mission to be the light for the Gentiles failed, because the word of the Lord came to people who were blind and deaf. And still others think that the Servant was, indeed, Jesus, who fulfilled both the prophet’s and the nation’s mission. He was both a Servant to Israel and the very embodiment of Israel the Servant.
Some parts of the Servant Songs seem to point to Isaiah himself as the Servant, while other passages seem to be clearly corporate. What tips the scales in the direction of Jesus as the Servant are the obvious parallels between Isaiah 42 and the baptism of Jesus. For example, verse 1 is virtually quoted in Matthew 3:17. In both texts God gives a public presentation of the beloved Servant, identifying him as God’s Chosen One in whom God takes delight. In both texts, the Spirit comes upon the Servant, equipping him for his ministry. In both the revelation of God’s glory is prominent, as God declares his unrivaled glory in Isaiah 42:8 and the very heavens open in Matthew.
Even more conclusive is the way Matthew 12:18-21 interprets Isaiah 42:1-4. Aware that the Pharisees were looking for ways to assassinate him, Jesus withdrew from public view, but the mobs of sick people followed him. Jesus healed them, but warned them not to tell who he was. “This,” says Matthew, “was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah….” Then Isaiah 42: 1-4 are applied directly to Jesus. Led by the Spirit, Matthew identifies Jesus as the Servant of Isaiah.
Did Isaiah understand that? Almost surely not, but this is a good example of what Peter said in his first letter. “Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the suffering of Christ and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven.” (I Peter 1:10-12) That is, Isaiah might not have been able to identify the Servant about whom he prophesied, but the Holy Spirit could, and did, in the New Testament.
Thus, Isaiah 42 gives us marvelous insights into the ministry of Jesus that was inaugurated at his baptism. The very first verse assures us of the very thing Jesus’ enemies could never accept, namely, that he came from God as God’s special Savior. Jesus was “my Servant,” says God, and I fully support him (“whom I uphold”). Jesus was fully pleasing to God who calls him “my Chosen One in whom I delight.” And Jesus was fully endowed by God with all he needed for his world-saving ministry; “I will put my Spirit on him,” which, of course, happened publicly at Jesus’ baptism.
The epiphanies in Isaiah 42 continue with the last phrase of verse 1, “he will bring justice to the nations.” That was the mission of the Servant, underlined by its repetition 3 times (see also verses 3b and 4b). This is a revelation for those who think that Jesus mission was only to “save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21.” That is, of course, true, but many Christians think that salvation from sin involves mainly or only the forgiveness of sins. Jesus erases our guilt and removes our punishment, and that’s all there is to salvation.
Isaiah 42 reminds us that God isn’t done saving until he restores justice to this world, until he makes all things right. The Hebrew word here is mishpat. Andrew Bartelt sums up its meaning very well: “The concept of mishpat refers to a positive sense of God’s ‘law and order:’ a peaceful and whole life in relationship with God, with others, and with all creation.” In a word, the mission of our Servant Savior was to restore Shalom to the whole world, so that everything that was made wrong by sin would be put right by the work of the Servant.
This understanding of salvation spoke directly to Israel. Again, Bartelt nails it when he says, “Speaking to a time when the people of God were in exile, questioning the very justice of God who would have allowed his people to suffer so, words about ‘justice’ and ‘freedom’ (verse 7) would certainly serve to “comfort my people’ (Isaiah 40:1).”
What’s more, says this Servant Song, such comfort is not just for Israel. It is for the nations as well. Indeed, God’s choice of Israel was always designed to bring salvation to the nations of the world (Genesis 12 and 17). When Israel failed at that mission by being a self-centered, sinful people, God sent his Servant Jesus to complete that mission. Israel broke God’s covenant, but Yahweh will “take hold of [the Servant’s] hand and I will keep you and make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles.” As Isaiah 42:4 puts it, “He will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on the earth. In his law the islands will put their hope.” Not surprisingly, Jesus sent his disciples to all nations to “teach them to observe all that I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19).”
Those words of Matthew 28 are a fulfillment of Isaiah 42, especially verses 2 and 3. How will the Servant establish justice in a broken and brutal world? Not by loud protests or brute force, but by teaching with gentleness and mercy. “He will not shout or cry out or raise his voice in the streets.” No “pompous fanfare or media entourage” for him, just faithful proclamation and merciful action; “a bruised reed he will not break and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” How unlike the modern attempts to bring law and order, justice and peace. Most of us grow weary and despairing in the face of deep rooted injustice and flaming unrighteousness. Not our Servant Savior, who “will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth.”
How noble! And how futile! For centuries now Christians have proclaimed that the Savior has come and is coming again, but the world seems little changed. Are the Jews right when they say that Messiah has not yet come, that Jesus was a pretender, not the Servant of Isaiah? How can we keep believing that Jesus will bring justice and peace to the world?
Here again Isaiah 42 throws light on the ministry of Jesus inaugurated at his baptism by revealing the identity of that Voice that thundered at that baptism. According to verse 5, he is the Creator of all that is: “he who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and all that come out of it, who gives birth to its people and life to those who walk in it…” The One who created everything can certainly bring everything back to together!
Further, says Isaiah 42: 8, this God is Yahweh, the covenant making and keeping God. Indeed, he is the only God, who “will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols.” To a world that perpetually puts its trust in other gods, Isaiah boldly declares that there is no other god in whom we ought to hope. His glory is to save, and save he will, because he has promised and will keep that promise.
We know God can keep that promise, because Yahweh always has kept his promises. As Isaiah 42 says at the end of our text, “See, the former things have taken place….” That is probably a reference to God’s promise to judge and chasten his people in the Exile. I told you I would do it, and I have. But now I am doing a new thing; “new things I declare; before they spring into being I announce them to you.” Undoubtedly, God is talking about Israel’s restoration to the Promised Land, but, more significantly, he is pointing ahead to the coming of the Servant.
Like the Servant of Isaiah, that Servant Savior would be chosen, beloved, equipped, gentle, merciful and faithful. He will bring light to the nations, opening eyes that are blind, freeing captives from prison and releasing from the dungeon those who sit in darkness. He will do that in the most unusual way. Again, Bartelt says it memorably: “That this servant would establish justice by bearing God’s judgment upon himself is truly distinctive, unique, and the glorious work of no other God.”
One of the longest running shows on TV is the beloved “Law and Order.” Apparently there is no end to people’s fascination with seeing the “law” catching the law breakers and the courts making sure that “order” is restored. What a testimony to our inbred need to see justice done in this world.
I always tell myself that it is precisely my thirst for justice that drives my addiction to movies in which the bad guys get it in the end. But, if I’m honest, there’s also a bit of vengeance roiling around in me, mixed with a drop or two of blood lust. What a contrast to Jesus, the Servant who seeks justice not by beating people up, but by tenderly caring for the beaten up and then by being beaten up himself. It doesn’t fit our contemporary culture, but it is glorious proof of how much God loves us. The baptism of Jesus gave us a glimpse of God’s glory in the Servant, but the death of Jesus was the full revelation of God’s glorious love even for sinners with closed eyes and deaf ears.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Psalm 29 is an ode to a thunderstorm. But this poem is not just that. The primary aim here is to move through the storm to the Lord of the storm, to the King of Creation, to the one, only true, sovereign God: Yahweh. As such, Psalm 29, for all its lyrical and poetic beauty, is actually a fairly feisty piece of polemic or argumentation.
This psalm throws down the gauntlet of challenge to some of the other religions of the Ancient Near East–religions that claimed that the forces of nature are gods and goddesses in their own right. Psalm 29 reveals the falseness of those idolatrous claims by saying that the God of Israel is the One who creates all those wonders. More, he’s the one who is greater than them all. So in a way you could read this psalm as a rebuke to those who worshiped the creation instead of the Creator.
As such, Psalm 29 walks a fine line. This is the only Old Testament text that so extensively identifies God directly with what people today might call “natural phenomena.” The thunder simply is the voice of God, the lightning just is the strike of God’s voice, the wind is the effective speech of God that is so stunning, it twists even the mightiest of oaks the way a child might mold Play-Doh. This is indeed the treading of a fine line seeing as the Bible is always very careful to distinguish God the Creator from his creation.
But despite its close identification of God with the manifestations of a thunderstorm, Psalm 29 never crosses or blurs the boundary line between Creator and creation. Yahweh can be seen in, through, and by the thunderstorm, but he’s never just the same thing as the storm. The thunder, lightning, wind, and the very power of the storm are the effective presence of Yahweh in the same way that my voice through the loudspeakers here reveals my presence among the congregation whenever I preach somewhere. But I am not just the same thing as the sound from the speaker. So also God is manifest in the storm without being the same thing as the storm.
Because in the end Yahweh is seen as seated in glory on his throne above it all. Though something of his glory and strength can be seen in the storm, all of that is at best but the faintest of hints as to his true grandeur. It is almost as though the psalmist points to the magnificence of the storm and then says, “If you think that’s something, you ought to consider the God who doesn’t even break a sweat in producing such wonders!!”
To keep the ultimate focus on God, this psalm begins and ends with pairs of verses that direct us to think about Yahweh. Verses 1 and 2 open the psalm with a call to render Yahweh alone glory. Then in conclusion verses 10 and 11 redirect us to the heavenly court of Yahweh, where he rules as the supreme King. The problem most people have is they fail to see this God in their everyday lives. And so the middle portion of this psalm, verses 3-9, serves as a kind of illustration. Verse 2 ends with a call to worship Yahweh “in the splendor of his holiness.” That sounds kind of abstract. What exactly is “the splendor of holiness”? Holiness seems to be an invisible quality. You can no more “see” holiness than you can see kindness. You can’t see kindness the same way that you can see blonde hair or a tree. Kindness needs to be embodied by someone for you to see it.
So if I tell you to praise Leanne for the splendor of her kindness, you may respond, “What do you mean? What kindness?” And true enough, just looking at a picture of Leanne won’t reveal kindness to you. So perhaps I would then say, “Well, look over there, for instance. Do you see how Leanne plays so tenderly with the children at the homeless shelter? That’s just one example of what she’s like all the time. She’s got kindness all sewn up, and so she deserves to be respected for the splendor of her kindness. That’s what I mean.” Some things need to be illustrated, lived out in concrete ways, if they are to be seen at all.
So also in Psalm 29: the psalmist says that an example of God’s splendid holiness is a thunderstorm. It’s not the only example, but it is one example that can be seen and appreciated. It’s a window through which to glimpse the one true, almighty God of Israel. So the psalmist takes us to the edge of the ocean as a storm approaches. Many of us know this kind of experience. Sound travels exceedingly well over open bodies of water. And so even on a clear day on a beach somewhere, you may suddenly hear a distant rumble. Soon it gets closer, and as you look out over the water, the horizon gets dark.
Often it is astonishing how quickly the conditions can change. A chill wind kicks up as the thunderstorm begins its pumping effort to move the warm surface air up and the colder air down. Then flashes of lightning become visible, the thunder gets louder. The waves kick up and start to wash over the pier. Hail begins to bounce off the beach like popcorn. Trees may fall, lightning may split the taller trees unlucky enough to become the equalizing point for the storm’s electrical currents. And if you’ve ever been dangerously close to a lightning strike, then you know that Psalm 29’s description of the ground shaking is no exaggeration.
It’s an awesome, often even a frightening, spectacle. But the real punch of this middle portion of Psalm 29 is not the tumultuous waves, the high-voltage lightning strikes, or the split oaks. More powerful than all of that is the conclusion of verse 9 when all who are in Yahweh’s temple cry, “Glory!” It is an amazing feat of faith to be able to see a display like this one but even so not be distracted from the Creator God whose glory the storm reveals. The response of this psalmist to this powerful storm is not, “Wow!” or “Awesome!” or “Cool!” or even “Yikes! Let’s take shelter!” No, the response of the faithful is simply, “Glory to God in the highest! A sliver of God’s nature just got paraded before our eyes!”
In verse 11 we are told that Yahweh gives strength to his people and this, then, leads to peace. A psalm that shook the foundations of the earth, a psalm that rattled the panes of our stained glass windows, a psalm that split oaks and caused us to plug our ears and cover our eyes from the noise and brightness of it all–this very psalm ends in peace. But this is not just the calm after the storm. This is not a depiction of that moment when suddenly the sun peeks back out, and the only sound you can hear is the dripping of water from leaves.
No, the last Hebrew word of Psalm 29 is shalom. This is not “peace and quiet” but rather the peace that passes all understanding. This is the inner peace you get when you know that all is right with the world. This is the kind of peace that descends on your soul after a beautiful evening out with your family to celebrate a 50th anniversary–a peace that produces a deep sigh of satisfaction as you reflect on how much you love your children and grandchildren, how much they, blessedly enough, love you, and so how good it is to be alive in this particular moment. That’s shalom. That’s the sense that all is well.
Shalom is the sense that things are as they ought to be. In this case, it’s the sense that things between you and the Almighty One of the cosmos are all right. And how do you get this peace, this sense that everything is in plumb and in proper alignment? You get it, verse 11 says, because Yahweh gives strength to his people. And after all that we’ve seen in this psalm, that little line ought to deliver quite a few gigawatts of juice to your soul!
Because in this psalm the strength of God is what we’ve seen laying waste to forests, boiling up oceans, cracking the air with sound, frying the atmosphere with heat hotter than even the sun itself. And this, this is what gets hard-wired into your soul! It’s a wonder we don’t disintegrate like a lightning-struck oak! It’s a wonder we’re not fried! But that was the fundamental mystery of Israel’s existence in the Old Testament: God dwelled in the midst of her and yet she was not consumed.
As has so often been noted in history, everybody tends to worship somebody or something. Psalm 29, like the rest of Scripture, suggests that we look to the grandeur of creation for our first, primary source of awe-inspiring experiences. But on a deeper, vastly more profound level, Psalm 29 calls us to bring those experiences into conversation with the Bible’s revelation that God loves us enough to want to save us by turning his strength loose in our souls. And it is that revelation that wrings from us the cry “Glory!”
Thunderstorms. incredible meteorological phenomena. Even as you read this sermon starter, there are likely upwards of 2,000 thunderstorms going on across the earth. On average, each day 45,000 such storms occur. They are among the most powerful forces we know. In the simplest sense, but also in perhaps the most boring sense, a thunderstorm is little more than an atmosphere stabilizer. Acting like a giant heat machine, a thunderstorm forms when there is a lot of cold air sitting on top of a lot of warm air. In order to re-balance the atmosphere, a thunderstorm pumps the warm air upward and the cold air downward until the atmosphere evens out. Once that happens, the thunderstorm has achieved its stabilizing purpose and it dies out. In that sense thunderstorms exist only to destroy themselves.
But along the way these storms can and do produce some of this planet’s most stunning marvels because that shifting around of cold and warm air can produce incredible winds. Here and there an outflow produces a microburst that can puff down toward the ground at 100 mph–we’ve all seen those grim pictures of what such wind shear can do to airplanes. In addition to wind, thunderstorms also produce rain and even ice. The storm’s strong currents can supercool water particles to well below freezing, and if enough of this ice builds up, it falls to the ground as hail–though usually no larger than pebbles, some strong storms have produced so much ice that it falls in chunks as large as a grapefruit.
But there’s more: the forces within thunderstorm clouds are so great that particles of energy smash into one another with enough wallop to exchange electrical charges. So some particles get stripped of electrons while others add electrons, thus producing both positively charged particles and negatively charged particles. Typically the positive particles zoom to the top of the cloud and the negative ones sink to the bottom, creating a high-voltage chasm that equalizes itself through a fiery flash of lightning. Lasting only 30 microseconds, a bolt of lightning peaks out at 1,000,000,000,000 watts (one trillion) with a surface temperature of 20,000 degrees centigrade: that is three times hotter than the surface of the sun!
Author: Doug Bratt
On this Sunday on which the RCL invites us to contemplate Jesus’ baptism, it omits the account of Cornelius’ baptism from its Epistolary Lesson. That may at least imply that the RCL is less interested in the Romans or even Jesus’s baptism than with the baptized Jesus (and his Church’s) mission. A mission that has much to do with Epiphany’s emphasis on Jesus the Light of the world bringing light to a spiritually darkened world.
Peter and his Jewish contemporaries seemed to have assumed that Jesus’ light was largely for Jews like themselves. After all, they recognized that God might show occasional love to a few Gentiles. However, they also insisted that God’s favoritism dictated that those outsiders had to act like Jews in order to qualify for God’s mercy.
In today’s Epistolary Lesson, however, Peter stands up and admits to some of those Gentiles, “God does not show favoritism.” Later he’ll even tell his fellow Jewish Christians, “God gave [the Gentiles] the same gift as he gave us.” They’re signs that God has convinced Peter that Jesus is the Light not just of faithful Jews like himself, but also of gentiles.
Yet Peter’s message of God’s favor toward the Gentiles could not have been an easy one for even his Christian Jewish contemporaries to hear. It’s not, after all, as though had Peter said God favors Candiens fans as much as Maple Leaf fans. No, it’s more like he says God loves murderers, rapists and child abusers as much as God loves nice people like us.
Perhaps, however, this wide love should not have surprised Peter, the early church or us. God’s Spirit is, after all, on the move throughout the first part of the book of Acts. Acts shows how God nudges God’s people through Joppa, and past the converted Samaritans and Ethiopian. God even introduces us to the Jewish persecutor of Christians, Saul, whom God has turned into God’s missionary, Paul.
Now, however, God basically shoves one of God’s Israelite sons up against a Roman soldier named Cornelius. This gentile is completely involved in an oppressive political system. In fact, he makes his living off Rome’s sometimes-brutal military occupation of Peter’s country.
However, Acts 10:2 describes Cornelius’s family and him as “devout and God-fearing.” It also reports that this Roman soldier “gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.” So Cornelius is, like the Magi who worshiped the newborn Jesus, a racial outsider. However, unlike those men from the east, God has already drawn him to the edge of the God-fearing community. In fact, Cornelius shows that he’s already willing to have God and people teach and guide him.
However, it’s also clear that Cornelius doesn’t choose to be taught and guided. He doesn’t make some heroic decision to buck the odds to follow Jesus Christ. No, Luke portrays this Roman soldier as more of a passive actor in a cosmic drama that Someone Else directs.
At least some of Acts 10’s preachers and teachers, like Cornelius also have great responsibility and authority. We tell our children, students or people we supervise what to do. However, even the most powerful Christians also take our commands for faith and life from the Lord.
In a similar way, God, through an angel, prompts mighty Cornelius to send for Peter. Yet while Peter accepts his invitation, (after all, who can turn down a Roman soldier’s “request”?), he’s clearly no more in charge than the Gentile is.
After all, just as Cornelius had a strange vision, Peter also had a dream that also confused him. As he was praying, someone lowered a big sheet that was full of all sorts of animals. A voice then commanded him to kill and eat what was in the sheet, including food no faithful Jew ever ate.
As Will Willimon notes, the strict dietary laws Peter followed shaped Jewish faithfulness in the midst of immense pressure to abandon the faith and just become a good Roman citizen. However, 21st century Christians who make many little spiritual compromises can hardly understand Peter’s reluctance to break such laws. How, after all, could it hurt him just to take a bite of pork? So it’s hard to even imagine how difficult it was for Peter to go with Cornelius’ messengers.
Sure, the Spirit’s message and the Roman soldier’s story of the angel’s visit emphasizes God’s directing role. Yet Peter’s synagogue had raised him to both keep kosher and avoid Gentiles precisely like this soldier to whom he’s going.
God, however, drags this leader of the Jewish Christian church, to the home of a Gentile leader of the Roman army. God also empowers Peter to recognize that his mysterious trip has something to do with his strange dream about pure and impure food. After all, God is gradually revealing to Peter a potentially frightening implication of Jesus’s ministry: God does not show favoritism!
In response, Peter quickly breaks at least one hallowed law. He enters the Gentile Cornelius’ home. Yet once God breaks down that wall, we see God take a sledgehammer to a whole series of old walls. When, after all, Peter enters his home, the Roman soldier falls at his feet to worship him. It shows that the mighty Gentile soldier is not too powerful to kneel before a humble Jewish former fisherman. What’s more, eventually Peter stays with his Gentile hosts for a few days. So he also probably ate things that were unkosher.
Earlier Acts tells us that God converts, in one sense, both Saul and Ananias. We recognize Saul’s need for conversion. He, after all, was a relentless persecutor of Christians whom God gave the gift of Christian faith. However, Ananias’s need for conversion may have been less obvious. Yet he also needed God’s transformation from one who avoided Saul to one who ministered to Paul. In a similar way, both Peter and Cornelius needed to be “converted.”
So who needs God’s conversion in our world today? Those who aren’t Christians certainly need God to convert them to the faith. However, we profess that God’s adopted sons and daughters also need daily conversion away from our sinful ways and toward Christ likeness.
When converted Cornelius tells his story, converted Peter can draw only one conclusion: God does not show favoritism but accepts people from every nation who fear the Lord and do what’s right. God had, after all, as Peter says, sent Jesus to do “good” and heal “all who were under the power of the devil.” However, those captives of Satan included all sorts of Jews and outsiders.
Eventually, Peter recalls, Satan’s allies succeeded in convincing the Romans, for whom Cornelius works, to crucify Jesus. God, however, Peter announces, raised this Jesus back to life and sent him back throughout Palestine. Eventually this same Jesus, whom Peter now recognizes is Lord not just of the Jews but also the Gentiles, ascended back to the heavenly realm.
However, he didn’t do so before sending his followers to witness “to the ends of the earth.” Now one of those followers must feel as though he’s not just standing at the very end of the earth, but perhaps even on another galaxy.
The Spirit then shatters any lingering doubts Peter may have about the scope of his mission right before his eyes. As if to confirm that God is moving this process, the Holy Spirit descends on everyone who has just heard Peter speak. Just, in fact, as Luke earlier reported the Spirit earlier descended on Jesus.
How, then, can Peter refuse to baptize these outsiders whom God has drawn into God’s family or their hospitality? The Spirit, after all, already lives in them. Peter and Christ’s church can only respond in faithful obedience.
This offers Acts 10’s proclaimers an opportunity to explore where the Spirit may be nudging 21st century Christians and their churches. Some people may seem hopelessly beyond the reach of God’s amazing grace. Perhaps they’ve deeply embedded themselves in a religious system that completely rejects Christianity. Or they’ve been part of the church but consciously decided to reject it.
Yet the church always remembers that people’s rejection of God doesn’t sidetrack God’s longing for them to faithfully respond to God’s work. As long as they live, God longs to send God’s Spirit on those outsiders, just as God sent the Holy Spirit on the Cornelius. So the first Sunday after the Epiphany may be a good time for preachers and teachers who serve the Light of the world to challenge our hearers to pray for those who don’t yet join us in serving him.
Those who proclaim Acts 10 may also want to look for ways to invite churches to corporately show that God shows no favoritism. Certainly greater prayerful and financial support of missionaries can be part of that. Encouraging people to both talk about God’s love for them in the risen Christ and show them that love is part, as well, of Jesus’ ongoing ministry.
In his book, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945, David M. Kennedy writes about how during WWII Americans and Japanese hated and vilified each other based on racial stereotypes and thus fought a “war without mercy.” The Japanese thought Americans were “decadent” and “self-indulgent.” Americans had no stomach for war, the Japanese believed, and would, after Pearl Harbor, “immediately sue for peace” to Japan’s great advantage.
Besides, the Japanese thought of themselves as racially pure and of one will. Americans, by contrast, were in the eyes of Japanese “a contemptibly polyglot and divided people . . . riven by ethnic and racial conflict, labor violence, and political strife, incapable of self-sacrifice or submission to the public weal.” All because Americans were infected with the “detestable Western virus of individualism.”
Americans, for their part, thought the Japanese were “servile automatons devoid of individual identity.” Meanwhile, “wartime cartoons and posters routinely pictured the Japanese as murderous savages, immature children, wild beasts, or bucktoothed, bespectacled lunatics.”
Kennedy observes that national pride that produces stereotypes of the “other” and war making on this basis is an ancient phenomenon seen, for example, among ancient Greeks who thought of themselves as cultured aristocrats and everybody else as mere “barbarians.”