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Today in the Spirit: Epiphany 1B

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Prepositions are important in the Book of Common Prayer (BCP). One change in the BCP 2019 that can easily go unnoticed is the designation of Sundays “of Epiphany” in the new book compared with Sundays “after Epiphany” or “after the Epiphany” in earlier books. So we might ask, what does the new title communicate? One response is that the epiphany (the shining forth) of Jesus of Nazareth, as revealed in the NT Gospels, must be understood as an ongoing movement of the Father God, beginning with a cradle and a star but continuing in the whole life of the man–his teaching, miracles, death, resurrection, and ascension—all to demonstrate that he is the Son of God. 

In Epiphany 1B, we are assigned Mark’s shorter summary version of the baptism of Jesus in Mark 1:7-11. The first part of this reading consists of testimony from John the Baptist about Jesus, which we heard just weeks ago in Advent 2B. For our contemplation in worship, this reading compacts John’s prophecy that Jesus will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and the baptism of Jesus with the descent of the Holy Spirit on him.

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The assigned OT, psalm, and NT readings are the same every year in Epiphany 1. The OT reading from Isaiah 42:1-9, one of the so-called “Servant Songs” in Isaiah, begins, in parallel to Mark’s Gospel, Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him (1). Psalm 89:20-29 focuses on that portion of the royal song in which a familial bond is established between YHWH and David, my servant (a Hebraic expression for the promised Messiah): He shall say to me, “You are my Father…” “And I will make him my firstborn” (26-27, BCP Coverdale).

In the appointed NT reading from Acts 10:34-38, our attention is drawn especially this Sunday to Peter’s testimony before the Gentile Cornelius that God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power (38). The Collect for this Sunday will put forward in the form of prayer the Christian doctrine of “adoption,” which, we shall see, will be an important theme of discipleship throughout the Epiphany season, “that we, who are born again by water and the Spirit, may be faithful as [the Father’s] adopted children.” So, extending from my commentary above, we find here that the epiphany of Jesus Christ is not only an ongoing movement in his life but in the life of the whole Church, his body, over time. 

The Collect

Eternal Father, at the baptism of Jesus, you revealed him to be your Son, and your Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove: Grant that we, who are born again by water and the Spirit, may be faithful as your adopted children; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Behold My Servant (Isaiah 42:1-9)

Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
    my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
    he will bring forth justice to the nations. 
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
    or make it heard in the street; 
a bruised reed he will not break,
    and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
    he will faithfully bring forth justice. 
He will not grow faint or be discouraged
    till he has established justice in the earth;
    and the coastlands wait for his law (1-4).

Who is the servant in Isaiah’s “Servant Songs”? We must not be so quick to respond “Jesus” that we leave ourselves entirely out of the love song. The servant is Jesus Christ, and we, the Church, are Christ’s body. As members of Christ, Yahweh sings to us of his delight and, yes, his calling in righteousness to be light for the nations.  

The Lord has set us (and you individually as part of the body) apart for a great purpose, his own purpose, and he will uphold us in every step we take in his name, just as he did for the incarnate Jesus of Nazareth. Recall Paul’s words in Ephesians: In love, he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will…(1:4-5). And this: For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (2:10).

Today, in the Spirit, hear the love of Isaiah’s servant song as directed to you and walk in it.

You Are My Father (Psalm 89:20-29)

[David, my servant] shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father,
    my God, and the Rock of my salvation.’ 
And I will make him the firstborn,
    the highest of the kings of the earth. 
My steadfast love I will keep for him forever,
    and my covenant will stand firm for him. 
I will establish his offspring forever
    and his throne as the days of the heavens (26-29).

In Epiphany 1, we focus on the baptism of Jesus. There is something of a dialogue going on in the appointed psalm and Gospel reading between the Messiah crying out to God ‘You are my Father’ in the second part of Psalm 89 and the Father calling to Jesus, “You are my beloved Son” in Mark 1. See how often in the Gospels Jesus cries out “my Father” in the course of His ministry—to praise (Matthew 11:25, Luke 10:21-22), to give thanks (John 11:41), and to ask for consolation (Matthew 26:39).  

Even more astounding, Jesus also teaches us to call God our Father (Mt. 5:43-48, 6:9). There is, then, a jump in our spiritual understanding, which we are intended to take as followers of Jesus Christ in this season (and always): Just as the Father God calls Jesus my Son and Jesus calls God my Father, we are meant to hear the Father calling us His sons and daughters and to cry out ourselves to him Abba Father. Making that jump is the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in us. We remember this from our Epistle reading last week (Galatians 4:1-7).  

Today, in the Spirit, pray to hear in every oncoming circumstance and every passing interaction with another person the voice of God saying to you affectionately, “my daughter” or “my son,” that you may respond, my Father, just as Jesus does.

I Now Realize How True It Is (Acts 10:34-38)

So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.

For Epiphany 1 Sunday, Peter’s saying God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power makes this a fitting Epistle reading alongside the Gospel reading on the baptism of Jesus. The passage also demonstrates the continuing development of Peter as a follower and apostle of Jesus, which Luke has carefully traced in both his Gospel and Acts. Peter’s words Truly I understand (or I now realize how true it is [NIV]) reveal something critically important about that development. It’s not that Peter suddenly has new information on God’s concern for the Gentiles but that he now realizes that God is true to his word about wanting to bless the nations (see Genesis 12:3), a lesson he learned from childhood and beyond. For Peter, it will take his own experience of Gentiles miraculously seeking Jesus Christ to bring him to the point of sharing the Gospel with them. Peter must be willing to enter the Gentile Cornelius’ house in the first place, a step God himself has also prepared Peter to make with a vision (see Acts 10:1-20). 

Are we not all astonished to realize how active God is in shaping our minds and hearts over time? Job asks: Where then does wisdom come from? Where does understanding dwell?… God understands the way to it, and he alone knows where it dwells (Job 28:20,22). 

Today, Lord, by your Spirit, we thank you for increasing our knowledge and kindling new desires in our hearts, like you did with Peter, so that we may equipped to accomplish your purposes in the world.

Baptize You with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:7-11)

And [John the Baptist] preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” In those days, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” 

The effect on the reader, or hearer, of Mark’s narration in this passage, the way he compacts the preaching of John about Jesus and the events of Jesus’ baptism, is one of instilling greater confidence in the work of God in all believers. Where there is a separation of these events in Matthew and Luke, from Mark, we observe Jesus will baptize you [his followers] with the Holy Spirit, followed by Jesus’ own dramatic baptism in the Spirit and say, “Oh, he is baptized by the Spirit and so am I; so I too am a beloved child of the Father.” 

We cannot help but believe, reading Mark,  that our own infilling of the Holy Spirit, which comes to all of us by grace through faith in Jesus, will carry with it the same seal of approval that his did–and it does! So Paul writes in Ephesians: When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory (1:13-14, NIV).

Today, in the Holy Spirit, by whose presence in our lives we are assured that we are sons and daughters of God, we put aside any thinking that reflects doubt on that matter and any behavior that constitutes denial.  

Today in the Spirit

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Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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