Reflections on the readings for Sunday 9 January 2011
Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7; Psalm 29:1-4, 9-10; Acts 10:34-38; Matthew 3:13-17
The baptism of Jesus marks the beginning of his public ministry. He joins in the queue to be baptised by John, a baptism of repentance. John is shocked at the thought of baptising his cousin whose connection to God he has probably recognised to be superior to his own, but Jesus insists. His identification with his people is total. As they are longing and preparing for the coming of God’s kingdom, so is Jesus. As he takes upon himself their sense of needing to be reconciled to God, the Spirit of God descends upon him in the form of a dove and declares him to be God’s son, the one who experiences and embodies God’s favour and the one who brings about the reign of God.
The image of the Spirit-dove descending upon Jesus as he comes up out of the water reminds me of the opening verses of Genesis where the Spirit broods or hovers over the waters as a prelude to creation. But today’s psalm offers a different image to reflect upon, a choice I find quite surprising. It borrows mythological imagery of the storm god to highlight God’s awesome, even frightening, power and splendour. The connection with the Gospel seems to be the phrase “the voice of the Lord over the waters”. In the psalm God’s voice is the roar of thunder, lightning, howling wind and lashing rain. In the Gospel, the voice accompanies the descent of the dove. The power of God at work in the ministry of Jesus is going to overturn all kinds of expectations.
The reading from Acts is taken from Peter’s sermon in the home of Cornelius, the first non-Jew to whom the apostle preached. The chapter goes on to recount how the Spirit of God descended upon Cornelius’ household, further convincing Peter that the good news of Jesus really was for all people, not just his own Jewish community. The sermons in the book of Acts give us an indication of the earliest message of the Christian community. In this excerpt the start of Jesus’ ministry is linked to the baptism of John. Jesus is described as a man anointed with the Holy Spirit and power who went about doing good, releasing people from the power of darkness. God was clearly with him.
The prophet Isaiah gives us a magnificent description of the characteristics of the one anointed with the Spirit of God and in whom God delights. The anointed one brings justice to the nations, sight to the blind and freedom to the captives. He doesn’t do this with any conventional display of power. He does not use force in the service of right, but is characterised by gentleness and compassion: he does not break the crushed reed or quench the wavering flame. This is the manifestation of the Spirit in the form of the dove, not the thunderstorm, but it is powerful nonetheless: the anointed one will not waver or be crushed until true justice is established on earth. This is the power and splendour of God in a different key. The earliest disciples recognised it in the life and ministry of Jesus. Is it also evident in the lives of those who are baptised into Christ and receive the same Spirit?