Lectionary for Jan. 7, 2023
Baptism of Our Lord
Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29;
Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

As the story goes, someone once asked the famed 20th-century theologian Karl Barth when he was saved. When we hear that question, many of us (especially those from the Midwest) interpret it as asking about the moment a human chose to respond to Jesus’ saving work. Barth thought for a moment before replying: “I was saved at about 3 o’clock on a Friday afternoon, on a hill outside of Jerusalem in 33 A.D.” The good news we cling to is that Jesus has done it all already—before we could lend a hand with merit or foul it up with fault. We then act out of this good news and hope that Jesus provides. In this week’s lectionary readings, we are continually reminded that, in baptism, God has already acted before humans can even take the first step.

First, it’s profoundly good news that Genesis 1 is not a story of creation ex nihilo or out of nothing. However you translate the first couple words of Scripture (which are, as voweled, part of a linguistic construct—“When God began creating …”), water already existed before God says the first word. Before God calls for light, the deep already existed. Darkness is over it. The Spirit/Breath of God vibrates over it. The unorganized earth is somehow mingled up around it. We are introduced to God’s creating acts after they have begun.

Where did the water come from? We just don’t know. Later, Wisdom will insist that she was around even before the creation of the primordial waters (Proverbs 8:22-24). We have the briefest poetic description of the formation of the deep, but a lot of creating is assumed to have happened before Genesis begins.

I’m not trying to make a science claim here but a theological one. Before enlightenment, there is water ready to witness the outflow of God’s works. When God said, “Let there be light,” that light shimmered over the waves animated by God’s Spirit/Breath, reflected in thousands of directions before there were eyes to perceive it. The psalmist recalls this moment in the nature poem of Psalm 29, when the voice of God boomed out over the waters, and God’s glory rang out over the great deep (3). My grandfather used to ask, “If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one to hear it, does it still make a noise?” Before ears were formed, God’s voice echoed light into existence, and the waves of the ocean lapped it up, literally.

Why is this important? God is moving in, through and over the waters before humans have a chance to do anything. When we look at Mark’s narrative of Jesus’ baptism, we see that God is active before humans. John the Baptizer announces a baptism for the repentance of sins. Before folks have a chance to come to the river from Jerusalem, God stands ready to forgive and reconcile those who have gone astray.

God, and the waters of baptism, have always been ready for us.

Jesus, at the start of Mark’s account of his ministry, was baptized and prepared for ministry. At this point, Jesus would have undergone probably dozens of baptisms before each of the times he participated in temple worship as he grew up. Yet the waters of the Jordan flowed patiently, if rapidly, waiting for this moment when the adult Jesus would inaugurate his ministry.

When John lowered Jesus into the waters of baptism, the Spirit of God moved over the waters just as she had before the first day of creation. This time, the Spirit paused her eternal movement to descend upon Jesus. I take great comfort in the order here. Jesus and John didn’t need to dig a swimming pool or fill up a vat. The water and Spirit were ready, just waiting for the right time to bear witness to how God’s mission in the world would progress in the Jordan valley that fateful day.

The Spirit is ready, but humans can take a long time to get things right. The Acts reading for this week is a tale of making sure the most meaningful and efficacious words were spoken at baptisms. While those who followed Jesus in Corinth waited for best practices around baptism to be brought to them, the waters were always ready. When the Corinthians were baptized again and the Spirit came upon them, the water was ready to receive them as often as they needed.

Whether we are baptized as little children, baptized as adult converts, or simply remember our baptism with a finger in the water brought to our own foreheads, we confess with our actions that God is always ready, always acting before we make our first move. God, and the waters of baptism, have always been ready for us.

Cory Driver
Cory Driver is the director of L.I.F.E. (Leading the Integration of Faith and Entrepreneurship) at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. His book on wilderness spirituality, Life Unsettled, is available from Fortress Press.

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