A reflection on the Propers for the First Sunday after the Epiphany, the Baptism of Jesus: Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17 by Janine Goodwin, M.A., M.S. Ed.
“See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.”
These new things were strange to the people who first heard them. If we set aside the familiarity of the readings, they are still strange to us now. These passages are not new in the sense that we have never heard of them, but they are most likely new in the sense that they still challenge us to look outside our preconceptions and ask what uncomfortable changes we may need to make if we want to follow Jesus. They remind me of a remark made by G. K. Chesterton, a man with whom I disagree on more points than I have time to discuss, but with whom I must agree on this point: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and not been tried.”
Speaking in a world full of rulers jostling for territory and wealth, Isaiah shows us not a ruler who will conquer all the other rulers, but a servant more concerned with justice than with power, one who will not exercise force but who will not rest until the necessary work is complete.
Jesus goes outside the religious and political power structure of his time to accept a cleansing that is not for ritual purity, as was the custom, but is a commitment to act righteously and a preparation for a coming judgment; he takes this strange bath at the hands of a ragged outsider who lives in the wilderness and makes strange prophecies.
The passage from Acts is the conclusion of a story in which Peter experiences a strange and repulsive dream and a stranger event in waking life, both of them pointing to the need for the young church to give up its ideas about what customs are acceptable and what are, welcome people from very different cultures, and find a way to include them. Instead of forcing people to change in order to be included, the early church finds itself called to change in order to accept the people the Holy Spirit sends to them.
In these scriptures, God is indeed doing new things, and as usual, is not doing the new things most of us may want. We tend to imagine new things that will make our lives easy, secure, and contented and give us positive change without requiring loss or sacrifice, or we become nostalgic about a past that we see as simpler and better than the present. In both these cases, we are looking for a time when everyone will be happy, safe, and healthy and there are no looming disasters or worrisome uncertainties, forgetting that no such time has ever existed anywhere. Total security in this life is a fantasy that can only be maintained by putting a lot of energy into denial about the past and magical thinking about the future, and our consumer culture is more than ready to use that fantasy to sell us things that are supposed to fix everything and give us trouble-free, uniformly positive change while reminding us of how tasty Grandma’s cookies were. We can’t, however, follow that fantasy without tuning out the messages of today's readings.
Prophets like Isaiah are not just noble souls who give us words to live by (or to read sonorously in beautiful places and then forget); they are also radicals who were spurned and often killed by the power structures of their times. No one knew whether the prophets of their times are true or false, which leaves us with the dreadful responsibility of discernment and the lifelong task of becoming people who can discern responsibly and honestly, because not every person who sounds strange to us is a prophet, but a true prophet is always going to sound strange. The people making prophetic utterances right now may be fakes or faddists. They may be mentally unstable, and they could still be right even if they are; I have long suspected that our culture’s fear of people with mental illness and other mental disabilities is largely due to the fact that such people often have the ability to see uncomfortable truths and speak them far too clearly for anyone’s comfort. True prophets, the ones speak audacious things out of a deeper sanity that challenges the prevailing insanities of a given culture, make enormous demands on us if we take them seriously. Prophets are very dangerous people; the true ones are more dangerous to our security and our self-satisfaction than the false ones.
Jesus, in today’s Gospel, does the one thing that Jesus does consistently: he defies expectation. He practices his faith by going to a wild prophet and accepting a strange rite. He risks being seen as wrong. God’s voice names him as a beloved son, and sets him on the road to a ministry of healing, prophecy, and teaching that will lead to crucifixion because his words frighten both his own people and the empire that conquered them. He goes to John, an outsider who has taken a traditional ritual in a new direction, a step that would cause some present-day churches to dismiss him as a heretic and others to begin a long and careful process of study before they would consider joining in the changes the wild man is making down by the river. John is also a prophet who calls for repentance and talks of a coming kingdom and a judgment, a prophet who will be imprisoned because he confronts a local ruler about his personal ethics and killed because of a family squabble. John is not a safe person to know. Neither is Jesus.
Peter’s radiantly beautiful statement of faith comes between two struggles; his struggle with God and himself over what parts of his faith tradition are unchangeable and which ones must be changed, and his struggle with the church over the same issue once he is comes to believe what he is hearing and seeing. He is convinced, he brings the prophetic word to his companions in faith, and he faces condemnation, argument, and the real risk of exclusion should the wider church refuse what he brings to them.
These are difficult stories if we want comfort and continuity. They are calls to responsibility even if we want to make changes in our own lives and in the life of the world. The kind of change and repentance the prophets and Jesus call for are not easy; they require painful honesty, hard work, and sacrifice. They will lead to opposition. On the private level, people trying to make positive changes in their own lives frequently encounter opposition from those close to them when the change becomes apparent and challenges the comfort level of others. People trying to make a difference at larger levels are met with even more opposition and frequently hear that change is impossible—as though the choices we make or fail to make were not changing the world around us at every moment. It is hard to step forth in faith and trust God to lead us through change. It may seem easier to cling to what we have, yet what we cling to may also be lost.
This is the good news for feminist theology, for those working for the full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the church, for all who believe that the churches can and will survive in a shifting world: that God is indeed telling us that new things are possible, that the outsider and the prophet are friends of Jesus, that institutions can be open to looking at tradition differently, respecting it and seeing what more needs to be done. We need humility, reason, respect for tradition, and clear thinking; we need to make responsible choices and be ready to face opposition. We need most of all to trust that we will be led into truth, to pray, and to listen for the voice of the One who calls us in prophecy, in dream, and in daily life.