Planning - Baptism of the Lord/First Sunday after the Epiphany
"Here is my servant . . . my chosen . . . I have given you as . . . a light to the nations."
Psalm Response: Psalm 29 (UMH 761).
The response is a to a familiar tune. Sing the Psalm with the sung response, using Tone 1 in C major.
Peter, preaching to Cornelius and his household, summarizes the life and ministry of Jesus, "beginning in Galilee after the baptism . . ."
Matthew's account of the baptism of Jesus at the Jordan.
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Christian calendar: This is the Baptism of the Lord Sunday. Baptism of the Lord Sunday is a day for reaffirming the baptismal covenant and membership vows. If you are receiving new members this day, use Baptismal Covenant IV as revised by the 2008 General Conference. (Select the format you prefer on the landing page). If you are not receiving new members, you may choose the more interactive version celebrated at the 2008 General Conference (English, Spanish).
Today, the color is white; and all the readings intentionally relate to each other, and in particular to the gospel reading. For the Sundays between next Sunday and Transfiguration Sunday (March 6), the color is green and the texts are divided into two streams: Old Testament/Psalm and Gospel relate to each other with a focus on the gospel, and the Epistle is a semi-continuous reading from Paul's letters to the Christians in Corinth. Do not try to relate the Epistle to the other readings; it's not related! You may find it much easier to focus your planning and preaching around one stream or the other, although we still recommend you read all the texts and pray or sing the Psalm each week.
The Season after Epiphany, especially starting today, is a good time to explore the meaning of baptism. Consider using today to start an intergenerational study of baptism. I Belong to God combines "By Water and the Spirit" (our official teaching document about baptism) with resources for teaching the meaning and practice of baptism with all ages, infancy through senior adult. For a video based curriculum, consider Baptism in the United Methodist Church from United Methodist Communications/Ecufilm.
On the denominational calendar, January commemorations include Human Trafficking Awareness Day (January 11), Human Relations Day (January 16), and Ecumenical Sunday (January 23) in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
As with all Sundays that have some cultural or programmatic elements, keep in mind this advice from the Book of Worship:
"Such special Sundays should never take precedence over the particular day in the Christian year. The special Sundays are placed on the calendar in the context of the Christian year, which is designed to make clear the calling of the Church as the people of God." (UMBOW, 422).
Cultural Calendar: In some Hispanic and Latino cultures, the celebration of Christmas and the Epiphany continues with daily parties and the sharing of food and dancing. Euro-American Protestant culture tends to dump the Christmas motif summarily with the passage into the New Year. What are people thinking about and engaged with as they come into the early weeks of the New Year? How do these connect with the gospel and the readings for this day? And what does the worship planning team need to be alert to in making connections between the gospel keeping of time and the dominant culture's keeping of time? What time and whose time is it anyway?
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As with Epiphany (or Epiphany Sunday), the readings for this day are all related to each other with a focus on the gospel. As you plan for today, consider the gospel the anchor text, the core source for ideas for the design of worship and worship space, then add elements from the other texts around that.
Front and center today is the baptism of Jesus, and this year in Matthew's gospel.
With baptism taking such a prominent role today, where will you place your font? If your font is tiny, how might you obtain a larger bowl or fountain or even trough (trimmed in white) to draw attention to the centrality of baptism not only this day, but for the whole of discipleship to Jesus? How will you illuminate the font (perhaps with a Paschal candle at its side?) to draw even more vitual attention to it? And how will you place the font relative to pulpit and Lord's table so as to show the relationship between the three -- font as entrance, pulpit as ongoing instruction in the Way, and Table as foretaste of the heavenly banquet here and now?
Matthew's account is in two parts: John's objection and the baptism itself. Each is important.
Matthew is the only gospel writer to record actual reticence by John to baptize Jesus, although Mark and Luke hint at this in having John say that he is not worthy to untie the sandals of the one who is coming. Matthew's is also the only gospel that includes Jesus' reply to John's objection. "Let that go, now. This is the way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness" (v. 15).
Let what go? John's objection was that Jesus ought to be baptizing him rather than the other way around (verse 14). Jesus was the One, after all, and John but a messenger, a forerunner. Jesus insists not only that John should baptize him, but that he should let go of his objection, his vision of how things "should be," and that such letting go was how both of them could "fulfill all righteousness." In God's kingdom, the least are blessed and are those so enabled to bless others.
The completion of the baptism generates several apocalyptic responses. The heavens are opened, a sign of significant revelation about to come. The Holy Spirit descends on Jesus as a dove, harbinger of new creation. (The dove in the image above seems to blend into the golden background, but it is there!). And a voice from heaven says, "This is my son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased" (verse 17).
These three signs conspire to show that God was inaugurating something dramatically new here, and inaugurating it precisely in and through Jesus. The baptism of Jesus thus was itself another epiphany, an inbreaking and manifestation of God in our midst.
Baptized into Jesus Christ by water and the Holy Spirit, we, too, experience the inauguration of something dramatically new in our lives, nothing less than being incorporated into God's mighty acts of salvation, initiated into Christ's church, and given new birth. Every time we celebrate the baptismal covenant, whether for baptism, first profession of faith (sometimes called confirmation), receiving new professing members, or reaffirming our baptismal vows, we ritually join what God did, said, and made known in the baptism of Jesus. Heaven's opened, Spirit outpoured, God's voice speaking -- "My beloved child with whom I am well pleased."
How does your celebration of baptism or its reaffirmation open up what God then did for Jesus and we now continue in his name?
Assuming the gospel is the anchor text, and the font is a signficant anchor object in worship today, consider then how then readings from Isaiah, Psalm, and Acts reflect and cast additional light upon the gospel and the font. If the font is in a center aisle, consider reading and having artwork related to Isaiah on the left side of your worship space as you face the font and reading and having artwork related to Acts on the right side. Lead the Psalm, read the gospel and preach from the font, concluding the sermon with an invitation to come to the water and the celebration of the forms of the baptismal covenant needed for the day, followed by the Peace, the offering, and the Great Thanksgiving.
The reading from Isaiah is one of several "Servant Songs." In the original context, the Servant of the Lord was a king who would bring about justice. The identity of the Servant seems to vary from song to song and has been a source of ongoing scholarly speculation both in Judaism and in Christianity. Some of the servant songs even name Cyrus, the King of Persia, who released the Judeans from exile in Babylon, as that servant. Today, however, we read this text typologically, understanding it as early Christians did (and Matthew in today's gospel!) as a reference to Jesus, the Messiah.
From this angle, this prophecy both informs and expands on what Jesus declares in the gospel about "fulfilling all righteousness" (or "justice" as in verse 1 of Isaiah 42 -- the word in Greek can be translated either way). The way this servant brings about justice is unprecedented -- a truly "new thing." It is not by shouting down or forcing out the unjust. It is by supporting and raising up those who have been treated unjustly -- the bruised reeds, dimly burning wicks, blinded, and imprisoned of this world. The way of righteousness, of justice, that this servant establishes is the way of redeeming love.
Consider posting artwork or projecting images of dimly burning wicks nursed back to full flame, of blind people coming to see, of those kept in darkness emerging into light. All of these are images of the ways that God both restores and renews us in baptism, and of the life we are called to lead, the way we are called to pursue justice and righteousness for all following in the way of the Servant, Jesus.
Acts sheds a different kind of light on the font this day. While Isaiah identifies God's redeeming purposes for those who have been hurt and oppressed, Acts reminds us that the waters of baptism are open to all, anywhere, of whatever cultural or other background, who seek to confess Jesus as Lord ("fear God," vs. 35) and follow in his way ("working righteousness," verse 35, "believe into his name," verse 43). This text also adds another dimension -- Jesus as Judge of the living and the dead and Forgiver of sins for all who follow his way.
Consider, then, all that these waters of baptism hold out for us, this day and every day. New creation, new birth, adoption as children of God, means of justice, inspiration to Jesus' way of embodying God's justice, availability to all people everywhere who seek to follow this way, seal for the day of judgment and cleansing from sin.
Assuming the gospel is the anchor text, and the font is a signficant anchor object in worship today, consider then how then readings from Isaiah, Psalm and Acts reflect and cast additional light upon the gospel and the font. If the font is in a center aisle, consider reading and having artwork related to Isaiah on the left side of your worship space as you face the font and reading and having artwork related to Acts on the right side. Lead the Psalm, read the gospel and preach from the font, concluding the sermon with an invitation to come to the water and the celebration of the forms of the baptismal covenant needed for the day, followed by the Peace, the offering and the Great Thanksgiving.
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Embodying the Word: Baptism of the Lord
The United Methodist Book of Worship (84) lists this day, Baptism of the Lord, as one of four days especially appropriate for baptism, confirmation, and other services of the baptismal covenant. Consider how you will engage the people with the baptismal covenant on this Sunday. Whether or not you have baptisms or confirmations, consider making this a day for congregational reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant. Pay particular attention to the rubrics on 114 in the Book of Worship; and in considering how to use water (we recommend generous amounts), see "Using Water in Baptism and Reaffirmation: How Much and By Whom?" Use the entire ritual, including the "Renunciation of Sin and Profession of Faith" (111).
Sometimes people raise concerns that our baptismal and Communion rituals are too long. Actually, most of the rituals per se take no more time than singing a five-stanza hymn (about five minutes). What makes them seem long tends to be one of the following:
- The pastor or presider reads the ritual in a boring monotone, rather than proclaiming or praying it;
- The people are not invited to be actively engaged in the ritual with verbal and musical responses;
- Lines for receiving water or bread and wine are too long.
It is the role of the pastor or presider to ensure that she or he leads the ritual in an engaging way appropriate to the action at the time. This involves careful attention both to voicing and to gestures throughout the ritual. For step-by-tep guidance, see our new resource, "Voicing and Enacting the Baptismal Covenant."
Long lines are always a problem. Consider creating multiple stations where people may receive the blessed water to reduce the length of lines without rushing people. Pray over water in the font and in an additional pitcher, then pour water from that pitcher into bowls that may be taken to the other stations.
Consider keeping the sermon brief today so that you have time to fully enter into the experience of reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant and Holy Communion. All the services of the baptismal covenant end with the rubric: "It is most fitting that the service continue with Holy Communion." Let the ritual -- what you do in worship today with word, water, bread and wine -- be the primary way you form people in faith.
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Greeting: BOW 300 (Psalm)
Opening Hymn: 252, UMH, "When Jesus Came to Jordan"
Opening Prayer: BOW 463 (Psalm, Acts)
- UMH 253, "Baptism of the Lord"
- UMH 329, "Prayer to the Holy Spirit"
- UMH 335, "An Invitation to the Holy Spirit" (a prayer)
- UMH 607, "A Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition" (Baptism). This might be used in the reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant perhaps as a conclusion. Or if you have Covenant Discipleship groups in your church, you may find it better to use it the following Sunday as part of Covenant Discipleship Renewal Sunday.
- BOW 301 (Matthew, Baptism)
- UMH 429, "For Our Country" (Isaiah, Acts)
- BOW 527, "For the World and Its Peoples" (Matthew, Baptism)
Concerns and Prayers:
- DO celebrate Communion today! Consider including the intercessions in the Great Thanksgiving following the epiclesis ("Pour out your Holy Spirit . . . redeemed by his blood"), inserting biddings such as these:
Remember your church and its mission in every place, especially . . .
Remember all who suffer and grieve and those in trouble, especially . . .
Remember every tribe and nation awaiting your justice and peace, especially . . .
Remember especially these nations, on behalf of whom we join your whole church in intercession today (See the Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer:): Cyprus, Greece, and Turkey.
This would preserve the intercessory action of the assembly and allow a quicker move from the sermon to the Service of Baptismal Covenant/Reaffirmation, and then into Communion.
Baptismal Responses: BOW 173-175 (Matthew, Baptism). Use if there are actual baptisms.
Doxology: BOW 182 (Isaiah, Matthew)
Great Thanksgiving for Baptism of the Lord: BOW 58-59.
- BOW 559 (Psalm, Acts)
- Laughing Bird Liturgical Resources (Isaiah). Select January 9 and click on "Commission and Benediction"
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