Baptism of the Lord
The baptism of Jesus. Ceiling mosaic (12th century) from a monastery church in Istanbul.
Revised Common Lectionary Prayers for this service are available at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.
Leccionario en Español, Leccionario Común Revisado: Consulta Sobre Textos Comunes.
Para obtener más recursos basados en el leccionario, Estudios Exegético: Homiléticos.
Lectionnaire en français, Le Lectionnaire Œcuménique Révisé.
"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 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: Season after Epiphany
We are now in the Season after Epiphany. Like its Ordinary Time companion, the Season after Pentecost, the Season after Epiphany is “bookended” by two Sundays in which all of the readings are designed to coordinate with the gospel reading. The two bookend Sundays of this season are Baptism of the Lord (today) and Tranfiguration (March 2). For the rest of this season, the Old Testament and Psalm coordinate with the gospel. The Epistle reading (this year from I Corinthians) is semi-continuous.
This means the readings throughout this season provide for two distinctive series, one based on the OT/Gospel readings, the other based on the Epistle reading. For more discussion of these two series or streams, see Planning for the Season after Epiphany 2014.
Today is the first of the “bookend Sundays,” Baptism of the Lord. We focus on the baptism of Jesus and reaffirm 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).
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.
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.
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 reticence by John to baptize Jesus, though 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 above all. The least or lesser thereby become the primary channel to bless all 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. 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, and inaugurating it precisely in and through Jesus. The baptism of Jesus 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: Heavens opened, Spirit outpoured, God’s voice speaking— “My beloved child with whom I am well pleased.”
The reading from Isaiah is one of the 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, the blinded, and the imprisoned. The way of justice this servant establishes is the way of redeeming love.
While Isaiah identifies God’s redeeming purposes for those who have been hurt and oppressed, Acts reminds us the waters of baptism are open to all, anywhere, 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.
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In Your Planning Team
Kickoff a New Season
It’s another Sunday rich in symbols and celebration. As Epiphany was culmination of Christmas Season, Baptism of the Lord is “kickoff” for the Season after Epiphany. The purpose of this season is to prepare your congregation or worshiping community to accompany persons on an intensive journey of baptismal preparation or reaffirmation during Lent. As noted in Planning for the Season after Epiphany 2014, this is the purpose whether you follow the Epistle track or the Old Testament/Gospel track in the weeks ahead. These tracks are truly distinctive. The readings in I Corinthians focus on working through conflict and diversity. The readings in Matthew, John and the Old Testament focus on the early ministry of Jesus and his calling and core teaching of disciples (Sermon on the Mount). Choose just one, and use today to kick it off effectively.
The baptism of Jesus and baptismal reaffirmation are a great place to begin either journey together. To be “in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations and races” calls us to work collaboratively, appreciating the gifts and differences we each bring, not elevating one gift or one person over another. Likewise, the vow to accept Jesus as Savior and serve him as Lord relates directly to the call to discipleship and living as he teaches in the Sermon on the Mount.
So leverage the texts for today— both biblical and ritual—not only to keep today well, but also to point the way worship will be leading your congregation in the coming weeks.
Keep the Day: The Font
With baptism having such a prominent role today, consider and decide where will you place your font relative to the pulpit and Table so it has the prominence it needs in your worship space today. The font is the place of entrance and new birth. The pulpit is the place of ongoing instruction in the Way. The Table is where you offer yourselves in praise and thanksgiving and enjoy a foretaste of the heavenly banquet here and now.
If your font is small or hard to see in your space, find and use 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. (And consider, strongly, getting a larger font for permanent use!).
Call attention to the font with lighting as well—either spotlights or, if you have one, a paschal candle.
Assuming the gospel is the anchor text, and the font is a signficant anchor object in worship today, consider then how the 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. These might include images of dimly burning wicks nursed back to full flame, of blind people coming to see, and of those kept in darkness emerging into light. Place artwork related to Acts on the right side and read this lesson from 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, using the appropriate services needed for this 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 (p. 84) lists this day 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. 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 step guidance, see our downloadable resource, Voicing and Enacting the Baptismal Covenant.
Long lines are always a problem. Consider creating multiple stations and lines for using 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 12 and click on "Commission and Benediction"
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