Planning - The First Sunday after Epiphany/Baptism of the Lord
Darkness, chaos, waters, and then the Word that brings order to them all; the emergence of light from the midst of darkness. The Hebrew reads "Day 1."
Psalm 29 (UMH 761).
Floods, tornadoes, lightning strikes, devastation, and God reigning in the midst of it all -- images of the awesome and dangerous power of God. Consider singing this as refrain: "[God's] chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form, and dark is God's path on the wings of the storm" (UMH 73).
This story is a reminder of the power and extent of the ministry of John the Baptizer -- reaching all the way from Judea to the western shores of Asia Minor (Turkey) by mid-century (probably some 25-30 years after his execution). John had taught people to live differently in light of the coming Kingdom; Jesus would give them the power of life. It is probably no accident that Luke tells us the number of these believers was about 12, for Ephesus became the seat of apostolic ministry in and from western Asia Minor for decades to come.
While John's baptismal ministry seems to unite folks from Judea and all Jerusalem in confession and repentance, his baptism of Jesus "splits the heavens" (like lightning). The announcement of the voice from the heavens (like thunder) answers the hope for the arrival of one chosen by God to pour out the Holy Spirit.
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Baptism of the Lord. Both ecumenical Christianity and our own Book of Worship mark today as a most appropriate time for baptism and baptismal reaffirmation. The texts this year make clear how momentous and even dangerous baptism and its reaffirmation can be for us. That's why it's always important that we prepare people for what God will do to them, and then through them, in baptism. Use Baptismal Covenant I (note: official version available only online) if there are baptisms or new professing members to be received. Use Baptismal Covenant IV (also available only online) or our new Reaffirmation if there are no baptisms.
Whichever version you use, be sure also to plan for the service of the Table today as well. Use the Great Thanksgiving for Baptism of the Lord (BOW 58-59). Communion is doubly important on this day: first, to express the fullness of the grace of God offered to us; second, in light of these texts, to give thanks for and receive the spiritual food and strength we need to live the dangerous life into which we have been reborn.
Calendar and Colors -- This is the last "white" Sunday until Transfiguration of the Lord (February 19). Next week the color changes to green, and we begin a five week series of readings in two distinct streams. The Old Testament/Psalm and Gospel all focus around themes of calling to discipleship and the ministries into which Jesus called his disciples. The Epistle reading (from I Corinthians 6-9) focuses on basic "life ways" or "practice patterns" of Christian discipleship. For more information on these two different emphases in the lectionary, see "Planning Worship for the Season after Epiphany, Year B" on this website.
Ash Wednesday (purple) comes at a more "normal" time this year -- February 22-- compared to last year's very long season after the Epiphany.
Special offerings and events for January include Human Relations Day on January 15, Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Observance on January 19, the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity (January 18-25), and Ecumenical Sunday (January 22).
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The words of this week's texts declare the mystery, power, and terrible beauty of the saving power of God. The images are powerful and potentially mindblowing chaos, darkness, light, storms, winds, floods, trees being uprooted, calm in the midst of storm (God enthroned on the flood), all in the temple crying out "Glory!," "wild-man" John, the heavens splitting. If you do not have a projection system, consider renting one or asking a church member to borrow a home projector for the day to help your congregation experience the texts fully. And don't ignore the sounds suggested by all these images! The soundscape of these texts is overwhelming, perhaps terrifyingly so at times. Only the voice of God in Genesis 1 and Mark 1 seems the least bit tame and orderly; but God's voice in Psalm 29 certainly isn't tame! Think psychedelic or orchestral/organ cacophony (pull all the stops!); or think about drums in wild beats on the one hand, contrasted with "Let there be light" and "This is my beloved Son" on the other (if you think of God's voice in these instances as being apart from the other kinds of sounds). If you have rights to pull together a video montage, consider including the "red pill/blue pill" scene from The Matrix that's exactly the kind of choice God offers us in baptism and at each point we renew our covenant.
Remember, too, as noted in last week's Worship Planning Helps, that Baptism of the Lord was originally celebrated as part of Epiphany, the manifestation of God in Jesus Christ to the world. The powerful creation imagery in this week's text points to God's powerful and direct activity in the world in creation, destruction, and re-creation, particularly around images of water (storms, floods, the deep), all of which are caught up in and behind the scenes of the baptism of Jesus and our own. We hear echoes of this imagery in the Thanksgiving Over the Water in the various official forms of the Baptismal Covenant of The United Methodist Church (I, II and IV -- III has been superseded and should no longer be used) and perhaps even more obviously in thenew Reaffirmation used at General Conference in 2008.
Attend carefully to the richness of the imagery of the first two texts and Psalm, and to the directness of Mark in your worship planning team. There is no equivocation at the water in Mark as we have it in Matthew. This is the year to experience, teach, and preach Mark's version. Jesus came to the wild prophet, John baptized him, the heavens were seen to split, the Spirit was discerned to descend on Jesus like a dove, and there was a voice from the sky declaring to Jesus (and perhaps others who stood by) that he was the Son, the Beloved, in whom God was well-pleased.
All of that lay behind the baptism of Jesus, and all of that lies behind the baptismal covenant we either enter or reaffirm this day: creation, new creation, water, wild prophets, storms, heavenly creatures crying "Glory," sky-splitting, declaration of our status as God's children and God's love for us. As you think about worship design today, not just for the baptismal covenant itself, but for other parts of worship as well (singing, art, dance, the use and abundance of water, the richness of the feast at the Lord's Table, praying, confessing, praising), plan ways that you can help your congregation enter into and experience anew all the richness God offers us in baptism to enable us to live out the dangerous and adventurous vocation as disciples and missionaries of God's reign in the name of Jesus.
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We strongly encourage you to use this day to experience the richness of our sacramental life. Let there be water (lots of it), story, gesture (big gestures!), and active participation ("all the people cry 'Glory!'" and "all the Jerusalemites came to be baptized by John"). Take time to enter the experience. Preaching is important . . . but as Saint Francis reminds us, "Use words [only] if necessary!" People will need to do more than see the waters of baptism or receive small portions of the loaf and cup. Give them the opportunity to touch, splash, and linger at the font. Supply enough bread and wine/juice for all to have a large portion. This day begs for a full, lively, and lavish use of the ritual!
Another note on baptismal reaffirmation: Reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant is both a congregational act and a "one-by-one" reappropriation of the grace of God given in baptism. Consider inviting the people to come to the font to touch the water, with the option of then coming to stations for the laying on of hands by ordained or appointed clergy (including any retired clergy who may be worshpping with you) with the words on 114 of The United Methodist Book of Worship ("The Holy Spirit work within you . . ."). This can make for powerful moments of hearing God's claim and promise. Or when you are celebrating Communion, you could invite the people to come to the font to touch the water on the way to receiving. Or you could have assisting ministers who have bowls of water from the font mark the forehead or hands of people coming to Communion. For more on the use of water at baptismal reaffirmation, click here.
Hospitality: Not everyone who attends today will have been baptized or even know what baptism or baptismal reaffirmation may be. Consider including something like the following in your worship bulletin today:
"Today we are celebrating the baptism of Jesus, and we are remembering our baptism when God claimed us as sons and daughters in a lifelong covenant. If you have not been baptized, you are fully welcome here. Enjoy the ritual! Be among us in peace. Feel free not to say words that may not yet apply to you. If you would like to know more about the life of discipleship and about being part of the baptismal covenant, be sure to speak with the pastor(s) or lay leaders."
For a long-range approach, see Come to the Waters: Baptism and Our Ministry of Welcoming Seekers and Making Disciples (Discipleship Resources, 1997). For more information, contact Taylor Burton-Edwards at worship@UMCdiscipleship.org.
Communion: Note that all the services of the baptismal covenant end with the rubric: "It is most fitting that the service continue with Holy Communion." The full rites of initiation include baptism, the laying on of hands, and the Eucharist. Tough to do all of that? Yes, but you can plan for it. Cut announcements. Keep the sermon brief. Let the words and actions of the ritual preach! People's faith and joy will be renewed and strengthened by the richness of it.
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Choral or sung call to worship: UMBOW 457 (Genesis)
Greeting: UMBOW 300 (Psalm 29)
- UMBOW 301
- "Baptism of the Lord," United Methodist Hymnal, 253
Act of Praise: UMBOW 507 (Genesis)
Prayer of Confession: UMBOW, 494 (Genesis) Add the pardon sequence.
Concerns and Prayers:
- "At the Birth of a Child," 146, The United Methodist Hymnal (Baptism)
- "Baptism of the Lord," 253, The United Methodist Hymnal (Baptism, Mark)
- Prayer: UMBOW, 509 "In Time of Natural Disaster" (Genesis)
- Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Yemen, Iran, Iraq.
- Call to Baptism: UMBOW, 173, "Come, Be Baptized"
- Baptismal Response: UMBOW, 174, "Baptismal Prayer" (Song)
- Baptismal Response: UMBOW, 175, "God Claims You" (Song)
The Great Thanksgiving: UMBOW 58-59.
Dismissal with Blessing:
- A deacon or assisting minister/lay person could dismiss the people using UMBOW 559. The pastor could then speak the blessing, using UMBOW 561 or The United Methodist Hymnal, 669.
- Or the following could be used:
Deacon or other assisting minister/lay person addresses the people:
In baptism, we are all God's daughters and sons.
You are the Beloved and the Holy Spirit rests upon you.
Go forth to love and serve God and your neighbor in all that you do.
The elder or pastor blessing the people says:
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing,
so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13)
Amen! Thanks be to God!
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