Week 2, Genesis 1:1—2:4a “Created in God’s Image”: Naming

Monday, March 6

Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light” (Genesis 1:3).

Readers have long noticed—and rightly so!—that in Genesis 1, God creates by speaking. John’s Gospel begins with this insight (“In the beginning was the Word”), and goes on to identify Jesus as that creative word of God (“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” [John 1:14]). It is important for us to recognize, however, not only that God speaks the world into being, but also what God says. In Hebrew, God’s creation begins with two words: Yehi ‘or—“Let Light be.” God creates by naming: when God pronounces the name of a thing (Light, or Sky, or the Lights adorning the sky), the thing comes into being!

In part, this reminds us of the importance of naming in the ancient world. It is no accident that often in Scripture, with a new call comes a new identity: Abram becomes Abraham (Genesis 17:5), Sarai becomes Sarah (Genesis 17:15), Jacob becomes Israel (Genesis 32:28), Simon becomes Peter (Matthew 16:18); Saul becomes Paul (Acts 13:9). But it also affirms that who we are is God’s gift to us. God has pronounced our names from the beginning of creation. Today, let us remember and celebrate God’s gift of identity, and pray for the wisdom and insight to grant that gift to one another.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for making me who I am: for gifting me with my very identity. Forgive me when I fear and distrust those unlike me, forgetting that you have spoken their names as well—that they, too, have received their identity from you. Grant me wisdom to listen, and courage to value what you value, for you are truly “no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34 KJV). Through Jesus the Christ, who called his disciples by name, Amen.


First Sunday of Lent

Sunday, March 5:

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”  But he answered, “It is written,

‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,

‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’”

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him (Matthew 4:1-11).






Week 1, The Book of Joel “Hope Isn’t Easy”: Hope for All People

Saturday, March 4

“Then afterward
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit”
(Joel 2:28-29).

The setting for much of this remarkable book of prophecy is a locust plague, which has decimated Judah.  But, by today’s passage, that is over, and after the swarm has passed, when the locusts all are gone, reassurance is offered to the community, the “children of Zion” (Joel 2:23), who twice are promised, “my people shall never again be put to shame” (Joel 2:26, 27). But the people also learn that they are part of a larger community than they had known.  In this passage—the most familiar passage from this book, quoted by Peter in his sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2:17-21)—the “children of Zion,” called “my people” by the Lord, include not just the adult men of the worshipping congregation, but women, children, the aged—even slaves.

Joel reminds us that we belong to a larger community than we had known.  We may have forgotten that—I confess that often I have forgotten that.  We succumb to the temptation to define our community too narrowly, as including only those like us, whether ethnically or ideologically or theologically. If this past election taught us anything, it is that we had not heard one another at all.  In the days and weeks to come, we must learn to listen to one another—not necessarily to agree, but to listen, to learn, and to understand. We too hear today God’s promises of deliverance, of vindication, of freedom from shame. But we cannot experience these blessings separately and severally. They are not offered to us in that way. We will find them together—all of us—or we will not find them at all.

Prayer: O chain-breaking God, we long for freedom. But you have shown us in your Word and by your Spirit that if we would be free, we must work to free one another, for until we all are free, none of us is free.  Teach us to draw the circle wide–to find ourselves a part of a larger community than we had known, embracing sisters and brothers we did not know we had, and extending to include all God’s world. In the name of Jesus, whom God sent to us out of love for all the world (John 3:16-17), Amen.


Week 1, The Book of Joel “Hope Isn’t Easy”: Time for Lament

Friday, March 3

“Put on sackcloth and lament, you priests;
wail, you ministers of the altar.
Come, pass the night in sackcloth,
you ministers of my God!
Grain offering and drink offering
are withheld from the house of your God.

Sanctify a fast,
call a solemn assembly.
Gather the elders
and all the inhabitants of the land
to the house of the Lord your God,
and cry out to the Lord”
(Joel 1:13-14).

In a sermon preached in the chapel of my seminary, a courageous student observed that our community was a very hard place to be if you were sad. People who were hurting or depressed were likely either to be ignored, or worse, to be jollied: to be told to cheer up and trust in Jesus—as though sorrow and pain were somehow a denial of faith. I fear that mine is not the only Christian community guilty of this offense. As Donald Gowan ruefully observes, “Christian worship tends to be all triumph, all good news (even the confession of sin is not a very awesome experience because we know the assurance of pardon is coming; it’s printed in the bulletin). And what does that say to those who, at the moment, know nothing of triumph?” (Don Gowan, The Triumph of Faith in Habakkuk [Atlanta: John Knox, 1976], 38).

True repentance leading to new life requires lament: not only our own authentic lament at the realization of our sin, but also our providing space for, and attending to, the laments of others. Walter Brueggemann writes that the loss of lament in worship means “the loss of genuine covenant interaction because the second party to the covenant (the petitioner) has become voiceless or has a voice that is permitted to speak only praise and doxology” (Walter Brueggemann, “The Costly Loss of Lament,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 36 [1986]: 60).  No wonder Joel urges the priests, “Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord” (Joel 1:14). By stifling lament, we shut off the genuine interaction that a living relationship with God presumes.

Prayer: Oh God, we confess that in our discomfort with lament, we have silenced the oppressed in our communities—and our personal struggles and fears as well. We have insisted that everyone in our services smile and be happy, and so have condemned our worship to insipid shallowness. Teach us how to lament, and to let others lament, so that we may rediscover the authentic covenant relationship into which you call us. Through Christ our Lord, who listened to the cries of others, and was not too proud to cry out on the cross, Amen.






Week 1, The Book of Joel “Hope Isn’t Easy”: No Easy Reconciliation

Thursday, March 2

Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing” (Joel 2:12-13).

In her book Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation, Jennifer Harvey proposes that a major obstacle to racial justice in the church is “the powerful hold that ‘reconciliation’ has on the white Christian imagination” (Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014], 2). Being reconciled to one another is certainly a worthy goal—but not if white Christians think that “reconciliation” means expecting Christians of color just to let bygones be bygones! As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” white Christians may prefer “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Such easy “reconciliation,” as Harvey reminds us, ignores and trivializes “an unacknowledged history of brutal injustice, harm done, white hostility to and violence against communities of color—histories that are alive and well in the present.” White Christians need to ask, “without repentance and repair having come prior, why would we even assume interracial relations to be desirable or beneficial to Christians of color?” (Dear White Christians, 5).

Joel understands that true repentance means far more than saying that we are sorry! He calls upon his community to demonstrate their whole-hearted desire to return to the Lord, and their deep sorrow at past wrong-doing, “with fasting, with weeping, with mourning.” This can be no superficial demonstration: “rend your heart,” the Lord demands, “and not your clothing.” If this Lent is indeed to be for us a season of new life, as Jesus desires, then we too cannot expect an easy resolution to America’s besetting sin of racism. May God grant us open hearts, listening ears, and the wisdom and courage to do the hard work of repentance and repair.

Prayer: Transforming God, we confess that we often do not see or hear one another clearly. Blinded by our own perceptions, deafened in our own echo chambers, we do not see or hear the oppression that grinds down our sisters and brothers. Grant us opened eyes and unstopped ears, we pray, that we may know our sin, for only then may we truly repent. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who invites outcasts to his table, for food and for healing, Amen.



Week 1, The Book of Joel “Hope Isn’t Easy”: Ash Wednesday–Call to Repentance

Ash Wednesday, March 1

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near—a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.

Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God?

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O LORD, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” (Joel 1:1-2, 12-17)

Here in the northern hemisphere, Lent always comes in winter, which feels appropriate. Lent seems a wintry season of the church year: dark, cold, grim, unforgiving.  The liturgical color for Lent is purple—an appropriately dark and mournful shade.  But we are likely to think of Lent even more in winter hues: the penitential black of clerical garb and of leafless winter branches; the gray of ashes, on hands and foreheads or on icy streets; the off-white of sackcloth and of trodden snow. The Old Testament reading for today fits that perception: Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near—a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!” (Joel 2:1-2).

Yet curiously, the word “Lent” has nothing to do with winter or darkness—or fasting or penitence, even.  Etymologically, “Lent” derives from the Middle English lenten and the Old English lencten, and is related to the Old High German lenzin—all of which mean “Spring”! Lent is a green season—a time of growth.  Lent provides the opportunity for us to dig down deeper in our tradition, to break up the fallow ground of our cold hearts so that the Water of Life may seep down into the center of who are.  Lent is the time for the Spirit to prune away our dead branches so that we may bear fruit.  Lent is a season of new life—a springtime for our souls! So too, for Joel, the point of the call to repentance is found in the possibility of new life that will follow: Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him” (Joel 2:13-14). This Lent, may God’s Spirit awaken us to repentance, and so to new life.

Prayer: O God, we long for growth, yet we fear change. We long for your new life, yet fear what it will cost us. On this, your word does not reassure us! In fact, you assure us that we indeed must change, and that your new life will indeed cost us, as it cost you, everything. We pray for your Spirit to empower us, that this season of Lent would be springtime for our souls. Through Jesus our Christ, who “throughout these forty days for us didst fast and pray,” Amen. (Hymn by Claudia F. Hernaman)


All Are Welcome: Faith, Difference, and Justice

For each day of Lent, I will be posting here a Lenten devotional, composed at the behest of the Anti-Racism Team of the Western PA Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.  These devotionals will also be available, as a paperback book or on Kindle, through Amazon.

Each week, this devotional for the forty days of Lent will consider passages, mostly from the Hebrew Bible, that stress God’s love for diversity. Each weekday the devotional reading will consider one particular aspect of that week’s Scripture readings, concluding with a prayer. Our emphasis throughout will be not so much on the negative—that racism and exclusion are unacceptable (although of course they are!)—but on the positive: that God has created us in all our racial and cultural and sexual diversity, and that God loves and values us in and for our differences, not in spite of them.

On each Sunday, the Gospel for that day from the lectionary will be presented without comment. You are invited to meditate on these Gospel readings by observing the spiritual practice of Lectio Divina. This Christian discipline involves reading the Gospel slowly and carefully, attentive to what is said, and also striving with a Spirit-inspired imagination to be present within the narrative. A helpful guide to Lectio Divina by Dr. Martha Robbins, Director of the Pneuma Institute and Joan Marshall Associate Professor Emerita of Pastoral Care at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary is presented below. The Pneuma Institute is an independent, ecumenical organization offering workshops, retreats, and services pertaining to spiritual growth and development, and spiritual leadership in today’s world. For more information about the Pneuma Institute visit, and to obtain an order form for Dr. Robbins’ Guided Meditations on Sacred Scripture, email her at

God bless you as you read, reflect, and pray through this season of repentance and preparation.


Adapted by Martha Robbins, Th.D.


Choose a passage from Scripture: (Also good to read passage before going to bed.)

Recall that God is yearning to reveal God’s Word to you; to surround you with Love as God is always present to you. Attitude of expectancy, willingness, openness.

Trust that God will speak in God’s own way and time.

Prepare yourself for listening to God by breathing, centering, focusing.

Ask for the gift to know, love, serve God more fully as revealed to you in this Scripture.

READ (Lectio)

Read the passage slowly. Perhaps a verse at a time, aloud, or in rhythm with your breathing. Notice which words, phrases, verses catch your attention. Repeat words, phrases whenever you desire – especially those that draw your attention.

MEDITATE (Meditatio)

Reflect on what the Word may be revealing to you or how it may have something to say to you about who God is; what Christ may be saying to you; what it may illuminate about your relationship with God, family, others, your work/ministry, the poor, study, vocation. How does this Word (phrase, verse) addressed to you intersect your life?

Imagine yourself in the story (if a story passage) & let it unfold. What you are seeing, and hearing from the characters in this story? What is your response to what you see and hear? Allow yourself to interact with any of the characters in the Bible story. Let the Holy Spirit reveal the meanings of what you see, hear, say and its implications for your own life.

Linger wherever you feel drawn or moved, if a word or phrase touches you (e.g., you feel God’s love, a sense of peace, joy, sorrow, confused or disturbed by what the words are saying to you). Don’t hurry to move on. Let these words sink in, “chew on them” in order for them to become a part of you. Repeat them, take them to your heart.

PRAY (Oratio)

Let prayer arise out of you, thanking God, praising God, or sharing your sadness, confusion, questions, joys, or ask for God’s help or forgiveness. Sometimes your prayer may be wordless – experiencing joy, gratitude, wonder, tears. Whatever is going on within you can be gathered up and directed toward God as the Spirit prays within you. Be honest with God; carry on a conversation as one friend to another. Offer yourself or those parts of yourself that were revealed to you to God; let God’s word heal, consecrate, and transform you, “let this mind and heart be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

CONTEMPLATE (Contemplatio)

Let yourself be drawn into a deep peace, joy, love, silence! Let God’s Spirit pray in you.

INCARNATE   (Incarnatio)  

Ask the Holy Spirit for guidance in ways to embody this Word in your daily life.   What is God inviting you to do?


Was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a Prophet?

Outside the headquarters of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama stands this monument to the martyrs of the civil rights movement, whose names are carved into the fountain at its center.  On the wall around this centerpiece is engraved, “. . .until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

The attribution of the quote is correct: this exact wording comes from Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, delivered on August  28, 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C., during the March on Washington: one of the most famous speeches of modern times:

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

But Dr. King, a Baptist preacher, certainly knew that when he said those words, he was paraphrasing the words of the prophet Amos:

I hate, I reject your festivals;
    I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies.
If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food
        I won’t be pleased;
    I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals.
Take away the noise of your songs;
        I won’t listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
        and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:21-24)

This was not the first time that Dr. King cited this passage from Amos. Indeed, he cited this passage earlier that very year, in April, in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:

I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists. From “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King was in jail, in Birmingham, for leading sit-ins, marches, and protests of racial discrimination in that city.  While in jail, he learned of an open letter published in Birmingham area papers, called “A Call for Unity”—signed by eight prominent white Alabama clergymen (including two Methodist bishops).  The letter bemoans a “series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders,” and says, “We… strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham. When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets.”

In his book Why We Can’t WaitDr. King remembered writing his response to this open letter: “Begun on the margins of the newspaper in which the statement appeared while I was in jail, the letter was continued on scraps of writing paper supplied by a friendly black trusty, and concluded on a pad my attorneys were eventually permitted to leave me.”  The letter was published in June 1963 in three magazines, including Christian Century; but it was in the July issue of Atlantic Monthly that it reached its largest audience.  It has since been reprinted countless times–but it takes some looking to find “A Call for Unity”!

Those eight white Alabama clergymen who disapproved of Dr. King felt that civil disobedience is inappropriate for Christians. Evidently, Christians should express their faith in church, where it belongs.  Oddly, we still sometimes think of social justice and Spirit-filled worship as two different things–indeed, we may go so far as to describe these as the concerns of different churches.  But for Amos, there was no separating the two.

The passage from Amos cited by Dr. King powerfully expresses God’s passion for justice, and God’s rejection of any form of religion that does not issue forth in lives of justice.  Without right living, our prayers and hymns are just noise. And lest we think that this is just Amos’ view, or just the Old Testament’s view, the New Testament also proclaims this truth:

If anyone says, I love God, and hates a brother or sister, he is a liar, because the person who doesn’t love a brother or sister who can be seen can’t love God, who can’t be seen (1 John 4:20).

Without justice, right worship is impossible.  However, I am also persuaded that right living is impossible without right worship–or at least, very, very difficult!  If we seek to establish God’s justice on our own steam, we will burn out quickly. That’s why Jesus named two great commandments: love God, and love neighbor (Matthew 22:34-40Mark 12:28-34; and Luke 10:25-28). Just as love for the neighbor shows forth our love for God, so it is as we love God, and know ourselves loved by God in our worship, that we are empowered to love our neighbor.

While those eight prominent white Alabama clergymen may have disapproved of Dr. King, Amos would have heartily approved! Amos condemned the wealthy of his own day, declaring that God’s judgment would fall upon Israel for their callousness to the forgotten poor:

because they have sold the innocent for silver,
            and those in need for a pair of sandals.
They crush the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
        and push the afflicted out of the way (Amos 2:6-7).

Amos confronted both the religious and the political leaders of his own day for their involvement in injustice.  Amaziah, high priest at Bethel, condemned Amos as an outside agitator (!) from the southern kingdom of Judah, and ordered him to go back home:

You who see things, go, run away to the land of Judah, eat your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s holy place and his royal house (Amos 7:12-13).

Amos would have been delighted by Dr. King’s response to the charge that he too was an “outsider.”  In his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” he wrote,

I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. 

Was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a prophet, like Amos?  That is not an easy question for an Old Testament scholar to answer!  After all, the prophets of ancient Israel believed that the words that they bore were God’s words, not their own: that is why Amos, like other prophets in Israel, speaks in God’s name and with God’s voice, in the first person (“I hate, I reject your festivals. . . If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food I won’t be pleased”), as God’s spokesperson. Dr. King certainly never claimed such an exalted status for himself, or for his words.

But the prophets were also ministers of God’s justice, shaking Israel out of its complacency and calling their people to remember who they were, and live as God’s people. As a voice raised on behalf of the oppressed, as a tireless laborer in the cause of God’s justice, as an example of what one person devoted to God’s call can accomplish—Dr. King was a prophetic witness to his own time, and to ours.

Today, when the gap between rich and poor has become greater than at any time since the Gilded Age and the robber barons; today, when the Southern Poverty Law Center records 1,094 reports of harassment and intimidation in the month after our recent election, “more than the group would usually see over a six-month period; ” today, when the continually rising tide of deaths of young African American men by police violence makes Dr. King’s dream seem more and more remote, may we recommit ourselves to work for and pray for the day when “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”


AFTERWORD:  Thank you to former student and colleague in ministry Rev. Chad Bogdewic, who invited me to preach the sermon on which this blog is based at a service honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at First UMC in Ellwood City, PA; to Rev. Angelique Bradford, pastor at Ellwood City First, for hosting this event, and to the Ellwood City Ministerium, for planning it.


Saved Through Water

This Sunday, the first Sunday after Epiphany, celebrates the Baptism of the Lord by John the Baptist.  In the Gospel for this day, Matthew 3:13-17, John doesn’t want to baptize Jesus: “I need to be baptized by you, yet you come to me?”  But Jesus insists–“Allow me to be baptized now. This is necessary to fulfill all righteousness”–and John at last agrees.

Why this reluctance?  Earlier, John had said,

I baptize with water those of you who have changed your hearts and lives. The one who is coming after me is stronger than I am. I’m not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Matthew 3:11).

John is not worthy to baptize Jesus–and indeed anticipates that Jesus has come to baptize him with the Spirit.  But Jesus says that his own baptism is “necessary” first.  What could this mean?  Perhaps Jesus must be baptized to model the life of believers to come.  But perhaps Jesus must be baptized in fulfillment of the model he himself is following.

We may find a window into what this means by considering other biblical texts concerning baptism.  The apostle Paul famously found the waters of baptism to represent death and burial:

Or don’t you know that all who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  Therefore, we were buried together with him through baptism into his death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too can walk in newness of life.  If we were united together in a death like his, we will also be united together in a resurrection like his (Romans 6:3-5).

Jesus’ baptism prefigures his death and burial, while we who follow him are baptized “into his death”–dying to self and sin.  Similarly the author of 1 Peter saw the waters of baptism in terms of death and destruction:

Noah built an ark in which a few (that is, eight) lives were rescued through water. Baptism is like that. It saves you now—not because it removes dirt from your body but because it is the mark of a good conscience toward God. Your salvation comes through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is at God’s right side. Now that he has gone into heaven, he rules over all angels, authorities, and powers (1 Peter 3:19-22).

Like Noah’s flood, which swept away a world, baptism marks for the believer the end of an old world and way of life, and entrance into a new world, in which one stands before God in “good conscience.”  The means of salvation through water for Noah and his family was of course the ark.  As I have discussed before, the term used for this construction is intriguing–and may point us toward another image for Jesus’ baptism, and ours.

In the Greek of the New Testament, the word used for Noah’s ark is kibotos (see also Matthew 24:38; Luke 17:27; Hebrews 11:7)–a word meaning, not “boat” or “vessel,” but “box.”  In fact, that same word is used in both the New Testament and the Septuagint, the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture, not only for Noah’s ark, but also for another box: the Ark of the Covenant (see Exod 25:10, 14, 21; Heb 9:4; Rev 11:19) –although the Hebrew uses different words for that structure (‘aron, also meaning “box”) and Noah’s (Hebrew tebat).

The word tebat is a loanword from the Egyptian tbt, meaning “chest.” It appears in only two places in the Hebrew Bible: 26 times in Genesis 6—8 for Noah’s ark, and twice in Exodus 2, for the reed basket in which baby Moses was placed.  You may have heard the old joke, “How many animals did Moses take on the ark?” “None—that was Noah and the ark.” Well, as it turns out, Moses did have an ark, and in the Hebrew a clear connection is made between Noah’s and Moses’ deliverance.

The story of Moses’ birth is told in Exodus 2:1-10.  Moses was the child of a man and women of the priestly tribe of Levi. His birth was a great risk, since Pharaoh had sentenced all Hebrew baby boys to death by drowning in the Nile (Exod 1:22). His parents hid him as long as they could, but when he was three months old, they surrendered to the inevitable, and Moses’ mother and sister took him to the river themselves. But instead of drowning the baby, they put him in a tebat (rendered in the NRSV as “basket”) and set him afloat—hoping against hope, perhaps, that someone would find him and raise him in safety.

Not only is the same Hebrew word used both for Moses’ little ark and Noah’s enormous ark, but they are also prepared similarly: both are coated inside and out with tar, to make them water-tight (Genesis 6:14; Exodus 2:3).  Just as Noah led his family and the world’s animals into his ark, after which the LORD closed the door (Gen 7:16), so Moses’ mother placed her son in his tiny ark, trusting him into the hands of God.  Careful readers of Scripture, when they read of Moses’ ark, recall God’s deliverance of Noah, his family, and the world’s creatures in their ark, and know that as grim as Moses’ future seems at that moment to be, this baby, like Noah, will be saved through water.

The reader needs those reassuring links to Noah’s story!  The little basket floats into the Egyptian princess and her attendants, who are bathing in the Nile (Exod 2:5-9).  Surely this will be the end for Moses.  Pharaoh himself had commanded that any Egyptian who found a Hebrew boy was to drown him in the Nile—and surely, if anyone could be expected to obey Pharaoh’s edicts, it was his own daughter! But instead, even though the Egyptian princess knew that this child must be one of the Hebrews, she decided to keep him and raise him as her own. Moses’ sister, who had been watching from the bank, stepped up with an offer to find a Hebrew wet-nurse for the baby, and so Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s household by Moses’ own mother!

As Dale Allison in particular has noted, Matthew understands Jesus, in many ways, as The New Moses (for example, Jesus goes down into Egypt and returns; see Matt 2:13-15).  Perhaps, then, Matthew saw Jesus’ baptism as a necessary reflection of Moses’ river ordeal.  Perhaps Jesus, like Moses, is passing through the water, showing his people the way to salvation. Pushing this parallel, we could ask where the ark is in Matthew–but then, perhaps that is the point.  Jesus doesn’t need an ark. Jesus is the ark as well–saving us through the waters of death and destruction.  With the great African-American gospel hymnist and preacher Charles Tindley, we can confidently pray:

When the storm of life is raging,

Stand by me.

When the storm of life is raging,

Stand by me.

When the world is tossing me

Like a ship upon the sea,

Thou who rulest wind and water,

Stand by me.


In the Christian East, the liturgical year follows the old Julian calendar.  By their reckoning, January 6 marked the beginning of Christmastide, not its conclusion.  So, to our Orthodox sisters and brothers, a Merry Christmas!


What Child Is This?

The carol “What Child Is This?,” sung to the old English tune Greensleeves, has always been a favorite.  Recently, however, I heard a sermon from PTS colleague Derek Davenport that caused me to see this carol in an entirely different light.  I had always heard, and sung this, to the arrangement above, with “This, this is Christ the King” sung as a repeated chorus.  However, it turns out that this is not the original form of the lyric.

The words are by William Chatterton Dix, who was born in Bristol, England on June 14, 1837, and died September 9, 1898, in Cheddar, Somerset, England.  Dix managed a marine insurance company in Glasgow, but poetry was his passion: he wrote more than 40 hymns over the course of his life, of which this one, written in 1865, is certainly the most famous.

Dix’s lyric is restored in the new Presbyterian Hymnal, Glory to God.  You’ll find his original words below.  Notice in particular how the refrain in the second verse poignantly answers the question this verse poses: “Why lies he in such mean estate?” In this form, this carol is a beautiful proclamation of the whole gospel of Jesus Christ.  I present it with my hopes and prayers for you all in this coming year.  Have a glorious Christmas, and  blessed New Year!

What Child is this who, laid to rest
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom Angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?

This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and Angels sing;
Haste, haste, to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.

Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

So bring Him incense, gold and myrrh,
Come peasant, king to own Him;
The King of kings salvation brings,
Let loving hearts enthrone Him

Raise, raise a song on high,
The virgin sings her lullaby.
Joy, joy for Christ is born,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.