Baptism of the Lord
January 8, 2017
Laurel Dykstra, priest in charge of Salal + Cedar, a watershed discipleship community in Coast Salish Territory near Vancouver BC, and Steve Blackmer, priest at Church of the Woods in Canterbury, NH discuss the readings for January 8.
Steve: There’s so much here but what stands out to me is water, living, real water.
Laurel: What do you mean by “real water”?
S: Real water as opposed to tame water that is contained in the font, sometimes even covered up with a lid, the water itself is tamed and the act of baptism is tamed. But this is actual flowing water. You can imagine Jesus—not a casual surfacing but a splashing, bursting forth! In the psalm the voice of the LORD over mighty waters, powerful and present there’s a sense of divine power. It makes oak trees writhe, that is not a tame God but something wild and untamable.
L: Let’s look at the readings verse by verse.
42:3 a bruised reed he will not break,
L: The bruised reed next to the baptism reading makes me think of Jesus when John has been arrested, “what did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?” (Matt 11:7, Luke 7:24)–I wonder if there are other places where a reed represents that kind of fragility and resistance.
S: I don’t know the history of that image.
L: The Matthew gospeler also quotes this verse one chapter later, Matt 12:20.
42:4 He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
L: As somebody who lives on the coast I love “the coastlands wait for his teaching,” the people and the place are so closely identified. Also coastlands are so vulnerable to rising sea levels with global climate change and on the Salish Sea the threat of oil or bitumen spills.
S: I wonder about the coast as port cities would have been centres of power and population versus the more rural inlands. I think about how access to water is always about power.
L: Access to fresh water for drinking or access to the coast to control trade?
S: Both, but in New England power generation by water, mills and hydroelectric power determined how this place was settled.
L: I like how justice is established in the earth.
S: The land is intimately a part of it.
42:5 Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it:
L: YHWH is credentialed as creator, but there’s no magic wand, the heavens are stretched out, the earth is spread out, people are given breath and whatever walks, spirit. There is a real physicality to it.
S: You can imagine the hand.
42:6 I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
S: Again, the physicality of the hand.
42:9 See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.
L: I see plant fertility imagery in the new things springing forth.
L: Chris Haslam says originally this was a psalm to the storm god Baal. The storm begins at sea and moves inland over coast, mountains, and wilderness bringing rain and then fertility.
S: Intense and vivid.
29:1 Ascribe to the LORD, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
L: Glory and strength are key here, in the next verses YHWH exceeds the most glorious and the most strong: mighty water, cedars, oaks, mountains, wilderness.
29:5 The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
L: I’ve done some work on the Cedars of Lebanon and the Western Red Cedar –the tree of life in this bioregion. In this verse cedar functions as the superlative tree, the king of trees, the word “even” is implied, “the LORD breaks (even) the cedars of Lebanon.”
29:6 He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox.
L: This verse sticks out, surrounded by powerful descriptions of “the voice, the voice, the voice” are these skipping calves. The Jerome Bible Commentary says that some scholars translate it as “makes the hinds calve and hastens the birth of kids” i.e. the storm makes animals give birth prematurely. But I’m not sure that works for me, I read it as joy, fertility, new life.
S: Unstoppable energy, vigor even in the midst of the storm’s breaking, the land is filled with this vital energy.
29:7 The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire. 29:8 The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh
S: To me the voice is obviously thunder especially when there are flames of fire or lightening and shaking—a violent wind. Overwhelming power and mystery and marvel. Even if we understand it scientifically it doesn’t diminish the overwhelming force. Anybody who has been in such a storm knows that it is petrifying.
29:9 The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, “Glory!”
L: The might of the divine shakes the unshakable trees, oaks and cedar.
29:10 The LORD sits enthroned over the flood; the LORD sits enthroned as king forever.
S: The flood connects to baptism, to death and rebirth, the new Christ, the new identity, new person, new world. Rebirth is so vividly expressed through the world itself.
29:11 May the LORD give strength to his people! May the LORD bless his people with peace!
L: This verse reads like such an add-on, after this storm-hymn of might and destruction…um may the LORD give peace, yeah, that’s it, peace.
S: I want people to go outside in a storm, the exhilaration and the excitement, and in the end it passes and is still.
10:39 We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree;
L: There’s not much for creation themes except the cross as tree.
S: I want to highlight the prominence of Tree at the beginning middle and end of scripture: the tree of life in the garden, the cross and the tree for the healing of the nations in Revelation; three iconic trees. And this verse is very specific, Peter imagines the cross as a tree, it’s not just a piece of wood.
3:13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.
S: This is the real water.
3:16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.
L: If we read the dove/heavens here as Air, the lectionary gives us the four elements: Earth, Air, Fire, Water.
S: The Spirit descending like a dove.
L: Do you know Ted Lyddon-Hatten? He’s an artist and a birder who says “humans are so drawn to birds that we wrap our most important stories in feathers.” He compares the Holy Spirit here to the Ukrainian Skycutter, a kind of dove, “a pigeon of peace” from a troubled land that can hover indefinitely.
S: All the most central images are natural ones, in baptism, and in eucharist, it’s all of the physical world—water, wind, dove, bread wine body.. It is so physical! The way we can express, to make sense of it is the physical, the physicality, the things of the earth. And how it is that our tradition has lost this mystifies me—it seems so utterly obvious!
Stephen Blackmer is founder of Church of the Woods in Canterbury NH and Executive Director of Kairos Earth, a non-profit organization dedicated to connecting conservation of the Earth with spiritual and religious practice.
Steve lives in New Hampshire. His family has lived in New England since leaving England and Holland in the 1600s and settling on land inhabited by Abenaki and Mohawk peoples, countless plants, animals, and other living creatures.
Prior to ordaination in the Episcopal Church, Steve worked for 25 years to conserve the Northern Forest region of New England. He holds master’s degrees in Forestry and in Divinity and a bachelor’s degree in Anthropology.