The readings that are collected for this coming Sunday seem to gather around the theme of “the voice of the Lord”. This is one of those Sundays when the selection of four readings clearly focusses on a topic found in each of them (in contrast to the many “ordinary” Sundays where each of the four readings follow their own independent lines).
The theme of “the voice of the Lord” is sounded clearly in the psalm (Psalm 29), with a repeated refrain, “the voice of the Lord” through verses 3 to 9. First, the psalmist announces, “the voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders … the voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty” (29:3–4).
Then follows a repeated affirmation, “the voice of the Lord breaks the cedars … the voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire … the voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness … the voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’” (29:5, 7–9). The message declared by the Lord God is conveyed by the natural order of things, in the elements of the creation, made by God (see Gen 1–2; Ps 104; and in this Sunday’s reading, Isaiah 42:5).
The speaking forth of God, made manifest and evident in God’s creation, is a fitting theme for the first Sunday in the season of Epiphany—a season that celebrates the shining forth, the manifestation, of God. However, this Sunday is designated, not only as the first Sunday in the season of Epiphany, but also as the day on which The Baptism of the Lord is recalled.
In the Gospel selection (Matt 3:13–17), the first evangelist reports that the Spirit of God “descended on [Jesus] like a dove” (3:16) as Jesus was baptised by John in the River Jordan. At that event, “a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’” (3:17). The voice of the Lord is clear and prominent in this account of what was likely to have been the commissioning event for Jesus as he started into his public activities in the region of Galilee (Matt 4:12–25, and on until 19:1).
In the reading from Acts, in place of a section of an epistle, we hear Luke’s report of a speech of Peter, given in the house of the centurion Cornelius in Caesarea (Acts 1:34–43). In this speech, Peter announced how “the message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced; how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” (Acts 10:38).
That message was to be continued by the disciples; Peter says that God “commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead” (10:42). The voice of the Lord that has been heard in the early testimony (see Acts 2, 3, 7) continues through the later apostolic proclamation (see Acts 13, 17, 20).
Linked with this is the first of the four songs found in Second Isaiah (Isa 40–55) that are linked explicitly with the Servant (42:1–9; 49:1–7; 50:4–11; and 52:13–53:12). Here, the Servant is designated as the one in whom God delights (42:1); the phrase recurs in the message of the voice from the cloud which speaks at the baptism of Jesus, declaring that he is the one “with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17). The Servant has God’s spirit within him (Isa 42:1), something which is directly enacted in the baptism of Jesus when he “saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him” (Matt 3:16).
The work of the Servant is to bring justice to the nations (Isa 42:1, 3, 4); that will be evident in the work of Jesus (Matt 12:18–21, quoting directly these verses from the first Servant Song). Through the Servant, the Lord calls people “in righteousness” (Isa 42:6); that call is echoed by Jesus as he calls his followers to demonstrate righteousness (Matt 5:20) and exhorts them to “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (6:33). Indeed, the baptism of Jesus narrated by Matthew is said to have taken place “to fulfil all righteousness” (3:15).
Through the Servant, God establishes God’s people “as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations” (Isa 42:6); that charge is repeated by Jesus, who came as light shining in the darkness (Matt 4:15–16) and who equips his followers to be “the light of the world” (5:14–16), whose whole body will be “full of light” (6:23).
Through the Servant, God announces that “the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare” (Isa 42:9); this is exemplified, according to Jesus, by “every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven [who] is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matt 13:52).
The identity of the Servant was debated in Israel; was this an individual, or a symbolic representation of the whole nation? The many resonances of the Servant Song in the story of Jesus indicate why Christian interpreters have identified Jesus as this servant. The story of his baptism provides a most appropriate occasion for underlining this connection. The shapers of the lectionary have thus linked these two passages on this Sunday, and set them into the context of passages declaring how “the word of the Lord” has been made manifest. It is a compelling start to the season of Epiphany.