Bible Study: 1 Epiphany (B)

January 11, 2015

Jessie Gutgsell, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” (Mark 1:9-11)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

Genesis 1:1-5

It’s hard to imagine more familiar words than the opening of Genesis, isn’t it? “In the beginning” the famous first words ring. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the words of my Old Testament professor, Dr. Robert Wilson, as he led us through the Book of Genesis: “Don’t confuse familiarity with understanding.” So it’s with that spirit that I return to the first five verses of scripture. It’s Professor Wilson’s thoughts that will guide much of my inquiry.

Genesis is often divided into two large sections: Chapters 1-11 make up the “primeval history,” while Chapters 12-50 comprise the “patriarchal stories.”

The first two verses of the Bible jump right into the action of creation, providing no explanation of what God was doing before Genesis 1:1. Verse 2 describes the earth as a “formless void,” although Professor Wilson was quick to point out that the Hebrew phrase (tohu wa-bohu) is untranslatable. Many scholars have argued about the exact translation for centuries, which is made difficult because of word play. I find it a little funny that we struggle to define exactly what the “formless void” or tohu wa-bohu really means. It seems fitting that it would be beyond explanation.

In verse 3, God speaks the light into existence. Again, it’s hard not to confuse familiarity with understanding, but it’s what we must do as Christians. It’s incomprehensible (like tohu wa-bohu) to imagine what it means for God to speak light – something so integral to our lives – into being, but it happens!

In verse 4, God separates the light from the darkness. What does this mean? I wonder what the light and darkness looked like before they were separated. Was it like oil and water? Or a Mark Rothko painting? Or beyond imagination?

Our passage ends with the end of the first day. But we know this is only the beginning!

Close readers of Genesis will be interested to note that there’s another creation account within Genesis (2:4-24), which in some ways directly contradicts the account we begin reading today. Readers may want to compare the two versions in their study.

Consider verse 3, when God speaks the light into existence. What in your life has God spoken into existence? What do you think God might be speaking into existence in your life now? How does/would God speak to you? Through other people? Through the wind and nature? Through silence?

Return to verse 4, when God separates the light from the darkness. Perhaps you could say this was the first time that God created boundaries between things. Where in your life could you use more separation? Where could you use more blending and integration? Just as we considered what the separation of light and dark looked like, what would such separation and integration look like in your life?

Psalm 29

Psalm 29 is a psalm that can be categorized as a hymn, or a song of praise. The general thrust of the psalm is to call on people to praise God, and to offer reasons and affirmations of the reasons why people should praise God.

Psalm 29 has some interesting and distinctive literary features that become quickly apparent, especially when reading the psalm out loud. The first feature is the use of “triplets.” In the verse 2 we say the words “Ascribe to the Lord” three times before breaking the pattern on the fourth time, drawing attention to that line that breaks the pattern: “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” These words (also found in Psalm 96) are famous in Anglican history thanks to Archbishop William Laud. “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” was one of his ways of calling Anglicans to take their liturgy seriously – and to make it uniform. Today these words form part of the Book of Common Prayer’s Morning Prayer service, as an invitatory sentence.

The next interesting literary feature to note comes in verses 3-5 with the three-time repetition of “The voice of the Lord.” The triplet breaks in verse 5 with an instance of absolute parallelism, where one sentence restates what was previously said, but in a different order: “The voice of the Lord breaks the cedar trees; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.”

This psalm is focused largely on God’s voice and the mythological qualities of it. (See verse 10.) It’s interesting to note the emphasis on God’s voice in the lectionary readings so far: God speaking light into existence, and here, God’s voice breaking trees.

In what ways do you worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness? What does this phrase mean to you? Do you associate it with liturgy?

This psalm calls us to “ascribe,” or attribute, strength and glory to God. How can you attribute strength and glory to God in your own life? In what ways should you give God more credit? More reverence?

Acts 19:1-7

The reading from Acts today comes toward the end of the book of Acts. The scene comes from Paul’s third major journey, to Ephesus. His first two journeys were to Asia Minor and Greece, and he will end his travels by going to Jerusalem and then finally with preaching in Rome.

The character mentioned in Acts 19 is Apollos, who we learned in Acts 18:24-25, is a Jew and an “eloquent man” who “spoke with a burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus.” What’s notable in this passage is the distinction that’s being made between baptisms. One kind of baptism involves the Holy Spirit, and the other, the one Apollos and disciples mentioned here, is “John’s baptism” (v. 3) with no Holy Spirit. What’s striking here is that the disciples say, “We have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit” (v. 2). Acts is known for focusing a lot on the Holy Spirit. (See Acts 2 for the Pentecost story.) Here the Holy Spirit is not as much a dramatic character as it is in other places in this passage and in Acts, but it is an integral aspect to a full and complete baptism. The passage ends with Paul baptizing the disciples. The Holy Spirit makes a dramatic appearance in verse 6 when it “comes upon” the disciples and the people speak in tongues and prophesy.

Consider verse 2, where the disciples say they have not even heard of the Holy Spirit. Have you ever met or can you imagine meeting someone who had never heard of the Holy Spirit? How would you explain the Holy Spirit to someone who didn’t know about it?

What do you imagine “receiving the Holy Spirit” would feel like? (See verses 2, 6.) Have you ever “received the Holy Spirit” before?

Mark 1:4-11

This reading comes from the very beginning Mark’s gospel. All that comes before this is a quotation from Isaiah (actually a conflation of quotes from Exodus, Micah and Isaiah) about a messenger “crying out in the wilderness” (Mark 1:2-3). Notably Mark does not begin with a birth narrative like Matthew or Luke’s gospels do. Instead Jesus’ ministry begins with John the Baptist.

What the reading for today focuses on is both the role John the Baptist played and Jesus’ baptism. John the Baptist is said to have worn a shirt of “camel’s hair” and to have eaten “locusts and wild honey.” Not only does this conjure an image of a rather extreme, ascetical man, but it also strongly alludes to the Old Testament prophet Elijah (2 Kings 1:8). Verse 9 tells us that John baptized Jesus. John the Baptist is later beheaded (Mark 6) at the instruction of King Herod.

The passage also focuses largely on Jesus’ own baptism by John (v. 9). What’s described is an epic, almost mythological scene, of the “heavens being torn apart” (v. 10). Then the Spirit, like a dove (or a pigeon, as some have said), descends from above (v. 10). Next comes a voice from heaven with the comforting and yet almost-secretive words “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased” (v. 11). This line is perhaps an allusion to Psalm 2:7.

If you’ve been baptized, now would be an appropriate time to reflect on your experience of baptism. What do you think baptism does?

Consider looking back on the Baptismal Covenant and praying through it. Keep in mind as you do this how the fact that Jesus was also baptized connects Him with us even more.

Read verse 11 again: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Imagine God saying these words to you as well (exchanging “son” for “daughter” if appropriate). You also are a child of God. Consider how really believing this might change your view of yourself and your life.

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