There are a variety of possible readings.

Consult your pastor, liturgy committee, presider, or preacher.

Some alternate readings are optional in liturgical year A, preferred in year B, etc.
2017 is year A.
On a weekday, as in 2017, one reading before the gospel suffices.

Ask your presider to tell your listeners (or tell them yourself):

The Baptism of the Lord, January 9, 2017

Assembly comments for first readings and second readings appear with the Notes, below.

Before the gospel acclamation:

[For the gospel from Matthew, year A]

Last Sunday we heard Matthew's account of the epiphany of the infant Jesus before pagans. This gospel is Matthew's account of the epiphany of the adult Jesus before John the Baptist and other devout Jews.

[For the gospel from Mark, year B]

Saint Mark's gospel begins not with a nativity, but with the adult John the Baptist, preaching in the desert yet drawing great crowds from the cities. They wanted his baptism that "led to the forgiveness of sins."

[For the gospel from Luke, year C]

Like the gospel of John, Luke's account addresses a lingering question about the position of John the Baptist and the indisputable memory that Jesus submitted to John's baptism.

First Reading, Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7, year A, optional in years B, C

Before the reading, ask your presider to tell your listeners (or tell them yourself):

Near the end of a desperate period of exile, God calls the Jews to be his servant and gives them an unexpected mission.

The Historical Situation: The middle section of the book of the prophet Isaiah, chapters 40-55, is set in the period when the Jews were being permitted to return home from their exile in Babylon. Historically, a new emperor, the pagan Cyrus of Persia, had overthrown the Babylonians and ordered the release of the Jewish captives. Isaiah sees this in a cosmic context, and, in verses 41:1 through 42:9, he describes two "trials" in the court of heaven that vindicate the sovereignty of Israel's Lord. Cyrus is described as the Lord's instrument in his plan to free the Jews. Furthermore, all other gods, including the gods of the Babylonians, to whom some exiles were attracted, are convicted of impotence and stupidity. The second trial ends with today's Lectionary passage, the selection of Israel as the Lord's servant*, and the assignment of a mission to the servant.

A Theological Summary: The passage raises these questions:

  1. What is the servant's relationship to the Lord? (The Lord chooses the servant, upholds him, is pleased with him, gives the servant his spirit, forms the servant.)
  2. What is the servant to accomplish? (Establish justice on the earth, open the eyes of the blind, release prisoners and those in darkness.)
  3. How is the servant to behave? (Not crying out, not shouting, not making his voice heard, not breaking the bruised reed or quenching the smoldering wick; these are images of gentleness and patient understanding in the servant's dealings with those to whom he is sent.)
  4. What is the scope of the servant's mission? Wider than merely to the people of Israel. This is the meaning of "coastlands" and of "a light for the nations."
Proclaiming It One Way: I recommend that the lector try to evoke one or both of two mysteries here. In the first place, Israel is being challenged to reach outside itself, and to become God's instrument in a mission to other peoples. This was not a welcome development. However, it's a logical consequence of what has gone before. If Israel's Lord is the only "real" god, then the Lord is God over the pagan worshipers of other gods, and the Jews, willing or not, are the only people qualified to show the pagans this truth. In your proclamation, this calls for an emphasis on the "mission" aspects, on "nations," "the earth," "coastlands," and "the people."

Proclaiming It Another Way: Secondly, since this is the feast of the first public manifestation of the mission of the adult Jesus, the lector might try to "get into Jesus' head" as he grappled with this passage in his own heart. Don't assume that Jesus knew the future in detail, and always had a clear career-path in mind. After all, he indisputably submitted to John's baptism. Ask how Jesus "found himself" in this Scripture passage. You might proclaim it as if you were Jesus reading it aloud to himself and mulling it over as he prepares to go public.
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* Scholars have called this and three similar passages from this section of Isaiah the Songs of the Suffering Servant. They're about a mysterious figure, who sometimes speaks in the first person, and whom God sometimes addresses. Sometimes the Servant is described as a prophet, sometimes as one whose suffering brings about a benefit for the people. In the original author's mind, the servant was probably a figure for the people of Israel, or for a faithful remnant within the people. The gospels clearly show that Jesus, and the early church, saw aspects of Jesus' own life and mission foreshadowed in the Servant Songs, and the church refers to all of them throughout the liturgical year. Today's is the first Servant Song. The second, Isaiah 49:1-6, we proclaim on the feast of the birth of John the Baptist. On Passion Sunday, we proclaim the third, Isaiah 50:4-7, and on Good Friday, the fourth, Isaiah 52:13-53:12.

First Reading, Isaiah 55:1-11, optional in year B (2018)

Before the reading, ask your presider to tell your listeners (or tell them yourself):

When the Judeans returned home after two generations in exile, rebuilding was distressingly slow. The prophet responded with images of hope: good food and drink, a worthy king, prestige among the nations; then a description of the power of the word of God.

The Historical Situation: In the sixth century B.C.E., the people of Judah spent a couple of generations in exile in Babylon. They were allowed to return, finally, but the rebuilding of Jerusalem and their shattered lives there was disappointingly slow. This passage comes from a part of Isaiah written in this depressed period.

Proclaiming It: Isaiah was sure that the exile and the slowness of the recovery from it were punishment for the people's sins. Nor does he doubt God's mercy. To bolster the people's confidence, he prophesies in a set of inspirational images:

First Reading, Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11, optional in year C (2016)

Before the reading, ask your presider to tell your listeners (or tell them yourself):

As their exile in Babylon ended, the people of Judah prepared to return home. But the journey seemed difficult and frightening. The prophet gave reassuring words. In the last paragraph, the scene changes to nearly empty Jerusalem, where a sentinel sees God leading the exiles home.

The following is verbatim from Lector's Notes for the Second Sunday of Advent, year B. Since the editors of the lectionary can repeat themselves, the editor of Lector's Notes gives himself the same indulgence.

The Historical Situation: The people of Israel spent a couple of generations in exile, captives of the Babylonians, from about 600 B.C.E. to 540 B.C.E. The second major part of the book of Isaiah, chapters 40-55, concerns the end of this Exile and the return of the captives to their homeland. Today's first reading begins that section.

The Theological Background: Isaiah says that God has told him to tell Jerusalem (that is, the exiled citizens of Jerusalem and their fellow Jews) "that her service is at an end." He means, in effect, that her "sentence" is at an end. The King James Version puts it more strongly: "Cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned." However weak or strong the translation, the meaning is that the Exile is over. Isaiah is not shy about saying the Exile was a punishment for sin, but all is forgiven now.

The Poetic Images: The next few sentences describe how the exiles are to return home. The first image is of a grand religious procession from Babylon to Jerusalem. It's not just people who are making the procession, but God as well. (Other ancient people carried idols of their gods on floats in solemn processions; Isaiah, no idolator, imagines God leading the people.) To pave the way, valleys and mountains are to be leveled, and a highway created in the wilderness.

The goal of the exiles is the region known as Judah, and within Judah the city Jerusalem, and within Jerusalem the hill Zion, where their Temple had stood. The last paragraph depicts a lonely sentry who never went to Babylon but waited in Jerusalem, always looking out for the return of the exiles. He finally sees the approach of the procession described above, and he can't contain his joy. He shouts it from the highest hill, "Here comes your God with power!" Then there follows an image in startling contrast, the tender picture of a shepherd cradling lambs.

Proclaiming It: An excellent way to prepare to proclaim this is to listen to the same verses as interpreted by George Frederick Handel, in his oratorio Messiah (1742). Within the first nine short "pieces" of the Messiah, you'll hear all these verses, set to various kinds of music, each appropriate to the text of the verses.

However you prepare, reckon with the rich array of emotions and images. Pause when there's a change in emotion or image. Modulate your voice. To revisit the classical music metaphor, note that Handel didn't render these verses in a single recitative. You shouldn't either. Rather imitate the composer, who wrote several different melodies and assigned them to a wide variety of voices.

Pause a long moment before beginning the last paragraph (verse 9), because the scene has changed. Now we're in Jerusalem, or on a hill overlooking it. The character is a sentinel who, after about sixty years of waiting, sees the returning exiles come over the horizon, God marching at their head. The watchman cannot contain his excitement!

Second Reading, Acts 10:34-38, year A, optional in years B, C

Before the reading, ask your presider to tell your listeners (or tell them yourself):

In separate visions, God has called Peter the Jewish Christian apostle and Cornelius the pagan centurion to meet each other. It's an unlikely pairing and it breaks old precedents.

The Theological Background: Remember the setting here. Your proclamation will be better if you walk a mile in Peter's sandals first by reading all of Acts, Chapter 10. You'll see what a big change Peter had to go through before he could speak to this group. Both Peter the Jewish Christian, with his typical contempt for Gentiles, and Cornelius, a Gentile distantly respectful of Jews, needed simultaneous supernatural visions to prepare them for this meeting. So for Peter the big revelation is the same as one of the themes of the Isaiah passage, above, "God shows no partiality, and accepts whoever is God-fearing and acts uprightly."

Proclaiming It: For Peter, it wasn't meditation on Isaiah 42 that proved this. It was his relationship with Jesus, and his meditation on Jesus' life, from his baptism through his resurrection. So proclaim this like Peter delivered it originally, with the conviction of one who has had the "Aha!" experience, who finally sees it all clearly.

Second Reading, 1 John 5:1-9, optional in year B

Before the reading, ask your presider to tell your listeners (or tell them yourself):

For a community divided by false teaching, the writer gives a clear teaching that Jesus is indeed the Son of God. He asserts that holding the correct faith makes it possible for believers to love each other properly.

The Historical Situation: At the risk of wearying regular readers, Lector's Notes borrows again from the Introduction to 1 John in The New American Bible:

To the best of our knowledge, the original recipients of the first letter of John were specific Christian communities,

  1. some of whose members were advocating false doctrines (2:18f-26; 3:7).
  2. These errors are here recognized and rejected (4:4);
  3. although their advocates have left the community (2:19),
  4. the threat posed by them remains (3:11).
  5. They have refused to acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ (2:22),
  6. the Son of God (2:23)
  7. who came into the world as true man (4:2).
  8. They are difficult people to deal with,
  9. claiming special knowledge of God
  10. but disregarding the divine commandments (2:4),
  11. particularly the commandment of love of neighbor (4:8),
  12. and refusing to accept faith in Christ as the source of sanctification (1:6; 2:6-9).
  13. Thus they are denying the redemptive value of Jesus' death (5:6).

The inspired writer, of course, wants to ease the pains caused by these rifts, and assure his readers that the saving truth is open to them and clear.

Examining the verses of the reading in this light, we notice:
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is begotten by God,
and everyone who loves the father loves [also] the one begotten by him.
In this way we know that we love the children of God when we love God and obey his commandments.
Believing the correct teaching about Jesus (point 5, above) lets you become God's child. Thus you're prepared to love God's other children (point 11).
For the love of God is this, that we keep his commandments.
And his commandments are not burdensome,
The heretics claimed special knowledge of the things of God (item 9, above). The writer refutes them by stating that the commands of God are clear to all and quite possible to obey.
for whoever is begotten by God conquers the world. And the victory that conquers the world is our faith. Who [indeed] is the victor over the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
In other words, holding the correct belief about point 6 enables one to prevail in the world.
So there are three that testify, the Spirit, the water, and the blood, and the three are of one accord.
If we accept human testimony, the testimony of God is surely greater.
Now the testimony of God is this, that he has testified on behalf of his Son.
In the ancient Middle East, where status and honor were valued above all else, deceit was common, and so was skepticism. So people commonly invoked every possible witness to confirms the truth of their assertions. Here the author backs up his teaching with testimony of three witnesses.

Proclaiming It: Every time I've written about how to proclaim a passage from 1 John, I've emphasized reading it s-l-o-w-l-y. That holds today. It would also help to break the reading with pauses well placed after discrete thoughts, almost sentence by sentence. Read it to yourself often, so you know where the logical breaks are. Don't be surprised to find this a daunting passage to proclaim; The writer was a poetic mystic, and his every paragraph is packed with meanings that you could fruitfully plumb for years.

Second Reading, Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7, optional in year C

Before the reading, ask your presider to tell your listeners (or tell them yourself):

The author of this letter wants his Christian followers to behave properly. But they're to do it not to earn God's love, but in response to that love already freely given.

Our Liturgical Setting: The birth of Jesus, his discovery by the magi, his baptism and his coming again in glory are all treated in Scripture and in our liturgy as unexpected appearances of God among us. So the Letter to Titus applies to our baptisms the themes of divine appearance and outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which it may borrow from a tradition about Jesus' own baptism.

Does the passage sound familiar? Today's selection combines two sections, both of which we recently read at Christmas, one at midnight and one at dawn.

The History and Theology: This passage is classic Pauline teaching about how God saves us by incorporating us into Christ. Among the congregation served by the early bishop Titus were Christians who believed they had to practice the laws of Judaism, and impose those laws on pagan converts to Christ. Paul reminds them that God saved us "not because of any righteous deeds we had done, but because of his mercy." In other words, those law-driven righteous deeds don't win our salvation, but God gives it freely. We accept that gift by taking the bath of rebirth, when the Spirit is richly poured out on us. This, not our observance of laws, makes us justified (right with God) and that give us the hope of eternal life.

So this passage has a polemical side, as does much of the letter to Titus. The polemics started earlier, contrasting the virtuous Christian way of life with corrupt alternatives (see chapter 2, starting at verse 1).

Proclaiming It: But given the parsing of the text in the lectionary, and given the nature of the feast, don't bring the polemics into your proclamation. Rather, emphasize the two instances of appearance, which tie this text to Jesus' baptism, and bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, which tie the text to our baptisms.

 
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Links to other smart commentaries on this week's readings

Credit for the picture at the top:

Fran├žois_Rude, The Baptism of Christ, in La Madeleine (Church of the Magdalen), Paris. Click here for the Wikipedia article about the sculptor. This photo is compressed from an image on the blog of Kate Ballbach, who calls herself "an American monolingual living in Luxembourg."

Lector's Notes should be easily readable on any device, including small-screen ones like cell phones and tablets. This is among the first of a few hundred pages to be converted to a responsive format (responsive to the kind of screen you are using). So when you're not serving as lector, and you arrive at church and mute your cell phone, you can brief yourself on the readings you're about to hear. Format conversion is a work-in-progress and will be so until maybe April of 2018.

This page updated November 26, 2016