The First Sunday after Epiphany: The Feast of the Baptism of Christ, Year B, Church of the Epiphany, Sherwood, January 7, 2024

“The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders” (Ps. 29:3).

“Onomatopoeia”: that’s a spelling bee word for a particular phenomenon where the word that’s coined resembles the sound that’s made. You know the sort of thing: a pig says “oink;” a duck says “quack;” a steak “sizzles” in the pan. The word that’s used mimics the sound that’s made.

Our psalm this morning is a case in point. The phrase “the voice of the Lord” is repeated seven times, and I’m told that the phrase spoken in Hebrew sounds like rolling thunder. In other words, the psalmist is telling us in the most obvious way that God’s voice is like a thunderclap, ringing out over and over again with percussive force. In our psalm this morning, the voice of the Lord seems to emerge from a thunderhead that is moving across the water, a massive cloud that towers above it, stretching from sea to sky. As we said just a little while ago in our psalm, “The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders” (Ps. 29:3).

The psalm connects us poetically to a primitive strand of religious experience, where God is encountered in the phenomena of nature, in the epic explosive force of the storm. Again, as we heard, “The voice of the Lord splits the flames of fire… the voice of the Lord makes the oak trees writhe and strips the forests bare” (Ps. 29:7-8). There it is: thunder, lightning, and wind. In the psalm, the mountains and the hills themselves are overthrown by the storm’s tempestuous force. There’s a drum-like character to the repetition, a “smoke on the water, fire in the sky” quality to the psalm that worms its way into the head and shakes the worshippers themselves.

The primitive tour de force of Psalm 29 is taken up and streamlined by the writer of the first chapter of Genesis. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:1-2). As in the psalm, God is moving like a wind over the waters, stirring things up and setting the main elements in play. What the psalm and Genesis have in common is that in both God is revealing himself in creation, shaking things up and showing his mastery as a force to be reckoned with. Genesis is more sophisticated in its presentation, but the force and power of them are identical. When God passes through, and the voice of the Lord is heard, everything is stirred up and creation is set in motion.

Our Gospel reading brings this biblical background into the foreground, as Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan river. Once again, God manifests his power and presence as the Spirit of God moves over the waters. “And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart.. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mk. 1:10-11). The heavens are shaken as the voice of the Lord speaks again, as a force to be reckoned with. God reveals himself in Jesus Christ, his beloved Son.

Now, from this moment of God’s revelation, nothing will be the same. Mark’s Gospel gives us Jesus’ baptism as the beginning of his story. No shepherds, no angels, no babe in a manger; not even “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (Jo. 1:14) as we hear in the Gospel of John. Mark gets right to work with the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending upon Jesus like a dove. God is setting the agenda for Jesus’ ministry in the power of the Spirit. It’s a new kind of Genesis moment, a new beginning in Jesus Christ.

Mark means us to understand that this is also a new beginning for us. John proclaims “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mk. 1:4), as it says in our Gospel, pointing to our conversion and the beginning of new life. We have a chance, at the very turn of the year, to turn again to God. The Holy Spirit, present in creation and at Jesus’ baptism, is present in our assembly today. Luke’s story of the disciples who had never heard of the Holy Spirit, and who received it through the laying on of hands, is a reminder of the Holy Spirit who is the source of new life for us today.

“The voice of the Lord is a powerful voice; the voice of the Lord is a voice of splendor” (Ps. 29:4). Today, the voice of the Lord rings out like a thunderclap, rousing us from our mid-winter sleep and sending us in a new direction. The Holy Spirit is moving across the waters as “the God of glory thunders” (Ps. 29:3), stirring us up and calling us to new life.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee