Observing The Baptism of Jesus

January 16, 2022


Remember the Paradox

As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:15–22 ESV)

How long should people put up with corrupt leaders? Do people have a right to a decent life free from oppression, extortion, and the abuse of power? Do we care if we benefit from the society in which we live? Are all those who grumble, who are poor, and ill simply lazy or irreligious and if they worked harder they’d do better and see that society isn’t that bad? 

I suspect such questions can be asked of every age and society. 

Back nearly 2,000 years ago the people of Israel who were living in the Roman Empire under Roman rule which they franchised out to local leaders – kings and religious – often cried out for relief from their situation. For hundreds of years prior to that when the people were either under other foreign rulers or bad Jewish kings, it was the prophets who kept calling for people at all levels of society to behave as befitting their relationship with God. The prophet Micah is often cited as a type of summary when he said, ‘[God] has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?’ (Micah 6:8 ESV).

Today we meet the last of those prophets, John the Baptist, preparing the way of the Lord, and referring to Malachi, another prophet 400 years earlier, who was reminding the people that God would not abandon his people – justice would come – there would be a reckoning – a judging between wheat and chaff – and the reference to the unquenchable fire is always for the ‘baddies’ so prepare – be ready – and so people were baptised in John’s baptism – getting ready, acknowledging their sins, and wanting to do better. We heard in Advent that John was scathing of the crowds who came to look and listen and who weren’t going to repent of their behaviour. We heard how he advised them to behave – basically it meant share what you with those in need – how he advised tax collectors – be honest – how he advised soldiers – don’t oppress and be content with your conditions. 

And now Luke continues the account and John can see their expectation – maybe he is the Messiah, the Christ, God’s anointed – people often want follow someone if they think things will be better for them – but John makes it clear that it’s not him. He keeps the power talk going – he’s not worthy to untie straps of sandals because the Messiah is powerful – baptism with Holy Spirit and fire and a winnowing fork in his hand – watch out everyone! By the way, Luke describes this as good news and adds that John challenges everyone – even Herod who has married his brother’s wife against the rules of Judaism – but hey, the powerful always do what they like – and Herod did because John is now in prison. It’s hard being the Messiah from prison. So John is not the Messiah.

What I have just described is Luke’s context leading to Jesus’ baptism which is barely mentioned. It happened and Jesus was praying and Luke says that ‘the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased’ (Luke 3:21,22 ESV) and that’s it. What Luke then goes on with is Jesus’ family tree and he describes Jesus as finally ‘the son of Adam, the Son of God’ (Luke 3:38).

So what might we take from Jesus’ baptism? There is an interesting combination of things – people struggling with living well and not being corrupt or unjust, the talk of a powerful person coming to sort things out, John’s bold calling out of all levels of society, and then almost quietly and there is no fanfare, no angelic host, now big winnowing fork visible – only a wet man, praying, a dove and a voice saying that the man – Jesus – is God’s ‘believed Son’. 

We are not reading Luke unsure of what happens next. A first time reader could be expected to read Jesus bust onto the world stage and take on everyone and basically sort the world out! As we read Luke we do get glimpses of power and we hear teaching that inspires and challenges us – and Jesus isn’t bashful, it seems, about linking himself to God but he’s not big noting himself. Then it all comes crashing down with his arrest and crucifixion. And if we thought John the Baptist couldn’t be the Messiah from prison then Jesus can’t be the Messiah from the cross. He was supposed to stick it to injustice and corruption and oppression rather than suffer injustice and corruption and oppression!

What is the Son of God doing on the cross?!

Defeating the power of death’s grip on us to ruin our living with fear, paying the full price for sin – moral corruption, injustice, you name it – or more to the point whatever you have done that is wrong to anyone and to yourself, Jesus has forgiven – and he offers new life with the Holy Spirit that is marked by repentance and struggle to live better than before and now including others – even our enemies – in the equation. Where Jesus is rejected then judgement will follow but that’s something at the end of things – end of life and end of time – and until then Jesus wants people to live well – and that means living with him.

I have mentioned numerous times the Christian paradox of appearance and reality – Jesus looks like a sinner at his baptism and yet he is described as God’s beloved Son. Jesus is crucified as an evil doer, a blasphemer, a terrible sinner, and yet he is the King of kings and Lord of lords, and still the Son of God. And now since Jesus’ resurrection, Baptism in Jesus’ name seems fleeting, wet with any amount of water, and yet it is always a new birth and a new life can be lived by people who still have their strengths and weaknesses, who can feel terrible inside and yet who still are called ‘God’s child’ because our identity is never about what we do. Our Christian identity is given to us in Baptism – it is a gift, permanently given – we get to decide how we live this identity in our relationships here and now – but hopefully with a confidence that Jesus is helping us each day to live who we are in him in our time and place in this world.

Jesus’ baptism might almost have slipped by except that he lived in that relationship declared by the voice and the dove not for his own sake but to rescue us with service and sacrifice, with apparent weakness and suffering the injustices of the world, so that we will not be afraid, we will have confidence not in ourselves but in the relationship Jesus extends to us. Thus we live with purpose – our struggle to follow Jesus is never in vain and we can bless those around us whether we live in a societal ‘heaven or hell’.


Bible References

  • Luke 3:15 - 22