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)
In the telling of the story of Jesus, the Church over the centuries focused on a number of beginning moments. Advent, Christmas, and The Epiphany are the expansion of these starting points. Followers of Jesus didn’t write the biography of Jesus from scratch – from beginning to end – they weren’t recording Jesus’ life from the beginning but rather discovered that Jesus crucified, dead, buried, risen, and ascended to be someone to follow, to trust, and in wanting others to do the same, they learnt his story – and there’s always a beginning.
That’s true for us and Jesus too. Some of us have grown up always knowing that there is Jesus. Growing up in Christian homes, baptised as infants, Jesus has always been ‘there’. To be sure we may have had our ‘ups and downs’ of faith or maybe our ‘being close and being distant’ times with God but Jesus is always ‘there’.
Some of us have memories of ‘before Jesus’ and ‘after Jesus’. We can remember not knowing who Jesus was, learning about him, coming to faith, maybe we were baptised or we learnt about our infant baptism which we had never really understood or appreciated. There also might be stories of problems at that time when Jesus ‘began’ for us and how he helped us and that is very personal but it still draws us to Jesus.
However Jesus came to our awareness, whenever it was that we wanted to follow Jesus – and yes, always imperfectly – what we also know is that it was Jesus who chose us first – we didn’t really choose him – it was Jesus who died for us first – we haven’t earnt his approval – it was Jesus who brought us life with him in our Baptism and we are recipients of his love and care. In this we are all similar because Jesus is gracious to us but in our experiences of Jesus and especially in the stories of how we and Jesus ‘began’, that is all personal.
Matthew goes back to Joseph’s story and a genealogy back to Abraham. Mark isn’t interested at all in Jesus before his ‘first day at work’ so to speak – there are no infancy stories. John goes all the way back before time itself to the mystery of God and the incarnation. And this year we listen to Luke and today’s reading picks up another of Luke’s introductory stories. We’ve heard about Zechariah, Elizabeth and John the Baptist, Mary and Gabriel, the birth and shepherds and Jesus in the temple as a baby and at 12 years old. It’s all covered in two chapters – setting the scene. And now we’re into chapter 3 and Jesus is about 30 years old and the scene is John the Baptist again – no longer a baby – but still doing his job – pointing to Jesus – preparing the way of the Lord – and calling the people to repentance and to the coming Messiah, the Christ, God’s anointed One.
Luke wants to make clear to Theophilus – that’s the person he is writing to – but also to us – that John the Baptist with his dramatic persona and blunt message of repentance – and not just a talk one but a lifestyle one – isn’t the Messiah. John is calling out sinners and sin – at all levels of society – and it is risky calling out those with power – and pointing out to them that the Messiah will do this and more. Picking up imagery from Malachi who also spoke into contexts of much rebellion and corruption – especially in the religious circles back then – John gives us a winnowing fork, Holy Spirit, fire with an attendant image of energy and power and destruction and ash. This message when personalised at Herod will get John locked up. But for now, Luke then moves on to Jesus and in only two verses describes Jesus’ baptism. By implication what
happens to Jesus isn’t the normal occurrence. Luke is not suggesting that God is calling out to each person baptised that they are his beloved children. Instead Luke is making a point that Jesus’ baptism is unique to Jesus. He doesn’t say who saw the events of heaven opening or the descent of the Holy Spirit as a dove – he just records that it happens. The voice from heaven says, ‘You’. ‘You are my beloved Son …’ which addresses Jesus. We have no way of knowing whether anyone else heard the voice. Maybe. Maybe not. The text doesn’t specifically say. Luke wasn’t there as he has researched and learnt all this to write to Theophilus.
All the Gospel writers mention Jesus’ baptism in some form so it is not insignificant but it is a legitimate question to ask concerning what each author wants to say about Jesus’ baptism. Today our lectionary compilers don’t overly help us because our reading stops with the voice from heaven whereas Luke goes on to record Jesus’ genealogy – and much as looking at other people’s holidays photos or pictures of relatives is simply done out of politeness, so often we skip the genealogies because they are not our family tree. However in this case, Luke has a bit of a surprise with his going right back for in verse 38 we read – “the son of Enos, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God”. We have written confirmation backing up the voice from heaven. It wasn’t a seagull’s squawk, it wasn’t the wind, it wasn’t imagination – Luke is making explicit something much more intense and powerful than John the Baptist’s message – and that is the hoped for Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One who will bring the Holy Spirit and new life, who will deal with sin, and whose judgement is final is also the Son of God.
This is the message that an empty tomb causes. This is what is seen by the light of the empty tomb. This is why Mary’s story of Gabriel and conception isn’t fancy or false – because Jesus and God are intimately linked. This is why John the Baptist’s message is more powerful then perhaps even he understood that God didn’t just send the Messiah but that in the Messiah, God is present.
So the baptism of Jesus is a powerful moment and message that continues to toll the bell of the Incarnation – each gong or chime points to the mystery that God is among us. And now that I’ve got this ringing in your ears I want you to imagine the baptism of Jesus as a silent movie – turn off the volume – there he is in the water, before John, Jesus is praying (his lips are moving), heaven opening and the dove descending, let’s have Jesus lifting his head heavenward hearing something – remember we clicked ‘mute’ – and right at this moment I am asking you, ‘What do you see?’.
The jokers among you are already thinking ‘someone dripping wet’. And that’s good. Because Jesus is wet from baptism. But there is more and that comes from knowing of John’s baptism which was a baptism of repentance. People baptised by John were demonstrating repentance. So at this moment with the volume off, Jesus looks like another repenting person.
However we’re only looking at this scene because of the light of an empty tomb and because the crucified person was raised having defeated death. So looking backwards and forwards from cross and empty tomb to the beginning we have an even more amazing message that God in Jesus looks a sinner – that Jesus has taken on our life – has solidarity with us in our sinful, frail condition – lives as one of us. It is only after the resurrection we will definitely say ‘but without sin’.
The mystery of the Incarnation that God can be in a human being is intensified when we understand that it is the holy God coming among us in the likeness of sinful flesh. The two – holiness and sin – should not be together – but that is the mystery of Jesus – which is continued in both Holy Baptism and Holy Communion when God comes close to sinners not to destroy them but so that we can live with God.
Thus Jesus’ baptism is a good place to begin a story of how Jesus tackles our sin and gives us life to live in repentance. He understands our lives intimately and he calls us to follow him in our day to day behaviour so that we now struggle with the sins, selfishness, the we-know-better-than-God attitude, the fears and anxieties that our part of our lives.
When we feel alone; when we suspect no-one really understands, when shame or pride or despair get a hold of us, where can we go? We’re tired of being told ‘pull yourself together’ or similar. But we can turn to Jesus – watch, listen – and see and hear that everything he does is for you. We can dare hope and trust and then follow, one day at time, this Jesus. It is the most honest way to live and to start each day.
- Luke 3:15 - 22