From telling the story of the visit of the magi to the Christ child last Sunday, tonight we move rather abruptly to the story of the baptism of Jesus as presented in the Gospel according to Luke. Like the infancy stories told on Christmas Eve and Epiphany this one is also a story of origins, though in this case we are introduced to a very much adult Jesus. This being a story of beginnings or origins comes across even more clearly in the gospels of Mark and John, both of which omit any account of Jesus’ birth, and basically open their gospel narratives with the baptism.
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John the Baptist—a rather wild and wildly compelling character—had already launched into his own ministry out by the River Jordan. Dressed in a robe of camel’s hair with a leather cord around his waist, he looks and sounds like one of the prophets of old. When the people came out to hear him and to request baptism, he called them a “brood of vipers,” asking, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” This is not a call to simply assent to a belief system… it has to show; it has to bear fruit.
“And the crowds asked John, ‘What then should we do?’” He told them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” To the tax-collectors he had said, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you,” and to soldiers it was “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” Not only tax-collectors, but also soldiers had gone out to be baptized by John? Tax-collectors were the epitome of the traitor, and soldiers—whether Romans or (in my view the more likely case) Jewish soldiers of Herod Antipas—soldiers were part of the political and military machine that ran that society, and kept it captive to the ways of the Roman Empire and subjected it to tin-pot dictators like the ruthlessly violent King Herod. What are they doing there? “[For] the most unlikely people,” says G.B. Caird in his commentary, “John’s preaching had an irresistible fascination.”
To each class he spelled out in simple terms the meaning of repentance. To ordinary, selfish folk, blind to the needs of others because of their preoccupation with security, to tax collectors whose trade was a form of licensed extortion, to soldiers accustomed to line their pockets by intimidation and blackmail, he gave the same injunction: renounce your besetting sin.
After the powerful language with which John had opened (and after calling them all a brood of vipers…), this seems almost too simple. But you know, had John lived in our time and been asked “What then should we do?”, he might have told us that it really isn’t rocket science; that we need to look at ourselves and figure out where we are most likely to get ourselves in trouble, and have a go at that. Where are we most likely to become self-absorbed, self-centered, self-serving? Where are we most likely to uncritically just buy into the norms and assumptions of the wider culture, never really questioning what that is doing to others around us? Change that.
And now we come to this evening’s passage, in which we hear that “the people were filled with expectation, [and] questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah.” Hoping he might be the Messiah, marking the end of Roman rule, Herod’s violent collusion, and the stunted condition of what had once been glorious Israel.
The instant that the suggestion is made that John might be the promised Messiah, his language ramps right up again. “I baptize you with water;” John says, “but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” And then John really increases the intensity of his speech: “His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Which I’m going to assume left the newly baptized soldiers and tax men doubly committed to changing their practices as an act of repentance. John is never afraid to use vivid and uncompromisingly tough language. Yet Luke is still clear that this was all “good news to the people.”
That Jesus has come to receive what is named a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” has often puzzled readers; why would he need to do this? There was apparently something about that very public ritual action that just made sense to Jesus as a sign of his new beginning. Matthew even tells us that, “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’” (Mt 3:14). Yet regardless of John’s scruples, into the water Jesus went.
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (3:21-22)
As presented by Luke, it sounds as if this was something visible—and audible—to all, whereas in Mark and Matthew it seems more something Jesus alone experiences. Frankly it doesn’t really matter, for we are the primary audience here… we hear the words those words proclaiming that this is the Son, the Beloved, with whom God is well pleased.
John had been right… the messiah is near, the messiah has come. Yet John will later be puzzled, and begin to doubt his own proclamation. That’s because Luke can see something that John the Baptist doesn’t yet have in view, namely the character of the one whose sandals he believes he’s not worthy to untie. Whatever else John might understand, the idea that the Messiah would do things like take women seriously, insist that room be made for children, tell a story in which a Samaritan is a hero, touch the skin of outcast lepers, and do all of these things as demonstrations of what the reign of God really looks like; John simply had no way to anticipate any of this. And the idea that the Messiah would wash the feet of his disciples as a way of showing them how life is intended to be lived? The John who thought himself unfit to untie Messiah’s sandals would have been knocked over by such an image.
And frankly, we all should be knocked over by how Jesus actually lives into his Sonship. For all that we know the parable of the Good Samaritan, the compassion Jesus showed to those whose lives were most broken, the story of the foot-washing and of all that it calls us to be, we can still take it all too much for granted. And we can still be pretty blind to the claims that it places on us in our own lives.
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” We must pay deep attention to his story; for in doing so the course of our own stories will be changed.