Sermon for the Baptism of the Lord, Year C, January 13, 2013
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the
Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; 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. 17 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.”
21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22
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.”
The Waters We Pass Through
In the book, the Life of Pi, the boy Pi, raised in an agnostic home, discovers from scratch the world’s great religions. When he first learns about Christianity, it seems to him to be a very short, fast moving story. Well it is. Last week we were with the wise men bringing gifts to Jesus, and now here we are one week later, with a 30 year old Jesus, at his baptism.
The story of Jesus’ baptism is one of the few episodes that all four gospels describe. They each have their own unique way of telling the story, but they all tell it, making it clear that this story is important.
But why is it important? What does it mean that Jesus was baptized, and what does it have to do with us? We will look at the unique way Luke tells the story, and I believe we will see why this is so important to our lives.
The Facebook Question
If you are on Facebook, you will know that the first thing you see when you open it is a question with your name in it. Facebook asks “How’s it
going?” Mine says, “How is it going, Steven?”
How is it going? Well, in general, look around. Here I am in the United States, in fact on the Gulf Coast, in a climate controlled room with a bunch of nice people, none of whom has probably ever had to wonder about where the next meal was coming from. We have great health care, great cars, great phones, nice clothes – we have it better than most.
But dig a bit below the surface; ask a question that goes deeper than Facebook’s “How is it going?” and the answer may be different. Ask about our families, or about our relationships. Ask about our expectations for ourselves and our loved ones. Ask about what makes us angry, or what makes us afraid, or what we regret; the answers could get pretty dark, pretty quickly.
Ask us whether we really believe there is any reason for hope. Ask us why we are here. This text is all about these questions the answers to them.
The Buzz about the Solution
The place we began this morning is with the buzz that John the baptist got going among the people because of his ministry of baptism of repentance. You would not have had to ask questions any deeper than Facebook’s “How is it going?” to those folks, to hear dark answers. Things were bad and everybody
wanted radical change. Was it going to come from John?
They had reason to think maybe so. Remember John was preaching that people should start living in a way that looked like he expected a new social order. Remember his preaching?
11 “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 … tax collectors: “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers:… “Do not extort money from anyone…”
The very next line is where we picked up the story. Luke tells us
“…the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah”
But no, John said, he was not going to inaugurate the new age. He was just setting the stage for it. Someone else is coming who is far superior. He will get the fires blazing.
The Fire Solution
That’s what they thought the solution was going to be. Separate out the good guys from the bad guys and send the bad ones into the flames. The separation would be as easy as sticking a pitch fork in to newly harvested wheat. You just toss it all up into the air. The grains will fall back down, the wind will blow away the chaff.
This is what happens when you tell everyone the revolution has begun: the ones that sign up to fight will be the good guys, the rest can get ready to roast. In fact, as John sees it, Jesus is getting ready for this. Clearly the wind of the Spirit is active in him; it will start blowing the chaff into the flames soon.
16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; 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. 17 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.”
Jesus, in line for the water
What happens, however, is amazing. Jesus comes. After all this build up about his superiority to John and the baptism of fire he will start, it
looks like the opposite is happening. Jesus gets in line to be baptized along with everybody else, in fact it looks like he wound up at the back of the line.
21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized
There he is, standing among them, getting baptized in the same water as they all pass through, empty handed, without a pitchfork or a match.
But now Luke adds one bit of information which is unique to him. No other gospel writer includes the fact that Jesus was in prayer during this event.
“21 …and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened,”
Prayer is important to Luke, and he shows us Jesus at prayer many times. Jesus, of course, models the life of faith for us, the church. So, in his second volume, in the book of Acts, Luke shows the church often at prayer.
How are we to live in a world in which the answers to the deeper questions about “How are you doing?” are so difficult? We do as Jesus taught us: we live as people of deep and frequent prayer.
Prayer in the Water
Do you find prayer easy or difficult? Is it hard to make time for prayer? If so, I hope you can come to my class that starts tomorrow. We will learn how to become centered and quiet, and to rest in the presence of God.
Prayer didn’t send the Romans hurtling into the revolutionary flames. Prayer is not the magic solution to all of life’s problems. But prayer orients
our lives so that we can live in our troubled times with real reasons for hope. We live with the assurance that we are not alone, that we are loved and cared for because this is a world in which God is present and accessible. Like Jesus, we pray.
The Spirit Descends
But there is even more to amaze us. When Jesus rises up out of those baptismal waters, Luke says,
“22 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.”
Instead of blowing chaff into a fire, the wind of God, the breath, the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus. His entire ministry is lived in the power of the Spirit. This is another huge theme for Luke who more than the other gospel writers shows the Holy Spirit active in Jesus’ life.
And, like prayer, what is true for Jesus becomes true for the church; the Spirit comes down on the church, like flames of fire on the day of Pentecost, as Luke tells us in the book of Acts, and empowers the church’s life and ministry. We live as people of prayer and people of the active Spirit of God. How is God present to us when we pray? He is present by his Spirit.
The Voice and the Quotations
What is the message we are supposed to hear when the Holy Spirit descends? Is it the message of condemnation and judgment? Is it a message about guilt and shame? Just the opposite.
The voice is a well-read voice. Quoting from a Psalm about God’s Messiah, who, it says, will have an international impact, and a prophet, who foresaw the beloved son as one destined to suffer for the nation, the voice of God launches Jesus’ public ministry. (Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1)
So, let’s look at what is going on here. Jesus comes to the crowd, gets in the back of the line with them, gets down in the water with them, in total embrace and identification with them, as they are, and in prayer, is baptized, then he receives the Holy Spirit and hears the voice proclaim him as God’s beloved son.
The Genealogy: from paradox to tragedy
We didn’t take time to read it, but the very next thing that happens is that Luke gives us Jesus’ genealogy. As one person says, “Luke’s genealogy begins in ambiguity and culminates with tragic paradox.” – (Carol Lakey Hess in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 4).
It begins with ambiguity about Jesus’ father:
“…son of Joseph (as it was supposed)” Luke reports.
The genealogy traces each generation of sons back and back, until we come to creation as Genesis described it. The genealogy ends with:
“Seth, son of Adam, son of God.”
Seth was the son Adam and Eve had to replace Able, murdered by his brother Cain. The genealogy ends with the memory of tragedy.
Humanity in deep waters
Who were the people in the line for baptism that Jesus joined? Who were the ones down in that water that he entered? They were humans. Like
us, they were people of ambiguity and paradox, of sometimes heroism but more often tragedy. People who live in troubled times, people whose answers to the deeper “How’s it going?” questions reveal lots of pain.
But down there with us, in those waters, Jesus shows us how to live: to be people of prayer, making conscious contact with God who is there as well. Jesus demonstrates that the Spirit is here, even here with humanity like it is; ambiguity and tragedy notwithstanding. Can we hear the voice saying to us that we too can know God as our loving Heavenly Father, knowing ourselves as his beloved sons and daughters?
He did, after all, come to inaugurate a new order, as John’s preaching anticipated. He came with a vision of a humanity that knows the truth: we are all in the same waters. We share a common genealogy of ambiguity and tragedy.
But as people of prayer and people of the Spirit, we have the courage to live an alternative lifestyle John described, of honesty, integrity and compassion. We live as baptized people of God who are willing to look at everyone descended from Adam and Eve as a dearly loved by God. And that is why our Facebook status can be, “How am I doing? I’ve come through deep waters, but I am not alone; I have reasons for hope.”