Sermon for Jan. 13, 2019, Baptism of Jesus Sunday, Year C. An audio of this can be found for several weeks here.
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 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. 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.”
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.”
Scholars who study the historical Jesus are aware that very soon, stories were told about him that were completely unhistorical. For example, there are stories of the little boy Jesus, making bird shapes out of mud, then miraculously giving them life, and they fly away. We call a body of stories a “tradition”. So scholars speak of how the Jesus tradition went through a period of development and expansion, as probably all traditions do.
So how do you distinguish the historical from the fictional in the Jesus tradition? Well, scholars developed some criteria, like, for example, the criterion of embarrassment. If there was a story in which Jesus said or did something that would have been potentially embarrassing to the early Christian communities, then the fact that they remembered and recorded it must have been because it actually happened.
The Embarrassing Story
The baptism of Jesus is just such an embarrassing story. As a leading New Testament scholar put it,
“Early Christians indeed were rather embarrassed by John’s baptism of Jesus, both because of the possible implication of Jesus’ sinfulness and because of his apparent subordination to John the baptist.” –Joel Marcus, Anchor Bible, Mark 1-8, p. 164
People could take Jesus’ baptism by John to mean that Jesus was as sinful as everyone else and needed a baptism of forgiveness of sins, which is how John’s baptism is described. And they could take it that Jesus was subordinate to John. As the tradition developed, layers were added to the story of his baptism that dealt with those issues.
Here’s what I mean. Mark, which came first, simply says that John baptized Jesus in the Jordan. Luke, which we read today, rushes past the baptism and focuses on Jesus’ prayer and the mystical experience he had of the spirit and the voice from heaven.
Matthew adds a conversation in which John protests to Jesus that Jesus should baptize him. So you can see the tradition develop.
The gospel of John, which came last, does not even mention the baptism at all. Embarrassment indeed.
Nevertheless, scholars are not in doubt that the historical Jesus started out as a member of John’s group and was baptized by John.
This is one reason why the early church continued to practice baptism as a sign of the New Covenant, replacing circumcision, the sign of the Covenant with Abraham and his descendants. Jesus was baptized, and we follow his example.
That brings up an important point about how we read the stories of Jesus. It is evident to me that one of the goals the gospel writers had, as they wrote their versions of the Jesus story, was that we should see Jesus as a model for us. Jesus called people to follow him, and we should follow him.
This means that we should see ourselves represented by Jesus, as he is baptized, as he is tempted, as he prays, as he hears God. So we will talk more about this today.
But first, I want us to reflect for a moment on baptism itself, and then we will look at this story and what it means to us. Baptism, is, for Christians the sign of the covenant. Jews practiced circumcision as a sign of the covenant with Abraham, but Christians replaced circumcision with baptism.
Baptism has several advantages over circumcision: baptism is available for both men and women. In addition, people who grew up with Greek ways of looking at the world considered body mutilation disgusting. But baptism was readily embraced in the Hellenistic world. One more advantage is that baptism is not limited to the descendants of Abraham, but is for everyone.
So what does baptism mean, and what does it do? Baptism is a richly symbolic act. Originally, people went to places where there was water enough to stand in, and probably were either submerged or had water poured over them, symbolically submerging them.
So the symbolism is both of a bath, a washing, cleansing, purifying act, and an act symbolizing a death and rebirth, going down under the water, and coming up again, or perhaps re-entering a womb to be born again.
We baptize children, following the Jewish community’s practice of circumcising infants. We become children of the covenant in baptism, born of water and the Spirit, as the New Testament says; sons and daughters of God, members of the body of Christ.
Now, when we say what we believe baptism signifies and accomplishes (seals) for us as Christians, we need to be careful to say that we do not believe in exclusivism. We believe that God’s Spirit is at work all over the world in many faith communities. We just want to talk about the meaning we understand by our practice of baptism.
The Story of Jesus’ Baptism
So now to the story itself. Jesus joins all the other people who have gone out to the Jordan river to be baptized by John. Luke does not focus on the act of baptism itself, but moves on to focus on Jesus’ mystical experience that followed. But we should notice that going into and under the same waters as all the other people was a hugely important statement.
Jesus put himself right there with everyone else, in all their brokenness and humanness. He does not stay on the shoreline at a safe distance, he gets into the waters that washed them, without making judgments, without superiority.
What does this mean for us? He identifies with us, in our brokenness and humanness, with all our shortcomings and failures, and is there with us.
In the same way, that sets the pattern for us. We seek to live without judgments, without superiority, accepting other people without discrimination, but with radical hospitality and inclusiveness. We are all in the same waters together.
Jesus’ Mystical Experience
After Jesus’ baptism, then came the spiritual experience. The experience Jesus had come in the context of his prayer. Luke says,
“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened…”
I have known people who are reluctant to accept profound religious or mystical experiences as legitimate. But right here, we see that Jesus himself had them. Both prayer and mystical experiences are part of a normal, healthy spirituality.
Mystical experiences are rare, it seems, and it is not something we go out looking for, but if and when we have them, we accept them as wonderful gifts. Some of you have told me of your own experiences, and I thank God for them.
Whether or not we have these experiences, all of us follow Jesus’ practice of prayer. No words are recorded here of Jesus’ prayer. Whether this was a word-prayer or a silent meditation, we do not know. But Jesus practiced both, and both are part of healthy spirituality. Christians are people who intentionally connect with God, who, we believe, is always present to us spiritually, through frequent prayer.
So, what happened next? Luke says,
“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.”
So two things happened: the Spirit and the voice. First the Spirit. Luke says that the Spirit came like a dove. Why? We are not told why, but it could well be to make a contrast with the way the Spirit was described as coming on people in the Hebrew Bible. In some of the stories, the Spirit comes on people and makes them prophesy, even fall down involuntarily and behave almost hysterically (1 Sam. 10).
But here, we see the Spirit descending gently, like a dove. We believe that as baptized Christians, the Spirit indwells us. To what effect? What is the Spirit doing? The Spirit is gently luring us, quietly coaxing us, offering us the possibility of cooperating with the good that God wants for the next moment.
The Spirit is present in each moment, each breath, inspiring us to live into our true selves, instead of our ego, false selves. We can, in each moment, respond to the tug of the Spirit, or resist. The Spirit, like a gentle dove, wants to persuade us to the good, but will never control or coerces us.
So after Jesus becomes aware that the Spirit of God has come to him, he hears the voice from heaven saying,
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
It is easy for us to understand that Jesus was God’s beloved child and that God was pleased with him; do we know this about ourselves?
A lot of us grew up with the teaching that we are “sinners in the hands of an angry God” in danger of being cursed in life and in danger of hell after death. I believe that is horrible and tragic theology.
That view is an ancient Christian belief, but it was not the only one. Early in the developing church, many believed that we were created in God’s image, created good, beloved by God, as God’s children, and that God is well pleased to call us his children.
Now, of course, we are humans, with egos, with pride, with anger, with selfish impulses and brains hard-wired to fight off threats to our sense of wellbeing or security. So, yes we are sinful. We readily admit that. But God is with us, even in our brokenness and lostness, ready to forgive us if we come to our senses and reorient ourselves to the Spirit’s good purposes.
In other words, it is right to put ourselves in this story, to stand where Jesus was standing, and to hear the voice from heaven saying to us,
“You are my Son, You are my daughter, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Believing it, Feeling it
My spiritual director wanted me to get to a place where I felt God’s love profoundly, so she asked me what my earliest memory of being loved was. I told her about being quite small, maybe 3 or 4, sitting on my mother’s lap, and seeing her beautiful hands holding a book with glossy pages and colorful pictures in front of me, and reading the children’s poems to me. I felt secure and loved, without having done anything to earn it. My director said, “Now picture God loving you just like that.”
Can you do the same? Think of your earliest memory of being loved. Remember how it felt. Now think of God loving you that way, now. Feel how it feels.
That is the truth that sets us free; free from needing our ego defenses, free from fearing God — remember, “there is no fear in love.” Free to live without guilt and shame; free to respond to the lure of the Spirit; free to be grateful for being a part of the community of the common waters of the baptized, and free to know that all people are beloved children of God too.