It’s About Life
It’s About Life
Today we hear about the baptism of Jesus from Luke’s gospel. It is a coming together of several themes that have been at work over the first two chapters of Luke’s gospel. Namely the kinship that Jesus and John the Baptist share, how their ministries link and differ. Most importantly we gain some insight towards what baptism mean.
Scripture: Luke 3: 15-27, 21-22
It is good to engage with and read scripture. Often when we are reading through scripture we find comforting passages that we’ve read many times. We see the words and images are captured in our mind. The baptism of Jesus is one such story. The setting is pastoral and serene. We can imagine ourselves along side Jesus or John. We hear the sound of the Jordan River as it winds through its course. We envision the Holy Spirit descending like a dove towards Jesus. This is a story that we are very familiar with. The challenge is to do more than simply read the comforting words we find here and discover what new word God has for us today.
The passage opens with a reference to the people and how filled they were with expectation. They wondered if John, not Jesus, but John might be the Messiah. By putting our focus on John the Baptist, we are brought back to passages found earlier in Luke’s gospel which feature John’s parents: Zechariah and Elizabeth. This helps us place Jesus and John together. The stories of their birth, baptism, and ministry are linked by Luke from the outset. Their kinship is strengthened by the bond that their mothers share as sisters.
The baptism of Jesus occurs three chapters into Luke’s gospel. Luke has been busy setting the stage, providing the much-needed context of who Jesus is, and what the work he will be doing is about. What is remarkable is that Jesus shares his baptism with others. Jesus is one among many who is baptised that day.
The crowd or the group of people at the beginning help set the tone. It is the people who have a question for John about whether he is the Messiah. Luke’s gospel uses the questions of the people to advance the story. They are not signs of doubt or ignorance, rather Luke uses them as opportunities to expand knowledge and push the narrative further. A reminder for us that questions are good and encouraged, they help expand our learning and understanding.
In this instance the question the people ask is, “John are you the Messiah.” To which John responds, “I baptize with water, but one more powerful than I is coming.” The narrative is moved forward. We then move directly to the baptism of Jesus, the advent of the Holy Spirit and the words of God. The people, common, everyday people, ask a simple yet important question and the story moves forward.
Shively Smith writes, “Luke narrates a four-part baptism sequence in which (1) the people who asked questions were baptized, followed by (2) Jesus’ baptism, and (3) his prayerful moment, accompanied by (4) a visual and auditory revelation. Luke does not describe the form of baptism, only that Jesus and the people were baptized. Similarly, we are not told what Jesus prayed, only that he prayed immediately after baptism. Nonetheless, Jesus’ prayer is a uniquely Lucan detail because neither Matthew nor Mark report it (Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11).” (Shively Smith)
Jesus was praying when the Holy Spirit descended, and God’s voice was heard. It’s a wonderfully pastoral moment in what we imagine was a beautiful wilderness setting. It’s peaceful. Imagining Jesus, fresh from the Jordan spending time in prayer with God. We don’t know what Jesus prayed for, what he said, what he was thinking. We do know that Jesus is loved by God and God was pleased. I think we can find solace in that statement, that when we as children of God sit in prayer and spend time with God that we also know God’s love. The act of prayer reminds us that God is pleased with us. Often, we can be our own worst critics and the world too is full of harsh judgement. Know that you are loved by God and that God is pleased with you.
The focus of our passage today is baptism. Normally when we think of baptism, our thoughts run to babies and a dab of water on the forehead. As a minister I hope the baby won’t squirm too much, won’t react overly to the water on their forehead. Most importantly, I hope that it is a life shaping moment for the family as they recommit to their relationship with God. If I were to describe baptism using just one word I might pick: peaceful, loving, inclusive, grace-filled, welcoming.
John’s description of baptism is a little different, especially when he describes that baptism Jesus will offer: “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.” Fire is a destructive element and is perhaps the last way I would think of describing baptism. However, fire is also a cleansing agent. We use heat to purify. A blacksmith uses high heat to temper and strengthen metal.
Michael Chan considers the agricultural images we find in this passage he writes, “John’s use of harvest imagery is notable, especially when you consider the ancient Mediterranean context in which it was written. Unlike modern Western countries, meat was not as readily available at the time of Jesus, and it certainly wasn’t the staple that it currently is. Wheat, however, sustained the lives of both the rich and poor, making the image accessible to an economically diverse audience. “Chaff” refers to the husk of the grain, which was effectively the superfluous material remaining after harvest. It could not be consumed, and therefore could not sustain life.” (Michael Chan)
Chan describes the implication behind this image as follows: the ministry of Jesus will act resolutely, perhaps even destructively in service of things that preserve and sustain life. Those things which don’t sustain life are to be burnt and discarded.
We move from what appears to be a serene, pastoral scene showing us the baptism of Jesus. On the surface it reveals a few details about Jesus and John. It’s when we peel back the layers and ask a few questions, just like the people did that we find a new level of meaning. If we take the words of John to heart about the baptism Jesus delivers then there are questions we must ask ourselves. First among those is how do we as followers of Christ, baptised in his name, preserve and sustain life?
And there are many things that we do, have done and will continue to do. The reminder in this very simple passage is that the calling of a follower of Christ is in all things to find ways to preserve and sustain life. Amen.
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St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.
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