Comfort During the Baptism of Fire
Week of Sunday January 13 - The Baptism of Jesus
Gospel: Luke 3:15-17,21-22
For context, I have included all of Chapter 3. The lectionary text begins at verse 15 with the larger font.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
5 Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’
7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’
10 And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ 11In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ 12Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ 13He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ 14Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John 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. 17His 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.’
18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. 19But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, 20added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and 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.’
James and John have just come to Jesus. Jesus says to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ (Mark 10:38)
James and John naively think they will be able to do this.
In the Lucan reading this week, we see the other side of that conversation. Jesus undertakes our baptism. He does not merely promise he can do it; he willingly does it. He becomes one of us. He shares our humanity, our pain and sorrow, and the unresolvable terror of our life. God is truly with us.
These are not just words. In the last fortnight life devolved into an ongoing crisis. There were days when I could see no ending, or any visible hope. In all of this, I found the story of Jesus’ baptism strangely comforting.
At the ‘rational, scientific’ level, there is no sense in this. Jesus is long dead. He never knew me. There is no person sitting worrying for me, or fixing things from the heavenly control room.
But beyond the rational, there is comfort. I have a place. The universe is not blind unreasoned chance. God knows me. Somehow... it all feels not quite so bad.
You cannot tell me this in order to comfort me. Do not tell me this as though it is a fact that will help. There is no reason to it; nothing factual, only moments when it is there for me to hold and feel.
I keep remembering the epiphany to Isaiah this week. In the year King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. (Isaiah 6:1)
“The year King Isaiah died” is not an incidental mention of the date. Identifying the year in this way has its own message.
I could write that my Grandfather once negotiated a right of way with our quarrelsome neighbours.... or I could write, “In 1939, as Chamberlain returned from Germany, my Grandfather negotiated a right of way with our neighbours.” For my generation, and the one before, such a way of stating the date already tells us something of what is going on, and what will happen.
In Israel, the man who has been King for more than 50 years has died. Conditions are uncertain. It is then that God still shows Godself in the temple. For all that is to come, in all the fear and confusion, God still comes. God is not absent.
Luke begins by using the date in the same way.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
Chapter 3 has more political detail in the dating of history than both the preceding chapters. The message is clear. John comes to announce the Messiah at a time of low hope. All the traditional territory of Israel and Judah is listed as being under foreign rule. That Annas and Caiaphas are listed there is no compliment to them; they were appointed by the Romans. But God is still active, and coming to God’s people.
When the story of John begins like this, and has such a strong message of being called to turn again to God, it is no surprise that “the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah.” (3:15) Especially when Isaiah 40 is quoted.
The great verses about the one crying out in the wilderness shout out to us that even under the rule of Rome, God is still present. God is acting. And God is acting way beyond the presentation of one more prophet. John said,
‘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.
Every tyrant in the world hears in the Gospel a message that we comfortable Westerners seek to domesticate and avoid. The message of John, and the message of Jesus who so thoroughly endorsed him; I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John (Luke 7:28), is explicitly and blatantly political. It is about the political liberation of Israel; of God’s people. Jesus expected nothing less.
We in the West are, in many ways, like Christians under Constantine; safe but compromised. It takes little criticism of our governments and systems to find that the message of Jesus is no more welcome than in other parts of the world.
We have already seen some of the ministry of John in the lectionary this year. In my First Impressions post called Landings, I wrote
Luke also draws us a John who knew the limitations of his call to repentance. “One is coming after me,” he said. John contrasts the baptism of water with the baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire in this One coming after.
There can be no following Jesus without the basic repentance John preached. We baptise with water even today as a symbol of beginning to follow that way of Jesus, which is also known as repentance.
Jesus takes us beyond John. We often quickly find we are in deeper than we expected. There is another baptism; the baptism with a different spirit. It may not take long to find this is also a baptism of fire. It costs. It purifies us of our dross.
It changes the way we see the world. We cannot continue to be the same. The act of repentance and the acceptance of Christ irrefusably demands changes of us. Unless we walk away, John’s call pushes us into a life of fire. John himself will soon run afoul of Herod, as he is driven by his uncompromising vision.
The fire is because what Jesus calls us to do is political. It can get us shut up in prison, as it confronts the un-godly nature of the systems in which we live. (3:20)
All of this is ratified, sealed, and approved by God. When all the people were baptised, it says. There is no need for that clause in the telling of the story; we could leave it out. And when Jesus also had been baptised... In other words, after everyone has submitted to the baptism and theology and politics of John, then God added a further blessing! All of this is ratified, sealed, and approved by God.
When Jesus was praying, the heaven was opened and the 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 reference to Psalm 2 is obvious, and ties in with Luke’s careful and deliberately political introduction to John and the baptism of Jesus.
Why do the nations conspire,
and the peoples plot in vain?
2 The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and his anointed, saying,
3 ‘Let us burst their bonds asunder,
and cast their cords from us.’
4 He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord has them in derision.
5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
6 ‘I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.’
7 I will tell of the decree of the Lord:
He said to me, ‘You are my son;
today I have begotten you.
8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
Clearly, we must grow beyond immature and violent dreams of military domination to make the world a just place in the name of Christ. It is true to speak of the “myth of redemptive violence.” The suffering servant of Isaiah 42 that we identify with Jesus, and some feel is reflected in the words “with you I am well pleased,” also makes that clear. The servant is not a conqueror.
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
2 He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
3 a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
Luke and the other gospels make it clear that the explicit political impact of Jesus and his people is to follow the route of compassion, death and resurrection. But Luke also makes it clear that Jesus is opposed to the powers that be when they do not serve justice to all people. We stand against them. We cannot be Christian and do less.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!