The Baptism of Herod or Jesus?

Gospel: Luke 3:15-23

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 [not just sexual morality] 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.’

23 Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work.

The Baptism of Herod or Jesus?

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We are moving towards the end of Luke's introduction to Jesus and his Gospel. This introduction will end with Chapter 3 as we are told "Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work." (Luke 3:23)  It is the same age as David when he ascended the throne, (2 Sam 5:4) and as Joseph when he became Pharaoh’s servant and "and without [his; ie, Joseph's] consent no one [could] lift up hand or foot in all the land of Egypt." (Gen 41:44-46) We see that Jesus has come to the age of maturity as God's beloved Son, and this is then reinforced by the listing of his genealogy which links his ancestry and inheritance back to Adam and thus to God. Now, the one shown forth, the one spoken about, will begin to speak for himself in Chapter 4, as he resists the temptations of Satan.

 Nancy Rockwell sees another structure in this section of the gospel:  Speaking of the signs of Epiphany, the showings, of the star and magi, and then the second showing of Jesus' baptism, she says

Each of these Sunday signs provokes some kind of struggle.  This one does not end in a chaos of murdered bodies and a disappearance of the Child and the [Magi].  This one plunges Jesus into a wilderness of temptations, where he is surrounded by wild beasts, invaded by dreams, wooed by demons.  He contends mightily.  And he comes away whole.  

I note that a Herod is present in both those signs. Just which Herod we are dealing with is always a point of confusion in gospel texts. Herod the Great is the Herod from whom Joseph and Mary fled into Egypt. His son Archelaus is the Herod Matthew says caused the young Jesus to be taken to Nazareth, and now in Luke we are talking about another Herodson, Herod Antipas. I have to look this up each time, but I wonder if, even unintentionally, the name Herod stands as a symbol within the Gospels. It may be of little import if the reader does not realise there was more than one Herod! I said in my homily last week that

Matthew is saying [with the Old Testament quotations in his nativity] that not only is Jesus' birth a coming home, a return from exile, but also... that [by using the symbol of the astrologers, he shows that] even Babylon, the great enemy, recognises that Jesus, a Jew, is the Messiah. Even the conquerors have repented and come before God!

Which all puts Herod [in this case, Herod the Great,] in a very bad light. What we see, in Matthew's nativity, is that Herod, a Roman ruler, won't listen, and won't bow before God.

Herod is the local figurehead of the Roman Empire. In the story he symbolises Rome. The story says that Rome tried to kill Jesus from the very beginning.

Even as one Empire finally repents and worships God, another Empire rebels against God's kingdom. Matthew's nativity play is the one which is true to life; it recognises how life is, and how the powers reject God.

Then, this week, I see Peter Woods writing

As I read Luke’s gospel I become aware of two immersions. There is the immersion of Herod [Antipas] into constriction and darkness. Herod, who decided to take the low road and earned the derision and disgust of John the baptiser, then adds to the depth of his darkness and has John thrown in to prison, thence to later beheading.

And I note: Later beheading at the behest of... Herodias.

In contrast there is the immersion of Jesus into the mission of the Father. Immersing himself into light and opening.

Listen to Luke, “Now when all the people were baptised, and when Jesus also had been baptised and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.”

Herod’s is an immersion into walled off imprisonment. He ends up every bit as confined as John whom he has locked up.

A Herod is a symbol for living; a Herod is a star we can follow. A Herod is another personification of the way of Satan which we will read in Luke 4; which way is the worship of something other than God. We worry about the idolatry of the self, but that idolatry is, at base, the worship of something other than God. To be a Herod is not to worship ourselves— it may look like that, but that analysis is not quite deep enough. To worship a "Satan" allegedly greater than us but which, because it does not have God as its foundation, because it is not God, is to worship something has no foundation at all. It is to worship a nothingness; that is, it is to model ourselves upon, and to disciple ourselves upon, chaff. To be of the family tree of Herod is to stay within a certain inheritance and to learn a way of being which becomes nothing, because, ultimately, it is not of the family tree of adam. Not only do we not know our place if we will not worship God, but we find that we inherit no place, only chaff.

We say that we follow Jesus. Well, life begins with baptism. It begins with that into which we are immersed when we born, and with that in which we then choose to immerse ourselves, which then forms us. Are we immersed in,  and choosing to remain immersed in, an Herodian life which is concerned with the gaining and keeping of power, or are we immersed in a Jesus life which is concerned with giving power and giving life? The inheritance flows down the family tree and across the bloodlines: Herod the Great was a paranoid killer, Herodias will engineer the death of John the Baptist.

The great sadness in all this is not that somehow we are eternally lost or burned if our baptism is an empty sign,  a sprinkling of something meaningless because we have immersed ourselves into the way of the Herods. The great sadness is that our life is not grain; that our life is too much chaff... if we do this. We will not hear or find in ourselves the blessing that we are a beloved child in whom God delights. As Jesus will point out later, we will have our reward. (Matt 6:2, Luke 6:24) When we come to the times of crisis, and of old age, and wonder what life is about, we may find that the consolations we have already received from our life as a Herod, are without substance and blown about by the wind. Little pigs in straw houses, at the mercy of wolves.

I do not find that people who are "not Christian" are somehow evil or depraved. I sense that, like me, they are full of longing and deep feeling and rich humanity. They are beings longing to find a way home. And I sense, I experience, that when we have immersed ourselves in the things of this world, it is that much harder to hear hope, and to glean grain from among the straw and chaos of our life. God will never abandon any of us; of this I am sure.  But there is an emptiness— before the time of our Fulfilment and being able to come Home— there can be an emptiness in life which horrifies me as people bear witness to it;  I have looked into the shallows of that which swallowed Herod the Great, and even those shallows are terrifying. To be immersed in that...

Jesus is a beloved Child in whom God has delighted. We too are offered this inheritance. It is life. Take it.

Andrew Prior (2019)

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!

Also on One Man's Web
Luke 3:15-22 (23-38) - Baptism: Jesus and us (2016)
Luke 3:7-18 - Children of the Crowd or of the Spirit (2019)




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