Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
15 The people were filled with expectation, and everyone wondered whether John might be the Christ. 16 John replied to them all, “I baptize you with water, but the one who is more powerful than me is coming. I’m not worthy to loosen the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out.”
21 When everyone was being baptized, Jesus also was baptized. While he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit came down on him in bodily form like a dove. And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.” (CEB)
The Baptism Of the Lord
On the Church’s calendar, this Sunday is called the Baptism of the Lord. It’s always the first Sunday after the Epiphany on January 6. All the Sundays between the Epiphany and Ash Wednesday have an Epiphany-like flavor. They all tend to focus on revealing and manifesting – which is what Epiphany means – something about who Jesus is.
So during these Sundays the question we much ask ourselves is, “what does this say to us about who Jesus is?” There is a lot more than simple baptism at stake in the baptism of Jesus, not than any baptism is a simple matter. There are some very important theological points regarding who and what Jesus is that are at stake in this event.
People were filled with expectation about whether or not John the Baptist might be the Messiah. He looked the part. He wore clothes similar to what Elijah wore. His message was about repentance in preparation for the coming of God’s kingdom. He criticized the political and religious leadership. Messianic expectations were already running high in Jesus’ day. Several potential candidates had come and gone: Theudas and Judas the Galilean are mentioned as two such persons in Acts chapter 5.
When you look at history, it’s easy to see why. Israel was an occupied nation. Israel had gained independence from the larger Greek kingdoms surrounding them for about a century. Then, instead of relying on God’s protection, the King of Israel made the classic Israel political blunder and made an alliance with one of its bigger, more powerful neighbors to help protect them from the Greek kingdoms to their north and south. This time it was the Roman Republic.
The Roman army marched into Jerusalem in 63 B.C. and promptly declared the independent Kingdom of Israel a part of the growing Roman Empire. As an occupied nation, the Jews looked expectantly for God’s Messiah to intervene and reestablish an independent Kingdom of Israel. In other words, the people of Israel were in an unhappy state and were looking for a savior: a savior who could improve their current earthly situation.
But when the people asked John if he was the Messiah, he answered 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 the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (NRSV).
John’s words take on a completely different meaning from what most of his hearers probably expected. The Messiah would be a person who comes with the power of God, not to destroy enemies, but to save a lost humanity. He would send the power of God’s Holy Spirit upon those who believe in him. He would sit in judgment of all people and separate the righteous from the unrighteous, and both would receive their respective reward.
As we know, Jesus was not the military-political-religious Messiah that many first-century Jews expected. He did not come to kill Romans, but to save everyone. He didn’t come to establish an earthly kingdom, but to bring forth God’s heavenly kingdom. What God’s Messiah came to do was bigger than anything Israel’s limited imagination could wrap itself around. It was bigger than Rome, it was bigger than planet earth. What God’s Messiah came to do was absolutely cosmic in scope, and still God’s plan envelopes the cosmos as well.
Part of this lack of understanding of the scope of God’s plan which the Messiah was to accomplish comes from their understanding who and what the Messiah was when he finally showed up. Different Jewish groups expected the Messiah to be different things, and the differences were usually based on what the particular group wanted the Messiah to be.
The Zealots wanted a military-political Messiah to crush the Romans and restore the Kingdom of Israel. The Essenes wanted a priestly-religious Messiah to restore the Temple. The Sadducees didn’t want a Messiah because they were already in charge of the Temple, and wanted to keep their power. The Pharisees expected two Messiah’s: one a military-political Messiah to restore the kingdom, and the other a religious-priestly Messiah to restore the Temple and Jewish religion.
Modern Judaism also speaks of two potential Messiahs: one as a suffering servant Messiah after the manner of Joseph, and a kingly Messiah after the manner of King David. Modern Rabbinic Judaism is the child of Pharisaic Judaism.
As it turned out, Jesus was neither the military-political Messiah, nor the priestly-religious Messiah the majority of Jews expected. Jesus didn’t come to restore the old kingdom or old Temple-based religion. Instead, Jesus came to make all things new: to establish God’s kingdom and reconcile all peoples and nations to God. The baptism of Jesus reveals to us who and what Jesus is.
When Jesus was baptized, the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove, and the voice of the Father thundered from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” These two verses are the first place in the Scriptures where God is revealed as Three-In-One. Christians believe God is one God, but God has revealed himself to be three Persons. Even though we call Jesus God’s Son, there has never been a time when God was not Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There are hints of it throughout the Old Testament, but here, it’s revealed fully.
First, the heavens opened when Jesus prayed, and he was addressed by the voice of God as his Son. This tells us that the origins of Jesus are not merely human. While Jesus is a human being in all the fullness of what that means, he is also a Divine being. Jesus is God’s Son, which means that Jesus himself is Divine.
Second, the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form. Jesus received the Holy Spirit, and God the Father addressed Jesus directly as his “Son, the Beloved.” We worship the Living God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God in three Persons. Jesus Christ is the Son, the Second Person of the Divine Trinity.
Third, in order for Jesus to be called the Messiah, which means anointed one, he had to be anointed. It’s at his baptism that Jesus is anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah. The Holy Spirit serves as the unction of the anointing of Jesus. The Holy Spirit was with Jesus in power throughout his earthly ministry.
John’s prophetic words about the Messiah also reveal to us the significance of our own baptism. John says that Jesus will baptize us with the Holy Spirit and with fire. After Jesus ascended into heaven he sent the Holy Spirit into the world in a new and powerful way on the Day of Pentecost. Baptism is by water and the Holy Spirit. At our baptism, we were baptized by water to symbolize the spiritual cleansing which takes place as the Holy Spirit comes upon us.
At baptism, the Holy Spirit is called down upon the baptismal water and upon the one who is baptized. It is in baptism that the Holy Spirit imprints upon us a mark which states that we belong to God. In several instances the New Testament speaks of baptism as sealing. It’s kind of like writing your name on the tag of a coat or shirt. The mark of the Holy Spirit imprinted upon us in baptism says, This person belongs to God.
The importance of the Baptism of the Lord and all the Sundays during the Epiphany season, the importance of searching the ways in which God reveals himself to us through Jesus Christ, is this: The Jews of Jesus day had a variety of preconceived ideas about what the Messiah would be and what the Messiah was coming to do. Most of these ideas were limited, having only to do with the people of Israel and the day in which the people lived. Many of the people, therefore, kind of missed the boat.
People today aren’t too terribly different. We have our own preconceived ideas about God and his Son Jesus Christ. The problem is that God’s ideas are always bigger than ours. God’s vision is always broader than ours. And God has a history of revealing a plan that is far and away beyond our expectations or imaginings.
Have you ever looked for something, hoped for something, and had a picture in your head of what it would be like, but then it turned out to be something completely different from what you thought?
Some people have a preconceived idea about what a marriage should be like. But when reality turns out differently than the fairy tale in their imagination, instead of learning to embrace the beauty of how much more a marriage can be, they disregard it as a failure that didn’t live up to their expectations.
Many people disregarded Jesus because he didn’t live up to whatever their expectations were, but the truth is that Jesus Christ is so much more than we could even hope to expect. Through the Scriptures such as this one about the Baptism of our Lord we’re able to see beyond the limits of what our human minds can imagine or comprehend.
God reveals himself to us in Jesus Christ. God didn’t send his Son, the Beloved, to be a political leader, a military leader, or even merely a religious leader. Nor did he send his Son to condemn the world or crush the people we don’t like.
God sent his only begotten Son to make all things new – to make us new. Jesus Christ came to bring us a baptism that washes us whiter than snow, to share in our humanity, to carry our sins upon himself, and to offer salvation freely to all.
Jesus has revealed God to us in ways that transform us, renew us, make us whole, and allows us to experience peace. God’s revelation to us in Jesus Christ his Son is much more than anything we could have imagined. It’s nothing less than healing from the brokenness of sin for all who call upon Christ’s name. This is the good news proclaimed in our Lord’s baptism.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!