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)
Baptism of the Lord
I have a bit of a testimony to share with you this morning. It’s one of the most significant things that ever happened in my life. In fact, I have little doubt that this event adjusted the trajectory of my entire life’s course. It was one of those statement moments: irreversible and cosmically potent. It’s probably the reason I’m here in this pulpit, preaching this sermon.
That moment was when I was baptized by the Rev. Dr. Webb Garrison at Central United Methodist Church in Evansville, Indiana.
We know why we need to be baptized, right? The human race is a fallen race. Our human nature is not what it was created to be. Our inclination is to do sinful things, think sinful things, say sinful things, and desire sinful things rather than good things. This proclivity to sin even makes us turn good things and ideas into agents of sin and ungodliness.
We need God’s grace to even begin getting out of this mess. And Christian baptism is a means of receiving that grace. When we’re baptized, we are incorporated into the Body of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Baptism brings us into union with Jesus Christ, with each other as a community, and with the church in every time and place. We’re baptized because we need new life through Christ.
We’re baptized because we need forgiveness for our sin. Baptism is the sacramental sign of that regeneration and new birth. It’s a work of God’s grace that makes us new creatures. That new birth is the beginning of the process of sanctification by which we grow in grace and holiness and our lives are shaped more closely to the image and pattern of Jesus Christ. Baptism is one of the many crucial thresholds we cross in our journey of faith, including that final transition from death to eternal life.
These are the reasons why we need to be baptized. But this Sunday is called the Baptism of the Lord. Jesus is God’s Son. Jesus is divine. Jesus didn’t sin. So, one question we might have this day is, why did Jesus need to be baptized? That question is especially significant when we consider that Jesus was baptized by John, and John’s baptism was clearly tied to God’s judgment and human repentance of sin. Why would Jesus need to experience this kind of baptism?
Luke gives us a clue in the text that follows his account of Jesus’ baptism. He lists the genealogy of Jesus back to “Seth son of Adam son of God” (Luke 3:38 CEB). In that genealogy, Jesus’ royal lineage is established, but it’s a lineage that includes flawed and tragic figures just like our lineage’s do.
Jesus was born from as well as into a world of systemic sin. His baptism was a sign that he understood the full implications of the incarnation. He wasn’t merely showing solidarity with humanity or identifying with us. In his baptism, Jesus fully acknowledged the tragic structures, rulers, principalities, and powers, of the human world: that his life, his choices, his teachings, and his actions are done within a messed up, fallen creation.
Our lives are so interconnected and intertwined that there are no innocent or sinless choices in our world. Our immediate lives do intersect with the lives of people around the globe. We’re neighbors to everyone even if, as we often are, we’re absentee neighbors. One requirement of Christian holiness is to recognize that we are all strands in the tapestry of a fallen creation. Our choices—whether of action or inaction, care or neglect—they affect other strands, other lives that are entangled in that weave, whether it’s a person in this sanctuary, a meth addict down the street, a homeless child, or a refugee on some distant border. What we need to remember is that Jesus came for all of us. That fact should guide how we, as individuals and participants in larger systems, act and react to others.
Jesus lived in a messed-up system, and so do we. He is both the son of Adam and the Son of God. While Jesus came to redeem and save humanity, he did so from within the confines of this fallen creation. So, his baptism and ours, connects us to the church and those whom Jesus came to redeem, which is everyone. We’re all a part of the same fallen human race.
On this Sundays another question we ask ourselves is, what does this say to us about who Jesus is? There’s a lot more than simple baptism at stake in the baptism of Jesus, not that any baptism is a simple matter. What is 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.
But when the people asked John if he was the Messiah, he answered by saying, “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. 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” (Luke 3:16-17 CEB).
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 fully revealed as Three-In-One. Christians believe God is one God, but God has revealed God’s self 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 God’s self 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. 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. 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.
God reveals God’s self to us in Jesus Christ. God didn’t send his Son, the Beloved, 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 reveals God to us in ways that transform, renew, make whole, and bring peace. God’s revelation to us in Jesus Christ, the Son, is much more than anything we could have imagined. It’s healing from the brokenness of sin for all who call upon Christ’s name. And it connects us to others around the world more intimately than we can imagine.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!
Rev. Christopher Millay