The Baptism of Our Lord: January 7, 2007.
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
The reading from Isaiah offers us a passage of great comfort. It is a chiasm, with the typical ABCDCBA structure. Typically in a chiasm, the central point is pivotal, and here that seems to be the case. God tells Israel, in diaspora, that they are precious and honored and beloved, words that they need to hear. The dominant image is that God's love will be played out as God protects Israel from harm and gathers Israel from the nations to give place and dignity to the people again. The point is that God is both redeemer and creator.
This first and last statement of this section of Isaiah is also important in terms of the development of the scriptures and theology of Israel. The people of Israel experienced God first as redeemer, rescuing them from bondage in Egypt. Once they had been rescued they understood their own "family" history differently and understood that it was the God of their ancestors who had rescued them. Beyond that, they began to understand that the God who had rescued them was the God of creation and had a different relationship with them and the creation than other gods from other lands in the ancient world.
Isaiah now brings that theology forward, encouraging Israel to hear that God is still at all of it. God is still rescuing, still shepherding, still creating. All of this because the whole creation, and particularly God's people, are beloved and precious.
The reading from Acts is part of a greater section of material regarding ministry to the Samaritans. There are certainly questions raised by this text and the wider context. Are there two baptisms? How was Philip's ministry different from Peter and John's? From the wider context there are also many questions attached to the difference between Simon (the magician) and his "magic" and Philip and the disciples and their signs and miracles. All of this is connected to what is happening with baptism, and to the Gospel text and Jesus' own baptism in the Jordan.
Certainly Philip's signs and his baptism connect the believers in Samaria with Jesus' work and ministry. The gift of the Holy Spirit comes with the laying on of hands and is likely not a second baptism (cf. Luke 3:16), nor a second stage of a baptism, but may connect more closely to Pentecost. Elsewhere in Acts, people received the Holy Spirit when they were baptized. It demonstrates that there was variety rather than uniformity of practice regarding some of the rituals of even the earliest followers of "the Way." What is clear is that not all of the people believe because of Philip's signs, but it is in the hearing of the Word that they come to believe. (5) Baptism, then, connects them to the Word, the Messiah. The Holy Spirit binds them in mission.
Luke's account of the baptism of Jesus talks only about what happens after the baptism when Jesus is praying. So the focus is not on John, or even on Jesus, but on what God is doing and saying. The heavens are opened (not ripped open, as in Mark), and the Holy Spirit descends like a dove, but in Luke we have the added phrase "in bodily form." With the other Synoptic Gospels we have the phrase uttered by God (from Ps 2:7 and Isa 42:1), "This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased." This last phrase is a link to the end of the Epiphany season, where it is repeated in altered form at the transfiguration.
The baptism of Jesus itself leads to some interesting questions. If John's was a "baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Luke 3:3), why does Jesus need to be baptized? Luke does not give us the benefit of the conversation between John and Jesus to clear this up. Instead, we must piece the answer together from the whole Lukan corpus.
First, a case can be made that this is an anointing of Jesus as Messiah. An example of such anointing is found in 1 Kings 19, where Elijah is commissioned to anoint the kings of many nations. God's words, from Psalm 2, the coronation psalm, seem to confirm this.
A case can also be made that Jesus is standing in for the whole nation at this moment. He is taking on Israel's vocation as suffering servant (suggested by the quote from Isaiah 42), and the forgiveness of sins might in fact have to do with the nation's sins, not individual sins. (6) Thus, already his vocation as Messiah is tied to the renewal of Israel and the establishment of God's reign. The balance of Luke's Gospel can be seen as how Jesus answers the call to do just that. For Luke the link between Jesus' baptism, the transfiguration, and the events of Good Friday and Easter is bound up in this as well.
Finally, the vision of the heavens opened may also link us to the call visions of the Old Testament prophets. Luke does not spend enough time on the details to make a solid connection here, but the fact that Jesus' public ministry begins after this event suggests a connection.
I tend to preach the Epiphany texts in sequence. The early texts, starting with those for this Sunday, deal especially with Jesus' identity and ministry; the latter texts deal with the extension of Jesus' calling to his disciples and finally to us. On this first Sunday of the season, we have a text that defines who Jesus is and what Jesus is about. Jesus is Messiah, and he is about the restoration of God's creation through the completion of Israel's calling as the suffering servant. Luke is careful to show the reader how the Exodus story is going to be replayed--only this time, Jesus will not fail, as Israel did in Sinai.
In our world, of course, we know what kings and soon-to-be kings do. They enjoy advantages of position and power. Even elected rulers in the United States seem to think that the consolidation of power is their top priority, regardless of political party. The idea of a king who serves can come as a jolt. Our government is supposed to be serving the public interest, but in our sinful world that seems beyond our imagination. To have a Messiah that is anointed to take up a servant role is as much a challenge today as it was in Jesus' time. But that is just what is suggested by Luke's telling of the baptism story and the identity of Jesus as Messiah.
Folklore from a variety of cultures can help us tell the story of a different kind of ruler. William White has collected many such stories in his various storybooks. (7) A more recent example from children's literature is the modern fable The Quiltmaker's Gift by Jeff Brumbeau (Scholastic, 2001). This story of a greedy king who learns to give is sure to be a favorite of children and adults alike.
No matter how you tell the story, the result is the same. Jesus' baptism leads him to serving ministry and ultimately to giving his life. Our baptisms connect us to Jesus. His way of being in the world becomes our way of being in the world. My late father's working definition for "faith" late in his teaching ministry informs this understanding. He said, "Faith is the act of trusting God's way of being in the world as our way of being in the world." (8) Jesus' baptism plunges him into God's way of being in the world, just as ours does.
That's why this festival makes a great occasion to renew the baptism of all of the members of the congregation. It might even work well to have a renewal of baptism to begin the service, with the whole congregation out of their seats, gathered around the font, getting wet with the waters of baptism sprinkled on them, followed by a sermon later to help them to put words to their experience of celebrating their participation in God's mission. LLB
5. Gerhard A. Krodel, Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Acts (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986), 162.
6. N. T. Wright suggests that John's baptism reenacts the wilderness experience of Israel and that forgiveness meant, for the nation, that God would dwell with them once again, that their exile was now over. For a brief discussion of this, read Wright's The Challenge of Jesus (Downer's Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1999), 39ff.
7. See William R. White, Stories for Telling (Augsburg, 1986); Speaking in Stories (Augsburg, 1982); and Stories for the Journey (Augsburg, 1988).
8. From conversations with Walter Bouman, my father.
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|Title Annotation:||Preaching Helps|
|Author:||Bouman, Luke L.|
|Publication:||Currents in Theology and Mission|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2006|
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