This was the sermon I preached last Sunday at Trinity Lutheran Church in North Bethesda, MD for the Baptism of Our Lord.
Luke 3:15-17 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John 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. 17 His 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.”
Luke 3:21-22 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and 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.”
I have two brothers and when we were younger, like many children, we would make things up. We were very creative, probably much to my parents’ exhaustion, and we’d invent all kinds of games. One of the games we came up with was “opposite day.” It never lasted very long, but here’s how it usually went: one of us would say something like “I’ll play with you when we get home” and then, when the other person went to go play, the instigator would say something like “Haha! Its opposite day!,” dashing the other persons’ expectations to pieces. Not very nice, I know, but we liked to pick on each other.
Oddly enough, I see a similar thing happening in the Gospel reading for this morning. No, God isn’t playing tricks like my brothers and I did, but God does act contrary to our expectations. John the Baptist, who could have pretended to be the Messiah, instead identifies the Messiah as one who is far more powerful than himself. John goes as far as to say that he is not even fit to do the job of a slave – that of untying this coming one’s sandals. However, completely contrary to what everyone is expecting, Jesus is born into this world to a poor family. In this reading, he encounters John on the banks of the Jordan and he does not declare that he is the Messiah or the Christ, but rather, has John baptize him with water for the repentance of sins.
What?! This doesn’t make any sense at all! Jesus, God made flesh, goes to a man with long hair who eats locusts and honey in the desert to be baptized?! That’s absolutely astonishing. My question, however, is why? Why would the Messiah, the anointed one, need to be baptized? I think in order to understand this a bit better, we need to look at the picture Luke has already presented of Jesus. Jesus is born to a poor girl in a small village – he doesn’t come as a powerful, earthly king in radiant glory as everyone was expecting. It seems that God isn’t into living up to anyone’s expectations or pictures of how redemption will come into the world. Already, Luke has painted a picture of God working in unexpected ways – in ways often totally opposite of what is expected.
In addition, Luke’s Gospel includes many details about Jesus’ humanity and how he followed the Law and Jewish customs to a tee. According to Luke, Jesus was circumcised and named on the eighth day as was the custom, and he was presented at the Temple and dedicated to God according to the laws prescribed in Exodus. As he grew, Luke describes Jesus as becoming “strong and filled with wisdom.” In Jewish tradition, wisdom was something highly sought after. It was through wisdom that one could glimpse God and through wisdom that one could flourish in life. Still later, when Jesus was twelve, Mary, Joseph and Jesus devoutly head to Jerusalem for Passover as they did every year. After the festival, Joseph and Mary begin the trek back to Nazareth when they notice that Jesus is missing. He is found discussing and arguing with the teachers in the Temple – engaging in the study of the Torah and the faith of his ancestors.
Seeing how Jesus had become human and was living the life of a proper Jewish man, it seems a bit more fitting that Luke and the other Gospel writers would also show Jesus being baptized. At this time, ritual washings were seen as necessary to wash away impurities that would defile the Temple and cause separation from God. So, perhaps, baptism is not only something that Jesus would later command his followers to do, but also something that he has done in order to more fully identify with us. In addition to showing us that we are also to be baptized, the baptism of Christ is one more way of letting us know who Jesus is. The presence of the Holy Spirit and the voice of God declaring that Jesus is the beloved Son of God, with whom God is well-pleased, point the way like neon signs. The Holy Spirit and the voice indicate that Jesus is someone who shares a particularly special, intimate bond with God. Jesus already knew where he stood in relationship to God, the Father, but humanity did not. What could direct us more clearly than the heavens parting and a voice declaring who Jesus is? Once again, contrary to what we’d expect, the one who least needs a baptism for the repentance of sins does so anyway for our sake.
What remains shocking to me is how incredibly short this description of Jesus’ baptism is. Luke writes: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and 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.’” Luke mentions the baptism, but it seems almost like an afterthought. Instead, the author seems to put more emphasis on Jesus’ prayer and what happens after the baptism. It is interesting that Jesus prays after his baptism because none of the other Gospels describe Jesus as doing so. I do wonder what he was praying about, but perhaps it had to do with what comes next – the sky opens and the Holy Spirit descends along with a voice saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” It is only after Jesus’ prayer that the Holy Spirit and the voice are revealed.
A voice from the heavens?! That’s epic – straight out of a Hollywood movie! I know I have never heard the voice of God coming from the heavens! I would like to think that if I heard the unmistakable sound of God’s voice from above, I would be inclined to listen up! Sadly, as I begin to think about the voice of God more, I realize that maybe I wouldn’t listen, even if I did hear a voice from above. Maybe I haven’t been listening as well as I should and maybe, that’s an area where we all need to be paying more attention.
In seminary, we talk about our “call stories” – how we feel we’ve been called to various ministries and where we are in our journeys. I love hearing peoples’ stories because it reminds me that God is still speaking. Perhaps it’s not with a voice from above, but God is speaking through Scripture, prayer, the Sacraments, and even through the lives of ordinary, everyday people. After all, God worked through a man in a desert who felt he wasn’t good enough to untie Christ’s sandals in order to proclaim Jesus as the Son of God. Today, in the kind or comforting words of a friend during a difficult time, or even through a piece of music or art, we can hear God speaking to us. When I realize that, I cannot help but feel a rush of amazement and gratitude that God would choose to speak through you and me, however imperfect we are. Once again, God has chosen to work through unexpected mediums – through ways opposite of our expectations.
The other day, I caught the last half of Evan Almighty, the sequel to Bruce Almighty, on television. In this film, the main character, Evan Baxter, is chosen by God to become a modern day Noah. He is tasked with building an ark in our very own Washington, DC. As people mock and ridicule him and his family nearly gives up on him, a reporter asks, “Evan, what makes you so sure that God chose you?” His response floored me: “God chose all of us.” I was floored because there I was watching a comedy and yet, this amazing theological truth came through loud and clear. As we heard this morning in Isaiah: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” God has called and claimed us. Is there any clearer expression of love?
God chose us when Jesus came into the world to live and teach among us. God chose us when Christ died on the cross for our sake and God chose us when in the Resurrection, Jesus defeated sin and death, leading the way for us to have eternal life with God. In baptism, God claims us, marks us with the cross of Christ and seals us with the Holy Spirit. Just as Jesus’ baptism marked the beginning of his ministry, our baptisms mark the beginning of ours. We are called and claimed by God in order to do the work of “bearing God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world.” But how do we do that? That is where the voice of God comes in.
One of my favorite verses throughout my discernment process has been Isaiah 30:21: “And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’” God is right here, right now, with us, guiding us along the way if we will only take the time to stop and listen. We have been given the gifts of the Scriptures, of prayer and conversation with others in the body of Christ in order to help us hear that voice, that word, guiding our way, showing us how we can take part in bringing about God’s kingdom on earth.
We can give thanks that God is still speaking to us and through us and we can look forward to discovering what God may be calling us to do. While we are daily remembering our baptisms and how God has lovingly claimed and filled us with the Holy Spirit, we can be carefully discerning how God is communicating with us. We just need to be open to the unexpected, surprising and often contrary ways God has of creatively reaching us.
You may think that God is only found in glory and not among the poor. You may think that you are not good enough to talk to or be of service to God. You may think that God has ceased talking to or through lowly sinners like you and me, but guess what? Its opposite day! AMEN.
© 2010. Annabelle Peake. All rights reserved.
Baptism of Jesus from the LA Cathedral (Also in My Home Congregation!)