Come to the waters, you who thirst come to me.
Listen, listen, and you shall live.
His head comes up, out of the water. The water beads and drips from his beard. His dark skin is free of the day’s dust and dirt. His eyes, shut against the rush of cooling water, now squint open in the bright sun on the shores of the Jordan. He breathes in deeply, new air in a renewed body.
The baptism of Jesus offers much for our consideration. This part of the lection-year always seems to move incredibly quickly. Just last week Jesus was still a baby, fleeing to Egypt; this past Wednesday marked our observance of the Epiphany- Christ’s revealing in the visit by the Magi. But now, here he is, about 30-years-old, being baptized, and getting ready to begin his ministry. Even if we begin with the presupposition that Jesus was already four or five years old when the Magi visit, that’s still 25 years worth of personal history we simply jump over!
This always bothered me growing up. I like details in a narrative! The longer the book, the better, because that meant more details to sink my teeth into, more time I could spend in the world of the story, engaged with characters I would come to know and love.
Yet the gospel writers prove time and again, they are not concerned with details; they are concerned with conveying the truth. In fact, the chapters of Matthew and Luke that are dedicated to Jesus’ personal prehistory, are present mostly to establish a direct connection to the Old Testament, particularly the prophetic writings to, in a sense, determine the legitimacy of Jesus’ title of Messiah. This would be particularly true of the Jewish audience Matthew was writing to who would want to see that this Jesus they are hearing about is, in fact, a culmination and fulfillment of the law and prophets.
Jesus’ baptism is told three different ways in each of the synoptic gospels:
First, from Matthew 3:13-17: “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”
Second, Mark 1:9-11: “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”
And finally, from this morning’s reading, 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, 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.’”
On the surface, there do not seem to be too many differences. In each, Jesus is baptized. In each, the Spirit descends on him like a dove. In each, the voice from heaven declares Jesus “my Son, the Beloved.”
Yet Luke’s version of this moment has a couple of details that give us moment to pause. First of all, while Matthew and Mark refer to the “Spirit” descending like a dove, it is Luke who amends this to be the “Holy Spirit.” This may seem like a small, nitpicky thing, but it is very important, especially when we look at the whole of Luke, and his follow up in the book of Acts, with how critical the movement of the Holy Spirit is to the movement of Christ. We see here how “the scope of Luke’s vision reach[es] back to Adam and then forward, far beyond the confines of Luke 24:53 into the book of Acts… the Spirit takes center stage here, and reminds us of the unique function of the Spirit in Luke-Acts. Reading the Gospel of Luke through the lens of the Spirit’s role generates the following, yet only a sampling, of the Spirit’s presence: Conception (1:35)/ Magnificat (1:46-47)/ Zechariah (1:67)/ Leads Jesus into wilderness (4:1)/ Empowers Jesus’ ministry (4:414)/ Jesus rejoices in the Spirit (10:21)/ [the Spirit is] Conferred through prayer (11:13)/ Jesus commits his spirit to God (23:46)/ Luke ends his Gospel with Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit (24:47-49)/ [and ultimately with] Pentecost (Acts 2)” (Lewis). So the Holy Spirit is at work here, not for the first time!
Second, it is a slight difference, but if we look carefully, we come away with a big question: where is John? In Matthew and Mark, Jesus clearly comes to the Jordan to be baptized by John. Yet in Luke, John is noticeably absent.
Commentator Karoline Lewis notes that “Reading the verses that the lectionary omits, 3:18-20, is essential because they tell us what happened to John. He’s in prison. What might this detail overlooked by the lectionary reveal to us about Jesus’ baptism in the Gospel of Luke? First, since John is shut up in prison, he is not present at the baptism of Jesus nor does he baptize Jesus. Well, then. Who does?” (Lewis).
Now, it is possible that we could read this simply as a non-linear story: Luke first tells us about John and how his ministry and exhortations eventually disturb the powers that be enough that he ends up in prison, but not before he finishes baptizing a bunch of people, including Jesus.
At the same time, the verses that describe Jesus’ baptism very noticeably omit John, where Matthew and Mark are careful to make his presence known. The effect of this omission, whether John was there or not, serves to give us the sense “that Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit appear to be the only ones present at the baptism foreshadow[ing] a similar moment at the crucifixion, a ‘last word’ found only in Luke (23:46)” when Jesus commends his spirit into God’s hands; “There is promise in the presence of the Spirit here and at the end of Jesus’ life that will be true for all believers” (Lewis).
Baptism is a sacrament that marks us as God’s own for eternity. Whenever someone is baptized, as an infant or as an adult, it is not us who are doing the work. Whenever a person is baptized, “all Christian traditions emphasize that this is God’s work” (Lose). We make the decision to be baptized, or to bring a child forward for baptism; we even act as agents of the baptism- sprinkling the water or submerging the individual. But it is God who is at work in this sacrament- not us.
So John’s absence in Luke is, in a certain sense, inconsequential! “Who… baptizes Jesus? The Holy Spirit! In fact, it’s the same Spirit that baptizes us! Baptism… is wholly God’s work that we may have confidence in no matter how often we fall short or fail, nothing that we do, or fail to do, can remove the identity that God conveys as a gift. Our relationship with God, that is, is the one relationship in life we can’t screw up precisely because we did not establish it” (Lose).
David Lose comments on this relationship saying, “We can neglect this relationship, we can deny it, run away from it, ignore it, but we cannot destroy it, for God loves us too deeply and completely to ever let us go… in an age when so many relationships are fragile or tattered, it may come as good news that this primary relationship remains solid and intact no matter what. In fact, trusting that this relationship is in God’s hands, we are freed to give ourselves wholly and completely to the other important relationships in our lives” (Lose). We are called to not just be baptized, but to live out this gift God has so graciously given us!
This morning, I would like to invite us to rethink how we understand our baptism. Water is a vital substance. We cannot live without it; it cleans and revives our bodies. We are fortunate to live in a place where we have access to clean water; many millions of people do not. With water, God signs and seals us as His own, but it is not “a once-and-done event” (Lose). We don’t bring a baby to be baptized and then say, ‘Whew! Glad we got that taken care of!’
Instead, it is “something we remember and renew daily” (Lose). Or at least, we should. This morning, I would like to invite you to say with me these words: “I am God’s beloved child, called and sent to make a difference in the world” (Lose).
Take these words, and say them, to yourself or aloud, whenever you work in water: in the shower, or washing your hands, or even drinking a glass of water at the kitchen sink. Take these words with you; enfold them into yourself, that in them, we might be reminded of our baptisms, and renewed in our spirits, that the Holy Spirit might work among us, continuing to challenge and push us out beyond our front doors. Amen.
Lewis, Karoline. “Commentary on Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 by Karoline Lewis.”Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 Commentary. Luther Seminary, 13 Jan. 2013. Web. 9 Jan. 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1557>.
Lose, David. “Preaching a More Meaningful Baptism by David Lose – Craft of Preaching – Working Preacher.” Preaching a More Meaningful Baptism. Luther Seminary, 6 Jan. 2013. Web. 9 Jan. 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1624>.