Preacher: The Rev. David Rider, Assisting Priest at St. Michael’s
What a difference a week makes, liturgically speaking.
Last Sunday, we gathered around the nativity scene to celebrate the arrival of the Magi—found only in Matthew’s Gospel and with reference to neither three nor kings—exotic characters from another land who went to pay the Christ child homage amid a swift undertow of dark malice from Herod.
Today, the manger, poinsettias and trees are all gone.
Jesus seemingly leaps from the manger, bursts out of his pampers, and we find him at age 30 and the inauguration of his public ministry.
Except for one boyhood story about ditching his mother in the Temple, we know nothing about the psychological backstory of his development, nothing about his boyhood dreams, adolescent trials, or romantic yearnings—rich fodder for any playwright.
Unlike the Magi story, however, all four gospels speak to the complicated relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus.
In Luke, this narrative includes the tender story we heard on IV Advent regarding their Moms—Elizabeth and Mary—at opposite ends of their fertility cycles yet sharing the same mystery and intimacy of pending childbirth.
Like the other gospel writers, Luke presents Jesus at his baptism, yet the baptism is almost an afterthought for Luke because it becomes a springboard to the future ministry of Jesus.
At more length than the baptism itself, we hear John the Baptist embrace a diminutive role, stating that he is unworthy to untie the coming Messiah’s sandals.
A couple other quirky things happen in today’s passage.
Notice that our lectionary text omits a couple verses: before we confirm Jesus’ baptism, we learn in these omitted verses that John was put in prison—for Luke, this symbolizes the end of the prophetic reign, Jesus’ new pivotal role in salvation history, and the beginning of the coming of the Holy Spirit.
This passage connects Jesus’ baptism to his messianic role as the Coming Judge—usually the devil is depicted with the pitchfork, but here John the Baptist predicts Jesus’s coming with eyes wide open and hair on fire!
Perhaps we should stop giving our baptism candidates a quaint candle and instead hand out a flaming blowtorch!
John anticipates that Jesus will separate the wheat from the chaff—the worthless stuff blows away—a wonderful metaphor for renewing our own baptism vows today and letting go of life’s worthless fluff for the sake of that which counts.
Also note in our passage the first of a fugal theme in Luke’s Gospel regarding Jesus’ continuous act of praying.
We’ll see this dimension of Jesus at least a half-dozen times in this year’s gospel readings: before critical events, Jesus always connects with God in sustained and intimate prayer to guide his way, with us as eavesdroppers in a powerful divine-human conversation.
Jesus’ role model and its implication for us should be joyful take-away from the primacy of baptism.
Two take-away priorities so far: a blowtorch and continuous prayer.
Notice, also, the nuance of the heavens opening and a dove coming down on Jesus in a bodily form.
This, of course, serves as a so-called Christological moment, a critical theological pivot point in Early Church debates of Jesus’ divine/human nature that shows God bestowing unique vocation early in Jesus’ story, well before the cross and resurrection.
For Luke, this image also embraces a prophetic implication that should not be lost on us today.
In a weekly theological reflection sent to diocesan clergy, Assistant Bishop Mary Glasspool emphasizes a wonderful point of differentiating the Christ from temporal rulers, paraphrasing a book Caesar and the Sacrament: Baptism: A Rite of Resistance was written by R. Alan Streett – Senior Research Professor of Biblical Theology at Criswell College:
“Luke emphasizes the bodily form of a dove. Streett relates this to the way in which Roman Emperors were confirmed in their authority by Augurs. An Augur was a priest and official in the Roman World whose main job was augury: interpreting the will of the gods by examining the flight of birds. The eagle was the strongest augural sign – a bird that was strong, fierce, predatory, and dangerous. An Augur observing an eagle flying in the sky, perhaps circling overhead, would affirm the strength and predatory nature of the new emperor at his imagination.
Imagine what people might have thought at Jesus’ Baptism when – not an eagle – but a dove came out of the sky and appeared to alight on him. The dove was not a symbol of strength and might, but rather of vulnerability, gentleness, and peace. This is a way of seeing Baptism not through a theological lens, in which Baptism is a sacrament of identifying with the Christian Faith or by which we receive God’s gift of the Holy Spirit, but rather a socio-political lens through which Baptism is seen as a supreme resistance to the Roman Empire -or the principalities and powers as we experience them today – and a radical pledging to the Reign of God whose foundation is peace, gentleness and vulnerability.”
As the Church in our liturgical cycle of readings, we hear one of three versions of Jesus’ Baptism story each year—a wonderful tradition, yet one that can lull us into familiarity and domestication of the text.
As we gather around for baptism today and to renew our own vows in the process, let’s remember—as Luke so well reminds us—that what comes after baptism is perhaps more important.
We are called to a life of continuous prayer—not for self-help or self-absorption but to connect us more deeply to God’s will amid the world’s rhythms, joys and needs.
In baptism, we are called continuously to separate the wheat from the chaff of our lives, inspired by Jesus with some metaphorical combination of a pitchfork and blowtorch.
When Early Christians acknowledged Jesus as Lord, they did so at high personal risk, since that term normally was reserved for Caesar and Roman authorities: tension and conflict with temporal power comes with the Christian package.
Baptism implies risk while it empowers us for service to this world, a wonderful paradox and dynamic tension for the rest of our lives.
Baptism also celebrates God’s initiative to claim us for this life of service.
Hear again those powerful words from Isaiah that we read a few minutes ago, where God says this: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you, when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flames shall not consume you….Do not fear, for I am with you.”
Ideally, such affirmation leads us away from hubris and self-absorption into a holy confidence with which to embrace life’s vicissitudes.
With baptism as our common entry point, we gather weekly to worship this loving God and to metabolize this Good News that God loves us, beckons us into community, and calls us—as we’ll recite in our Baptismal Covenant momentarily—to proclaim justice and respect the dignity of every human being.
As we move toward the baptism font, I invite you to reflect on the final sentence of our Gospel lesson, when the dove—not eagle—descends on Jesus and a voice from heaven cries out: “You are my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
By extension, we trust that God also is well pleased with you and me—we parents might think of a dozen ways to paraphrase this declaration to our children in daily life.
At this point in the Gospel account, there is no evidence whatsoever that Jesus did anything to merit God’s pleasure: like a parent with a newborn, the love comes first and empowers us with confidence and grace to grow into the full stature of Christ.
If God is well pleased with you, how does this impact your self-esteem, generativity, and the way you plan the priorities of your day and of your life?