Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 9, 2022
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 Commentary
The Sunday text near Epiphany is the Sunday we commemorate the Baptism of the Lord. And yet, in the gospel of Luke, we pretty much miss the whole thing! Luke describes it in the past tense: Jesus was one of “all” the people who were baptized by the John the Baptist.
Instead, Luke’s baptism account serves as a bit of an Epiphany text. This is quite convenient if your church doesn’t have a separate service to mark Epiphany—that day when the church remembers how Jesus’ salvific purposes are revealed to the world and is most closely associated with the story of the Magi coming to find the Christ revealed to them in the stars.
Jesus might have been lumped in with everyone who was baptized, but through these five verses, Luke highlights and reveals three things about Jesus that separates him from the rest.
First, John the Baptist addresses the growing fervor in the crowd whom he is baptizing by making two points about the Messiah. The Messiah coming is more powerful than anyone can imagine, and John knows that he himself pales in comparison with the Lord. In John’s estimation, his ministry doesn’t even hold a candle to Christ’s ministry—so much so that John doesn’t even think himself worthy enough to be Jesus’ servant! Even though serving the Kingdom of God is exactly what John devotes his entire existence to, and his ministry is very effective, when it comes to Christ, humility and awe are John’s posture.
The defining difference that John points to between him and the One to come? John’s baptism is with water and addresses life in the here and now. But Jesus’ baptism is with the Holy Spirit and with fire, and it is not only for life right here and right now—it is also cosmic. Jesus is at the ready to apply his baptismal work to this world, separating what does not belong to the way of life (symbolized by the wheat) from the trash, the garbage, and the things that do not bring sustenance (the chaff).
What I find quite striking, however, is how such a strong and powerful image of the Christ can be paired with what Luke says next about Jesus. The lectionary leaves out a couple of verses of commentary that helps to bring a conclusion to Luke’s narrative about John the Baptist—it’s time to switch the focus completely onto Jesus now—and brings us back to the crowd of people who came to be baptized by John. Seemingly “lost,” hidden, a secret among all those people is this powerful Messiah John has described to them. Jesus is in their midst, and is essentially described as one of them in verse 21: “when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized…” From Luke’s description, it is not even clear whether anyone else could see heaven open or the dove come down, or whether they heard the Father’s voice from heaven belt out his love for the Son.
So on the one hand, Jesus is the awe-inspiring, all-powerful, cosmic Lord who has the power to enact eternal judgement, and he is “one of us,” unknown while among us, in our midst but not demanding anything from us. It’s a little vignette of the prologue of John we considered last Sunday.
Even still, though Jesus is one of the “all,” he is set apart. Here is the second “revelation” or epiphany Luke provides for us about Jesus the Christ. Because of the distinct way that Luke describes the interchange of the Trinity in this passage, we are able to see clearly that it is not the baptism that is pivotal to heaven opening and the blessing and love of God flowing down: it is Jesus himself who causes it. Jesus is not only the great farmer with the winnowing fork at hand, he is also the cause and manifestation of belovedness. Because Jesus purposefully places himself among us, and joins us in our humanity, hides himself in our flesh and takes upon the sins of the world, as the Father loves Jesus, so the Father loves us; as the Holy Spirit comes upon Jesus, so the Spirit comes upon us. God knows what God is doing in the incarnation, and God is pleased to do it because God is love. Eugene Peterson translates verse 22 as God’s voice saying, “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.” God couldn’t be prouder about what Christ is doing for the world.
Many see this baptism exchange as the moment of Jesus’ anointing for ministry. They point to Luke 4 and its connection to Isaiah 61. This is a fair and good connection to make, but there is so much more going on in the scene that Luke provides for us in this moment in the life of Christ. Take, for instance, the third thing that is revealed to us in this story: God’s manifestation by voice and dove-like form happens while Jesus is at prayer. Prayer will be a major theme in the gospel of Luke, a practice that Jesus will undertake again and again, going to quiet places to commune with the Father through the Holy Spirit. Skimming through the book of Luke for the times of prayer, it becomes clear that Jesus prays at key moments in the narrative, beginning here at the baptism. Jesus is revealed to be a pray-er. The God of the Universe prays while incarnated on earth to share in the communion of the Trinity—and Jesus continues to pray for us even now, through the Holy Spirit who delivers our prayers to the throne room. Prayer, just like the promised baptism of the Spirit and fire, is not a fluke but an essential feature.
So, we see in these five verses three key things about Christ: prayer matters deeply to him, Jesus is meekly present among us, and he is coming with power to transform all that there is. By this gift of the Holy Spirit, we are able to participate in all of these aspects of Christ’s revelation. We can join him in prayer, we can know his presence here among us, and we can be transformed into his likeness. We can become God’s epiphany to the world.
To the point above, the main verb in verse 21 is at the very beginning but is not actually translated in English; our translations capture the verb’s meaning with “Now when all the people…” Relatedly, the verbal form for Jesus’ baptism and prayer are both understood as temporal participles—but with one big difference. “When Jesus had been baptized” is in the past tense (aorist, completed action) and “was praying” is in the present tense, meaning that heaven opening occurred while he was praying, not when he was baptized. As temporal participles, they give us a sense of the order of what happened and how events are connected to one another.
Movement through air, or we might even say the movement of God’s “breath,” (the Holy Spirit) is a strong central image in this passage. First, John the Baptist describes Jesus, with his Holy Spirit and fire baptism, going about the work of using a winnowing fork to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Farmers take a winnowing fork to a gathered pile of wheat and throw it up into the air. By doing so, the air forcefully removes the chaff from the wheat so that the wheat can be gathered for use and the waste material can be destroyed (often in fire). This same ancient technique is used for many kinds of grains to this day.
Then, Luke says that the Holy Spirit descended down from heaven in the form of a dove while Jesus was praying after his baptism. Based on what we know about Paul’s teaching on prayer, we can picture Jesus’ act of praying is also facilitated by the presence of the Holy Spirit ascending up, carrying Jesus’ prayers to the throne room.
The Holy Spirit, then, is the movement of the air, up and down, for life and cleansing, for messages from heaven and applying the work of the Father and the Son to us. It turns out this passage isn’t just revealing something about Jesus, but about the Spirit as well!
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