January 10th, 2016
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
This is a promise to Israel, and I think it’s important to realize that this a promise to a people, not a place. It is a promise to call a people who are scattered and bewildered that God has prepared a home for them and is bringing them to sit at dining room table. God loves these people so much, he is willing to exchange the strongest and most beautiful nations as ransom—Egypt, Ethiopia, Seba, the most exotic and wealthy of all the nations, God gives in return for the scattered remnant of Israel. And this is typical of God, who values the least and ugliest, and will gladly give up the fairest and strongest in return for them. This is God’s favorite story to tell—the despised and rejected become the revealers of God’s glory.
Isaiah is also the author of what are known as the suffering servant passages—the passages of a mysterious servant who is beaten, despised, mocked, and finally killed on behalf of the people. You might remember Handel’s Messiah, which relies on many of the Suffering Servant passages—‘Surely he has borne our griefs’ is one of them. And Isaiah is also the author of the portion of Scripture that, according to Luke, Jesus chooses for his first sermon: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And so you might see a pattern here: God chooses the suffering servant to save, God gathers in the weak and the lost and lifts them up.
Ancient commentators were quick to note this theme in Jesus baptism. For them, Jesus’ baptism was a sign of his full humanity, and the abasement of the incarnation. It was not that Jesus needed to be baptized, since he was without sin, but that, as one said, “[Jesus] was made sin for us, taking on him our sins. For this reason he was born of woman, and for this reason also he approached the rite of baptism.” Origen said, “He was washed for our sins in order that we might be sanctified by his bath.” In his baptism we see the themes of Isaiah come become one, the suffering servant and the gathering of the people. Jesus is the sinless one who becomes sin so that those who are sinners can be set free—Jesus is the one who by his offering of life makes the rest of us scattered people into beloved sons and daughters of God.
The Baptism of Jesus isn’t important simply because it was an act of Jesus. It was important because by this act, the Triune God announced his commitment to human beings and the presence of the Holy Spirit to enliven those who have been baptized. In Mark, Jesus will tell his disciples that his baptism will be his death, and he will ask them if they are prepared to follow him to death. And they, being fools, say yes. But this is to show the suffering servanthood of the Messiah—Jesus baptism gets its power because of Jesus’ death. And it is also to show us that we don’t always know what we are saying when we say yes to God, yes to our own Baptisms.
Jesus’ baptism is like ours, but yet not like ours. His is a baptism of revelation, that he is the Son of God in the flesh. Our baptism is a baptism of new birth and adoption in the Spirit. But his, like ours, is also a sign of God’s commitment to our human life—if Jesus needed to get baptized, then don’t we? Don’t we need this promise, this adoption? For us to worship God, we need to know that God loves us and has made us his people: Jesus baptism assures us of the first thing, because he takes on sin and mortality, to meet us where we are, not to shout at us from the heavens. Our baptism assures us that God makes of us a people, gathering us from all over the world, endowing us with the Spirit.
Jesus Baptism cannot be separated, however, from his death and his resurrection. It is that event that gives both his baptism and ours its power. The cross reveals the suffering servant Messiah. The empty tomb reveals that Messiah’s victory over sin and death. Jesus’ baptism announces this event, but it is not the event itself. It is the announcement of the gift of God’s life for the life of the world. Our baptisms are the moments when God seals us in the Spirit. And it means that as much as God has committed to us in the human Jesus of Nazareth, God is also committed to making and shaping us in the Spirit. John tells us that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire, and the fire is the purging of our sins and tempering of our lives.
To be baptized, for us, means that we die. We die to one life in order to receive a new life, God’s life. In a few moments we will be renewing our baptismal vows—I think it’s good to do this from time, so that we may be reminded of what it really means to be baptized, to bear the name of Christ. It is the yes to God’s will, the yes a child gives to a parent, and it is the no to the will of evil, the no a child will give to a stranger. It is the acceptance of death, so that life can follow.
John the Baptist had a warning, and Jesus came to make that warning real—God is coming, in Holy Spirit and in fire. Everything about you and your life can change. Are you ready?
The Rev. John Flack