Jesus’ baptism

Baptism of Jesus – 2013

Luke 3:15-18, 21-22

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who through our baptism anoints us calls us to serve. Amen.

You will have noticed that not only is this morning’s gospel brief, but that only two of the five verses specifically refer to Jesus’ baptism. Further, though this may not have been obvious if you were listening and not reading, the gospel consists of two sets of disconnected verses from Luke, chapter 3. Those who prepared our lectionary have joined a small section of John’s preaching with the actual baptism of Jesus. Though not linked by Luke, together these verses give us some insight into John’s understanding of Jesus.

In this context, John’s preaching focuses on three things: God’s wrath (associated with the final judgement), how to live (to avoid God’s wrath) and John’s predictions about the Christ (who is associated with God’s wrath). In response to the wondering of the crowd, John the Baptist makes it clear that he is not the Christ. He goes on to list a number of points to back up his claim – the one who is coming will be more powerful than he. He, John, is so far removed from the Christ that he would not even be able to perform the lowliest of tasks for him. He is baptizing with water, the Christ will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. John may be preparing the people for judgement, the Christ will carry out the judgement (the winnowing fork is in his hands). John expects that the ministry of the Christ, will in other words, be far superior to his own.

John’s preaching is addressed to “the crowds” – to those who have come out from Jerusalem to hear him and to be baptised. Interestingly, Jesus is not mentioned as one of their number nor even as someone who comes out to hear John. It is not until Luke has reported John’s imprisonment by Herod that we discover that Jesus was baptised though it is not clear by whom or why. If the gospel’s chronology is correct, John is already in jail when Jesus is baptised. This raises a number of questions. Why record the story at all? Was someone other than baptising and if there was why doesn’t Luke tell us who? Was Jesus baptised by one’s of John’s disciples. We will never know.

It has to be said that Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism is tantalizingly stark. It provides some detail but gives no explanation or interpretation of the events. What we learn from Luke’s gospel is that Jesus was apparently baptised after everyone else (perhaps not by John whom Herod has locked up), he is praying when the heavens open, the Holy Spirit descends bodily as a dove and a voice from heaven declares Jesus to be God’s beloved Son. So much information is crowded into two sentences (one in the Greek)! Jesus’ reaction to the extraordinary occurrences is not recorded nor is that of the crowds who presumably witnessed something. Such dramatic events are reported in a matter of fact manner, completely lacking in commentary or explanation.

A comparison with Mark’s gospel (Luke’s source) reveals that some features of this account are unique to Luke – in particular the fact that Jesus is praying, that Luke omits to say from where Jesus came and implies that it is not John who performs the baptism of Jesus. Mark’s gospel identifies Jesus’ baptism as the moment at which it becomes clear who Jesus is. Luke does use the baptism as a transition to Jesus’ public ministry but he does not link the two events in Jesus’ life – one does not lead to the other. At this point in Luke’s narrative he has no need to explain Jesus’ call and mission. He has already established Jesus’ identity in his birth narrative. In contrast to Mark, in the first two chapters of Luke’s gospel Jesus has already been announced as “Saviour, Lord and Messiah and as Son”. The presence of the Spirit in his life has been plain since his unique conception. Jesus’ call is not new, as a teenager in the Temple, he seems very aware of who he is and of his relationship with God.

While Luke includes a report of Jesus’ baptism, his purpose is different from that of his source. It seems that in writing about the event, the author of Luke is concerned first and foremost to demonstrate divine approval of Jesus and of his ministry. When this reference to the events surrounding Jesus’ baptism are seen in the context of the rest of Luke’s gospel two other factors become obvious. One is the place of prayer in Luke’s gospel. Jesus prays before all his significant actions (before choosing the disciples for example). A second is this – there are two occasions in Luke’s gospel on which a voice from heaven affirms Jesus and reveals God’s approval of him and of his ministry. Both occasions mark a significant change of direction in Jesus life and ministry. After his Baptism Jesus begins his public ministry and after the second occasion – the Transfiguration – Jesus begins the journey to Jerusalem and to death.

Luke appears to use Jesus’ baptism as both a turning point in Jesus’ life, but also as an opportunity to inform the readers that Jesus is no ordinary person but one approved by, chosen by and set apart by God and that God is affirming his choice and his delight in the chosen one.

Each gospel is written with a particular audience in mind and each gospel tells us a little bit about the author. We honour the text best when we try to understand what is going on behind it. Often that is only our most informed guess, but if we try to get a sense of why the story was written as it was we get a deeper and richer understanding not only of the story, but of its development. A better comprehension of the different ways in which the evangelists understood and reported the accounts of Jesus’ life helps us to understand the differences, to realise that there is more than one way of looking at things and gives us the tools to enter into debate with those who are skeptical or have yet to believe.

The gospel writers did not just blindly write down what they heard from others. They considered the information at hand and reflected on the best way to share that with the world. We can do no better than to follow their example.

 

 

For the commentary on the Gospel I am heavily reliant on Fitzmyer, Joseph. The Gospel According to Luke I-IX. New York: Double Day and Company, 1979, though I take full responsibility for the way in which I have used the material and the conclusion drawn.

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