The Reverend Kathleen Killian
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
And, I Love You
In just two short weeks, Jesus is all grown up; from the newborn babe in swaddling clothes to a man of some thirty years who is about to begin his public ministry as John the Baptist’s is about to end in imprisonment and execution by King Herod. But not before John prophesies about his cousin Jesus: he is the one more powerful than I, who will offer a different way and a new way of baptizing with the Holy Spirit and fire.
However, let’s leave John and Jesus in the waters of the river Jordan, take a few moments to locate where we ourselves are.
Today is the first Sunday after the feast of the Epiphany which celebrates the appearance or manifestation of the newborn king to the wise men—Gentiles and outsiders—and their response to that epiphany or manifestation as the word means. Like the wise men, we have traveled a far, guided by the hope and wonder of Advent and Christmas to the Word made flesh—God with us—and born into the human family. But now that we have arrived, for the next seven weeks or so, our gospels will turn to events that reveal the divine nature of Jesus to the people, from Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan this morning all the way through to his light drenched transfiguration upon the mountain. Not to get too far ahead our ourselves, but Epiphanytide is also a pre-Lenten season in that carries us straight to Ash Wednesday. And so I think there is something essential and fortifying about coming to know Jesus’s divinity more fully before we follow him into the desert and his passion for forty days.
The Church has long pondered why Jesus was baptized. In fact, according to Christian historian John Dominic Crossan, Jesus’s baptism was an “acute embarrassment” for the early Church, because it didn’t fit the triumphalist Messianic image the Church wanted to portray. Why would the Son of God, the sinless Messiah, submit himself to his cousin’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins? But rather than theologizing about the why, let’s take note of the what, and what happened, which is that Jesus stood with the people, quite literally, waiting with the crowd and standing with them, until it was his turn to be baptized. This action demonstrates that Jesus is fully one of us, a member of the community, and the community of the baptized.
In that moment, Jesus steps into the river of God's work on earth, and allows the greatest love story ever embodied to resound and find completion.
As Luke tells us, Jesus begins to pray after he had been baptized, and it is while he is praying that a voice from heaven proclaims his divinity: You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. Or as variously translated: You are my Son, my Beloved; in you I am well pleased and find delight; You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness; or You are my Son; today I have fathered you.
As the voice from heaven declares, Jesus is fully divine, and in that sense, he is not one of us, as psalm 29 echos. In but eleven verses, God’s name is pronounced some eighteen times—the Lord is at the center of all things—and the repetition of God’s name underscores this reality, to which all are crying Glory! All are crying Glory! because of the very palpable experience of God’s grandeur and majesty. The voice of the Lord is upon the waters—Glory!—the voice of the Lord is a powerful voice, and a voice of splendor—Glory! The voice of the Lord breaks the cedar trees—Glory!—the voice of the Lord splits the flames of the fire—Glory!—the voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness—to which all in the temple of the Lord are crying Glory, glory, glory!
In the Greek, glory (doxa) also means judgment and decision. Indeed, God judges the trees, the fire, the wilderness, and all of the creation, and gives voice to the judgment that Jesus is his Son and the Beloved.
It’s helpful also to look at the word baptism in both the Hebrew and the Greek, which means immersion (in water) as an initiation and or induction into new life and the attendant labor pains and suffering; immediately following his baptism, Jesus was led into the wilderness where he was sorely tempted by the devil. In the sacrament of baptism today, infants, children, and adults alike are ritually and symbolically first buried in the baptismal waters with Christ, to then emerge reborn in Christ as foreshadowed Isaiah: when you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you. But what does it mean when the gospels tell us that Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire?
Let’s look at the imagery in our gospel. When grain is taken to the threshing floor to be separated, a portion of it is tossed into the air by a winnowing fork. The heavy husks of wheat are then separated from the lighter straw, the chaff, by the movement of the air or the wind. The winnowing wind is the Holy Spirit is the breath of God as both the Hebrew ruach and Greek pneuma words for wind, spirit, and breath mean.
As judged, decided, and determined by God, that which is useless or lifeless is burned in a fire, which we cannot obstruct or extinguish. This is true, that we cannot override or overturn divine action and judgment. Yet this fire is ultimately and finally the fire of divine love that seeks to temper and purify our souls, as Isaiah asserts to the troubled soul of Israel: when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
Though baptism today may seem to be domesticated or more ceremonial than radical and life-changing, make not mistake about it that it is never ordinary to let the wind—the Spirit—and the flame within the Wind—come upon us and take us where it will; descending upon our bodies as palpable and real yet ethereal in the way of feathers and wings, like a dove; that in baptism, we are buried and raised with Christ is a powerful mystery of the kingdom that is always revealing and unraveling itself in our lives. This manifest truth is a loving, a moving, a climbing with the wind; a descending to smoke to smolder to heat to ash: we are born of water as too we are borne by the wind and the flame within the wind.
Given that many of us do not remember our baptism, let us consider a few things this week: what is your baptismal experience, not memory, but ongoing experience of immersion and initiation into the body of Christ? Can you identify moments of epiphany, of God made manifest in your life? And what of prayer? In the gospel of Luke, Jesus’ praying often precedes epiphanic moments, like at his baptism and transfiguration. How and when do you pray, and how and when does the Spirit pray in you? Are our hearts filled with prayerful expectation of the Holy One?
Back at the Jordan, Jesus climbs out of the river, water rolling off his body, prayers off his lips, wet, baptized, and transformed. I would guess that he and the crowd were mostly speechless at the voice of the Lord, Glory! resounding silently in their trembling hearts. I might also imagine that Jesus’ first steps after his baptism were perhaps shaky, like with legs newborn. But out of the river he steps—fully human and fully divine—towards his new ministry of new life for all. He will heal the untouchables, preach to the hungering and restless crowds, teach the word of God to those who have ears to hear, and then die on a cross, all the while embodying in flesh and sweat, and blood and tears, the deepest truth: that all are God’s chosen beloveds.
Do not fear, says the Lord, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, and you are mine. You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you. Do not fear, for I am with you, says the Lord.
And, I love you.