January 10, 2021
Luke 3: 1-22
There is a lot missing from today’s story about John the Baptist … at least when you compare Luke’s version to Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts.
In Luke, there’s no mention of John’s peculiar diet … there is no description of John’s clothing … no talk of his coat or his belt … Luke wants the listeners to focus on John’s words … on John’s message … rather than critiquing his clothing or his other distracting habits like eating bugs.
Plus, for a passage entitled “The Baptism of Jesus,” there is surprisingly little said about the actual event.
In fact, it simply says that he was baptized … just like all the other people who were gathered around. The people are included in this key event in Jesus’ life and in the life of the world. He isn’t set apart from the gathering during the act of baptism.
What comes after the act is where Luke wants us to focus.
Jesus prays after he is baptized … maybe for his cousin who has been imprisoned.
And it is during these moments that the heaven opens … the Holy Spirit came upon him … his identity is affirmed and God voices pleasure with the Beloved.
This is when Jesus’ public ministry begins.
What comes after baptism is important.
The people gathered at the river ask John the same question three times in today’s passage … “What should we do?”
In John’s mind the people have wasted their baptismal call … they have been acting like a brood of vipers … become arrogant and privileged … and because they have … even though their lives are rooted in God’s covenant, they have stopped bearing fruit.
They have … to John … forfeited their automatic inclusion as people of God under the terms of the covenant. The people have not lived up to the promise that had been made.
And they ask…
“What should we do?”
John answers the people’s questions … preachers tend to do that from time to time … with ethical guidelines.
Share food and clothing …
Treat people fairly …
These are not revolutionary acts, but rather ones that make being relationship with one another and with God priorities.
Baptism is our re-creation … when the old life is washed away and we are joined to a community.
Today’s passage is about what happens after you are baptized because baptism is just a starting point. It’s the point where your life can pivot into a different direction.
John is calling for the people to be spiritually cleansed … to repent and be forgiven … and to live into the promise that it offers. John is sharing the good news.
God’s salvation isn’t reserved for the monied and privileged. It is there for all.
There is a sense of anticipation created as John tells the crowd that the Spirit will come, reveal God’s power and flames will burn away the chaff. Rather than fear this fire, John calls the people to change their ways.
John wants the people to separate themselves from their former lives and its routines and values … to repent and be transformed through baptism and a return to lives committed to a life of social justice … to begin considering the needs of their neighbours rather than themselves.
Through such a commitment, their communities will be restored.
Justo L. González is a Cuban-American Methodist historian and theologian.
In discussing this passage from Luke in comparison to the other gospel accounts, he wrote:
“Luke adds some very specific guidelines for obedience. These have to do with justice and the well ordering of society.”
Social justice is at heart of Luke’s gospel … of John’s preaching … and of Jesus’ ministry.
Baptism changes things … or at the very least holds the promise of change.
If we are true to John’s direction … to Jesus’ ministry and teachings that will be shared in the weeks to come … then the ways of the world are transformed.
The hungry are fed …
The suffering are comforted …
The cold are clothed …
Greed is abandoned …
Self-interest and self-importance fall away and are discarded.
In Gonzalez’s words, people are satisfied with what is rightfully theirs and don’t desire more than that.
The point of baptism, he wrote, is not “ecclesial maintenance, but an outpouring of the Spirit and a revelation of God’s Beloved where one least expects it. Such an outpouring has the power to reframe and restructure the world.”
One theologian frames today’s passage within the transition from 2020 to 2021.
She points out that there are a lot of things we want to leave behind or forget about from the last year.
But during this transition period, she adds, there is an opportunity to rid ourselves of the chaff within our lives. It is a time when we can prepare the way.
When we can ask for forgiveness and be forgiven
Jesus’ identity was revealed to us at Epiphany … just as it was to the gathering at the Jordan River. Now, in the time that follows we learn what that revelation means to us and to the world. We discern what we are called to do and to be.
When we ask “what should we do?”
It is a time when we can consider our impact on others … what we say and what we do … are they consistent with the life our baptism calls us to?
When we do this, then the Lenten season becomes a more meaningful exercise of repentance and removal … instead of simply giving up superficial things like chocolate, we can shed the things that get in the way of sharing the grace … the love … we have received … that keep us from traveling into uncomfortable places to ensure people are not left forgotten or to ensure they feel welcome in the community.
Because that is what we should do.