Sunday, January 10, 2010

Through the Waters

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22(23a)
January 10, 2010
Baptism of the Lord
William G. Carter

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work . . .

This Bible scene has inspired the human imagination. Jesus goes to the river where John is preaching. He steps down into the water to be dunked by the preacher. The sky splits open, the Dove descends, and a heavenly Voice rings out. In the height of the Renaissance, it seems you couldn’t go into an Italian church without seeing that scene painted on a wall or a ceiling. It’s one those rare moments in the Gospels when heaven and earth are clearly united – and Jesus is seen for who he really is.

Luke’s account is very brief. It is told in the past tense. You get the impression that he wants to move on to tell other stories. It could be that this story is going to prompt more questions than it answers.

John has been proclaiming “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” To unpack that phrase, you must turn around and come to God, turn away from all that separates you from God. Only then you are baptized, as a sign that you are forgiven.” So if this is what John is doing – a baptism of repentance – then what is Jesus doing there?

The church has pronounced Jesus sinless. By the year 80 AD, one Christian writer declared, “Jesus is like us in very way, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15).” He is the one perfect human being, so honored that parts of the church have surrounded him by ever-increasing circles of holiness. Some Christians later said his mother was perfectly sinless, and his mother’s mother was without sin. They say this as a way of honoring him.

Yet here he is, hip-deep in a river of washed-away sin, standing before a preacher who has been calling everybody to repentance. What are we to make of this? Luke doesn’t say. If you want an answer, you have to flip over the pages to Matthew.

Matthew is the one who says what Luke will say later on, in another way. What he says is that the baptism of Jesus is hinge for the turning of the ages. John the Baptist was doing a pre-Christian baptism. He prepared the world for the coming of the Messiah, so he called out, “Repent! Get ready!” Now, suddenly, here is Jesus. It is a new day. John’s work is finished. That’s probably why the Gospel of Luke dismisses him from the desert right in the middle of the story. We are told that John has been imprisoned by Herod Antipas, and then we are shown a flashback of Jesus’ baptism, again told quite briefly.

Back in seminary, Dr. Bruce Metzger, our New Testament professor, used to tell us that the baptism of Jesus had to have happened historically. It was potentially confusing for the church, yet the church never felt that it had to scrub the story and pretend the act did not happen. Indeed, said Dr. Metzger, that’s how we know it’s a true story – because nobody could have dreamed up an event that takes so long to explain.

But perhaps the most important meaning of Luke’s story is in a detail that he does not explain. He merely shows us: “the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in bodily form like a dove.” Not merely “like a dove” – that’s Mark, that’s Matthew, that’s John. But “in bodily form.” As God’s Word took flesh in Jesus, God’s Spirit takes flesh as a dove – and falls upon Jesus.

This year, as we work through the texts of the Gospel of Luke, we are going to hear a lot about the Holy Spirit. In fact, if we were listening to the Christmas story, from the first two chapters of Luke, we have already heard a lot about the Holy Spirit.

• Zechariah was told that his son, John the Baptist, would be filled with the Holy Spirit. (1:15)
• The Holy Spirit would fill the womb of mother Mary, and cause Jesus to be born. (1:35)
• Elizabeth, Mary, and Zechariah were each filled with the Holy Spirit, and started singing Christmas carols. (1:41, 1:47, 1:67)

And that’s only in chapter one! In chapter two, the Holy Spirit rests upon a righteous old man named Simeon. We are told the Spirit revealed to him that he would see the Lord’s Messiah before he died. Then one day he was guided by the Spirit to go into the temple on the same day, the exact hour, when Joseph and Mary presented their infant boy to God. Simeon snatched him into his arms, and being full of the Spirit, he began to break into song.

After his baptism, we hear that Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit (4:1). The Spirit pushed him into the wilderness to face down the devil. When he emerged victorious, again we are told Jesus was “filled with the power of the Spirit (4:14).” He began to preach, and the very first sermon text that he used the word from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me . . . (4:18).”

Do you think Luke is trying to make a point here? I think he is. The work of the Gospel is the work of the Holy Spirit. It is stirring in the world before Jesus appears, but Jesus is the One who carries it forward. On the day he is baptized, the Spirit falls upon him “in bodily form as a dove.” And he is filled up full.

Sometimes we look at an impish kid and say, “He is full of the devil.” It’s not exactly a compliment, and we know what it means. Years ago, I vacationed with my daughters near Lake Placid, up in the Adirondacks. A friend owns a cabin up there, and we learned that my friend Tom was going to be staying nearby with his family. We met at Whiteface Mountain, drove the winding highway to the top of the hill. Then we ascended to the summit for a spectacular view – over to our left, Mount Marcy and the High Peaks, over to our right, Lake Champlain and Vermont; in front of us in a huge figure-eight was Lake Placid.

We decided to hike down the trail along the ridge. Tom’s son Nathan did not want to go. He was only four or five at the time, and prone to resistance and rebellion. He had an emotional meltdown. At one point, he bolted from his father and started running. I grabbed him just in time by the scruff of his collar. His arms and feet were pumping furiously. There was a thousand feet of empty air below him. His dad retrieved him from my frightened grip, stared him in the eye, and said, “You are full of the devil!” It was one of the most effective exorcisms that I have ever seen. Now, we know what that means.

But to be full of the Spirit? What is that?

We can understand that as the apostle Paul does, I suppose. Paul wrote to his churches and said, “There is observable evidence when the Holy Spirit fills a person.” To the Corinthians, he said, “The Spirit gifts people with abilities for the common good. Wisdom is one of those gifts, knowledge is another. Some have the ability to heal, others can work miracles, others have the ability to sort out different ideas or different speech. Some are given faith, some are given hope – and all of us should seek the gift of love. This is what the Holy Spirit gives us.” (1 Cor. 12-13). It is helpful, I think, to regard Jesus in this way – he was gifted by God with faith, hope, and love. He was full of the Spirit.

Elsewhere, to the churches in Turkey, Paul spoke about the Holy Spirit in terms of personal qualities. When the Spirit comes, it is as if we are rooted in God like fertile fruit trees. And the results of this grace are the “fruits of the Spirit. Here is his list: joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control – and of course, at the top of the list is love (Gal. 5:22-23). It is also inspiring to me to think of Jesus in this way – that he was, and still is, full of joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, and love. That would be sincere evidence in him, or in anybody else, that they are full of the Holy Spirit.

But our story today is from the Gospel of Luke. For Luke, as much as he can speak of the personal qualities to come to a person when they are full of the Spirit, the better phrase for him is power. The Spirit of God is the Power of God. As he quotes the ancient prophet Isaiah in his first published sermon, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me . . . to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, to announce recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of God’s grace (4:18-19).” These tasks take more than kindness and self-control. They are the works of ministry – God’s ministry – and it is the power of God at work in human life that makes these things possible.

Sometimes in the church, we meet people who astound us with the power of what they can do. On the face of it, they seem normal like the rest of us. They may be shy or engaging. They might have a lot of visible energy or they might be studious. They may be tall or short, female or male, right-handed or correct-handed. But what is so amazing is what they actually do – what is amazing is how God works through them, working through their abilities and in spite of their limitations, and effecting some positive difference through the work that they get done.

I remember the stories about Simon Peter. He was a coarse fisherman from the north country. Illiterate, uneducated, prone to making promises he could never keep, full of noise and bluster. He abandoned Jesus at the greatest time of need – hiding from him, lying three times about whether he knew him. But then fifty days later, he stood in a public square at nine o’clock in the morning, and he began to preach that Jesus is our Risen Lord. How did that happen? Illiterate, uneducated, frightened – now a bold, articulate witness to God’s good work. What got into him? The Holy Spirit got into him. He had the power to do God’s work.

It was just as Jesus had told him and the others: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

Luke loves to tell stories about this sort of thing. When the Spirit came to ordinary people, they shared every one of their possessions, and made sure that the poor were fed (Acts 5). When a deacon named Stephen got the Spirit, he spoke the truth to the powerful and arrogant even when it cost him his life (Acts 7:55). When the fearful little church thought about staying only among people like themselves, the Spirit pushed Philip to do a Bible study with an Ethiopian (8:29), pushed Ananias to heal one of his persecutors (9:17), and pushed Simon Peter to preach to those godless Italians (10:44). The people of Christ cannot stay to themselves, for the Holy Spirit pushes them beyond their own boundaries.

There is no time limit on this sort of thing. It still happens, and not always in flashy ways. I know a lady who hates to speak in public. Put her in the pulpit as a worship leader, and she would like to evaporate and wisp away. But her ministry is in making phone calls (if she were forty years younger, she would send text messages). Nobody tells her who to call – she is too busy calling. She calls people to wish them a happy birthday, to see how they are coping with a death in their family, to inquire if they would like a pot of soup. Mostly she calls to offer a word of encouragement, a word of grace. Now, what in the world got into her? The Spirit got into her … the same Spirit that fell upon Jesus when he was baptized.

To think of all that Jesus said, to think of all that Jesus did – how could he say all of that, do all of that, endure all of that, unless he was full of a power beyond his own human ability? Baptism was the moment when he faced God’s claim upon his life to begin acting as if the Kingdom of God is right here. It was his commission to do God’s ministry. The Holy Spirit that fell upon him was the empowerment to do that ministry.

That has not changed. For anybody who is baptized in God’s triune name, they are baptized to do Christ’s work, to speak his word. The promise of God is that the same Spirit that filled Jesus Christ is the same Spirit who can fill you and me, as we use our gifts to do the work of the Gospel.

When we are baptized, God promises that there is a force at work in our lives, a power clearer than our own will and greater than our own ability. In fact, I know a lot of Christians who discover themselves in one moment after another when they can share the love of Jesus, when they have the ability to proclaim that Christ is stronger than whatever around us threatens to destroy.

The world looks at these people, scratches its head, and wonder, “Whatever got into them?”

I think we know.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

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