Sunday, January 13, 2013

Sermon, Epiphany 1C, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Today we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord.  The synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark & Luke – have explicit scenes of Jesus being baptized, while John has an implicit scene.  In Matthew and Mark it is clear that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.  In Luke, however, that is not necessarily the case.

If I asked you, “Who baptized Jesus,” the answer would be, “John.”  That is what our common understanding and years of Church tradition say.  And our lectionary text today certainly implies it was John.  But if we read Luke carefully, it’s really not clear that John actually did baptize Jesus.

Today’s gospel passage is Luke 3:15-17 and 21-22.  Nowhere in Luke is it mentioned that John baptizes Jesus.  Furthermore, in verses 18-20, the verses we don’t hear today, John gets thrown in prison by Herod.  So it’s not a stretch to read Jesus’ baptismal account as being performed by someone other than John.

This revelation – this Epiphany – might come as a surprise to some of you.  “What do you mean John didn’t baptize Jesus?”  I didn’t say that John didn’t baptize Jesus, just that it could have been done by someone else.  But Luke probably has some very good reasons for not focusing on the actual baptism of Jesus by John.

The first is that there may have been some tension in the early church over the matter.  If baptism is to cleanse us from sin and is the marker of adoption into God’s family, then how can Jesus, God Incarnate, Son of God, who lived as one of us yet without sin, be required to submit to baptism? 

The heresy of adoptionism arose from this very point: that Jesus wasn’t divine until his adoption by God at his baptism.  Orthodox writings stress that Jesus was fulfilling prophecies about himself, as in Matthew.  And one early writer, Maximus of Turin, wrote that by his baptism Jesus sanctified the waters of baptism.  He said that it’s not the waters of the world that cover the baptized, but that, through Christ’s baptism, it is the waters of Christ that purifies the baptized.

Another reason Luke may not focus on John here, having removed him to prison a verse earlier, was to remove a supporting character in order for the main character to flourish.  This is in line with John saying things like, “I am not fit to untie the thong of his sandal,” and, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”  By taking John out of the story, Luke can focus on the post-baptismal epiphany.

In short, WHO baptized Jesus is not important for Luke.  It’s the fact that Jesus was baptized.  If we focus on the who, we miss the point.  If we focus on the who, then they can become more important than the why or what.  This is why Paul says, “I thank God I baptized none of you . . . except for Crispus and Gaius . . . oh yeah, and the household of Stephanas . . . but nobody else.”

Baptism is about the why and what, not the who.  Why was Jesus baptized?  He was baptized as an example to us.  We live as he lived, hopefully, and when we are baptized through a baptism like his, we are reborn to new life in God.  Through baptism we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.  The why of Christ’s baptism was both an example and, in the words of Maximus, to sanctify the waters for our purification.  The why of our baptism is to mark us with an outward and visible sign of God’s inward and spiritual grace.

The WHAT of baptism is a bit more challenging.  What happened at the baptism of Jesus?  Yes, heaven was opened, the Spirit descended and a voice was heard.  But what else?

The major what of Jesus’ baptism is that he was empowered by the Spirit for the ministry he was about to embark on.  He was not adopted by God at this point; Luke makes it very clear who Jesus is right from the beginning.  But from here he is led by the Spirit into the wilderness, and he returns from the wilderness to Galilee in the power of the Spirit.

This descent of the Spirit and the voice from heaven happen post-baptism while he was praying.  This is important to note because no matter what you think baptism is, it’s not an instantaneous religious fix with answers to all your questions handed to you from heaven.  After his baptism, Jesus prayed for guidance.  This is the first instance of Jesus praying. Other instances include when he was choosing the Twelve, when asking the disciples who he was, at the Transfiguration and in Gethsemane.  When Jesus prayed, the Spirit descended upon him.

In other words, the what of baptism is that we are empowered by the Holy Spirit for ministry in God’s service and Church.  We learn what that ministry is, or we become open to the guiding of the Holy Spirit, through prayer.

This baptismal account in Luke makes it clear that it’s not important who baptized you.  The importance of your baptism is the fact that you were baptized and what you are going to do with that gift.

As baptized Christians, we have all been given a gift to use for the benefit of the gospel.  What will you do with your gift?  Do you know what your gift is?  Have you prayed about it, asking the Holy Spirit for guidance?

The Feast of the Baptism of our Lord asks us, “What now?”  What does it mean to be baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?  What does it look like when you are led by the Holy Spirit?  And as the point of Epiphany was a faith journey, are you now willing to be led by the Holy Spirit, through the act of your baptism, in the service of the gospel?

Last week was our recognition of Jesus as Messiah.  This week, in remembrance of our baptism, and following the example of Jesus, we are asked, “What is your gift and what will you do with it?”

Because, to be honest, sitting in a pew for an hour each week isn’t it.



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