Luke 3.15-22 | Epiphany 1C

John Michael Gutiérrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke

15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them. 19 But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of his marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, 20 Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison. 21 When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

Luke 3:15-22

The Gospel of the Lord

Well, here we are again. This is the third time we’ve teamed up with the Baptizer in this third chapter in this third lectionary year. Every day the past weeks I have looked over Luke’s shoulder at his writing desk. I’ve pondered his skilled editing of sentences, history and theology into a Gospel narrative from his research. I have been amazed, thrilled. The kind of wonder that says “well, I sure didn’t see that coming”! So please turn to Luke Ch. 3 in your Bibles or tablets

Our lesson this morning transitions our attention away from the Baptizer to Jesus.  So, to set the stage for our lesson, let’s reread Luke’s brilliantly crafted opening sentence for Ch. 3. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas” (vs. 1-2).  Now this isn’t some archived historical record. No, it’s his skilled theological pen collapsing the culture’s political and religious “might makes right” power into a seven-name list: there’s the Roman rulers Tiberius, Pilate, the appointed political puppets Herod Antipas, Herod Philip, Lysanias and the installed religious pawns Annas and Caiaphas. Before us in this list is political, military, and religious power claiming the right to dominate the life and fate of Israel. Jewish folk were in reality a “conquered people” forced to enjoy the Pax Romana. The political and religious situation for the Jewish people was tense, to state the obvious.

But here’s Luke’s point. Should anyone in Israel look to this list, to their imposed power, to their exalted claims, to their laws and proclamations for truth, meaning or purpose? Luke, abruptly, suddenly, definitively, says ‘No’. Why? Because “the Word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the Wilderness” (3.2). Truth and meaning will not be found in the values and lived experiences told by might makes right power in smoke-filled backrooms, corner offices or the white mansions of Rome, Caesarea, and Jerusalem. John the Baptizer, an odd, strange figure, in a harsh landscape, captures Israel’s attention in the ancient words of Isaiah the prophet “to prepare YHWH’s highway because all flesh shall see the salvation of our God”, telling Israel the Lord’s deep, deep truth, meaning and purposes are going to be revealed in One who is more powerful, One who baptizes with the Spirit. And may I suggest to you John’s use of “more powerful” was a “not so subtle” jab at totalitarian authority (vs. 16 cf. 3.1-2). 

So, let’s explore Luke’s skill in pulling us into this morning’s lesson using the theme of expectation in vs. 15 “The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah”. And it seems to me Luke encourages us to ponder anew the messiah’s identity. The prophetic landscape in which the people were living, the valleys and the hills, needed change. There was something wrong. No argument there. But could this Baptizer be the Messiah?  What ordinary folk were expecting about a messiah, it seems to me, is a bit fuzzy.  In my study of turbulent post-exilic Israel, I think it’s fair to say the hope for a messiah was particularly acute. But I don’t find information ordinary people had a clear understanding of who the Messiah might be, what the Messiah might do or even, how the Messiah might accomplish some of their hopeful expectations. For example, some Jewish folk, particularly militant types, looked for a Davidic king with muscle to lead a revolt against the Romans. Others expected an Aaronic Priest to cleanse the Temple restoring authentic worship. Still others expected a Teacher like Moses leading the way to renewed Torah obedience. And there was a Qumran “Son of Man” with authority as YHWH’s agent of liberating judgment. 

Expectations are complicated, then and now.  Don’t we, like them, equate expectations with hope. Little did they know Jewish messianic expectations are about to be shattered through the presence of and in the ministry of Jesus. And it seems to me, our own expectations are not too far from these Jewish options sometimes. Whenever the phrase gets invoked that the Gospel needs more power, aren’t we looking for a mighty messiah as well? Don’t we often expect a 30 min. “Hour of power” “the Lord reigns” or “our God is an awesome God” to bring us a victorious, purpose filled life? And don’t we mean power freeing us from life’s worries?  Sometimes don’t we find ourselves in love with, wanting more and more of the prosperity advertised in the political / economic / military / medical / technological frontlines? When it comes to Biblical faith and life, such social/cultural power is as useless as the empty seed pods in vs. 17. Cultural muscle has never and will never lift us where we expect. Most certainly not where biblical faith and life expects us to be. 

Now, the Baptizer’s reply to the crowd’s expectations is both subtle and disengaging “But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie” (vs. 16). It is subtle because it’s not what the crowd expected. Why? Because John is talking about someone coming who has “power” stronger than those listed in vs. 1-2. It’s disengaging because he’s not the Word, he’s a voice. He’s not the light, he’s a witness to the light. He’s not the messiah, he’s the messenger. He’s not YHWH’s Servant either and in a most humble disengagement, “the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie” he’s a non-slave among slaves.  

And notice this, the Baptizer doesn’t identify Jesus as Messiah either but as “One who comes baptizing in/with the Holy Spirit and fire (vs. 16). For Luke, Jesus, the Spirit and fire are not about end time experiences. Luke centers Jesus’ unfolding mission for transformation and spiritual reform in the Baptizer’s fearsome imagery. John’s water immersion was characterized as for repentance. Jesus’?  Well, allow me to push us ahead a few pages to Luke’s recording of Jesus’ ministry statement after his Spirit baptism (3.22) and Spirit driven Wilderness authentication (4.1-13). In Nazareth’s synagogue, Jesus’ Spirit driven Sabbath lesson (4.14ff.) was a self-identifying quote from who else but Isaiah “YHWH’s Spirit is on me, because YHWH has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and to release the blind from darkness, to proclaim the year of YHWH’s favor” (4.17-19; Isa. 61.1-2a). In Luke’s two volume theology, Baptism in/with the Spirit is the gateway to Spirit empowered ministry for Jesus, the disciples and the believing community. The Spirit is the Lord’s very breath and power to change everything, including the little corner of the world where you and I live and work every Tuesday morning and Friday afternoon. Spirit Baptism is cleansing immersion by which one’s life is oriented to servant ministry in ordinary relationships in everyday life. It seems to me, Luke’s intention for the believing community by including the Baptizer’s harvest imagery is this:  true character will be separated in the winds of the Spirit. By breaking open and discarding useless husks, the Spirit reveals and preserves what is valuable in us. Finishing the harvest process with fire is a common practice, that is, burning the seed pods to clean up the fields before replanting. It seems to me Luke’s theological intention is: Jesus immerses us into YHWH’s river of fiery breath. Baptism in/with the Spirit reveals the fiery Spirit’s deep-seated cleansing, bringing change and renewal in us. Baptism in/with the Spirit burns holiness into the heart and soul of a person radically changing that person from the inside forever. As Luke’s co-worker Paul will tell the Corinthians “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creature: old things have passed away; the new has come”!  (2 Cor. 5.17).

As I said in the opening remarks, Luke’s intention is to transition from the Baptizer to Jesus. So, let’s look more closely at his skill using what looks like a narrative sidebar. He sends us back to the authority list in vs. 1-2. From that list, he pulls Herod Antipas and his half-brother Herod Philip. In the ANE and in Greco-Roman times, marriages among the Elite Aristocracy, were not usually romantic relationships. Rather marriages were attempts to consolidate alliances, to gain or expand political, military, economic and social power. And as Suetonius tells us over and over in The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, some of the most expensive marriage gifts were murders of family and assassination of supposed rivals. From what we know historically, the Herods seemed to practice this gift-giving also (Herod [family], IDB 2.585-594; Enc. Jud.8.375-391). This was so well known that Augustus Caesar, who was no pussycat, even quipped in a play-on-words “Better to be Herod’s pig (sus) than his son (filius)” (Saturnalia, dicta 56 Malc.). Boldly, the Baptizer raises his wilderness voice against Herod Antipas not only because it’s another reality show sexual affair among the rich and famous. But also, because he tipped the tables on his half-brother Herod Philip in a political power play, a misuse of power and authority whatever the family relationship. Now the Baptizer is astute, focusing on authoritarian regime’s weakest component – image, image, image. The Baptizer’s socially influential spoken media was too much for Herod’s Greco-Roman fragility. Herod silences the Voice in the Wilderness slapping the Baptizer behind bars (vs. 19-20). Political/military power 1; Biblical servant ministry 0. Final score? Maybe, maybe not. 

The Baptizer’s imprisonment is not merely “historical recording”, however. No, this is Luke setting the scene for a theological push. Clearly, throughout the Gospel, he’s been tracking the Baptizer and Jesus. Luke sums up John’s ministry “And with many other words . . . John preached the good news to them.” (vs. 18). Now it’s time for Jesus’ ministry. It’s time to separate Jesus, directing him to the onramp of YHWH’s Gospel highway. And so, it’s enormously important for us to carefully consider how Luke crafts this separation at Jesus’ baptism. It’s brilliant. 

With Herod’s slammed jail door still ringing in our ears, the first thing we realize about Jesus’ baptism in Luke’s narrative is: John is shut up in prison. He won’t baptize Jesus. So how does Luke get around this? Well, “When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too” (vs. 21). Luke smuggles Jesus in amongst the people who had flocked to the Jordan River. No one seems to notice Jesus’ arrival. By wading into the waters with them Luke has him standing shoulder to shoulder with them, beside them and among them. Unnoticed, Jesus intentionally takes sides with ordinary people of the land – fishermen, women, tax collectors, lepers, farmers, craftsmen. Theologically Jesus openly, decisively demonstrates he immerses himself with faults and failures, needs and fears, the pains, and problems of repentant people. And Luke will expand this profound theology in the Gospel as Jesus reaches out to those who are of no importance at all. 

Second, Jesus’ plunge into the Jordan River might be unnoticed by the crowds but it turns out to be a big splash. No social distancing here! Luke now smuggles the Father and the Spirit in amongst the Jordan River crowd.  Luke soaks up the baptismal water with three theological verifications for Jesus’ identity: heaven opens, that is, the barrier to divine revelation is removed, the unexpected descent of the Spirit as a fluttering dove and verbal endorsement by YHWH (vs. 21-22). Luke wants us to take all this in: The Baptizer’s proclamation is true. Jesus is the One who comes. The opened heaven signals the days of the Spirit’s absence have ended. Revelation’s barrier has been removed and messianic ministry is set in motion. The return of the Spirit was a familiar Second Temple expectation indicating the messianic age has begun (Ezk. 10.15-19; 1 Enoch 49. 3; Ps. Sol 17.42; T. Levi 18.7; T. Judah 24.2; b. Hagiggah 15a; m. Berakoth 3a). Jesus’ baptism with the Spirit identifies him as the Messiah. The voice identifying Jesus as “my son, the beloved.” is unmistakably YHWH’s. May I suggest “well pleased” is code for obedient messianic authority. But notice this. YHWH doesn’t put bubble wrap around the Beloved Son. And we’re not to be taken in by the seemingly docile dove-like image used to describe the Spirit (vs. 22). The determination to validate Jesus’ Messianic identity is dramatized for us in the next scene. The Spirit yanks Jesus away from the Jordan river and throws him far out into the Judean Wilderness! (4.1ff). Being the messiah will be a good thing. It just won’t be an easy thing. And it sure won’t be a safe thing. 

May I say quite boldly then, in Luke’s theological intention: a believer’s identity, like Jesus’ identity, is grounded in baptism in/with the Spirit. It incorporates the truth of the vitality of faith, repentance in the active presence of the Spirit. It is an utterly revolutionary identity transformation of a person. It incorporates the Father’s voice: “It’s you who are my sons and daughters. It’s you who are my beloved”. We are set on the path toward holiness by realizing we are sons and daughters of a holy Father.

Becoming Christian through faith and baptism in/with the Spirit, we are transformed to have a different understanding of our place in the world. Why is Jesus’s baptism so enormously important? It’s because in this event Jesus divests himself of power, position, and authority to stand among us. The Lord in Jesus loves us so much that he stands with us in our everyday place. Although we have yet to hear in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus stands for us in our place of redemption giving his life as the price to set a lot of other people free. 

Lastly, a few words about a unique, one-of-a-kind participial clause in vs. 21 “And as Jesus was praying …”.  This often overlooked/passed over Lucan observation is in my opinion perhaps the most important comment he makes in the entire scene. Why? Because prayer in Luke’s Gospel signifies Jesus’ direct relationship, deep devotion, and commitment to God the Father. Luke will tell us Jesus prayed at nine important junctures in his ministry (5:16, 6:12, 9:18, 28-29, 11:1, 22:32, 41, 23:34, 46). In this baptismal scene Jesus’ submission was acknowledged by heaven opening and the descending Holy Spirit empowering him for ministry. It seems to me a case can be made Luke intends to draw a parallel in his second volume between this scene and the early Christian community gathered in prayer and the descent of the Spirit (Acts 1:14). It is in prayerful submission to the Father, the Holy Spirit empowers ministry.

And it seems to me, there are several application takeaways from a close reading of Spirit driven prayer modeled by Jesus throughout the Gospel. Prayer is an invitation to God the Father and God the Spirit to intervene in my life, to let the Divine will prevail in my affairs. Prayer is the opening of a window into my will, an effort to make God the Lord. Prayer submits my interests to the Lord’s concern, seeking to be allied with what is ultimately right. I don’t turn prayer on and off like a light switch. Prayer begins by letting the thought of Him engage my mind, by realizing the coins of prayer bear his name, by moving in thought from understanding to devotion. And as my own shortcomings remind me, the ability to express what is hidden in the heart is a rare gift and cannot be counted upon. Prayer words are not dead tools but living, full of spiritual power. So, the power of words so often surpasses the power of my mind. Sometimes prayer needs to seize me as amazement, not understanding; as awe, not reasoning; as a sweep of emotion, as an identification of my will with the living will of God. Prayer enables me to respond to the service in ministry disentangling my heart from the bulky, stupid conceit of cultural/political power and hollow self-reliance.

If who you’re expecting this Epiphany season is One who baptizes in/with the Spirit, One whose ministry is to transform your identity grounded in the vitality of faith, prayer and repentance, binding up the brokenhearted, releasing captives, comforting the poor, One who is a suffering, dying Savior then Jesus is the One. If not, then, you will need to expect another. 

May the Lord richly bless us, Beloved.

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