A reflection on Luke 3:15-22 for the Baptism of the Lord, Sunday, January 9, 2022.
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.’
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and 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.’
Luke 3:15-22 (NRSVA)
John prepared well for the Messiah. He filled hearts with ‘expectation’, pointed his followers to another, ‘proclaimed the good news’, bravely confronted King Herod. His reward for it all: prison. John will not contribute much more to this story.
At this point Luke’s account deliberately moves from John to Jesus. The Baptist’s moment in the light is fading and all the predictions of another are finding their fulfillment.
This movement is so stark for the storyteller that John is not even mentioned in this account of the baptism of Jesus. Of course, this does not imply that John was not there, or did not baptise the Messiah as our other Gospels claim. But it does indicate that John is not the author’s concern.
The focus, consistent with biographical traditions of the time, is now squarely on the hero of our story. This is Jesus’ story.
And Jesus’ first action after emerging from the Jordan is to pray. His is a posture of listening worship. In the same moment heaven is opened and the Holy Spirit rests upon him. Mysteriously, God’s presence resembles a pidgeon. The whole incident is accompanied by a voice: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
There is very little commentary here. Our author tells the story but offers almost no explanation. There are some things beyond comprehension.
Perhaps we are – at this stage – just meant to wonder.
This baptism, however, remains crucial for our story. It functions as an initiation and introduction – an initial revealing. It is the first time we have met this much anticipated man as an adult. The account emphasises the trinitarian characteristic of his call. It affirms the pleasure of God.
As readers, however, we are left somewhat on the outside. Even the recently baptised who witnessed this event may have sensed that it was not really about them. The expected Holy Spirit does not, at this stage, touch the people. The heavenly voice does not address the crowd.
This is a moment for Jesus. No one else is more than a privileged onlooker.
No doubt, like the crowd there that day, it leaves us with questions: In what sense did Jesus need this experience? What is the importance of this peace-anointing? How will Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and this heavenly Father relate to one another? If they lean on each other now – how much more as this mission unfolds?
Good storytelling raises our curiosity and invites our questions. This is no exception. It is intended to make our expectation to soar.
After all, the king of heaven is focused on this young man. We do well to watch with as much care.
How does the example of John the Baptist’s willingness to fade next to Jesus inspire you? Can your life tell Jesus’ story?
Why do you think the Voice addressed Jesus? What do you think Jesus needed to know at this the beginning of his mission?