Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Jesus' baptism as a "fork in the road"

For |January 10. Isaiah 43:1-7, Ps 29, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-22

At some time or another, we all get one of those Christmas gifts that enables our work life. It might be a new kitchen appliance, a power tool, a "how to" book of some sort that changes how we have done things in the past. A food processor mostly replaces the knife, the nailer mostly replaces the hammer, the craft book inspires ideas and projects. The new thing is meant to be used, to cook, to build, to create. It is the potential beginning of a new project done in new ways and now it goes to work.

This Luke story is exactly that kind of thing. Here we move from Christmas hope to real life, from idea to action. The gift has been given, and now Jesus stands at a fork in the road. Things are about to change.The official beginning of Jesus' ministry is launched.

There is a transition here from John's work to Jesus', a passing of the baton. John has been an incredibly popular prophet. People are flocking out to the desert to hear his message of revival, to repent and be baptized by him.

But what did that mean? What were they repenting from? What changed?

John wasn't preaching anything particularly new.  He was Jewish and was teaching accordingly. Baptism wasn't a completely new idea either. Some of the Jewish sects used it as a symbolic way to "initiate" new converts to the Jewish faith. Sometimes baptism was a symbolic ritual cleansing. So what is going on here? What is getting people excited?

John's baptism is connected with the idea of repentance. the idea that something has to change, that life has to do a "turn around". Starting at verse 10-the crowds ask John what this means, "what should we do?" His answer is that people who have things should share with those who do not, that tax collectors should be fair, and that soldiers (those with power) should be satisfied with their wages and not abuse their power. Not new ideas, but obviously in need of renewal!

It sounds so simple, but it was quite revolutionary. Institutionalized faith eventually gets stale, leaders can be more worried about protecting their positions than doing what is right, people get comfortable in their ritual practice and quit thinking and changing. Rich people protect their stuff and downplay the need to share, power is easily corrupted and it's misuse rationalized. John's revival is moving faith out of the temples and into the streets, out of the books and into the minds, hearts, and actions of the people. It is creatively reminding the people that their beliefs matter right now. Instead of waiting for some future righteous judgement of God to fix things, people are supposed to start living as if the kingdom of God were already present on earth, not something that will eventually happen in some perfect afterlife.

John was sparking personal renewal, encouraging people to act out their beliefs, exciting them about their faith, helping them see that faith is not only for priests, but for practical life. It's a "grassroots" movement to make society better.

It gets him in trouble with the comfortable institutions. The temple officials don't necessarily want to deal with change, and Herod (the government) isn't interested in having a population too fired up about justice and change either. John ends up in prison.

The transition to Jesus here is interesting. Jesus picks up exactly where John leaves off, and takes the message out of the desert and on the road to spread it well beyond John's reach. In Luke's gospel, John is in jail at the time of Jesus' baptism, so it's obvious that the movement around John's work isn't wholly dependent on the one charismatic leader! (Maybe this is the writer's way of downplaying John's importance, while still keeping the continuity between John's preparation for Jesus and the start of Jesus' ministry?)

The baptism itself is rather interesting. I read in a commentary (Fred Craddock, Interpretation Series) that the early church may have been somewhat embarrassed by the story of Jesus being baptized. After all, why would he need this?

That question resonates with me too, at least it used to. All through my childhood Sunday School years I wondered about this story. I understood baptism to be a renouncing of sin, a "washing", a public commitment, and official membership in a church. This understanding doesn't quite mesh with Jesus being baptized. We have no evidence he was a sinner, tradition and scripture describe him as blameless. He wasn't joining a church, he was already part of the temple.It's kind of strange to think of Jesus doing through a group dunking (likely a group thing) in the muddy Jordon along with crowds of regular Joes!

The baptism makes more sense if we think of the "repentance" as a turning point. This definitely indicates a turning point, this is where Jesus begins his public ministry. The baptism in the "John" tradition shows that Jesus is in line with this renewal of faith, a taking faith into the action of the everyday instead of leaving it in the temple. It lines Jesus up with the movement to share, be fair, and to use power responsibly. It also makes sense when I think of other stories of Jesus where he humbly shows his disciples what it means to be a leader. Why I think of the baptism as incongruous when I accept the story of Jesus washing his disciples feet? He is consistent in modelling such humble actions for those who wish to follow him.

The dove is a beautiful symbol of the Holy Spirit being visible in life. Once again, the idea of the Holy Spirit isn't new, there are references to it in the Old Testament. What is new, is that starting with Jesus, the HS is visible in the lives of those who follow God in word and action.

What does baptism symbolize for you? How does striving to be a disciple of Jesus make the Holy Spirit visible in your life?

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