Baptism of Our Lord/Epiphany 1, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
A striking thing to me in today’s gospel reading, appointed for Baptism of Our Lord, is how Luke matter-of-factly narrates Jesus’ baptism: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized…”
It’s almost as if Jesus’ baptism was an afterthought for Luke. Given Luke’s rendering of this event, mentioning it almost in passing, I picture Jesus simply as one among many in the crowds of people being baptized. Other gospel writers zero in on the singularity of Jesus’ baptism. Not so with Luke.
Thus, in Luke’s telling, I see in my mind’s eye the waters of the Jordan River teeming with people of all kinds, sinners, tax collectors, the poor, the rich, soldiers, and others. And there was Jesus in the midst of the hoi polloi.
That’s a great image to convey concretely the theological affirmation of Jesus as Emmanuel, God with us – in this case as a person in the crowd, standing in line with many others of all stripes to be baptized by John.
Again, in my mind’s eye, there they all were in the water together, bodies touching bodies no doubt, Jesus immersed in dirty waters without the benefit of chlorine.
It’s all so viscerally physical, embodied. Thus, it’s also striking that Luke makes a point to say that the Spirit descended on Jesus in bodily form like a dove.
This happened after the baptism when Jesus was praying. Prayer is often understood as a spiritual, dis-embodied kind of activity. Indeed, prayer can be one of those points of contact between the immaterial and material when the heavens are opened to us.
But Luke insists that the ethereal Spirit came in bodily form amidst Jesus’ prayer.
How seemingly ordinary, if not profane, that the Spirit would take bodily form like a dove, one of the common, everyday animals that was among the teeming menagerie on Noah’s Ark during the flood and which Noah deployed in the service of determining whether or not the flood waters had receded.
But all of this is the point – Jesus with us among the crowds being baptized in the earthy, dirty water. And even the ethereal Spirt coming to rest on Jesus in bodily form. It’s all in keeping with John’s affirmation that the Word became flesh to dwell among us, to pitch a tent with us, full of grace and truth, even amidst unclean waters that somehow, by God’s grace, end up cleansing us.
And the striking features of Luke’s telling of Jesus’ baptism is also in keeping with the earthiness of Luke’s narrating the whole story of Jesus. Luke, among the gospel writers, has a heart for the earthy, the sacred finding expression in the ordinary, the physical, the visceral, the lowly, even the unclean. Tradition has it, after all, that Luke was a physician, one focused on bodily realities.
The good news is that Jesus’ baptism among the crowds sacralizes our bodily earthiness, claiming in sacred ways even our dirtiness. Our baptism into him, into his earthy, physical, death and resurrection restores our earthen sacredness, the ultimate goodness of bodily creation, one of the main points of one of the creation accounts in the Book of Genesis.
Think also of this: We just celebrated Epiphany and the Magi who brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the holy family. The gift of myrrh points to Jesus’ death, for myrrh was ointment for the anointing of dead bodies. There is nothing more visceral, and unpleasantly so, than a corpse. But Jesus’ death, which the gift of myrrh foreshadows, along with Jesus’ bodily resurrection, redeems, makes holy even our own death, even our own lifeless bodies.
Thanks be to God for those of us – all of us – who are weighed down, feeling the burdens of our broken, ailing bodies. This is all good news for us, we who also struggle to see the holiness of teeming crowds of ordinary people who these days can erupt too easily into violent, raging mobs.
Jesus was baptized to inaugurate a ministry with the crowds of sinners, which as Luke reports, John the Baptizer described in this way: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. With a winnowing fork is in hand, he will clear the threshing floor and gather the wheat into his granary, burning the chaff with unquenchable fire.” That’s the essence of Jesus’ ministry, according to John, separating wheat from chaff which is to be burned.
Thus, our being baptized into Christ means being baptized with fire not just with water. Baptism into Christ, our Messiah, means that we are blown with the winds of the Spirit that separate our wheat from our chaff. And it’s our chaff, our unusable husks, that are burned with unquenchable fire.
This fiery word sounds like a threat, and it is a judgment, our being held accountable for that which in our lives does not bear good fruit.
But the fiery ordeal of our baptism into Christ is also a promise, and good news, as suggested by the prophet Isaiah in today’s first reading: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” (Isaiah 43:1b-2)
The Spirit’s winnowing of us, that is, the holy winds as at creation blowing onto us to separate the chaff from our wheat, that which is unusable, unhelpful, sinful from that which bears fruit, this winnowing is ultimately gospel grace that generates and continues to renew our faith, our trust in a messianic judge who also is the compassionate, merciful God of love.
Which is to say, when it’s all said and done, as the prophet Isaiah assures us, the fire does not consume us, the fire does not damage us, but rather purifies us, justifies us by grace. Yes, this may hurt, but it’s for our healing and being made whole once again toward becoming and bearing the fruit of wholesome grain to feed a starving world.
And when it’s all said and done our fruit is ultimately sourced in the fruit that was born on the cross, our tree of life, a tree watered by the dirty torrents of the River Jordan when Jesus was baptized among the crowds, among us, when the Spirit descended in bodily form, for our salvation.
And with all of this, God is well pleased. Amen.