In our tradition, baptism seems to get overlooked when it comes to importance. It is likely that many of the folks we will be preaching in front of this Sunday will only understand baptism as a public declaration of their decision to follow Jesus. It isn’t that Christian baptism isn’t that; it is. It’s just that baptism is so much more. If we follow the narrative surrounding Jesus’ baptism, we’ll find that, for Jesus, baptism was an affirmation of his Sonship and a sending. Since we’re called to become more and more like Christ, then our baptism must be about those same things.
At the beginning of this week’s passage, John has finished baptizing the people and has left them with a sense of awe and wonderment as to his true identity. Might John truly be the one for whom they have waited, the Messiah? John, doing what any good messenger does, points past himself to the one whom he was sent to herald. The one who is coming, however, is going to baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit and fire.
Of course, baptism with the Holy Spirit will become significant in Luke’s follow-up work, Acts. The Messiah will come, and God’s Holy Spirit will fall on those who come to Jesus to cleanse and empower them. John the Baptist’s original audience knew of the Spirit of God, but that was given to specific people at specific times to accomplish God’s saving mission for Israel. In the Old Testament, we are told that the Spirit of God falls on people like Samson, David, Elijah, and Elisha. The one who is coming will give the Spirit to all who believe.
Fire, on the other hand, here symbolizes purifying and cleansing. It isn’t a symbol of judgment and punishment. As we have said, Israel was expecting judgment, and fire, as Luke uses it with John, is a symbol of sweeping judgment. Only, there is a sense here that the judgment that Jesus’ baptism will bring is one that will be directed at those who claim to be religious but who fail to bear the kind of fruit about which both John and Jesus talk.
The Baptism: 3:21-22
Unlike the other Gospels, Luke doesn’t give us a full recounting of Jesus’ baptism. Luke simply tells us that after all the people who had come had been baptized by John, Jesus arrives on the scene and is baptized.
After Jesus was baptized, he began to pray. This seems like an appropriate response to what Jesus has experienced. In Luke, prayer often comes right before a significant event is about to take place. As Jesus is praying, something significant does happen. The sky splits, and the Holy Spirit comes and rests on Jesus in the form of a dove. The reason why it is important for those who witnessed Jesus’ baptism and the Spirit’s decent is that they would have understood that an opening in the sky and a manifestation like this would have indicated that God was about to act in a decisive and tangible way through the one on whom the Spirit rested. The Spirit has already been with Jesus, but now those who witness it can begin to understand that something is about to happen.
This revelatory event is not just visual, however, it’s audible as well. As the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus, we are told there was heard a voice coming from Heaven saying, “You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” (verse 22) The voice of God confirms Jesus’ mission and direction. The phrase itself is an echo of two different Old Testament texts, Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1-4. Both of these passages concern a servant whom God will establish to do God’s will and work in the world. The reference would not have been lost to those who witnessed this event. Jesus, through his baptism, marks his commitment and intention to the God of Israel, to do his will and work. God, in response to Jesus’ obedience, affirms Jesus as the one who is expected, the Messiah.
Something happens when we are baptized. Sure, baptism marks our repentance, our turning from our sin and old way of life, but it is more than that. Baptism not only marks our movement away from sin, but it also marks our movement toward something as well. Some will argue that it marks our movement toward purity and holiness as we seek to allow the Holy Spirit to baptize us as well. They would be right, of course. We come up out of the baptismal waters clean, washed of our sins and ready to continue to walk toward Christ. Some will also say that in our baptism, we walk toward inclusion in a new family, the family of God known as the church. We have been adopted as children of God. They too would be correct. These images are important for us as we seek to live our faith. There is, however, another thing that we move toward as we emerge from the baptismal water: our God-given mission.
We stand at the beginning of a brand new year with new challenges and new goals. Many of us will create a list of resolutions, goals which we would like to keep in the coming year. Let us add one more: living into our baptism with a sense of our God-given mission. Our passage depicts for us Jesus’ baptism, and it is in that baptism that it is revealed to us the identity of Jesus. We see the heavens ripped open wide. We see the Spirit of God rest on this Jesus to signify that Jesus will indeed be the one who comes to be our rescuer. We hear the very voice of God proclaim that he loves and is well pleased with Jesus. What we do not hear, explicitly anyway, but we do pick it up in the verses that lead up to Jesus emerging from the water, is that Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of Jesus’ divine mission. Jesus is up to something.
It is the same way with our baptisms. We may not visibly see the heavens tear open. We may not see the Spirit of God descend upon us, and we may not hear the words of God himself declare us to be his sons and daughters, the children he loves and is pleased with, but that does not mean that this is not what is happening. As we emerge from the baptismal waters, we begin our journey. Yes, it is a journey away from sin and the death that is a result of our sin, but we also begin to take the first steps in fulfilling the mission that Jesus has given us. And what is our mission? It is the same mission that Jesus embarked on after his baptism and declares to those gathered in a synagogue one Sabbath day:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:18-21).
We too, by virtue of our baptism, have been anointed to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom to those who find themselves enslaved to all sorts of things, and to offer healing to those who are broken in body and soul.
Like Jesus, as he began his mission, we will be tested and tried. We will be told that the way of Jesus is not practical, that it does not work. We will suffer as Jesus suffered. We will go unrecognized as ones who know the truth about the world and how it should work. We might even be called upon to die. But we will be vindicated by the resurrection power of God.
As we move into this new year, may we walk toward fulfilling our mission. May we do so knowing that the one who has called us, loves us, is pleased with us, and will help us on our way.