The Baptism of Christ

Where are we?

Isaiah 43:1-7 speaks to the people of Israel during their exile in Babylon. This middle section of Isaiah seems to rotate between four themes: reminders to the people that their sins got them into this mess; repudiation of the gods of other nations; descriptions of a coming “servant of the Lord” who will lead the people; and promises like this that God will save the people, often by using other nations to punish Babylon.

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 follows John the Baptist’s preaching of repentance. The missing verses in the middle remind the reader that this is John’s preaching of “the Good News.” In the lectionary, the first part of chapter 3 occupied the middle two Sundays of Advent, which means they were pre-empted by the Sunday School program and choir cantata. Immediately after this passage, Luke gives his version of Jesus’ genealogy.

What’s going on here?

The more obvious text from Isaiah is one chapter earlier, which the RCL assigns for Year A with Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism. In this year’s text, the parallel is less about Jesus himself and more about God’s work in the church. Really, that resonates with Luke’s understanding of what the church is, namely that we are the continuation of Christ’s body in the world. So what happened to him (all of it) happens to us too.

By this point in Second Isaiah (the book had three different authors), we’ve made a lot of progress toward understanding the Lord as the God of all the world. In earlier layers of Hebrew theology, the understanding was that each nation had its own gods. The prophets of the exile, including this Isaiah, began to understand the Lord as a universal God, master of all nations, not just of Israel. Still, the divine covenant is not yet understood as universal; notice the language here about God trading in other great nations to ransom the remaining people of Israel.

The three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) all wait to begin Jesus’ public ministry until after John the Baptist has been put in prison. It would seem that Jesus’ followers had some tension with the followers of John the Baptist, and both of them must have been popular teachers at about the same time. Matthew and Mark specify that John himself baptized Jesus, which would imply that Jesus was originally one of John’s followers. (John handles this whole question in a different way, with different timing.) Notice here that Luke tells about Jesus’ baptism after he lets us know that John was put in prison; it’s as if he doesn’t want to say that Jesus was baptized by John. Take those two verses on their own, and it looks like God Himself baptized Jesus with the Holy Spirit. There may not even be any water.

Earlier in the chapter, John calls his listeners snakes. Now he proclaims Jesus’ coming as one who is not only greater, but perhaps even more challenging. We might like to dismiss John as the wild-eyed crackpot, but he describes Jesus as the one who will call down fire on us and burn off all our worthless parts. The winnowing shovel was used to toss wheat up into the air, where the wind would blow away the useless parts of the plant and allow the denser wheat kernels to fall back to the floor.

So what?

Here’s one key to reading Luke: when he talks about Jesus, he’s also talking about the church. So this is not just the story of Jesus’ baptism, it’s the story of our baptism. At the same time, does that mean I’m reading John’s proclamation of Jesus as also being about the church? Are we supposed to winnow and burn chaff? Personally, I think the church has done quite enough burning (although I enjoy a good bonfire). I want to take seriously the idea that part of our work is to separate good from bad, but we need to remember that none of us is all good or all bad. This may differ from how the early Christian authors were thinking about it, but both wheat and chaff grow on the same plant.

In Eastern Orthodox churches, the celebrations of Epiphany and the Baptism of Christ are linked. The voice of God, proclaiming that Jesus is the Son, states a fact that has been true even when it was hidden. In the same way, we think of baptism as a “visible sign of an invisible grace.” It’s not quite an act that does anything in and of itself, but it testifies to something that was already real. Just as Jesus was God’s Son before it was announced, so we have been named as God’s children in Christ even before we’re able to know or bear witness to it.

I sometimes get nervous about the language in Isaiah that makes it sound as if God loves certain people more than others. Even and especially as the church’s privileged place in the world shifts, it does us good to remember that we’re not innately more beloved of God than anyone else. At the same time, I should probably pay more attention to the particular ways that our relationship with God bears witness to God’s love. We are, after all, “created … to bring [God] glory.” Sometimes that feels so special that God would give up everything else in the world, just for us. The point is always God’s glory.

What other people are saying

Karoline Lewis points out that this isn’t the only place in Luke’s stories where God speaks privately to someone. To Jesus, of course, but also to Paul at his conversion. Maybe that redeems the exceptional language of Isaiah a little bit: it’s not about how our salvation is better than yours, it’s just about how our salvation is ours.

Paul Nuechterlein ponders on the “fire that never goes out” and suggests that “the Christian faith is that it is Christ’s Fire of Love that will ultimately prove to be the unquenchable fire.”

David Lose reminds us that every time we deal with water, we have a chance to remember and reaffirm our baptism.