Sunday, January 10, 2021

Revelation of the Son of Man: Claimed as God's Beloved Son

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
    and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
    and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

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 3:1-22 (NRSV)

The third chapter of the gospel of Luke is a little weird. For a text assigned to this day celebrating the baptism of our Lord and which should be about Jesus’ baptism - well, most of it isn’t. As one theologian puts it, Jesus’ baptism comes at the very end, almost an afterthought.

It makes us wonder why. What is Luke doing here?

Just as at the beginning of the birth story of Jesus, it is clear that Luke intends to place this story in history. To show us that Jesus came in a specific period of time to a specific place. 

What we also note with this line up of leaders, is that it consists of both political and religious leaders. 

The Roman emperor believed himself to be the Son of God who was to bring Good News of peace to the earth. Yet the peace he brought was that of military conflict and oppression.

Pilate was placed as governor over Judea to keep the peace, because there was rebellion growing within the population. It was like a powder keg. Ready to explode. And eventually, Pilate would hand over an innocent man to die to keep the peace.

Then there were the high priests Annas and his son-in-law Caiaphas, who succeeded Annas. Both of them kept in power by the Romans.

We have this line up because it was under this political and religious leadership that the people of Israel were feeling oppressed. 

Enter John.

Do you notice in the story that the Word of God came to John and not to the high priests, the leaders of the temple and of religious life for the Jewish people? It’s a similar pattern that we saw in the Hebrew scriptures with the kings and the prophets. The power structures have been corrupted. God must move outside these structures to correct the path of the nation and of the people. 

So, the Word of God comes to John. Who preaches it in the wilderness. A baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It’s what Isaiah said in Isaiah 40. That the valleys will be filled, the mountains made low, the crooked straight, the rough ways made smooth...So that all people will see God’s salvation.

The people, who are feeling oppressed, are drawn into the wilderness to John. Why? Perhaps for the first time in a long time, they heard the truth. No lies. No conspiracy theories. No falsehoods told in order to hold onto power. 

No, perhaps, for the first time they found someone who spoke truth to them. A hard and powerful truth. That they had been on the wrong path. That they needed to repent. To turn back to God and to the ways of God. “You brood of vipers” John calls them. “You, who have been called to bear good fruit and who have, instead, been relying on the faith of your ancestors, of your family tree. Be warned that the ax is ready to cut down the tree that does not bear good fruit.”

This is John’s truth. God’s truth. A hard and powerful truth that cuts deep within the people. That cuts deep within us.

Immediately, the people respond. “What should we do?” We hear them ask this three times. “What should we do?” This truth of John and of God has cut them to their core. 

John gives very practical responses - how to live in our working world. The baptism of repentance they have received is not the end. It’s the beginning. "Share what you have with those who have nothing," he says to the newly-baptized. 

Then, John speaks directly to the members of the middle class - the tax collectors and the soldiers. Be honest - don’t cheat. If you are in a position of power, don’t use that power to extort others. Be content with what you have.

As one theologian puts it, John’s call to obedience is about more than individual purity. It is about justice. And the well-ordering of society. There is something deeply political in this message from John. And from the gospel writer.

Then, John concludes his sermon with an introduction. To One greater than he, who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire - a refining fire. One who is coming to “thresh the world.” And, then, because “truth” is often not accepted in our world, John’s sermon ends with his imprisonment.

It is then that we meet this One. This Messiah. This Jesus. And, when we meet him, he is on his knees. Baptized as one of the people. Not apart from them but part of them. Part of us.  When we meet him it is after his baptism. Jesus is on his knees, praying. There is no fire burning up the chaff. Instead there is a dove. A sign of peace. The Holy Spirit descending. And a voice from heaven that claims him as God’s beloved Son.

Sisters and brothers, when you and I were claimed in our baptisms, we promised to renounce the spiritual powers of wickedness, the evil powers of this world, and all evil, injustice and oppression however it presents itself. In this unprecedented week, when we have seen the halls of our nation’s capital under siege, calls for our president to resign, and the seemingly uncontrollable spread of COVID, God calls us back. Back to these baptismal vows. To remember who we are and whose we are. To turn back to God, who is a God of justice and peace. Who is working in our own time - before our very eyes - to reframe and restructure our world, leveling the playing field so that all might receive God’s salvation. 

So, look up, beloved of God. Take your eyes off the ground, show your face. A new day is here. The light rises over you, shines brightly, move shadows, touches your face. Everything wrong side up is being upended. The table is extending, rounding out. You have a place at that table that is yours. And everyone at this table will have more than enough.

So, stand up, beloved of God. Open up. Take it all in and shine. 

Preached on January 10, 2021, at Grace & Glory, Goshen, and Third, Louisville.
Baptism of Our Lord
Readings: Luke 3:1-22, Psalm 51:6-17

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