Commentary on Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Before we plunge into the Baptism of Jesus, it’s worthwhile to step back and note some of the unique features of Epiphany in Year C of 2013.
First, Epiphany was actually on a Sunday this year. There was no need for liturgical mechanics to acknowledge the event that’s the reason for the season. Last week the wise men really did visit Jesus. How might that shape our hearing of the subsequent texts?
Second, while Easter in 2013 is not the earliest it can be, it is certainly more so considering that in 2011 Easter was the second latest date possible. Calculated as the first Sunday following the first full moon that falls on or after the vernal equinox, Easter can occur anytime between March 22-April 25. What might this mean on this Baptism of our Lord Sunday? It means that we have only five Sundays in Epiphany. That’s not a lot of time for a church season and it means Lent is upon us, sooner rather than later. This could be the year to make the most of Epiphany and to imagine possible themes that might tie these five texts together.
Third, this year we have readings from three of the four Gospels. Albeit gently, could we celebrate the distinctive epiphanies of Jesus to which each of the four Gospels witness?
What Happened to John?
Since it is Year C, the year of the Gospel of Luke, we hear Luke’s version of Jesus’ baptism. It is always a helpful exercise to dust off one’s Gospel Parallels when it comes to a story that appears in all four Gospels. A comparison of the versions of Jesus’ baptism yields several differences in Luke’s account. Moreover, the baptism of Jesus in Luke points to a major theme for the Gospel, but also for Epiphany — what happens when what is revealed is not what people actually want and even reject?
Noticeable about Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism is that John is nowhere to be found. Reading the verses that the lectionary omits, 3:18-20, is essential because they tell us what happened to John. He’s in prison. What might this detail overlooked by the lectionary reveal to us about Jesus’ baptism in the Gospel of Luke? First, since John is shut up in prison, he is not present at the baptism of Jesus nor does he baptize Jesus. Well, then. Who does?
Second, the reason John is put in prison foreshadows Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth. John has told Herod the truth about his life. Herod doesn’t like the truth and gets rid of the evidence. How do we do the same? Third, while John had a major role in the first chapters of the Gospel, including the story of his mother and father, his birth, his relationship to Jesus, now that Jesus will be baptized, it’s just Jesus, and there will be no confusing the two.
John is not the Messiah and the first clue in distinguishing between Jesus and John is oddly baptism. Jesus’ baptism will be different and Jesus will baptize differently. We will know they are not the same by how they go about baptizing people. John’s baptism is just with water. But Jesus? Well, that’s with the Holy Spirit and with fire (think Acts 2).
Of course, this anticipates the scope of Luke’s vision reaching back to Adam and then forward, far beyond the confines of Luke 24:53 into the book of Acts. As a result, the Spirit takes center stage here, and reminds us of the unique function of the Spirit in Luke-Acts. Reading the Gospel of Luke through the lens of the Spirit’s role generates the following, yet only a sampling, of the Spirit’s presence:
- Conception (1:35)
- Magnificat (1:46-47)
- Zechariah (1:67)
- Leads Jesus into wilderness (4:1)
- Empowers Jesus’ ministry (4:14)
- Jesus rejoices in the Spirit (10:21)
- Conferred through prayer (11:13; compare Mt 7:11)
- Jesus commits his spirit to God (23:46)
- Luke ends his Gospel with Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit (24:47-49)
- Pentecost (Acts 2)
The second person address to Jesus by the voice from heaven is the same as in Mark but in Luke it seems to have a different meaning. Whereas in Mark, such secrecy plays into the general cover-up about Jesus’ identity, in Luke, that Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit appear to be the only ones present at the baptism foreshadows a similar moment at the crucifixion, a “last word” found only in Luke (23:46). There is promise in the presence of the Spirit here and at the end of Jesus’ life that will be true for all believers.
We Can’t Handle the Truth, or, Anything Else Jesus Says
The verb translated in the NRSV as “filled with expectation” (3:15) will be used again in Luke 7:19-20, where two of John’s disciples, sent by John, approach Jesus with this question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” The differentiation between Jesus and John will need further clarification down the road. Jesus’ response to John’s disciples is revealing because it is a restatement of his inaugural address in 4:18-19. If what you are waiting for is release for the captives and good news for the poor, then I’m your guy. If not, well, then you will need to wait for another.
The imprisonment of John reminds us of what happens to those who tell the truth, or, to those whose words we don’t want to hear. This will certainly be the case for Jesus. Hearing Jesus’ first sermon, the hometown folks want to throw him off a cliff. Jesus will be rejected by his friends, his family, his community before he even does anything. The same will be true for the women who report about the empty tomb. The women go to the disciples, the ones who should believe, who should be open to this news, who should actually know something and they call the women’s words an “idle tale.”
This is a PG way of translating leros which appears only once in Scripture. A better translation is crap, garbage — you get the drift (see Preaching Moment 10 on our website). In other words, John’s absence at this moment in Luke’s story is a pointed truth-telling of how we might respond to Epiphany.