Jesus Also: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Jesus’ Baptism
1) This week celebrates the baptism of Jesus - one of three traditional focal points for Epiphany through which Jesus’ identity “shows forth” (the other two being the visit of the Magi and Jesus turning water into wine during the Wedding at Cana).
2) The theme of the “beloved child” echoes through the ages in Scripture: speaking to Abraham, for example, God refers to Isaac as “your only son, whom you love;” likewise, God calls the anointed one, “my son,” “my chosen, in whom my soul delights;” and in this week’s reading from Isaiah, God puts it this way: “you are precious in my sight, / and honored, and I love you” (Gen 2:22; Psalm 2:7; Isa 42:1; Isa 43:4). Luke draws on this ancient language in his story of Jesus’ baptism.
3) What is baptism anyway? Where did it come from? As we saw a few weeks ago during Advent, John appears in the wilderness preaching a gospel of repentance (Luke 3:3) - and the Greek word for “repentance” here is metanoia (from meta, “change,” and noia, “mind”). Today we would say, “change of heart” or “change of life,” a thoroughgoing shift and reorientation. Accordingly, as a visible sign for this change, John uses baptism, an immersion-in-water rite in those days typically reserved for Gentile converts to Judaism, signifying the all-encompassing, fresh-start character of conversion. But John called on the children of Abraham, too, to undergo baptism. It’s as if he’s saying, It’s not just the Gentiles that require conversion - we all do, for a new day, a new era is at hand! Change your minds and hearts and lives! Come and be baptized for the sake of forgiveness of sins - for God is coming near!
1) It should never cease to surprise us that Jesus is baptized at all. Luke explicitly frames John’s rite as “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3) - and yet Jesus, the one whom God will call “my child, the Beloved,” gets in line with the rest of us. The late, great master preacher, Fred Craddock, once called attention to the extraordinary, stunning power of two little words in Luke’s account: “Jesus also” (Luke 3:21). It’s an expression of the astonishing humility and solidarity of the Incarnation: in Jesus, God comes alongside us, even to the point of joining us in a rite of repentance and renewal. And it’s a powerful reminder that arrogance has no place in Christian discipleship. If even Jesus gladly undergoes a rite of conversion, how much more should Christians live humble, unpretentious lives of conversion! Indeed, following Jesus means setting out with him on this path of humility and solidarity, confession and grace, a way of love with which God is “well pleased.”
2) But what should we make of John’s remark that Jesus will come with “his winnowing fork in his hand”? Is this an image of including some but excluding others? On the contrary, the metaphor points in the other direction: every grain of wheat has a husk, and farmers (even today) use wind to separate these husks - collectively known as “chaff” - from the grain itself, the goal being, of course, to save every grain, not to separate the good grain from the bad grain. This is a metaphor of preservation and purification, not division. What the wind and fire remove are the impurities: the anxieties, self-absorption, apathy, or greed that make us less generous, less fair, or less respectful of others. Each of us requires restoration, liberation from whatever “husks” are holding us back. And sure enough, later in Luke and Acts, this is exactly how the wind and fire of the Spirit work: not to divide or destroy, but to connect, sanctify, purify, challenge, restore, and empower (see, for example, Luke 4:1-21; Acts 2:1-4).
1) This is a perfect week to revisit the meaning of baptism, and for the baptized to remember their baptisms and their relation to Jesus’ baptism. Because we are part of the Body of Christ, it’s not just Jesus to whom God says, “You are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased” - these words are also addressed to us! A powerful practice in worship is to invite people up to the front (during an anthem, perhaps, or in connection with Communion) to “remember their baptism” by receiving a blessing: a small sign of the cross in water on the forehead, along with words from Isaiah, “God says to you, ‘I have called you by name; you are mine,’” followed by words from Luke: “You are my son/daughter, the beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Isa 43:1; Luke 3:22).
2) Likewise, while it’s certainly true that the story of Jesus’ baptism recounts how Jesus is singled out as God’s Beloved, at the same time the story exemplifies the way of life to which the Beloved calls anyone who would seek to follow. Not a life of presumption or arrogance, but rather of humility and solidarity. God walks - and washes - with sinners! “Jesus also” is baptized - and so calls us to follow him on a path of unassuming generosity, never looking down our noses at anyone, and always gladly embracing the Spirit’s sanctifying, restoring, empowering renewal. For each one of us - and everyone we meet - is a beloved son or daughter of God, and Jesus’ “showing forth” is ultimately meant to help each of us with our own epiphanies, so our little lights might shine (Matthew 5:16)!