Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Baptism of Jesus

Luke 3
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John 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. 17His 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.’

21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and 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.’

I want to be the last guy I know to see the new Star Wars movie.

It’s not that I’m opposed to it. I’m sure I’ll love it. It’s just that sometimes you don’t want to follow the crowd—literally a crowd—when the question on everyone’s lips is “have you seen it yet?” And don’t worry about the absence of my $12 to the films total—it’s already made $1.6 billion worldwide.

If just now you are thinking “Star Wars, I don’t know this Star Wars” then let me catch you up. It began back in 1977, in a “galaxy far, far away” with the first (of the now seven films) subtitled “A New Hope.” It’s the story of a rebellion against an evil empire, with knights, a princess, and a “dark lord” named Darth Vader.

It has many elements: it’s a coming-of-age film, it’s political, and at times it feels like the old west. Since it’s an American film, it should not surprize you that many in the evil empire sound British and the rebels generally American (except Sir Alec Guinness—odd). And there are themes that seem to relate to ancient Rome, with the shift from republic to empire being part of the context.

Then there is futuristic spirituality, with the “the Force” playing a central role in to story. It’s a type of supernatural energy, that various characters draw on to further the story. And, of course, it can be used for good or for evil, with the seeming assumption that people begin good and some “give in” to the “dark side” of the Force.

Underlying the whole story is the contest between good and evil. And there is a soundtrack for both. One is quite up beat and inspiring, and the other rather malevolent (and weirdly reminiscent of “A Spoonful of Sugar” from Mary Poppins). There is almost no moral ambiguity in this particular universe, a kind of cinematic comfort food that will carry us for two-hours at a time.

Of course George Lucas didn’t invent good versus evil, he just monetized it. Flip open your Bibles and we find it throughout, both Old and New Testaments. Pharaoh is another Darth Vader, chasing the rebel Hebrews until the Red Sea becomes an aquatic death star for the Egyptians. Herod, like Vader, is guilty of killing the innocent, though not on the scale of blowing up Alderaan. And Jezebel, like Vader, goes after the leading Jedi of the Bible (the prophets) in order to destroy the religion once-and-for-all.

And all of this relates back to a very human instinct—black and white thinking—and the extent to which we enjoy clear categories. Good versus evil, right versus wrong, clean versus unclean—all of the binary thinking we engage in comes very naturally to us.

And in fact, we’ve been doing it from the beginning. A million years ago we used black and white thinking to survive. Being chased by a sabretooth tiger? Run away and survive or stay and get eaten were your only two choices. Remember those berries that made you sick last week? Eat them or don’t eat them, you really have only two choices. We were well served by binary thinking, until we overcame most danger. Then we had to develop new ways of thinking.

Yet even in the midst of developing new ways of thinking—which began somewhere in pre-history—we would occasionally retreat to the comfort of binary thinking. Again, in the Bible we find lots of examples. Jesus said “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” (Mat 6) He also said: “All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” (Mat 25) And a third example:

[At Ephesus, Paul] found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”
They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”
So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?”
“John’s baptism,” they replied.
Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. (Acts 19)

So two baptisms, one from John and one from Jesus, with an obviously bias toward the latter. The Christians at Ephesus had been burdened with the wrong baptism, something Paul is eager to correct. And in correcting them, and baptizing them once again, we learn more about the early church and the role of baptism.

But we also receive some commentary on the passage Jenny read this morning. The story of the baptism of Jesus, the event we mark each year at this time, is found in all four gospels, directly in the first three, and indirectly in John. In Luke’s version (along with John’s) we begin with some confusion about John the Baptist’s role. Some wonder if he is the chosen one, and he is quick to correct them: “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.”

Somehow fire is omitted in Paul’s later conversation in Ephesus. We learn this baptism is the natural follow-up to the baptism of repentance. Baptism in the Holy Spirit, and eventually in the name of Jesus, will become the gold standard. And then John adds more: “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.”

You might think this is not the Jesus you know, but think again. If you remember serving two masters, and separating the sheep from the goats, you get a glimpse of this other Jesus—the Jesus of the hard sayings and the ‘tough love’ that appears from time to time in the Gospels. Again, it is seldom either-or, and more often a both-and.

So John giving us his hope for Jesus, more threshing and less considering the lilies, and then they meet. In the other Gospels there is a moment of “me baptize you? You should baptize me” but not in Luke. Luke quickly takes Jesus below the water, the Spirit descends, and a voice comes from heaven, saying ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

In years past I have mentioned the ‘embarrassment theory,’ usually about this point in the story, because it all sees rather odd. Jesus the Christ, son of the Most High, present with God at the very moment of creation, submitting to a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. If it doesn’t seem to fit the narrative, or seems potentially embarrassing to the early church, then it is far more likely to have happened as described.

So why submit? In traditional theology, Jesus is without sin, and therefore a poor candidate for a baptism of repentance. We can debate the sinlessness of Jesus at some length, but better to go with the traditional assumption and look for another reason. And for me, I might look to C.S. Lewis. One of his best summaries of the goal of the Christian life is to become like Christ, “little Christs” as he was fond of saying. If we are to become little Christs, then we turn to Christ as our model, both in ethical conduct and the unfolding of our story.

If Jesus submitted to a baptism of repentance, than we ought to too. Now, many of you will say “it’s too late for me—I’m already baptized” and I see the problem. For those, like me, who are already baptized with water and the Holy Spirit, we have the opportunity to reframe what occurred and imagine ourselves with John in the desert.

We can imagine joining the crowd seeking new life through repentance, them later affirming this with a baptism in Jesus. But we had both. At the moment of your baptism, you set aside the former ways of sin and brokenness and received the gift of the Holy Spirit, reborn in Christ, one with him.

Just now you are thinking, “yes preacher, but I was a week old—my sins were minimal at best.” And of course I would have to agree. But if we are going to become one with Christ at baptism, we need to be all in. From the very beginning Jesus carried the sins of humanity, releasing the broken, forgiving the weak, embracing those society hated—carrying them for the sake of our collective well-being. So the moment we become one with Christ in baptism, the moment we go below the water that we might die with him and be resurrected with him, we are participants in the redemption of all humanity. We are the little Christ’s C.S. Lewis wished we might become.

So we set aside binary thinking: it isn’t this baptism or that baptism, it’s both. By the time Paul writes his famous letter to the Romans, he too makes a case for both, maybe regretting the tone of this conversation in Ephesus. I’ll give him the last word: “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of God, we too may live a new life.”(Rom 6) Thanks be to God. Amen.


Post a Comment

<< Home