Text: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 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. 17 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." … 21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 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."
As you may know I moved into a condo about two months ago. On the whole, I like the condo but the closets were not efficiently organized for storing clothes. Since I live in a very limited space I need to make use of every nook and cranny. So, over the week of Christmas, I started to build three closet organizers, one for each of the two bedrooms and one for the hallway closet. The project is almost done so my life at home is a bit more organized and settled, but I am still unpacking boxes and putting things on the proper shelves and drawers in my storage space.
Last week I came across old photo albums in a box. As I opened them I found many of our children’s baby photographs, but there are not many from their youth. We loved our children just as much as when they were babies, if not more, but there are not many pictures of them in their late teen years. I remember that when our children were babies and toddlers, we often went to photo shops to develop many roles of film of them but our enthusiasm for taking their pictures did not persist as they were getting older; they wanted to take their own pictures. They wanted to be the subjects of their own lives, not an object of picture-taking by someone like me.
When we read today’s scripture we may have noticed the absence of stories or photographs of Jesus’ youth and young adulthood. Last Sunday we celebrated the visit of the magi. That story, let us remember it is a story, takes place when Jesus is still a baby. According to Luke’s gospel story today, Jesus is now about 30 years old. He is an adult! We do not have much information or many pictures or stories about him between infancy and adulthood, but we can assume he was loved by his parents and well regarded by his neighbours during those unknown years.
One reason we do not have stories or photos of Jesus’ youth and young adulthood is related to the time and place in which Jesus lived; this is critical. The leader of the baptismal movement, “repentance and forgiveness of sins,” John the Baptist, is now in prison. King Herod puts John in prison and threatens him with death by the imperial power of Rome. It is a signal that, if we, any of us, speak about the Kingdom of God, we will be next; we would be killed like John. Herod sends a strong signal that if we want to preserve our lives, we should not pay heed to the new movement but be silent. The shadows of death are being cast by the rulers who want to keep hold of the imperial social order and religious power. So, we sense feelings of urgency that the movement led by John will soon come to an end with his impending death; there is not much time to describe Jesus’ early life.
This is the situation when Jesus reaches the age of 30. At that time living until the age of 30 was not that common; according to the demographics of his time only six percent of the population reached their sixties and life expectancy was just over 20 years of age. In this social and cultural context we can assume that Jesus is one of the seniors of his society even though we may think him relatively young. Jesus probably expected that his life expectancy was now limited.
When Jesus was preparing for his public ministry he must have thought critically about the society in which he lived and to which he belonged. As a result of his critical thinking he decided to be baptized even at his mature age. As for the belief held by some Jesus was sinless and therefore did not need baptism, obviously that did not mean anything to Jesus; he runs to the line of people waiting to be baptized.
Why did Jesus do that? In Jesus’ time only the priest in the temple had the authority to forgive sins upon receipt of the proper sacrificial offerings. When Mary and Joseph presented Jesus at the temple when he was about 12, since they were poor, they offered only a pair of turtledoves. If they had been landowners they should have given a lamb. Such was the offering for purification. Only the temple had the authority to cleanse the sins of the people. Although living under this system of religious law, many people including Jesus went to John the Baptizer rather than to the temple.
Why did people go to John? John obviously taught and people accepted that forgiveness was freely available from God to all who truly desired it. So you did not need a formal sacrificial temple system. You just needed to come to the river, which anyone could reach for free. This baptismal movement obviously undermined the temple system by declaring that God’s grace was abundantly offered to all who sought it wherever and whoever they were. This movement must have threatened the elites and authorities of the temple and therefore the colonial power: as a result, John was killed.
But that threat couldn’t stop the drive to the river. According to today’s scripture, when Jesus was baptized the Holy Spirit of God was affirming Jesus as God’s loved one: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (3:22). Through baptism Jesus was welcomed to the embrace of God’s grace. God intimately named Jesus, “You are my Son.” And God blessed Jesus, “You are beloved.” Baptism is a time to reconsider who and whose we are. At his baptism Jesus is named as God’s beloved one. And then Jesus is affirmed as belonging to God’s family. His ministry grew out of this revelation and affirmation of welcoming, blessing and belonging. Through baptism Jesus was prepared to embark on his ministry with the people.
In our baptism God also welcomes us to God’s grace. God calls us, “You are my beloved child.” God delights in us. We too are blessed by our own baptism because we are God’s loved ones. Even though we are all different we belong to God’s family; we are all one family of God. Paul affirmed this in his letter to the Galatians, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (3:27). In our baptism we are called, claimed and commissioned regardless of our age to do God’s ministry with all God’s people.
Jesus begins his ministry with his baptism. By our baptism we are called and commissioned to do the ministry of Jesus. Even though we may not remember our baptism, since it may have happened a long time ago when we were infants, we are reminded through Jesus’ baptism that we are loved and affirmed by God; we are all the Beloved. With this affirmation and blessing let us journey into this season of Epiphany to live out God’s ministry of justice and love. As we live out our ministry and mission in this very divisive world over B.C. pipelines and U.S.-Mexico border wall, let us contemplate how we must act for justice for our country and the world. We give thanks for God’s wisdom. Amen.
West Point Grey United Church, Vancouver