Sermon preached by Archdeacon Trevor Harrison at the Midnight Mass of the Nativity 25 December 2019 It’s a marvellous, wonderful,... read more
January 10 2016 - The Baptism of Jesus: Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22
The coming of the Messiah:
For centuries the prophets of Israel had foretold the coming of a Messiah. In fact, the Old Testament includes about sixty different prophecies, with more than 300 references, of His coming. From Adam to Malachi, the prophets told the people of the day that the God of Israel would come to earth, as a human being and become their Savior and Redeemer. They firmly believed that the Messiah would be a strong and glorious earthly king who would deliver them from their Roman oppressors and form once again, a great and independent Jewish kingdom. The subsequent expectation that the Christ would be a king fits with their understanding that He would also be a descendant of David, the most famous of all the kings of Israel and the one by whom all other kings were measured. The four gospels record several times when Jesus said that He was fulfilling a prophecy of the Old Testament.
Isaiah's prophecy (Isaiah 9: 6-7 NRSV) spells out the Messianic hope that existed among the covenant people, Israel: These words will be used as the introduction to The Peace later in the service.
“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this”.
Is John the Messiah?
At the beginning of Luke chapter 3 we read of John going into all the country around Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John's ministry brings the kind of spiritual intensity that the people of Israel have known previously, only by reading the writings of the long-dead prophets. It was through the fulfillment of these prophecies that Israel was told she would be able to recognize the true Messiah when He came. The description of John is brief and stark.
“Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey” (Mt. 3:4).
The text is not 100% clear if the “hair” cloak might have been a rough fabric woven from camel’s hair, or a camel skin itself. It was, however, reasonably similar to what was worn by certain Old Testament prophets (Zech. 13:4), particularly Elijah. Therefore, I guess it is no wonder that they think that John might be the promised one.
It is interesting to note that the Jews of His day so 'misunderstood' or misinterpretted the Old Testament prophecies, that they could not recognize the very Messiah that they expected at any moment to appear among them! The opening verse of our Gospel reading this morning describes how the people were wondering if John the Baptist might 'fit this bill'.
v 15 “As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah” .
John emphatically stated that he was not the promised Messiah, nor was he a literally reincarnated Elijah; rather, he was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, the voice of preparation for the arrival of God in the flesh (Jn. 1:19-23). In response to their apparent confusion or misunderstanding, John distinguishes himself from Jesus in the following ways:
1. Jesus is more powerful and of infinitely higher status.
v 16b "I baptise you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.
John is not worthy to untie his sandals, a task so demeaning that Jewish slaves are exempted from performing it. In the Middle East, at this time, sandals and feet often became quite dirty from walking on the dusty roads and with numerous animals traveling along the same routes, feet may even have smelt of animal droppings. Only the most lowly of servants were asked to remove the master’s sandals and wash their feet. It was so degrading, that Hebrew slaves refused to do it (Bock 1994:321). Yet John says he is too low to even perform such a shameful and menial task.
2. John baptizes with water, but Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit (pneumati hagio) and fire.
V 16c "He will baptise you in the Holy Spirit (pneumati hagio) and fire"
The Greek word, baptizo, has to do with being overwhelmed or immersed. Here John is talking about Jesus overwhelming us, immersing us, in the Holy Spirit and fire. We derive our word, "pneumatic," which we use for air-powered tools (impact wrenches, ratchet wrenches, air hammers, sanders, polishers, grinders and the like), from the Greek word, pneumati. This can be translated either spirit or wind and it is very possible that Luke intends the ambiguity, so readers think both of spirit and wind. When introducing the story of Pentecost, Luke speaks of all three: wind (pnoes in Acts 2:2), fire (puros in Acts 2:3), and Holy Spirit (pneumatos hagiou in Acts 2:4). On this occasion, the believers were filled with the Holy Spirit. God's renewing power began its work of transforming them from inside out.
Threshing Floor image:
"His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff will burn with unquenchable fire "(v. 17)
After the grain is collected on the threshing floor, it is gathered into a granary or storage area where it will be protected from the weather. Chaff is the husk that covers a grain of wheat. To sort the wheat from the chaff, it is ‘winnowed’. Both are tossed into the air with a fork (similar to a pitch fork) and the lighter chaff blows away, while the heavier grain falls back. It is sorting the live grain from the dead husk, the useful from the rubbish, and that is what John was saying to the people coming to be baptised. John was aware that there were people coming because it was fashionable. He pulled no punches in making it clear what the deal was. Winnowing is a way of separating that which is worthless (the chaff) from that which is valuable (the grain).So the wheat-chaff separation is not separating into two groups of "bad" persons and "good" persons. It is separating the good that is within each person from the bad that is within each person.
The "unquenchable fire"(v. 17b) serves as a metaphor for the eternal punishment of those who are not redeemed and thus speaks of the eternal consequences of our choices. Jesus has authority to burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. He is not just a prophet, announcing consequences, but is also a judge, imposing consequences. Isaiah used similar language to describe the fate of people who rebelled against God (Isaiah 66:24. See also Mark 9:48). "Unquenchable fire" brings to mind Gehenna, the Valley of Hinnom, Jerusalem's garbage dump, where fires burn day and night.
While a frightful image, the chaff-burning does not celebrate the sinner's demise. John called sinners to "bear fruits worthy of repentance" (3:8). Those who do so will be identified as wheat rather than chaff, and will thus be saved. This story thus highlights both salvation and judgment (condemnation), but the purpose is "to save the wheat, not to burn the chaff" (Craddock, Interpretation, 49).
However, this does raise the thorny issue of what it means to be a Christian. People may describe themselves as Christians and do all the Christian stuff, but there is no depth to their belief albeit they still may tick the box ‘Christian’ on a form. This very private faith, or ‘churchianity’, going along with the crowd, so to speak was represented among some of the people coming to John for baptism. Now, it is not the outward ‘stuff’ that is important. Many of you will have previously heard the expression, “sitting in a church does not mean you are a christian, any more than sitting in a garage means you are a car” and that is so true. Years ago there was a poster going around which read, ‘If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?’ If we had to truthfully answer the question about the depth of our belief, is it all outward show with no life; all chaff and no grain? It’s a hard question. And it does not matter what I think, God will sort it out in due course. My place is to make sure I know which side I’m on, to “confirm my calling and election”, as in 2 Peter 1.
This question naturally leads us on to the description of Jesus' baptism (v 21-22). This is one of the few events that is recorded in all 4 gospels, but each gospel writer tells the story slightly differently. John was related to Jesus through their mothers. In Luke 1:36, Elizabeth is described as Mary’s “relative” meaning that they were related in some way through marriage or blood. Most likely, it was a blood relationship, but neither a particularly close or distant one. Elizabeth, being elderly, may have been an aunt, great-aunt, or one of the many types of “cousin.” The precise relationship cannot be determined. However, this means that Jesus and John were cousins in one or another senses of the term.
There is no doubt, the ministry of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus are intricately woven together. John speaks of the one who will baptise people with the Holy Spirit and fire and has the privilege of baptising Jesus. The Jordan River, where John was carrying out the baptisms, was a symbol of new beginnings for the people of Israel. They had crossed the Jordan to start their new life in the Promised Land and here they were being baptised, as a symbol of the new life within. However, Luke does not specifically tell us who did the baptism. He simply states
“now when all the people were baptised, and when Jesus also had been baptised and was praying..(v 21).
We have to rely on Mark 1:9 and Matthew 3:13-15 to learn that it was John who did it.
The moment Jesus emerges from the water, a voice descends from heaven in bodily form like a dove and declares:
"You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased." (v22).
Such beautiful words. And yet, perhaps more powerful than the words themselves is their timing. The Spirit offered this blessing to Jesus before he had done anything: he had not preached; he had not performed any miracles; he had not raised the dead, healed the blind, or even transformed the wedding wine at Cana. The words did not relate to what he had done, but for who he was: a child of God. Each of us gets this same unconditional blessing at birth. As Jeremiah 1:5 explains,
"Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you; and before you were born, I consecrated you."
The problem is that often the farther we get from our birth and the older we get, the more we tend to forget that blessing. It is our greatest call as human beings to remind ourselves and each other that we are beloved children of God, ones in whom God is well pleased. It is whispered in our hearts before we are born into this life and it is whispered to us as we leave. We simply need to remember, we need to return to the source. We need to strive, every day of our lives, to live this way.
So let us all, at the start of this new year, look at where we stand before God. Let us not assume that our heritage or our church attendance or our baptism certificate grant us citizenship of heaven. Only God’s Holy Spirit can do that. Is he living in you today? This leads us to ask the question, do we really know the real Jesus? Do we really know what He is doing?
The prayer after communion this morning is 'Drive us to wrestle and reflect so that we may fulfill our baptism and live our life of victory'. May that be our prayer each and every day. Amen.