The Least, First

Monte Asbury's blog

The baptism of Jesus

with 4 comments

[This sermon was first posted in January of 2007. Rick Reilly’s comment reminded me that many may be working on something similar, so it seemed good to update and re-post it.  Best wishes!  – Monte]
I have often thought of Jesus as pretty uncertainty-free: so totally God that humanity is just a minor irritation. So certain, so unsurprise-able, so un-swayed by what’s up.

For instance, I might think of his baptism like so: I imagine he becomes off-to-on aware that it’s time (click!), appears on the banks of the Jordan (click!), where the crowds part and everybody understands the obvious (click!), and he all but comes up out of the water with one finger extended for the dove’s perch. Of course he knows it all before it happens.

Doesn’t he?

We’ve been talking about the three audiences to the events of the Bible, especially regarding the gospel of Luke. Remember them?
1. The A.D. 30 Jews, who see it all first-hand.
2. The A.D. 80 or so Jews and Gentiles who first read Luke’s gospel.
3. And us. Now.

First, A.D. 30: Jesus is grown now. His relative John is beginning to preach. And all Palestine is electric, crackling with tension.

For example: The Zealots have begun to agitate for revolt. Assassinations have probably begun – sometimes of Romans, but often of fellow Jews too moderate for the Zealots’ liking. They want to force war against Rome.

The Romans are regularly killing Jews. Famous incidents happen during these years: Roman soldiers express their contempt by exposing themselves in the Temple. A riot ensues. Jews are put to death. Romans put an eagle (the symbol of Roman power) on the Temple walls. A riot ensues. Jews are put to death. You get the feeling this can’t last.

Here’s how Richard Swanson writes it in Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary (to whom I am indebted for many of the insights of this sermon – see a link, below):

“The people are alive with expectation. You can feel it in the way Luke tells his story. And the expectation is so powerful that it is not just the religiously intense who come out to John to be purified for the tasks that lie ahead. Everyone comes, even the tax collectors. This has nothing to do with John’s power as a preacher. It has everything to do with the insistent power of people’s hopes. Those hopes saw in John someone who might be at the heart of God’s project to turn the world right-side-up.”

That’s how the first audience saw it.

The second audience – the first readers of Luke sometime after A.D. 80 – read it through tears.

By the time Luke wrote these words, the Roman army had besieged and re-conquered Jerusalem. Thousands had fled. Thousands had starved. Thousands were enslaved. Thousands were dead.

Very likely some who first read these words still grieved over mercilessly wasted loved ones. Some had seen their papas crucified. Others, younger, had lived with this trauma towering over their family history, unspoken, much like the Holocaust has hung over the souls of modern Jews. Luke was asking to re-tell the story, to re-live some of that history, that place, and to share it with the Gentiles who by now were fellow-worshippers among them. Surely it needs to be told with humility, knowing we will not understand what Luke knew would be re-awakened in hearts of his first readers.

Ready, then? Back to A.D. 30. Here’s the story:

Luke 3:15-22


Representation of baptism in early Christian art.
Image via Wikipedia

The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ.[a] 16John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.
19But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, 20Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison.
The Baptism and Genealogy of Jesus
21When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

[New International Version (NIV) Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society]

Now think about this – remember, we’re looking for the things that seem awkward to us, operating on the principal that the awkward spots may be the places where we have the most to gain. The possibility exists that they seem awkward because we are out-of-kilter. Maybe some re-alignment could be found.

So think about it: John baptized people and they became his followers.

See the awkwardness? Try this: What did it look like, then, that Jesus was baptized by John? I feel historically blinded here. I know how the story turns out, and what may have been obvious to onlookers never even crosses my mind: It must have seemed that Jesus was declaring his intention to become a follower of John.

Comfortable with that?

Let’s go on: Given the fact that we call this “The baptism of Jesus,” whom would you expect to be the main player?

But is he? In Luke’s telling, Jesus barely appears. And he says not a word.

Further, when he does appear, he comes as part of the crowd. See it? (21) “When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too.” As if he’d come like everyone else – magnetized – one with the electricity surging through the crowd. Then, it’s as if it seemed like being baptized was a good thing for him to do. With the people. Like all the others. As if he, like everyone else, is expectant, wondering what’s going to happen next.

Holy Spirit
Image by Sacred Destinations via Flickr

But what happens next is the Voice and the Dove, and he is suddenly different.

Like I said, I’ve always thought of Jesus as certain of everything. Gets baptized, closes his eyes, holds out a finger for the dove to land on. But this is Jesus at the beginning of ministry. Is it also the beginning of new understanding of his mission? Could it be that he is so very human that he is just going about doing what seems to be the right thing to be doing, and, in the process, hears the voice of the Father, and “gets it” just a bit more than before?

Let’s go on again: Look at the order in which Luke tells it. What happens? [Have someone write these events large on signs, then ask four volunteers to organize themselves in the sequence as Luke tells it.]

1. PEOPLE WONDER – that is, “Is John the Messiah?”
2. JOHN ANSWERS – “Nope. But he’s on the way.”
3. JOHN IN PRISON – for criticizing Herod and Herodias, who have dumped her husband (Herod’s brother) and flaunted their new sexual liason. And then,

See the awkwardness? Luke – the master storyteller – has the events out of order! Why?

Could be he wants the bad to set the atmosphere for the good. The John imprisonment story looms over the appearance of Jesus, the way Luke tells it. They’re mixed. Doesn’t mean the good isn’t there. Maybe Luke’s trying to tell us that following God makes us part of a bigger story than the ups and downs of any single moment. For he leaves the story of John open-ended – John’s suddenly in prison, you catch your breath – and then he puts you on hold, and brings in Jesus.

How might that affect our three audiences?

1st audience: They wouldn’t have known Luke was going to tell it this way. But they would have known well the danger that comes with being Jewish that we don’t feel. Perhaps they had no need of story re-arranging.
2nd audience – the recovering traumatized and their friends: There would have been recognition, identification – “Hmmm, yes, it was a dangerous time. We were excited, but also so frightened. And little did we know …”

And the 3rd audience- Us: This story of Jewishness and of following God – it’s a risky, dangerous, bigger-than-us story. It isn’t pie and ice cream; it isn’t nice folks going to nice worships, behaving nicely.

It’s a story of fear and courage and murder and horror first – before it’s a story of unbelievable peace. It’ll take a lifetime for safe folks like us to get it, to understand the real nature of the faith that Luke is talking about. May never really happen to we who’ve suffered so little.

The good news is that it isn’t a story of a limp flannelgraph Jesus, understanding everything, never bothered, never really threatened or threatening. He’s plunged into the midst of life, of trouble, of questions, of finding his way, of “What on earth does God want from me? What is my next step?”

Know anybody else that way? You? Me?

Swanson tells of how his students at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, “discover that parts of the story [Luke] are much more complicated than they had ever guessed…”

Every year they struggle to stabilize and understand these complications. It is always a difficult struggle.

One year a young man in my class, Wade Lone Elk, came up after class and told me that he had figured out the gospel of Luke. I knew Wade to be an extremely bright and promising student, so I expected that what he had to say would be interesting. But I had been reading Luke’s gospel for decades, and I was somewhat skeptical that he had figured it all out.

Wade said that the point of the story was to sit still and listen to grandfather.

I needed a little more explanation than that.

“My grandfather is full-blooded Lakota,” Wade explained to me. “These Indian wannabes come to my grandfather and they want to learn how to be Indian. Grandfather just shakes his head and smiles.

“All these Indian wannabes, they come, they ask my grandfather questions,” said Wade. “We would never ask such questions. Grandfather will tell us when it is time.

Image via Wikipedia

“But they come, and they ask questions, so Grandfather tells them a story. Grandfather, he’s always telling stories.

“These wannabes ask their question, they hear a story, and then they smile, shake Grandfather’s hand, and get up and leave.

“We would never leave after one story,” Wade said. “Sometimes Grandfather tells another one. He’s always telling stories.

“Sometimes he tells the same story he just told, all the same words and everything, just tells it right away again a second time. We would never ask why. Grandfather will tell us when it is time.

“Sometimes he tells a different story, just the exact opposite of the first story, just the opposite. We would never ask why. Grandfather will tell us when it is time.

“But these wannabes, they come, they ask their question, they hear a story, they get up and leave, and they think they know what it means to be Indian.” Wade shook his head.

“They need to sit still and listen to Grandfather.

“That is what Luke is saying to Gentiles that think they know what it means to be Jewish.”

I have read mean interpretations of Luke’s story and many explorations of his narrative strategy. … But I have never heard such a penetrating reading of the deep deposits of Jewish tradition in Luke’s story, deposits that most Gentiles do not even recognize.

Imagine the world in which Luke’s story is first told.

Sit still and listen to Grandfather.

And don’t we come, ask our questions, and go away? But he only tells us when he is ready. Takes a lifetime to learn it. But we’re wannabees and we want to come to church and get a nugget that will sustain us for the week so we can go back to doing what we were planning on doing anyway, only happier. Maybe it’s a bigger story than that. Maybe it takes a lifetime to learn.

Sayings of the Desert Fathers

Sayings of the Desert Fathers

Reminds me of the preface to Sayings of the Desert Fathers – this idea of controlling things to work for us.

Modern man seeks mainly for ‘experience’ – putting himself at the center of things he wishes to make them subservient to this aim; too often, even God becomes the source from which the highest experience flows, instead of being Him Whom we adore, worship, and are prepared to serve, whatever the cost to us. . . . – Metropolitan Anthony of Sourouzh

I want deliverance, explanation, lists – I have things to do and responsibilities to live out and I expect answers so I can go back and do my stuff.

And Jesus gives me mystery. “Oh,” I lament, “If only I were more spiritual. If only I could see it all. If only I prayed more, worshipped better, gave more, didn’t do what I do, did more of what I do, read more Bible, understood better, worked harder, rested more, responded to my call, undersood what I was supposed to do. Then, I could go do my stuff. And be happy.”

More from Anthony:

To be, to be possessed of this gift of life, and to be granted all that makes its richness means to be loved by God…

Wait – life is a gift? It has been granted to me?

…and those who know this, free from any delusion that they can exist or possess apart from this mystery of love have entered into the Kingdom of God which is the Kingdom of Love. What then shall be their response to this generous, self-effacing, sacrificial love? An endeavor to respond to love for love, as there is no other way of acknowledging love.” – Metropolitan Anthony of Sourouzh [in the Preface to The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, translated by Benedicta Ward, SLG; published by Cistercian Publications.]

The spiritual awareness I have, such as it is, is a gift. Perhaps, rather than moaning that my spiritual awareness is sparse and intermittent, I would be wise to rejoice that it is given at all.

Maybe, we think we understand so much about the Bible that we just can’t imagine how that first audience could get so caught up in things that they would miss the point of Jesus. But when I realize that I don’t understand much, that life is partly mystery, that every little understanding I have is a precious gift, then maybe it isn’t, “What’s wrong with them – why didn’t they see?” It’s more like, “How wonderful that they saw anything at all, given the situation they were in.” Maybe it’s a marvel.

And maybe it’s a marvel that you and I see what we see, know what we know. A treasure. If so, maybe today I don’t so much need someone to teach me just the right lesson about what’s coming next, as I do to realize that it isn’t yet given to me to know what’s coming next – and that is OK!.

Maybe – could it be? – maybe Jesus identification with humans like us was so complete that it wasn’t always crystal clear to him, either. And maybe that it just how it’s supposed to be!

Maybe my task isn’t worrying over what the next step will be. Maybe I am to go on doing what seems like the normal, humble, good thing to be doing until, in the process, I hear the voice that makes it just a bit clearer.

And maybe it is time to end the fret over what I don’t know, and humbly acknowledge that what little I do know is a wonderful gift, even if subjective and partial for now.

And maybe it’s worth reminding myself that, even if life becomes unimaginably bleak, God will lead on – in his time – through the mysteries of life and all the way home.

You, too?

Provoking the Gospel of Luke[I do recommend Swanson’s book – I first heard of it in a comment left on the outstanding blog Disclosing New Worlds. Click the book for more on it.]

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4 Responses

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  1. Makes sense to me, too! I find it thrilling, sometimes, to re-discover it, and see afresh some similarity between a human limitation he struggled with, and one of my own. (In my case, there are many from which to choose!)


    January 7, 2009 at 5:36 pm

  2. mmm…maybe it’s a sacrilegious thing to say but I’ve always been more intrigued with the humanity of Jesus…and always been struck by how obvious it is…that is what makes him real to me…


    January 7, 2009 at 3:52 pm

  3. Wonderful and timely message Monte. Thank you!

    Rick Reiley

    January 7, 2009 at 8:39 am

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