Luke 3.1-22 (New Revised Standard Version)
10 January 2021, NL3-21, Baptism of the Lord
Today’s reading may be a familiar story to some of us, but this is one of those times when our familiarity makes it easy to gloss over some of the details in the way Luke tells the story. But those details are important, because they tell us things about how God is working, who Jesus is, and what the Holy Spirit is doing in and through us as God’s people. So today, rather than reading all 22 verses at once and then talking about them, we’re going to read and discuss bit by bit. The reading today is from the gospel according to Luke, chapter 3, verses 1-22, and I’m reading from the New Revised Standard Version. We’ll begin with just verses 1-6.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”’
We are familiar with this quote from Isaiah — usually we hear it during Advent, and it calls up memories of Handel’s Messiah. Isaiah wrote to people who were in exile, waiting for God to come and take them home. To hear God’s promise accompanied by the call to prepare the road on which God would travel to rescue the people meant that they should be hopeful because it would happen soon, they should get ready! Luke uses that same passage to describe what John the Baptist was doing — preparing the way of the Lord, because he was coming soon, so people should both be hopeful and get ready. Now, what John thought that would mean is unclear, we don’t know what he expected the Messiah to do or how he would act, we just know that he was preparing the way.
Usually that’s all we read for this section, but actually we really need to back up to the beginning! All those names and places seem so easy to skip over, but they are there for a reason. Luke tells us that all these things took place during a particular time and in a particular location. They didn’t have a calendar like ours where you could just say the month and year…but that isn’t he only reason he describes that time and location by referencing the important people of the day: the emperor, the governor, and the client kings, and then the high priests of the Jerusalem Temple. These are the people who defined the age, the ones who controlled the politics, economy, culture, and religion. While ordinary people would not interact with any of these leaders, the fact is that even if they didn’t think about it all the time, their lives and options were affected by those leaders’ choices and actions. Their images were on coins and buildings, their movements could ease or disrupt business, their rulings changed how people ate and worked and worshiped, and they were generally just the backdrop to life.
Against that backdrop, we have John, son of a priest, out in the wilderness — unsupervised, in other words — preaching and baptising outside the institutional and liturgical structures of the time. So after naming all the people who have power in the empire in one way or another, who define our lives, suddenly Luke changes focus, drawing our attention away from all those things that have consumed our energy and around which we have oriented our worldview. The word of God is in the wilderness. Out on the margins, away from the centre of earthly kingdom power, the kingdom of God is breaking in, and it will change the way we see. It will change the way we mark time. It will change what we think is important, and what will define our lives and actions and options.
All those imperial powers are still there, but they are no longer the star of the story or the defining characteristic of the age. Instead, we tear our eyes away from their antics and we are drawn toward something happening out at the edges, where we have the space to re-orient our worldview around God’s kingdom instead of the empire.
Unlike some other gospel writers, Luke does not tell us about John’s clothes, he only tells us about his words. He was pointed in his preaching, as we hear in verses 7-14:
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptised by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’
And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptised, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’
It doesn’t seem that John is interested in winning people over with charm — it’s hard to imagine many people would love being called a brood of vipers! He wants people to realise that the fact that their name is on the roll of the chosen people is good and all, but that’s the beginning, not the end. They can’t rely only on their past to carry them into the future — how we live as God’s people matters. After all, the psalms tell us that all creation sings the glory of God in its own way — including the stones. So if all God wanted was names on the roll, the rocks would suffice. But we are meant to bear good fruit for the kingdom of God — this kingdom that is breaking through the world’s ways and drawing us out.
What then should we do? The people stand at the waters edge, dripping wet, receiving God’s grace and wondering how to live in response. How will their everyday lives reflect the change they have undergone in the river?
If you have two coats, give one to someone who doesn’t have any. That way everyone in the community has a coat.
If you have two servings of your meal, give one to someone who doesn’t have any. That way everyone in the community has enough to eat.
If you have a position of power, don’t use it to enrich yourself, but rather to serve others.
Now tax collectors, who were Jewish but also collaborated with the Roman Empire, augmented their wage by inflating the amount people owed. That way they could keep the extra and so live more comfortably themselves. And soldiers were Romans, an occupying force meant to keep the peace, but they did so by terrorising people into submission.
All of these people — those with an extra coat, those collecting taxes, even the soldiers — are normal everyday people, the middlemen of the empire. They’re not the leaders, but they’re also not the poorest of the poor. They’re people with more than enough. People like most of us. And John tells them that what they ought to do if they want to live according to the grace they have received is to take responsibility for one another.
Having two coats and giving one away might make us feel vulnerable. What if I need that coat tomorrow? But in this kind of community, that moment would be met by someone else giving their extra one to me. It’s a way of life that is both generous and dependent at the same time.
Last week I learned a new word from a friend who lives in Hawaii. The Hawaiian language has a word, kuleana, that’s hard to translate, but basically it means reciprocal responsibility. So for example, Hawaiians say they have a kuleana to the land, to care for it and respect it, and in return the land has a kuleana to us, to feed and provide. I think this word perfectly encapsulates this sense of responsibility to one another that John is preaching: I have a responsibility, as someone with more than enough, to give away that excess to those who do not have enough. And when I am in a vulnerable position, those with more than enough have a responsibility to give their excess to me. And so as a community, we depend on one another, in a constant give and take. No one is hedging against future vulnerability by storing up for themselves, like you would do in the imperial worldview, but rather by being part of a community of reciprocal responsibility. We have a kuleana to each other in the kingdom of God.
This was such a radical idea — remember that the word radical means “root”, and John said that the axe was lying at the root of the trees, changing things by going back to the very foundations, and his preaching was really bringing people back to the very beginning of how God’s creation was meant to work, in kuleana to each other from the ground to the animals to the humans made in God’s image! It drew people in and re-focused them, and they wondered…as we hear in verses 15-22.
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘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. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 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.’
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
Now when all the people were baptised, and when Jesus also had been baptised and was praying, the heaven was opened, 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.’
For those who have never been to a threshing floor — chaff is the outer husk of wheat, and when the grains of wheat are agitated to loosen the chaff and then tossed into the air, the chaff separates and blows away. But it is very dangerous — even the tiniest spark of electricity can ignite that cloud of chaff and the fire can burn the whole field.
Each of us will have chaff that needs separating…and every community does too. Those practices that are dangerous and can easily ignite a fire of bad behaviour that destroys the community need to be separated and blown away. It may not be pleasant, but it is important.
Sometimes I think we forget that John said this right after giving those instructions about the kuleana of life in the kingdom of God, so we tend toward reading it as if there are bad people who are going to be burned away. And that may be one possible reading, but when we read the whole story together, it sounds to me more like the chaff is those ways of living that John was asking us to leave behind, to repent of — repentance literally means to turn around 180 degrees, to change the way of living and thinking. Chaff is a protective husk — and John has just asked us to shed our protections and entrust our welfare to the whole community of reciprocal responsibility. And chaff floating randomly in the air can be dangerous — we have to fully let it go, because grasping at those unhealthy old ways can destroy that community of care.
Perhaps that is one reason that baptism is the symbol of entering into this community — because the water washes that chaff away and we live differently in response. Isn’t it fascinating that Luke tells us that Jesus was just baptised with everybody else — he’s part of this community. Yet he’s also, of course, different: he sees the heaven opened and hears God’s voice proclaiming Love. He is one who does not need the chaff washed away himself, but he will still be in this community of kuleana, and so he shows us from the very beginning how to live in ways that bring God pleasure and delight. It will be a different way of life than the one defined by those important guys at the beginning of the chapter — we will need to turn 180 degrees and put that behind us if we are to instead focus on God’s kingdom living, here and now. This is what it means to be baptised: to live differently because we have experienced God’s grace and now can’t help but act on it.
May it be so. Amen.