In a world shaken by the pandemic and people’s fear of the world darkening their lives, removing and changing plans, we find such changes are affecting our sense of purpose and hope in the future. It means the idea of experiencing joy and delight in God and God’s creation can seem unrealistic and foolish.
As we listen to the story of Jesus’ baptism and reflect on this critical moment in Jesus’ life, the drama of the story is profound. I was reminded of some lines from Psalm 4, which I say each night as I pray Compline:
There are many who say, ‘Who can show us any good? The light of your countenance has departed from us, O Lord.’ Yet you have put more gladness in my heart: than they have when grain and new wine abound. I will lie down in peace and sleep: for it is only you, O Lord, who make me dwell in safety.
Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism raises many opportunities for us to see similarities between our times. The Jewish people living and working during the rule of Emperor Tiberius in Judea and Galilee where John was preaching his message of repentance, forgiveness and the saving work of God, were living in hard times. The Roman occupation was tough on those colonised, poverty was rampant and rural living was tough. The rich were very rich while the poor became poorer.
John’s message was radical, pointing unrelentingly to the lies and deceit of the ruling classes and their hypocrisy of living without God’s presence. His message was pointed and as in today’s world, where those who speak truth to power are frequently shut down, such prophets are in the end, killed. One way or another they are silenced and murdered by those who cannot bear the light shining in the darkness illuminating the consequences of their behaviour. Those creating the darkness want to put out the light and shut out the voices of conscience.
The darkness of the world in those days meant people were looking for answers, for hope, for God. They wanted an end to their current realities. They wanted justice, healing and an end to oppression. It sounds familiar!
John’s referencing the prophet Isaiah as he preached to all who came to listen, (John 3:4) ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord …’ is a very familiar quote, and it was dynamic for those listening with yearning hearts and minds. The crowds wanted John to be the Messiah. They wanted to believe, to have something to hope in, to take them out of this current despair.
Herod compounded their despair by ‘shutting John up in prison’ because John spoke honestly about Herod’s behaviour and decisions. A familiar tactic we still see exercised today by dictators and autocratic governments, by leaders unwilling to be questioned or held to account. We see opposition leaders imprisoned, independent journalists and media outlets closed down with false charges laid, people fed false information and, those with little to lose creating distrust and chaos for their own purposes, whipping up crowds to promote hatred and fear.
John’s response to such pressure and temptation is remarkable. He said: ‘…One who is more powerful than I is coming: I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.’ His humility and clarity of message from God was consistent as he demonstrated deep and steadfast faith in God’s plan. He refused to be seduced into power or to put others at risk for his own benefit. He continued to ‘proclaim the good news to the people’, until he was ‘shut up’ by Herod. Despite temptations presented by those around him, he kept doing what God asked of him as prophet, baptising people into the good news.
And here’s the sudden quiet shock of recognition at the choice we make in our own baptism to remain committed to God. It is an unending encounter with the living God who changes our lives with a message of hope and love. It is a message shared by all the prophets who pointed to the Messiah, God’s Word made flesh, as Jesus lives among us and shows us the way today.
This revelation, this epiphany, provides the opportunity to see the light in the apparently overwhelming darkness and for us to find and discover with joy and relief, the darkness is not complete. This is not the end of the story till the end of our lives.
In the presence of God, we can remember and recognise those moments when God breaks into our lives; and our daily baptism into God’s kingdom becomes real. We see and understand God’s plans for us, for you and me, and we can joyfully take our own place as God’s beloved sons and daughters in God’s kingdom. God is waiting for us, God has places ready for us, God welcomes us every day as we constantly renew our baptismal commitments, moving from baptism with water, to baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire, moving us to action, impelling us with the Gospel message and the flames of hope. The joy and relief enable us to see there is more to life than what we are suffering, experiencing, seeing and believing daily.
Jesus’ baptism told by Luke is short, and unassuming:
Now when all the people were baptised, and when Jesus also had been baptised and was praying, the heavens 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.”
Without any special recognition or acclaim to identify him, Jesus comes as a member of the crowd already listening to John, asking humbly for John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus takes his place among those seeking to hear God speak truthfully to them, in a dark and unjust world, equally burdened by the challenges and apparent separation from God just like the very worst among them.
So what does this say to us? The experience of water and of fire, of darkness and light, take us from being lost and bereft, a stranger in the crowd, feeling like we’re drowning, frightened by life’s choices and uncertainty, to belonging, experiencing God in God’s fullness, God in us and you and I in God. Paul writes to the Colossians to describe what is happening:
Christ is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the Church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, so that he might have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20)
At the end of the story, Luke tells us Jesus was praying after his baptism, and the heavens opened as God was revealed. Prayer is the way we strengthen our relationship with God and each other as we live in community as a member of God’s family. Jesus was present then and is present with us today, God revealed today.
I wonder too, what Jesus was praying after he was baptised. We know Jesus prayed before he called his disciples, before his betrayal, and before his death on the cross. It is in Luke we are given the words of the Lord’s prayer (11:2-4). We hear Jesus praying on the Mount of Olives and his prayer for the forgiveness of his executioners (23:34).
What do we pray when we hear God calling us, what do we pray when we experience God in our lives? We pray with joy, with gratitude, with relief and hope, with water and fire. We pray with lightness in our hearts and generosity in our words. We pray with compassion for one another, for those we love and those we fear. We pray with repentance and for forgiveness as John called us to do. We pray for courage and resilience to deal with life’s challenges; and we pray for healing, justice and peace.
Sisters and Brothers, may your baptismal commitment in Christ be present with you today and always. May you continue to renounce evil and darkness and embrace God’s light with Holy Spirit with faith, hope and love, the greatest being love. (I Cor.13:13)
The Lord be with you.
Jarvis, C.A., Johnson, E.E. [Eds]. 2014. Feasting on the Gospels Luke Volume 1. Westminster John Knox Press, Kentucky USA.
Mackay, D.I. 2015. Glimpses of Jesus through the eyes of Luke. Griffin Press, Australia, pp.45-49