Baptism of Christ - What Do You Expect?
A sermon on Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 and Isaiah 43:1-7
(for an audio recording of this sermon, click here.)
In the past couple of weeks, how many of you have seen those images of rows of apparently random letters, that you are supposed to let your eyes just scan over.
The idea is that – of the words hidden in among the random letters – the words which are meant for you will pop-up, offering you a glimpse into your coming year.
They are always fairly popular at the beginning of any new year, but I feel like they have been everywhere at the start of 2022. It would seem that people are anxious for a clue to what this year brings.
It’s not surprising, of course.
Two years into a global pandemic and facing record-smashing case numbers and overloaded hospitals, the persistence of COVID has us all desperate for good news.
We want a sign of hope, a reassurance that THIS YEAR things are going to finally get back to normal, or that at least we will have some new resilience or focus to help us move forward.
And, of course, the other side of the desire to see into the future is our fear of what might be around the bend. If it’s bad, at least we want some warning, so that we can brace for it, be ready.
Whether it’s good or bad, we want to know what to expect.
This combination of both hope and fear is, interestingly, part of the definition of the word that Luke uses in today’s gospel reading, when he reports that “the people were filled with expectation” (Luke 3:15) regarding John’s ministry.
According to Strong’s Definitions, the Greek word for expectation means “anticipating, whether… in hope, or in fear.”
Just like for us on the precipice of 2022, the people who had come out to the wilderness to hear John’s message and to receive his baptism, had reasons for both hope and fear.
Their expectations circled around the question of whether John could be the long-awaited Messiah.
As an oppressed people under the occupation of Rome, the Jews naturally longed for a savior to free them and restore the past prosperity of their nation.
In asking whether he might be the Messiah, the people were really asking whether he could be the one who would solve their problems and make them feel safe and powerful again.
But the danger in looking for a savior is that they might not save you in the way you want them to. Knowing you need a savior is, by definition, a vulnerable position.
This is basically what John says. Not only does he declare that he is NOT the one they have been waiting for, but he also goes on to say that the real Savior will be quite a bit more than they bargained for.
“He’ll baptize you, but it will be like no baptism you’ve ever imagined. God’s own Spirit will come on you… which sounds cool, but only if you are willing to really let go of control. Plus, there will be fire! I talk about repentance, but he is going separate out evil from good, and everything that does not serve the needs of his mission will ‘burn with unquenchable fire.’” (Luke 3:16-17, paraphrase).
I have to assume this is NOT what the people were expecting from a Savior.
But this is the challenge of being people oriented toward expectation. In our longing to see what’s coming, we sometime anticipate things that match OUR plan, rather than God’s.
Then, when our true Savior violates our expectations, we find ourselves wrong-footed, having to adjust to an unfamiliar salvation that we did not expect, or else we find ourselves fighting it.
When John starts talking about fire, that might very well be our instinct.
We want to push back. How is a baptism by fire good news? How is that the action of a Savior? Isn’t he supposed to save us from the fire?
Well, it depends on the fire. Fire can be used to purify gold and to strengthen steel. It can be used to warm up limbs gone numb from cold, and to transform raw and unpalatable food into a nourishing meal.
Of course, fire can be destructive too, but only when it is out of control.
The trick about a baptism of fire, is that we have to trust God to control it – to use it to refine us without burning us up.
But the talk about fire might actually be the lesser violation of expectations in this baptism story. The bigger shock, if we think about it, is that Jesus would be baptized too.
John’s baptism is a baptism of repentance. The verses just before today’s reading from Luke report the specific actions of repentance and change that John requires of those who come to him for baptism.
So, why would Jesus participate in this baptism when he has nothing of which to repent?
This is a problem that has challenged Christian theologians since the very first century of the church: If Jesus was without sin, why did he need to be baptized.
We don’t expect our divine, sinless savior to join us in the mucky water of the Jordan in an act of repentance. If he has to share in this act of humility and confession, then how can we trust him to save us?
Or, at least, so says the theologian who assumes that sin and repentance are purely individual matters; that my repentance is just about my own, personal sin.
It’s ironic, in a way, that such individualism dominates the Western church’s thinking about repentance, when such self-focused thinking might actually be one of the most important things from which we need to repent.
One of our most destructive sins may be the way we cling to the lie of our separation from each other, of the individual nature of accountability.
But our lives are utterly interdependent. We cannot take any action without being influenced by the people and environment in which we live, nor can we fail to create countless unintended consequences from every action we take.
There is a fascinating storyline in the TV show “The Good Place” that explores the moral consequences of how impossible it is to live our lives in a way that is separate from the world around us.
The conclusion is that, in essence, absolute moral goodness is impossible. We are too interconnected. The sin of the systems in which we exist makes participation in that sin inevitable, no matter how hard we try.
So, what if that’s true? What if there is no way to separate our personal sins from the world in which we live? That would make the distinction between personal sinfulness and societal sinfulness pretty meaningless, wouldn’t it?
And if that distinction IS meaningless, then perhaps we have an answer to the question of why Jesus would need to be baptized.
Perhaps his participation in John’s baptism was his way of acknowledging the brokenness of the whole world, and a way of expressing his longing for a healing that isn’t about his own spiritual cleansing, but rather about the cleansing of the whole sin-sick world.
In fact, it may just be that the “sinless” thing for Jesus to do is to join in the baptism of repentance, not because he needs forgiveness for personal sin, but because repentance is about taking on the responsibility to confess and seek the healing of all that is wrong, whether we are the source of the sin or not.
If we hear it this way, this gospel is an invitation to re-think our expectations about BOTH the way that Jesus saves us, and what it means to be united with Jesus in baptism.
In his baptism, Jesus saves us through an act of solidarity and commitment to change.
He won’t remain separate from us and our struggles. He will stand in the dirty water with us and repent of the injustice, and hatred, and divisions that mar the world he chooses to share with us, because that is the only way for him to save us from those things.
And for all of us who are baptized in his name, this commitment has consequences for us as well.
In reflection on this story, Debie Thomas writes, “to embrace Christ’s baptism story is to embrace the core truth that we are all united, interdependent, connected, one. Our personal ‘goodness’ notwithstanding, our baptisms bind us to all of humanity – not in theory, but in the flesh – such that you and I are kin, responsible for each other in ways we fail so often to honor. We are called into radical solidarity, not radical separateness.”
This means that our repentance is never just for the wrongs that we directly cause. We share the responsibility to fix the wrongs of the world.
This is not easy, or comfortable.
This week our nation was confronted with the challenge of how to understand and respond to the intensely deep division that erupted into anti-democratic violence one year ago in our Nation’s Capital.
Most of us probably share the understandable instinct to try to separate ourselves from those whose violence killed and injured police officers, and whose protest escalated to attacks on our Constitution.
Whether we try to limit the responsibility to the party we oppose, or insist that these actions are just the actions of a fringe group, the instinct is ultimately the same: to say that the sickness that birthed the insurrection is someone else’s sickness to heal.
But that separation is not the way of Christ revealed in his baptism. His way is to engage in repentance even for sin he did not participate in or cause, because repentance is the necessary first step toward healing.
And Jesus understood the truth that the prophet Isaiah spoke when he offered God’s word of promise and encouragement to the Israelites preparing to return from captivity that had victimized them through no fault of their own.
The prophet warned them that the road to redemption walks through fire, but that doesn’t have to be scary – there is a way to walk through the fire without being burned.
That way is walk with God, to follow in the footsteps of God-with-us, footsteps that start with repentance, footsteps that refuse to claim the right to avoid the fire just because we didn’t start it.
When we are willing to be that vulnerable, to step into the flames of repentance, we will find that the only thing that gets burned away is the lie that we have to guard ourselves against such shared responsibility.
A call to take collective ownership of the sins of the world might not be what we expect from the story of Jesus’s baptism, but Jesus didn’t come to meet our expectations. He came to save us, and that salvation looks like climbing into the muddy water together and sharing the work of healing the world.
When we do that, we too with hear the voice from heaven, saying “You are my child, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.” Thanks be to God.
 Blue letter Bible, accessed January 7, 2022: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/g4328/kjv/tr/0-1/  Debie Thomas, One of Us, posted on the Journey with Jesus blog on Jan 2, 2022: https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=3285