Homily for the Baptism of the Lord, Year C 2016 (January 10)
Homily for the Baptism of the Lord, Year C 2016 (January 10)
We begin the regular or “ordinary” church year with the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord because that it is the event that begins Jesus’ three years of preaching, healing and saving. It may seem strange to us that he waited so long to begin his public life, but it was the type of life that took preparation. During Jesus’ time, one had to be thirty years old before they could become a priest even.
During those thirty years, John the Baptist had been quite active. He was an eccentric character but not so eccentric that he didn’t draw multitudes of people to him. He was seen by the people of his time as a prophet and his messages were recognized as such. He was so popular and his message so strong that people even thought that he might be the Messiah himself.
John’s calling came to him in the desert, and this is reminiscent of the whole Exodus story while the people were waiting in the desert to get to a Promised Land. Similarly, John is preaching a message about another promised land – this time a person, who is yet to come.
Luke says that John was preaching a gospel, so what was the “good news” that he was preaching? For Luke, the good news was that Israel could repent for her sins and be forgiven and that this will extend not just to Israelites but to all nations. The symbol for this good news was baptism, being washed by water. John used baptism as a symbol of how one prepared for the coming of the Lord, by repenting for one’s sins and turning one’s life around.
Luke also sees John’s baptism as an extension of the Hebrew history of salvation. John is a prophet in the line of other prophets, himself fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah which said that a voice would be heard in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord.
In the Gospel of Luke, we don’t have a description of a wild man like we do in Matthew and Mark, and John is identified more with the prophet Isaiah than with Elijah. For Luke, Jesus will be Elijah-like as we will see.
Luke’s Gospel story of John has some unique sections to it. As we have seen, different groups come to John to ask what they have to do to repent and John’s answer has always been a social and economic one – giving to the poor, sharing food and clothing, not over-taxing anyone, not victimizing the poor through blackmail or intimidating threats.
Today’s Gospel begins right after John has told them these things. They next want to know if he is the Messiah, the Christ. John answer’s them with three points. First, he is unworthy even to tie the shoe of the Christ; second, his baptism is different than the Christ’s all be; and third, the Christ will bring judgment to all the world. John explains that his baptism was a symbol for repentance which the person has already done. The Messiah’s baptism would bring the Holy Spirit and fire to the person. This is seen on Pentecost when tongues of fire descended on the Apostles and they received the Holy Spirit. The fire here is a symbol for the vigor with which they would then be able to proclaim the Gospel to others, to the world. The fire may also be a symbol for judgment as we heard John say before that the Messiah would separate the wheat from the chaff. The good news is that there is no need to fear judgment because we will have been able to repent and be forgiven.
The scene Luke draws of Luke’s baptism is a little different from the other evangelists. He does not specifically say that John baptized him even. This could be that Luke wanted to put Jesus at the center of the baptism story and not John. Luke seems to make only a passing reference to Jesus’ baptism and this could be because the early church seemed embarrassed by he fact that Jesus was baptized at all. As I have pointed out in other years, the Gospel writers after Mark seemed upset that someone who could not have sinned was baptized, a symbol for repenting for sin. Matthew covered it by saying that Jesus wanted to be a role model of sorts. Luke just sort of passes over it, and focuses on the heavens opening and God speaking.
The “heavens opening” recalls Isaiah’s prayer that the heavens be opened and that God comes as he did in the exodus.
After the heavens opened, Luke says that the Spirit came down on Jesus. Interesting, Luke comments that the Spirit had a bodily form like a bird, a dove. That is where we get a lot of our Christian images of the Spirit today as a dove. Apparently this image is a unique one and doesn’t appear in Hebrew literature – it is decidedly Christian. Why does Luke mention this dove? Probably to let his readers know that it was a real experience, a physical experience, one that could not be denied because it was “seen” by all. We will see the same sort of thing after the resurrection with comments made about Jesus’ eating and drinking and being touched.
Then God speaks, and his words are a combination of words from Psalm 2, a psalm which was recited at a king’s coronation and the second half, from Isaiah in today’s first reading, who describes the servant of God. So the two halves combine with images of kingship and service.
In the second reading today from Acts, also written by Luke, we get in Peter’s speech another mention of the baptism which interprets it as the moment when the Holy Spirit empowered Jesus to begin his work on earth. Luke never says that he became God’s son at this moment – he already established earlier that he was born the Messiah Son of God – but that this was the moment when he was to begin his work on earth.
Our first reading from Isaiah is chosen today because it picks up on the second half of God’s message of Jesus as the servant of God. The passage is about the suffering servant who achieves justice when God’s spirit is put upon him, the one who becomes a “light to the nations” and who opens the eyes of the blind. These are Epiphany themes that we saw last week. So everything is tied together, and Jesus is ready to begin his public life with the strength of the Spirit, the ideology of a servant, the genealogy of a king, and the backing of God.
What can we learn from these readings today then? First of all, that if we have repented in the season of Advent, saw the light with Christmas and Epiphany, we too are ready to be filled with the Spirit from our baptism and go out and do the things that we know that Jesus would want us to do. The social works that make for Jesus’ mission statement, showing lobe first to those in need, and then to all others, becoming one with our worshipping community and spending time in prayer with our God. It sounds simple, but we know it isn’t. We have a role model in Jesus’ life – we need to start living it! And that is what the baptism of the Lord reminds us of today and that is the Good News that we are called on to live today!
Bishop of Holy Trinity Diocese and St. Andrew’s Cathedral Parish
The Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA)
[Volume 3 (Luke) of Bishop Ron’s homilies, one for every Sunday and Feast from the last Cycle C, is available from amazon.com for $9.99 – “Teaching the Church Year”]