Psalm 29, Isaiah 43:1-7, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17,21-22
The festival of the baptism of Christ comes each year to kick off the season of Epiphany. In our yearly liturgical journey we leap forward, somewhat abruptly, from the babe in the manger at Christmas to Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan as a thirty-year old adult. All four gospels give an account of the baptism – which underlines its importance for the early church. The specific details of the story, however, vary with each Gospel and reveal that each of the four Gospel writers understood Jesus’ baptism in a different manner.
So, I think it’s useful to pay attention to how Luke tells the same story, as these differences can add freshness and depth to our understanding of this event, and in turn the Bible itself.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ baptism is introduced with the words “Now when all the people were baptised…” making clear that it takes place after other people have been baptised. This is an important detail unique to how Luke tells the story – that Jesus was baptised alongside, with and even after the followers of John the Baptist. No special ritual designed just for Jesus happens here. He stands in line with the others patiently waiting for John to baptize all of them with water. Jesus’ baptism was an act of solidarity with those who followed John hoping to repent of their sins and begin again. He simply got in line with everyone who had been broken by the “wear and tear” of the world and had almost given up on themselves and their God. When the line of downtrodden people formed in hopes of a new beginning, Jesus joined them and identified with them. This might prompt us to question how far we too as a church are willing to identify with and stand in line and alongside those stigmatised as sinners in our society. How far do we offer a sanctuary to those who have encountered difficulties in life, who might feel that the church is a place they must avoid until they become respectable again, rather than be drawn to the church as a place of solace and transformation?
Another key difference between Luke’s account of the baptism of Christ and the other Gospels is Luke’s special focus on prayer, particularly the relationship between prayer and the Holy Spirit, and how God supports and sustains us through it. Unlike Mark or Matthew’s account, it is not until Jesus was praying after the baptism had taken place that the heavens were opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him. It is significant that this intensely spiritual experience following Jesus’ baptism happens whilst he is in the posture of prayer. This shifts the emphasis from the act of being baptized to the practice of prayer itself. For Luke the act of prayer is the most important feature of the baptism and clearly indicates the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of Jesus and ultimately, the believer. Jesus praying is an important theme throughout Luke’s gospel. Luke tells us of Jesus praying before he calls his disciples, before asking them who he is, at the time of his transfiguration, before teaching his disciples how to pray, on the night of his arrest, and at his death. For Luke what is characteristic of Jesus is also characteristic of the church – prayer is at its core.
Jesus will not undertake his public ministry of teaching and healing in his own power and abilities. The source of his strength will be beyond himself. The Holy Spirit will encourage him all the way, even when the way becomes difficult. This is reminder to all of us that God’s grace through the Holy Spirit can support us when our own strength fails us. I often think back to the powerful words from my ordination, spoken by the Bishop:
“You cannot bear the weight of this calling in your own strength, but only by the grace and power of God. Pray therefore that your heart may daily be enlarged and your understanding of the Scriptures enlightened. Pray earnestly for the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
These words echo Luke’s description of the baptism of Jesus. He begins his ministry acknowledging through prayer his dependency on the gift of the Holy Spirit, a source of strength that goes beyond himself to God. The same words also apply to all of us. God gives us the gift of prayer and the grace of the Holy Spirit to sustain us.
Just as Jesus was empowered for and guided in his ministry through prayer, so too are his followers, down to this day.
This special focus in Luke’s Gospel on prayer opens up questions about the nature of prayer and religious experience more generally. What is our experience of prayer? Do we ask for the gift of the Holy Spirit to sustain us? What about moments of epiphany? How are we called by God and empowered, first through our baptism, but then through prayer?
The Holy Spirit is at the heart of Luke’s story. The early church was formed at Pentecost through the Holy Spirit and prayer is the route to this God-given grace. It is worth asking how far we as individuals and the modern-day church depend upon, and seek out, the Holy Spirit for the spiritual stamina to go into the world and make a difference in people’s lives through Christ. I believe this connection remains the lifeline of every disciple, every congregation, every volunteer, and every ministry lay or ordained.
Our Gospel ends with the words of God as the Holy Spirit descends on Christ in bodily form like a dove, “And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved: with you I am well pleased.” When I take a baptism service I like to remind the congregation that these are the words of God spoken for all of us at our baptism. God loves us individually, just as he loved his Son Jesus Christ, and is so delighted with us, in all our unique and quirky ways. Luke’s account of the baptism of Christ also prompts us to ask how far we remind ourselves that God claims us as his children and is proud of us for bringing God’s love to all people. We need to hear this affirmation from God, and we need to hear it from each other. These are life-giving words that every human being upon this earth should hear: “You are my child, whom I love, and with you I am well pleased.” When Jesus heard those words they changed his life forever. They will do the same for us, our children, our neighbours, our partners, our friends, and, as Jesus told us, even our enemies.
Rev Melanie Harrington