I’d like to spend the next few weeks with y’all dissecting the stories of Jesus’ early ministry as told in Luke.
We’ve just celebrated the birth of our Lord. Soon enough we’ll be mourning his death and then, shortly after, proclaiming his resurrection. So why not dwell for a while in the in-between? The hugely significant moments that we so often overlook in favor of big miracles like birth and death and resurrection.
Remember: we don’t know a thing about Jesus’ life till now. We don’t what he knows about his birth or his vocation. We know that the Spirit has been with him. And at this moment something has stirred within him, calling him from Nazareth, calling him from his shop and his tools and his mother and father and brother and sisters. Something calls him to the Jordan.
Something new is about to happen; a history is about to unfold. So let’s listen for it. Our text today comes from the Gospel of Luke, chapter three, verses 21-22 and chapter four, verses one through 14.
“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized 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.’” […]
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’ Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.” ’
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you,
to protect you”, and
“On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’
Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’ When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
Overheard on the Jordan
If we’ve learned anything over the past two thousand and thirteen years it’s that Jesus is exceptional. He worked wonders and calmed nature and defeated death and had some pretty good ideas. There’s something special about Jesus.
So it should shock us to see Jesus come down the line to the Jordan. Amongst all the other rabble rousers and the riffraff and the hoi polloi—here comes… Jesus? Now we know quite a lot about him, but no one there did. And Luke tells us that there were lots of folks there, rich, poor, tax-collectors, soldiers. John might’ve known but Luke registers no recognition on his face. Jesus is there, in the crowd, one among many, jostled and jolted until it’s his time to go under.
I hadn’t thought much about Jesus’ baptism until earlier this week. Now, when I think about salvation, when I think about salvation history, my mind (understandably, and partially rightly) goes to the cross and the empty grave. More broadly, of course, I think of the birth. One thing, I can assure you: I never think about his baptism as having any real importance. That seems pro forma, a necessity, a show. An early rite that the authors of the Gospels wanted to get in there in order to justify its later Sacramental use. Because—honestly—why does Jesus need this? Why does Jesus need cleansing? Or new life? Why does extraordinary Jesus need to prostrate himself before the riffraff, the rabble rousers, the hoi polloi, and declare himself one of them Un-extraordinary. Unexceptional. Just a normal guy.
Now this is where I’m going to say something that may sound bad at first—but hang with me. Jesus comes before John and, without anyone knowing, inaugurates a new history. Jesus’ birth was his election, his coming onto the scene, then his baptism is his inauguration. It’s the beginning. And it’s the beginning because in this moment Jesus, who is fully God and fully human, affirms his humanity. He takes on humanity and all that comes with it. ALL that comes with it. Not just the everyday annoyances: traffic jams, bad hair days, loss. fragility, back aches. All. Another way to say it: he takes on sin. In all freedom he, as one fully God and fully human, confesses before John and God and all the world his own sin. It’s a shocking thing.
If Jesus doesn’t earnestly take on sin, then his baptism is nothing but an empty sign. A sign without signifier, without meaning, without coorespondence. But Jesus’ baptism is not simply an empty sign. Jesus is not masquerading. He is not putting on the costuming of a human. If Jesus is truly human, it means that in this moment, not just on the cross, Jesus takes on our sin. As God for us and as us before God, Jesus begins the work of reconciliation. Having heard John’s message, Jesus submits himself to baptism and in so doing takes on the mantle of one who has sin. And with the rabble rousers, the riffraff, the hoi polloi, as the rabble rousers, the riffraff, the hoi polloi, he is baptized.
Luke doesn’t tell us anything about the baptism. All we know is that Jesus, having been baptized with the others, prays. And on this unexceptional history-launching day, another remarkable thing happens:
The sky opens up. And a voice, “You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased”. God is pleased with Jesus’ act of submission. And Jesus, who in the cleansing waters of the Jordan took on the mantle of sin, now takes alongside it the mantle of righteousness, for in him God is pleased.
I don’t know if John heard it, if the rabble rousers and the riffraff and the hoi polloi heard it. But we hear it, these many years later. And Jesus hears it. And we stand in awe because we know how far removed we are from Jesus at this moment.
We carry the sin without the righteousness. We make our New Years resolutions, we try for betterment and self esteem and improvement. But a suspicion haunts us: we can never be the ones for whom the sky opens and a voice proclaims: I am pleased. Nothing we can achieve or learn or work toward will ever set us in those waters.
The scene quickly changes. Jesus is filled with the Spirit and it’s time for his inaugural parade. And, strange thing, his parade route, the place His Father demands he go, is to the Wilderness. The empty, dead place.
So he fasts. And prays. And prays and fasts. And then, fresh on the heels of his baptism (only a little more than a month has passed): the Tempter appears. No one’s here with him. No rabble rousers, no riffraff, no hoi polloi.
Strange, isn’t it, that God’s good pleasure does not lead straight to a Lexus or a Swiss Bank Account, or even a nice shopping spree at Target, not even a Lazy-Boy. God’s good pleasure, God’s will, to which Jesus so humbly submits in baptism, leads him straight to the wilderness.
The temptations are well-worn territory. Bend the laws of physics and turn stone into bread. Take on the mantle of emperor!
And, finally, in the holiest of holies, the city of David, in the temple of God: throw yourself into the abyss. This is the temptation that interests me most. For would this not be a supreme act of faith in God? It seems barely different from baptism—do this thing and God will come once again and save you, and in saving you will by act confirm that he is indeed well pleased! But Jesus will have none of it.
Because in throwing himself from the Temple, or in turing stone to bread or becoming a political power, Jesus would act against the will of the one in whose name he was baptized. In throwing himself from the Temple, Jesus would step out of the line of ordinary sinners and into the line of extraordinary wonder workers. In throwing himself from the Temple, Jesus would disrobe of vulnerable flesh and take instead a crown of invulnerable, raw Power. And the crown of raw Power is incompatible with the humble mantle of righteousness. The crown of raw power is rusted in the waters of the Jordan. Jesus, in succumbing to the Tempter, would cease to be for us. And though the cross would be averted, so too would our only chance at reconciliation, at righteousness, at a true, ordinary Kingdom of God inhabited by the rabble rousers and the riffraff and the hoi polloi.
In baptism we have the inauguration. And now we have the term agenda. Jesus is not the King of the Shadow Empires or worldly courts, he is not the one who will save himself from hunger by acts of raw Power.The temptations tell us many things: many things for many other sermons. But at their heart they tell us what kind of a man Jesus Christ is, and therefore what kind of God he is. In the temptations we have to do with the very identity (not the idea, the theory, the thing), no the very identity of the very unexpected God.
In Jordan we meet the God who comes to us and takes on our sin, takes our deepest, darkest places into his very being. And in the wilderness this very same God, carrying our sin and his hunger, shows himself as one whose interest is righteousness—and the redemption it will bring.
And we look on in awe, with a sinking feeling that our last chance to stand in the Jordan has passed us by. By now we’ve broken our New Years resolutions, we’ve misplaced our self-improvement books.
But here’s the thing: when Jesus stands as human before God, when Jesus begins his reconciling work, he invites us into the river with him. All of us, all of the ones with whom he waited, jostled and jolted, he invites them and us to wade alongside to see and hear with him: you are my sons and daughters and in you I am well pleased.
It’s not self-help. It’s not self-esteem. It’s not making yourself good or any other thing. It’s submitting to righteousness, as Jesus did in the dessert. It’s praying and working out our salvation. It’s repentance and obedience. It’s doubting and arguing and weeping and rejoicing. It’s facing the wildernesses of our lives, wherever they may be, and trusting that God’s will will carry us even to our last moments, that God will never abandon us. “Bidden or not bidden”, Carl Jung posted above his office door, “God is present.” Jesus has taken on our sin, he carries it. He will carry it to the cross where it will die with him. And three days later when he leaves the tomb, our shame, our estrangement, it is gone. The end of the wilderness will be the cross, where Jesus, this man, this God, will die in order that all unrighteousness may die. Will die in order that we, all of us, the rich, the poor, the high and mighty, the forgotten and unclean, in order that we may once again recognize the face of God.
However estranged, in whatever wilderness, however insignificant we may feel, we have been baptized with Christ—we share with him that one essential thing. Christ withstood every temptation for us so that, in our own struggles for righteousness, justice and mercy and my goodness, for love, so that we could hear and go into the world knowing that we, all of us, are the ones in whom God is well pleased. And so that we could live according to that awful, beautiful promise!
Overhear this—we are called, by the image of God, an image innate to every single one of us—to righteousness and to justice. And we will likely fail. But Jesus did not! And God is well pleased once again.
Overheard on the Jordan, by A. A. Stuckey / Luke 3:21-22, 4:1-13 / 13 January 2013 / for Pilgrim Covenant Church, South Plainsfield, New Jersey