“You are my Son (Ps 2:7), the Beloved (Gen 22,2, 12, 16); with you I am well pleased (Is 42:1).” The Sentence from heaven, says Dennis Hamm, invokes a coronation psalm, the story of the binding of Isaac, and the song suffering servant. It is a preview of Calvary.
The Baptism of Jesus is a yearly trip into explaining why he who knew no sin nevertheless needed to undergo baptism. The evangelists realize how odd it is that he comes to John. Matthew has John attempt to prevent Jesus from Baptism arguing that he, John, ought to experience baptism from Jesus but the latter answers: “Let it be for now to fulfill all righteousness.” (Matt 3:14ff) But, in Matthew there is no attempt on John’s part to mitigate the “brood of vipers” talk.
In Luke, which we read today, John is more patient with the crowd. Commoner, tax collector, and soldier alike are given pastoral counsel as they come to be baptized. John also makes no attempt to dissuade Jesus from Baptism. There is a different atmosphere on the shores of Jordan in Luke’s telling. Somehow, reconciliation is happening here. Israel, as it should be, is re-envisioned here.
In the Gospel of Luke we find a number of stories where reconciliation or the simple act of being a neighbor to others are held up as an ideal. Dives is sent to hell from not being a neighbor with Lazarus. The good Samaritan is “good” because he is a neighbor. The Shepherd celebrates because he has returned, reconciled, the lost sheep to the flock. The waiting Father is as much a picture of reconciliation as the older brother is a picture of one who refuses it and is somehow in peril for it. A man is told that his brother is more important than the inheritance he is arguing with the same brother about. Banquet halls are filled with flotsam and jetsam.
Other examples probably will come to the mind. Yet, wherever the people gather, there the Christ seems to gather with them. Somehow just taking on human form is not enough. Human living in all its splendor and squaller is embraced as a neighbor as well. Here on the banks of Jordan, a struggle between a confused and separated life and a reconciled one is in progress with John describing the building blocks of the latter. But that reconciled life is not a “new” life. It is Israel as God had dreamed it to be; it is an “old” life. Israel redeemed as Zechariah, Elisabeth, Simeon, and Anna had anxiously and tirelessly prayed for. Messiah is at Jordan to join the battle for those prayers for redemption. It should be no surprise that he is praying while the Spirit descends upon him. Their prayers become his mission.
What indeed had those, who had come to John, gone out into the wilderness to see? (Lk 7:24-26) If you go into the wilderness to see the prophet (7:26) you will return having done one of two things: You accepted his message or you rejected it. Either way, you still have to answer the question: “Why did I travel all that distance and why did I spend all that time?” Pilgrimages, no matter how long or short the road, are journeys of the heart. They are the result of nagging questions deep down and often those questions are not even articulated. Zacchaeus (lk 19) climbs a tree in his neighborhood. It none the less is a pilgrimage. He was seeking something. Maybe he was seeking the same thing the faithful ones in chapter 1 were seeking.
Baptism joins a pilgrimage. We all seek, knowingly or not, the redemption that in the end is only offered by the God of Abraham. That redemption, say the canticles in Luke, is certain because God remembers his promises of mercy. (Magnificat) It is certain in the places where God’s anointed has come to enact it. Our Baptisms are such a place for certain. Like Zach, our pilgrimages are short ones. They need to go no further than our own baptisms, our own souls. Yet will and do we actually seek redemption and reconciliation?
In a strange Augustinian sense, we will find peace with God for certain when we look, but we have to look to find it. Most of us ain’t looking and that is the problem. Like the rich fool we are happy to think: “Soul, you got it good; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” (Lk 12:19)
Epiphany says: “Go and discover what the Lord is doing. Go and discover what your baptism means. Be on pilgrimage. Messiah is already on the road ahead of you in it.”
The whole matter of the Holy Spirt has to be looked at as well. In our story here, the Spirit comes at Jesus’ baptism and the Spirit comes only to Jesus. Later in Acts the Spirit is strangely tied to the laying on of hands by the Apostles even if the baptism had been in the name of Jesus Christ. (Acts 8:9-22) Here it comes in physical form, like a dove. Then the Spirt comes but is evident in word and action of the new believer.
Somewhere in between all that, there has been a Crucifixion, a Resurrection, an Ascension, and most notably, a Pentecost Morning when the Spirt came to rest on the occupants of the Upper Room in the shape of a tongue of fire. This tongue of fire is what Jesus asked the disciples to wait for: The power from on high. (Lk 24:49) All of Acts flows from the event after that.
In Luke’s telling of the story, Jesus is then somehow invested with the Holy Spirt and begins his ministry. The Apostles are invested with the Spirt and begin theirs. It would seem that this investiture is necessary if one was to do the bidding of Heaven.