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Reflection on the Gospel, Week before January 13th 2012

Luke 3:15-22

15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. 19But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, 20added to them all by shutting up John in prison.

21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and 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.”

What I am Learning:

Luke tells us that many people were awaiting the coming of the "David-Like" king, or messiah. They wondered if John was the messiah. It is worth pausing for a moment to consider this. Many of the Jewish people were waiting for something to change and they thought a real king of Israel would start that change. These people felt that life as they knew it was just not working - that life under the Romans and their client-kings was killing them. I wonder if we are waiting for something, too.

According to Luke, John maintained that he was not the messiah. In Luke John says that the true messiah ranks far above him, and that the messiah will not only baptize by water, but with the very Spirit of God and with purifying fire.

John seems to see himself as the winnowing fork in the hands of the messiah that has sifted the grain from the chaff - and now it's time for the chaff to be burned - and then spread on the fields for fertilizer. Given our culture's focus on heaven and hell, I need to say that there is wheat and chaff in every person and every culture.

As John's ministry was nearing it's peak, he was arrested by King Herod. John had made many fearless critique's of Herod and his administration and now Herod arrested John.

We have a very common image of this scene. John baptizes Jesus, the heavens are opened, the dove comes down, and the voice speaks. But Luke seems to see these as separate events. John baptized Jesus along with the crowds and sometime after John's arrest the heavens and opened and the very spirit of God comes to Jesus, and remains with him. Notice that it is not a dove that comes, but something "like" a dove. God is a mystery and the writer of Luke respects the mysteriousness of God.

Baptism was a common spiritual practice for the people of Israel. It was a way to purify themselves to enter the temple or to purify themselves as they entered a special time of spiritual practice. John's baptism signified a new beginning for the People of Israel as they returned to the river Jordan, the place where they first entered the land. John basically was saying, it is time for us to start again, a time for us to go back to our roots.

Jesus joined the people in this baptism. He, too, knew that things could not go on this way, that something needed to change. In Jesus' vision of the heavens opened, he hears a voice:  You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.

This is not just God saying that Jesus was a good boy and that God has affection for him!

The New Testament writers constantly use literary references to the Hebrew Scriptures. This sentence is a very power literary reference that defines the early Christian view of Jesus as the messiah.

The first part of the sentence, "You are my son" is from Psalm 2. This psalm was used in the coronation of the Jewish king. This is a way of saying that God has enthroned Jesus as the Messiah, as the king of the Jews.

But then things get interesting. The second part of the sentence is from Isaiah 42. This is a part of the suffering servant poetry in Isaiah. The suffering servant idea was that the People of Israel would gain their freedom, not by violence, but by the power of nonviolent resistance. They would win over the Babylonians by their capacity to suffer while maintaining their dignity.

According to NT Wright, Christians were the first ones to link the notion of the suffering servant with that of the messiah.

Jesus is the messiah, the priest-king of the Jewish people and he will lead them nonviolently to resist and transform the Roman Empire from within.

We are seeing some of this same kind of thing happening today: Malala Yousufzai is a young Pakistani girl who publicly said that all girls should get an education. She was shot in the head by members of the Taliban who were angry not only at what she said, but that she said something in public.

Another young girl, quoted on National Public Radio was asked if the violence against Malala made her afraid. She said that there were so many girls pushing for change that even if she and Malala were shot and killed, the change would happen anyway. The Taliban's violence against Malala has only given the more power to Malala and all the young women who are fighting for change.

Luke is saying that God's way of bringing change to human beings and to human society is through nonviolent resistance to wrong. As the Gospel of Luke continues, we are all called by God in our baptism to join God in this work of making all things new.

Maybe the change we are waiting for is already here and that we are a part of that change. If I am to lose a little chaff in that process, so what?