sermon on Luke 3:1-22
Luke today is pointing us to God and to the adult Jesus, and for that it’s also important what he points away from, the chaff he clears away that would obstruct our view or our lives.
Luke begins with a setting or set-up similar to the previous chapter’s Christmas story’s registration set in the reign of Caesar Augustus while Quirinius was governor of Syria. The political situation for the reading today locates it later, but with some of the same point: a particular moment, surrounded by major players in the cast, but with the odd factor that the superstars aren’t important. They’re really only named to highlight that they’re not actually the ones unfolding God’s drama. Salvation history doesn’t match the bolded headline names of history books. This takes place far from centers of political power in Rome. It was not with the Emperor, nor with the local governor, nor the squabbling Herod family in their divided territories.
Maybe that doesn’t surprise us, if we conceive of this as a religious and not a political story. We somehow think not only that state and church should be separate but inherently are, one dealing in secular matters and the other of a different spiritual realm. That wasn’t the case then, and isn’t now, at least as long as we’re associated with the God known in Jesus, who is for all our lives.
So the story also goes on to highlight that this was happening during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas. The story doesn’t separate itself from them because it’s anti-Jewish or anti-temple. John’s father Zechariah was a priest in the temple. Mary and Joseph took the baby to follow prescribed traditions in the temple. Even after the resurrection, Jesus will tell his followers to keep worshipping and praying in the temple. Luke isn’t trying to make a break from that.
But he is breaking from the insiders, from the expected center of attention, from the presumed place where things happen. In those days John appeared in the wilderness, far from those centers of power, far from culture and presumptions of progress.
An adult reiteration of what Luke had already been telling in the birth of these babies—sung by their parents as ones who give people knowledge of salvation and cast the mighty down from their thrones—the message is that God isn’t best found in the imperial palace or religious hierarchy. Instead, Luke dumps John way out into the boonies, the sticks, the hinterlands, out in the wilderness.
Again, this is not about wilderness in our typical view of purity and refreshment, out communing with nature. The point is to situate John far from anything that smacks of human authority.
Even if you’d lean toward quote “getting away from it all” as an outdoor recreation place to find God—a concept generally I’m highly in favor of, including the purpose of our Boundary Waters planning after worship today—still for finding God, John won’t let you just hang out in the wild, as if it’s simply good to be with other creatures and apart from humans.
See, when asked what we should do, John answers all about human interactions. First, he separates his listeners from another presumed privilege: that of genealogy. Don’t begin to say to yourselves that you have Abraham as your ancestor, to count on inherent blessing by association in the covenant family. There’s no power in asking, “Don’t you know who my father is?” John says. In fact, one commentary I read said John anticipates and heads off this presupposition by calling them the “brood of vipers,” or in that translation—it’s enough to make you squirm—“snake bastards.”*
Instead, John goes on to say that God is in right actions, how we treat each other. I want to interject that this is also not the final answer for the Gospel of Luke, not where God’s presence is best found or known. I have to reiterate that because John’s form of thought is so pervasively present in our minds, in our presumptions, in our self-constructed views of faith. We still want to claim closeness to God if you act nicer, try harder, bear more fruits of goodness, repent more fervently of sin.
I do appreciate John’s suggestions, like his notion that anyone who has two coats should give one to the poor. I intentionally donate to the homeless when I find I have extra (though still admit I’ve got four decent winter coats hanging in my closet). And sharing food with the hungry—clearly we could and should be doing more of that, and not just boxes close to their expiration date we foist on unsuspecting Lussier pantry clients. Those are good practices, even if that isn’t ultimately the clearest place to find God.
In that way, we remember that Luke also sees the heritage of Israel and the temple as good, even if not the clearest place to find God. This isn’t about where God isn’t, but is about the clearest view.
Oddly, John even seems wary about seeing the empire too badly. John speaks with tax collectors and soldiers, both part of the very establishment oppressing the population, making them subservient. Particularly for the soldiers, I would’ve preferred if John were more stringent in his expectations. For a pacifist like me, and one who identifies work for revolutionary peace as rising directly from my faith in God, I wish John told the soldiers to beat their swords into plowshares, to give up violence, to subvert the empire, to reject military force as a viable means to any sort of just ends. Still, as John would have it, godliness in their role was simply to be satisfied with their wages. Maybe this is why God isn’t most clearly seen in our actions, because we must always question if there’s more to do, something better.
Still, there was enough in John’s words that those listeners were ready to identify him as the center of godliness. In spite of his acclaim and attention and focus on setting them right, though, he still points elsewhere. People wondered if John may be the epitome, the center of God’s wisdom and blessing, if he may be the Christ, the Savior, the Lord.
We, however, have been through Christmas. We’ve heard the angels’ song. So we know more of the story. We know it’s not John. We know it’s Jesus.
Luke is so insistent on turning the focus away from the popular John that he tries to remove John from the picture. I think he might first do that by referring to him as only as John and not John the Baptist, not giving him that title. Indeed, the way Luke tells the story, John is already in prison before he mentions Jesus’ baptism. John is already out of the scene so that we can turn our focus solely to Jesus.
I like the language there that’s entirely passive: “when Jesus had been baptized.” It doesn’t say who did it. If you were to look at our baptism liturgy on p230 in the hymnal, you’d see a little asterisk indicating passive language possibilities. I used to prefer that. It is the wording in the eastern church, among our Orthodox siblings. I started using it back in seminary worship class to turn the focus away from me, removing the pastor from the scene. Instead, I figured it focused that what was happening in baptism was all God’s work, all about God claiming and naming you as a beloved child. (I changed to the more common western version with the thought that it’s also important to realize that God’s work doesn’t just happen on its own with a magic poof, but is through means—incarnate in Jesus, and also with the water, with bread and wine, through voices even as twerpy and incoherent and self-assured as my own.)
So Jesus was (passive) baptized.
And that’s when we get the theophany. Where this season named Epiphany means “to show forth” (sort of like putting Jesus on display), theophany is a good Greek word that means God is shown. So with Jesus’ baptism, God is shown to us in the Holy Spirit descending like a dove and a voice from heaven.
Here, at last, is the pointer of God’s clearest presence.
God wasn’t best found in halls of power, in the mightiest government officials, those who exerted their control. It wasn’t in those who claimed to be the holiest or were at the top of structure, running the religious show. It wasn’t in the cities or center of culture. It wasn’t in special pedigree or the privilege of family placement. It wasn’t in our actions for justice or our best efforts to do right, our pious practices, our jobs or place in the socioeconomic structure. It wasn’t even in the ultimate prophet. God’s presence is found in Jesus.
But, of course, the whole point of Jesus is going to be to share that with everyone. Luke in this passage includes an extra verse from Isaiah that the other gospels don’t: “All flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Luke is utterly insistent that salvation is for all, that this Savior is born for you, that he comes to bring good news for all the earth.
Indeed, he’ll baptize you with fire, a Pentecost outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all flesh, not because you’re the aristocracy or worked your way up or acted just right, nor leaving you out because of race or gender or history or any kind of ability. On all flesh. All shall see God’s salvation. This saving work comes for all, and for you. That is the story unfolding here in the Gospel of Luke, and it is the message we continue to point to always when we’re together. God’s salvation is in Jesus, and he is for all, and wants to be made known for you.
* Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Malina & Rohrbaugh, p236