Last year several of us read the Gospel of Mark straight through, start to finish, as though it was a piece of literature. I think it was an eye opening experience for those who participated as they watched Mark sandwich particular stories together in a way that brought a deeper meaning to the individual stories than we normally experience reading them in the Lectionary setting. I am not going to suggest the same for Luke. It is a much longer story, but I do want to call to your attention some of the literary distinctions between Luke and the other gospels. Each of the four Gospels tell the same story, but they highlight different events in different ways to make their specific point to their particular audience.
You may have noticed during the Christmas season that Mark and John have no nativity scene. Mark begins his gospel with the Old Testament prophesy of the Messiah then jumps to Jesus’ baptism. John begins before creation stressing the divinity of Jesus. Matthew focuses on the kingship of Jesus and Jesus as the “one like Moses” that Moses prophesied. Luke focused on the extraordinary in the midst of very ordinary people. We had the miraculous conception of John the Baptist. We had the Hannah like Magnificat of Mary that focuses on God’s justice for the poor and oppresses. We had a lengthy discussion of the birth of John the Baptist. We had shepherds who where the first to hear the good news of the birth of the Messiah. We did not read it at this time, but we had the presentation of Jesus at the temple when he is 8 days old and his visitation to the temple when he is a precocious twelve year old. All of this extraordinary but steeped in the everyday life of Jewish peasants in first century Rome.
Luke’s approach to Jesus’ baptism is different from that of Matthew, Mark and John as well. One might expect with the lengthy introduction of John the Baptist that Luke’s story of John baptizing Jesus might be this beautiful and deeply detailed story of the encounter between John and Jesus, but instead we get John calling religious leaders names and demanding tough ethical standards for those willing to hear them, a bit of fire and brimstone preaching and then we are told John was arrested.
Jesus baptism is mentioned with all the artistry of a newspaper filler story on the back page.
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.’ (Luke 3: 21-22)
But Luke’s focus from the beginning has not been as much to prove to us who Jesus is, but to show us how to live in light of the presence of Jesus. “When all the people had been baptized, and when Jesus had also been baptized…”
Jesus did not need to be baptized because he had nothing to repent of, he had no sins to be forgiven, and he had no need to change his direction, but Jesus chose to go through the same things we all need to go through as part of being human. We are all born. Jesus was born; he went through infancy, childhood and even adolescence which Luke is careful to point out. All of humanity has a need to repent and be baptized as a sign of obedience and loyalty to God over and above our natural loyalty to our own wants and desires. Jesus, with all the people was baptized, in solidarity with humanity, even though he didn’t need it. In Matthew, Jesus will even make his final command to his disciples:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ (Matthew 28:19-20)
Luke makes another interesting point. It is not at the moment of his baptism that Jesus hears the voice of God, but shortly afterward when he is praying. Jesus is for us an example of a constant life of prayer, and it is while in the middle of this relationship building activity God opens the heavens, sends down a dove, and declares: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.
I have been reading Thom Rainer’s book Anatomy of a Revived Church: Seven Findings of How Congregations Avoided Death (His first book was titled Autopsy of a Deceased Church). In this book Rainer comments that a common thread he found among churches that turned a corner and became revitalized was a meaningful life of corporate prayer, not just saying the liturgy together, but spending time praying for one another, for the mission and ministry of the parish, and for the community that surround them. Jesus sets this example frequently going off for private prayer, other times taking his closest companions, Peter, James and John, and sometimes praying with the larger group. He taught them how to pray using the Lord’s Prayer as an example, not intending it to be a rote mantra.
In a few minutes we are going to renew our Baptismal Covenant. One of the questions you will be asked is, “Will you continue in the apostles’ teachings and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” You will respond “I will with God’s help.”
This coming year, I promise to present to you a variety of tools to help you strengthen your spiritual life as a disciple of Jesus Christ. My prayer is that you will use them, ( and you may find some more helpful than others), but become familiar with a variety of tools that will help you to fulfill your role in the Great Commission as we seek as a community to go, make disciples, baptize, and teach obedience to the commands of Jesus. These are active verbs that will require motion, not just sitting and pondering. This will mean we will become disciples in the fulfilling of this commandment.
Let us pray,
Lord Jesus you have given us the Great Commission and promised to be with us always, give us the courage, the energy, and the motivation to take your command to heart and to go into the world, making disciples, baptizing, and teaching obedience to your commands believing that you are the Resurrection and the Life, through you and the Holy Spirit in the glory of God the Father. Amen.