Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Last summer my wife and I were visiting Santa Fe, New Mexico. We were searching for a piece of art to go in the foyer area of a new addition to our church building. We went from shop to shop, experiencing the local art. We entered one gallery and I was taken aback by a bronze sculpture created by a respected artist named Gib Singleton. Singleton’s work appears in the Vatican, the Cowboy Hall of Fame, and he was a favorite artist of Golda Meir, Israel’s prime minister. A few years ago he helped restore Michelangelo’s Pietà when vandals damaged it.
The particular piece that stopped me in my tracks was called The Dove. It brings to life that moment when Christ has just been baptized. A dove has descended and landed on the outstretched hand of the Savior. What is so compelling about the way the artist represents that moment in Christ’s life? First, Christ’s arms are outstretched in a manner that seems to be welcoming all. It is as if Jesus stands ready to embrace anyone who is willing to come to him. Second, Christ’s outstretched arms and his body form a perfect cross. The artist’s intent is to reveal to us that Christ’s baptism commissions him to begin a mission on earth that will culminate in the ultimate saving act performed on the cross. The Christ portrayed by the artist’s sculpture is both welcoming to all and ready to die for the sins of all. This welcoming and sacrificial character of Christ is symbolized in the moment of baptism when God’s Spirit descends upon him to empower him for all that lies ahead. Christ is baptized to a mission that both welcomes the sinner and redeems the sinner.
Luke tells us that the people were “filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah” (Luke 3:15).
As sometimes happens, the people are close to mistaking the messenger for the message. But John the Baptist clears things up 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” (v. 16).
It is a powerful statement. While John is popular enough to draw a crowd, he is honest enough to admit that he is not the main attraction. While John baptizes with water, the “one who is more powerful” will baptize with something else. John explains that Jesus will baptize with “the Holy Spirit and fire” (v. 16). I’m not sure which is more frightening, being baptized with God’s Holy Spirit or with fire. John’s point seems to be that Jesus will have an awesome power that will be enacted through baptism. John confirms that Jesus will have the authority to judge souls: “His 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” (v. 17).
Luke tells us that all of the people were baptized and that Jesus was baptized too. As Jesus is praying, the Holy Spirit descends upon him in the bodily form of a dove. As if that isn’t enough, a voice speaks from heaven, saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (v. 22). It is a moment of incredible power as the Trinity is joined together in this brief scene.
God’s voice affirms three things about Jesus: (1) Christ is God’s Son; (2) Christ is loved by God; and (3) God is “well pleased” with Christ.
Perhaps the act of baptism also makes all three affirmations about us: We are God’s children; we are loved by God; and God is well pleased with us. I suggest that baptism enables us to follow our part of Christ’s mission. We too are called to welcome all and to serve others even unto death in the name of Christ.
John baptizes the sinless Christ into servant and sacrificial ministry. Jesus’ baptism represents a moment of empowerment by the Holy Spirit and affirmation by God.
I always get a chill when we begin a funeral service for a sister or a brother in Christ. We lift up the affirmation that this Christian put on Christ in baptism and pray that they may now be clothed with the glory of Christ. Baptism represents the beginning of a journey of sacrificial servanthood that culminates when one enters the very gates of heaven.
Christ lived out his baptism every day as he taught us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the dying, and share the good news with a broken world. As a people who bear the name of Christian, God calls us to live out our baptisms in the same way, caring for the needy and sharing the good news. We too are baptized to a mission of welcoming and redeeming sinners.
I recently baptized a newborn granddaughter named Allison. The whole process fascinated her four-year-old cousin, Kelsey. She asked her preacher grandpa all kinds of questions about the mechanics of baptism. Another pastor and I were celebrating the baptism. In the middle of the sacrament Kelsey turned to me and said, “More, Papa, more!” Somehow Kelsey understood that this was a moment of great power and affirmation. She wanted to make sure that her cousin Allison got the full dose.
Epiphany celebrates God’s unexpected appearances in our lives. Those appearances always remind us of God’s equally unexpected forgiveness and love. Baptism celebrates God’s love and forgiveness. Jesus commanded his followers to go to all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). May we all share some of Kelsey’s enthusiasm in fulfilling Christ’s command.