A Provocation: The Baptism of the Lord: January 13, 2019: Luke 3:15-22

15   Because the host was expecting
          and discussing all in their hearts about Yochanon
              whether he might be the meshiach,
16   he answered,
          he said to all
              Yochanon did:
                      with water
                  I purify you all.
                      He is coming,
                          the one who is stronger than I.
                              I am not adequate to loose
                                  the thongs of his sandals.
                      He will purify you all
                          in breath
                          and in fire.
17   His winnowing shovel in his hand
          to cleanse his threshing floor,
              to gather the grain into his storehouse,
                  the chaff,
                       to burn in fire,
                            unquenchable fire.
18   Many things
           and others
      he called to witness.
      He kept speaking good news to the host.
19   Herod
          the Tetrarch,
              having been accused by him
                   concerning Herodias
                       the wife of his brother
                   and concerning all the things he did,
                       all the vile things
20        he added all this on top of them all:
               he locked up Yochanon under guard.
21   It happened
          when all the host was purified
          also Joshua was purified.
              He is praying,
                  opened, the heaven
22               came down, the breath
                      the holy
                          (in body it looks like a pigeon)
                  on him.
                  A voice
                      out of heaven
                      you are my son,
                          the beloved.
                      In you I am well pleased.

A Question or Two:

  • Why was the faithful host anticipating the messiah?
  • No, really. What does this mean?

Some Longer Reflections:

Herod has power. Herod does vile things. This is not a new phenomenon. People with power often do whatever they want, and they get away with it. They get away with it because they have the power to punish anyone who challenges them. The current president of the United States reportedly looks for ways to use the federal government to punish those who oppose him. That, of course, would be illegal. Not impossible, but illegal. He would not be the first president to try such a thing.

They get away with it because they have recognized something crucial in their devoted followers. A significant number of them wish that they had the power to do whatever they wanted. Perhaps they don’t want to be free to sexually assault women, but some of them dream of the “good old days” when “women could take a joke.” Ish. And some of them do indeed want to assault people. Some of them want very much to “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody.” We have seen the impact of this in the rise in hate crimes in recent years.

Luke’s storyteller knows this about Herod and his supporters. And the storyteller twists the story so that Herod’s violence is forced into the foreground. John is standing in the water, baptizing. Jesus is coming to be baptized by John. But the storyteller has Herod lock John up before Jesus is baptized. This could mean that Jesus was baptized by someone other than John, but that creates an even more twisted story, and the extra twists don’t seem to have a point.

It seems more likely that we ought to read the story as twisting Herod’s future crime into the middle of the baptism scene. This means that Jesus enters the scene with Herod’s violence still ringing in the audience’s ears.

That hands interpreters a problem. Is Jesus entering the story as the king who was crowned in Psalm 2, the king who is claimed by God as a son, the king who will presumably bring the battle to Herod (and all violent rulers)? Or is Jesus entering as the son, the Servant, of Isaiah 42, the son in whom God is well-pleased, even in the midst of defeat and suffering?

It matters.

Both trails are there to be followed, and it may well be that the world will never be turned right-side-up without deadly conflict. But if the messiah enters this story to meet Herod’s power with his own countervailing power, the danger is that this messiah will feed in his followers the desire to have the power to do whatever they wish. Such people come to power and declare that compromise is impossible. Absolutists of all sorts love a messiah who offers the power to do whatever they wish.

I worry that messiahs of power become the next Herod. That also has happened many times. The solution is never simply to submit to whoever is currently starring as Herod. Hope grows, I think, from listening carefully to Isaiah 42. God’s servant will not break a bruised reed. God’s servant will not quench a candle that no one can imagine could continue to shine. But this gentleness does not imply that Creation simply has to put up with whoever is Herod in this reality show. Isaiah establishes the kindness of the servant, and then makes it clear that the servant will not grow faint or be crushed before establishing justice in the earth.

Can persistent, unflinching gentleness turn the world right-side-up? Think about that question before interpreting this scene.

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