January 13, 2019
Do you know your purpose in life? Do you have a clear idea of why God made you, and what you are supposed to do with this one precious life you’ve been given?
Jesus did. He understood that his primary purpose was to bring us humans into right relationship with God. That was the whole reason he came into the world – God With Us, Emmanuel – not to condemn it (John 3:17), but to save it. In order to do that, he had to become one of us.
Last week, we saw wise men from a distant country bow before the young child Jesus and worship the King of the Jews, even though they weren’t Jewish. We listened as a frightened King Herod tried to find Jesus – not to worship him, as he claimed, but to destroy this threat to his power base.
This week, we see Jesus thirty years later. Another Herod sits on the throne of Galilee. Herod Antipas is the son of Herod the Great, and he has inherited one fourth of his father’s kingdom.
Last week, we compared and contrasted Herod the Great’s behavior with that of the Wise Men. This week’s Herod is barely a footnote in the story – in fact, many churches will skip over the verses in our reading that tell about Herod’s connection to John the Baptist and Jesus. But we won’t skip them. Because Herod Antipas has something to teach us about becoming completely immersed in the mission set before us.
The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all,
“I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.
But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of his marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison.
When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” – Luke 3:15-22
The first thing Luke wants us to know is that John the Baptist isn’t Jesus. That may seem like a no-brainer to us, but at the time these events take place, people weren’t so sure. They were wondering. They were questioning. Could this be the one? John makes it clear that he knows he is not Messiah.
“I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come,” He tells them. “… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
Water … Spirit … Fire …
This is a major turning point in the story of God and God’s people. John the Baptist has been preaching repentance to prepare for the coming of Messiah. People think maybe he IS Messiah. But John compares what he is doing to what Messiah will do in terms of the elements. “I can get you wet,” he says, “But Messiah will do much more than that.”
John’s emphasis is on action – what Messiah will do. John may bathe you with water to symbolize the washing away of your sins, but the One who is coming will breathe Holy Spirit into you, and burn away all the chaff.
Bathe … Breathe … Burn …
And then, interrupting this story, we get a glimpse of Herod. And Herod doesn’t get it.
This is Herod Antipas, remember. “Like father, like son,” this Herod is morally corrupt. He has married his brother’s wife while his brother is still living. John the Baptist has called him out on this, and Herod has John put into prison to shut him up – literally and figuratively.
I think maybe these verses have been left out of the assigned reading for today because they can distract us and confuse us. They make it seem as though John the Baptist is already in prison by the time Jesus gets baptized. But if that’s the case, who baptizes Jesus? And we can head down a rabbit trail that doesn’t take us anywhere.
But these verses about Herod are important to the story, or Luke wouldn’t have inserted them here. Just as we compared the earlier Herod to the wise men last week, we can see that this Herod is just as immersed as Jesus is – but he’s immersed in his own evil, not cleansing water. He’s immersed by sin, not spirit. He’s immersed in darkness, not illuminated by fire.
Jesus, on the other hand, is immersed in the light of God’s presence, and the breath of Holy Spirit. His baptism is not for the forgiveness of sins, like all those other people coming to be baptized. Jesus is baptized into his mission, the mission the Father has given him – to redeem the world. In his baptism, Jesus submits fully to the Father’s will, and submerges himself in his one single purpose – to save us from our sins.
And God is pleased with him. “This is my son, whom I love, and with whom I am well pleased.”
If you don’t yet know your purpose in life, might I suggest to you that this is it? God created each of us for his own good pleasure. When we allow ourselves to become fully immersed in God’s mission to make right what is wrong, to heal what is hurt, to save what is headed for destruction, we can know God’s pleasure just as surely as Jesus did there on the banks of the Jordan river.
When we commit ourselves completely to following Jesus – not only in baptism, but in every aspect of living, we can experience the full depth of God’s love for us. “See what love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God – and that is what we are!” (1 Jn 3:1)
Almighty and loving Father, we want to dive in, but we aren’t sure how deep the water is. We want to submerge ourselves in your life-giving floods, but we are afraid of drowning, Lord. Help us to know the peace that comes with trusting in you. Give us the courage to dive into your promises, and submit our wills to your will. Make us your own. Fill us with the life-giving breath of your Holy Spirit. Let your fire burn in our hearts, we pray in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.