Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Now when the people were baptised and Jesus also had been baptised and was praying, the heaven was opened , and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Luke’s report of Jesus’ baptism is brief in the extreme. All the Gospel writers recognise that Jesus’ baptism is a significant event before the beginning of his ministry. Unusually all four of them report that it took place. But Luke is typically understated. He merely notes. after the event, that it has taken place: “and Jesus also had been baptised.”
In Luke’s telling, Jesus is part of the crowd. Jesus passes through the throng unnoticed. He is anonymous, unremarkable, something he very soon will no longer be. But for the moment he can appear to be just another Joe from some one donkey town in Galilee. Perhaps what is more surprising is that John, in Luke’s account at least, doesn’t appear to have recognised Jesus. John had enthused and preached about the one who come after him. He has been looking forward to the one who is more worthy, more powerful. He has been anticipating the one who will do what he, John, can only point to. Yet now as Jesus comes up out of the waters, he does so apparently unnoticed by John. Luke has written at length about John and his ministry and about his anticipation of Jesus. Yet when the decisive moment comes, it is already past before Luke has been able to spot it.
Why doesn’t John recognise Jesus? This is somewhat a surprise, since the unborn John had recognised the unborn Jesus when their mothers, Elizabeth and Mary had met. But now there is nothing. That first recognition was of course miraculous. Something had occurred there that only the presence and action of God could account for. And this is something which remains fundamentally true. To recognise Jesus as that greater one of whom John spoke, to see that Jesus is the Christ, to accept that this Jesus is the Son of God, is Lord and Saviour, this always requires the action of God. Though it is a miracle which God is always willing to perform. The trouble is that in the intervening 30 or so year John has grown up. Living as a human being, in the world as we experience it, little by little makes it harder and harder for us to recognise God even if God is standing right in front of us. As we we grown older we gradually become more impervious to that miracle of God. Even for someone as open to God, even for someone as willing to accept and act on God’s will, as John is, it is hard, indeed it becomes almost impossible for human beings to acknowledge and accept God. The unborn John had not begun that process of living in the word that takes God out of our lives, and so he was completely responsive to the divine prompt, even in the womb, that he had come into the presence of the one whom he would spend his life directing people towards.
When Jesus appears to John at the Jordan, all John can now see is another ordinary human being like the thousands of other who have come to him and have gone down into the water and come up again. John didn’t recognise Jesus because it takes a miracle to see him for who he is and by the time Jesus came to John at the Jordan like every other adult human being John had already see too much, and met too many other human beings to be fully open to God’s miracle that would have revealed Jesus to him.
John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The crowds came to John in response to his preaching. His words had enabled them to see that there was something wrong in their lives. And that they needed to do something about it. They had come to see that they were separated from God and headed off in the wrong
direction away from God. John’s baptism pointed to their change of heart. That they have turned around and are now headed back towards God, that they are seeking a reconciliation with God and bring and end to their separation. Why, then, does Jesus get baptised? Surely in his case it was unnecessary. If there was ever anyone who ever lived that didn’t need a new direction it was Jesus. Luke has already recalled a story from Jesus’ childhood, that should have been enough to indicate that this is so. Already as a child of about 12 years old stayed in the Temple debating with the priest and their scribes. He amazed those who heard him with his wisdom, it was clear that he knew God. Even then Jesus’ priority was his heavenly Father, even at the price of dismaying his earthly parents. Jesus did not need a new direction. He did not need reconciliation with God because he was never separated from his Father. Jesus though is human like us. He lives in human society just as we do. His life had all the connections, the nurture and the responsibilities that are part of every human life. And all these networks of care and duty take place in a fallen world. In Jesus God identifies fully with human life, really human life in all its messiness and complexity. It is a life that even if it were possible to never act against God or contrary to God’s intention for us personally, it is still a life that is tangled up with the rest of the mess that human living has made. We are all of us “beneficiaries” of the sinful actions of others. We are all implicated in the alienation of the human race from God. We are all responsible, even if we have done nothing we could be held directly accountable for, for human alienation from God. The human life which God identifies fully with in Jesus is that life. Jesus was baptised because as a human being he was enmeshed in the fallenness of human existence, a fallenness that even he has to acknowledge before everything else in his relationship with his Father.
Luke is consistent in his portrayal of Jesus as someone who prays. Prayer is a defining characteristic of Jesus’ existence. Prayer is communicating with God in order to understand God and ourselves better. As a rule we are not very good at prayer. Usually there is too much of us and not nearly enough of God in our praying. It is easy to fall into the trap of taking a shopping list to God, as if prayer were a means of cajoling God into doing those things we had figured out how to do for ourselves. Or as if prayer were a magic formula for getting God to bend reality to our preference. There is of course a place for petition. If nothing else it helps us to grasp what God intends for us and to recognise God’s action when it takes place. But the essence of prayer is to be present to the reality of God. Which raises a question: Why does Jesus pray?
The first thing Jesus does after his baptism is pray. The first thing Jesus does at every turn in his ministry is pray. Yet if Jesus is as fully God as he is fully human, and he is, why does he need to pray?
God is hard to see. If you are living as a human there is a great deal in our experiences that is trying to tell us that God isn’t there, God isn’t real, there is no God. Human existence throws up a fog that obscures God from us. The best that we can hope for is the glimpse of something out of the corner of our eyes that that contradicts all that other evidence. Being human, living in a fallen world filled with other humans, gets in the way of knowing God Though if we knew how to look, God is in and through everything. Jesus prayed because as a human being he was immersed in that same fog that obscures God from all of us. Jesus who is human like all of us had to do something that we all have to do to keep
God in sight. He does this, as we all might, by communicating with God, and being open and present to God, and kept reminding himself how to see God, even in himself.
After he was baptised and as he was praying, Jesus experienced something:
The heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”
Jesus experienced something more than a vision. Jesus had a revelation of God, an experience forceful enough that it engaged not just his sight and his hearing but it would seem also his sense of physical touch. But why does the Spirit descend on Jesus? It has proved very easy for Christians to be misled by what happens after Jesus is baptised and why it happened. To some it suggests that up to this point Jesus wasn’t fully Christ, that he needed something extra to become truly God’s Son. To them it seems to suggest that after his baptism Jesus was adopted into the role he would fulfil. After long thought the Church decided that this could not be the case. “There was never a time when the Son was not” they concluded. Jesus and God are one. There is no way to separate what they are. So why does the Spirit descend. Human beings live their lives as one thing after another. We are never not who we are. Though in that succession of events it is easy for us to become misdirected and become something we shouldn’t be. But there are for all of us defining moments. These are signposts on the way which remind us who we are and where we should be going. they are moments that stand out and we can look back to, to be reminded of what was true all the time. The Spirit descended on Jesus, not to confer on him something that wasn’t already present and true about him, rather as a human being Jesus needs that moment where that truth became focused in sight and sound and touch as a signpost to himself of who and what he is and where he is to do and where he is to go.
Luke summarises Jesus baptism and what he experienced immediately afterwards. Everything that was true for John and for Jesus there is more true for the rest of us. It takes a miracle for us to recognise who Jesus is and to respond appropriately, but it is a miracle which God is always willing to perform if we are open to it. We need to recognise that we are caught up, whether we want it or not, in the way the human race has become separated from God. All of us need repentance in order to see that that is the case. Living as a human throws up a fog that makes it very difficult to see and to know God and we need a life of prayer to see through that fog. And all of us need a sign posts, experiences of the reality of God, to remind us who we are, where we are going and what we should do
Jesus Christ fully human though never less than God by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0