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The Life of Jesus: His Baptism

January 26, 2014


Sermon:  The Life of Jesus: His Baptism
Text:  Luke 3:15-23


We continue today with our series The Life of Jesus by considering the baptism of Christ.

Our Scripture about Christ’s baptism this morning mentions a dove, and I want to share a story at this point in the sermon.  It does not especially fit at any particular section, but it is one I want to share with you.

Sometimes people include what they call a dove release at the end of a funeral service, using four doves.  The first dove represents the spirit of the deceased.  When released, it circles the cemetery.  Then the three remaining doves, which represent the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, follow.  They join the first bird, circle together, and then fly as a group back to their owner.

Glenn Miller, who told me this story, was scheduled to have a dove release following a funeral at Putnam Baptist Church just across the Union County line.  The birds used that day, actually snow-white homing pigeons that looked exactly like doves, belonged to a man who lived in Gaffney, South Carolina.  Everything went well during the service.  Just as Glenn released the first bird, however, he heard shotgun blasts and suddenly realized the funeral had been scheduled on the first day of dove season.  Just over the line of trees from the cemetery was a field filled with hunters.  After hearing the gunshots, the first bird did not circle.  Instead, it made a beeline for Gaffney, flying straight as an arrow.  Glenn rather quickly opened the basket to release the remaining three.  The first two made it out fine and also headed straight for Gaffney.  The third got tangled up in the basket and was a little behind the other two.  When it flew over the trees and field, Glenn again heard numerous blasts.

He later received a call from the owner of the birds who said, “Glenn, three of my birds came back home, but I’m missing one.  You don’t have any idea what happened to him, do you?”

Glenn answered, “I have no idea.”

The owner explained, “Well, he’s a male, and sometimes he gets the wander lust and stays gone several days.  I imagine he’ll return.”

Sure enough about three days later Glenn received a call from the owner who said, “He came back home.  Thanks for taking good care of all my birds.”

Now we turn to our text for today, Luke 3.  Commentators are not in agreement about the meaning of our Scripture this morning, but it is a passage that deserves our full attention. 

Let’s ask some questions.

Who was John the Baptist?  Let me hasten to say that he has nothing to do with the Baptist denomination.  Some people would say that we trace our denominational roots back to this contemporary of Jesus, but that simply is not accurate.

John, born in the hill country of Judea, is one of the most distinctive characters in the New Testament.  His parents were Elizabeth and Zechariah, both advanced in age at the time John was born.  You remember from the story of the birth of Jesus that when Mary found out she was pregnant, she stayed with Elizabeth for a time. Scripture says that Elizabeth, who was also pregnant, could feel her child, John, leaping in her womb when Mary arrived.  Some of you mothers know exactly how that feels.  This movement was taken as a sign to Elizabeth that the child Mary was carrying was indeed the Messiah.  John preceded his cousin Jesus in age by about six months.

The angel Gabrielle struck Zechariah dumb because he doubted that his wife could have a child at her age.  Zechariah was unable to speak, which was a very difficult circumstance for a priest.  It is just as well since he lived in a house with two pregnant women.  He probably could not get a word in edgewise.  Because John’s parents were old when he was born, he may well have been orphaned.

What happened to orphans in the first century?  We know that the early church was commanded to care for orphans.  In Jewish life, the Essenes often adopted these children.  This group, which lived in the community of Qumran, was monastic.  The men and women there lived separate from one another and remained celibate.   They adopted orphans in order for the community to grow and have a future.  It is a pretty good guess that John the Baptist may have been adopted into that community.  You remember that the Essenes were given credit for preserving the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were found in caves near Qumran.

The Essenes lived an ascetic lifestyle, eating scant food and denying themselves many worldly pleasures.  John’s lifestyle certainly matched that of the Essenes.  We are told he subsisted on a diet of locusts and wild honey.  He had an unusual flair for fashion, wearing unusual clothing made of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist.  That clothing, when turned inside out, was perfect for the desert wilderness where he lived.

A more compelling reason to identify John the Baptist with the Essenes is the fact that John perhaps learned about the practice of baptism from them.  They baptized every member of the community every single day.  For them baptism was a purification rite.  John was simply practicing what he had seen and learned in the Jewish faith.

How did John relate to the crowds during his ministry?  John attracted the attention of the masses and certainly knew how to influence people.  People could not resist the overpowering truth of his words and flocked by the hundreds to hear him preaching in the wilderness and to participate in baptism.  Though John held no official power, he also influenced the Jewish political system because he delivered his strange message of repentance with such authority.  He, however, did not complete the Dale Carnegie course.  Referring to some of his listeners as a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 12:34), it is easy to understand why he did not make many friends as he preached.

John did not lack boldness.  He challenged even the Herod family, which was a royal mess, to repent of their sins.  In particular John was concerned about Herod Antipas, who in A.D. 29 had John arrested and imprisoned.  Herod Antipas had taken as his wife his brother’s wife, Herodias.  She was also his niece.  It is a tangled web to try to understand what was happening in the family of Herod.  Scripture records that John the Baptist so offended Herodias that she insisted he be beheaded.  Some say that Stephen was the first Christian martyr, but John the Baptist was also a martyr.  Perhaps it is incorrect to think of him as a Christian martyr though he certainly proclaimed Christ.

What was John’s role?  John was very clear about his mission and never lost sight of that role in life.  He knew that God had set him apart for a particular purpose.  Through God’s direction, John was a forerunner, a messenger, challenging people to prepare for the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.  He emphasized the importance of turning away from sin and participating in baptism as a symbol of repentance.

In ancient times a king planning a trip always sent a messenger or party ahead to prepare the way and take care of all details.  John, in trying to do just that, talked about valleys being lifted, mountains being made low, and roads being made straight.  John, considered the “voice crying in the wilderness” that Isaiah spoke about in Isaiah 40:3, was concerned with preparing the human heart for the coming of the Messiah.

We know from the Scriptures that John made it clear that he was not the Christ (John 1:19-23).

19 Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. 20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.”

21 They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?”

He said, “I am not.”

“Are you the Prophet?”

He answered, “No.”

22 Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”

23 John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”

In Matthew 11:11, Jesus said of John, “Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

I want to tell you that baptizing is not as easy as it looks.  Professors in seminary do not teach students how to baptize.  No one ever taught me any techniques.  I learned on a poor woman who was a child care worker at Ormsby Village Treatment Center where I was a chaplain.  When she accepted Christ, she asked me to baptize her.  I contacted a local Baptist church and asked if we might use their baptistery one afternoon.  They agreed.

This woman’s baptism was a very significant experience for us both.  All of her family and a number of people in the institution where I served came to the church to see her baptism.

Please, I want to be kind.  This woman was ample.  She was hefty.  At that point in my training I did not know anything about giving instructions beforehand.  I just thought I could lean her back, prop her up, and that was it.  I did not have any trouble getting this woman under; but her feet came to the surface, making her bob like a fishing cork.  I could do nothing to get her to stand.  Pictures are worth a thousand words.  I had her like this; I brought my knee up under her back and caught her right in the small of the back.  She said, “Oh, Lawd!”  Her family and friends thought she had received the Holy Spirit, and they all went crazy!  She missed three days of work with a bad back, and the superintendent informed me I could never again baptize any employee of the institution.

I have since then performed hundreds of baptisms.  I now give some coaching advice and tell people what to do ahead of time.  I have never lost anyone, but I have held some down a little longer than others.

I have baptized nine people, some of you, in fact, in the Jordan River.  It is not very wide, not the “mighty Jordan,” but it is deep and cold.  It is more difficult to baptize there because the bottom of the river is not flat.

Did the Jews of Jesus’ day practice baptism?  They did.  Baptism was very much a part of the ancient Jewish community.  Before a high priest conducted the service on the Day of Atonement, before a regular priest participated in any temple service, before a person entered the temple complex, before a scribe wrote the name of God, as well as several other occasions, the person had to be baptized.  According to Jewish law, both men and women were to be immersed.  It was required for anyone converting to Judaism and required after a woman had her monthly menstrual cycle.

The Christian church is indebted to first century Judaism for our structure, Scripture, canon, liturgy, altar, pulpit, church offices, songs, offerings, terms such as Messiah, and even the Lord’s Supper, which started out as the Passover meal.  It is without question that the baptism we practice is not unique to the Christian church.  It came to us through Judaism.  Scholars tell us that the ancient church practiced baptism by self-immersion.  The only person in the pool baptized himself by simply going under the water.

Some of you remember that I baptized Judson Powers by self-immersion because he did not want me to lean him backwards.  He said, “Please just let me go under by myself,” which was perfectly fine.  I must tell you that I started to wonder if he was ever going to come up out of the water.

Baptism could be practiced in Judaism in six ways, with the highest form occurring in water that flowed, like water from a spring or river.  In the history of the Jewish community, the Hebrew term mikvah, means the gathering of waters.  The Creation in Genesis mentions a gathering of waters, using the same term, mikvah.  With the word’s usage there, the ocean becomes another suitable place for baptism.  It is interesting to note that in John 4 Jesus, in his conversation with the woman at the well, described himself as “living water.”

The building of the mikvah was so important in ancient times that it was said to take precedence over the construction of a synagogue.  Archeologists have discovered no fewer than forty-eight different mikvahs around the temple complex.  No mikvah has been found in Nazareth, but archeologists are certain that one must have been there at the time of Jesus.  The term is specifically used for a Jewish ritual bath or pre-Christian baptism.  Some mikvahs were used exclusively for very special people.  For example, the high priest had a private mikvah.  Lepers were required to use another mikvah designated only for those with the disease.

The Mishnah attributes self-immersion in a mikvah to Ezra who decreed that each male should immerse himself before praying or studying.  Several groups observed ritual immersion.  The Essenes were one.  Other groups were known as daily bathers.  Some in the Talmud were called dawn bathers.

I attended a Shabbat meal at the temple Friday night to recognize the tenth anniversary of Rabbi Liebowitz.  The president of the temple explained that they had just refurbished and rekoshered the kitchen there.  When I asked him what that procedure involved, he said, “We immersed all the pots and pans in boiling water to cleanse them.”

If John is preaching the baptism of repentance and Jesus was without sin, why should Jesus be baptized?  That question offers a great theological dilemma.  Some have said that he did it to please Mary.  I guess some people do get baptized for their mother.

When Harry Gibson was ninety-three years old, he told me that he wanted to be baptized.  He said, “I was baptized in the North Tyger River.  I did it for my Mama.  I want to do it for the Lord.”

Some commentators say that Jesus was baptized because he wanted to identify with the movement toward God that John had sparked.  That reasoning seems shallow.

The Gospel of Matthew gives us a stronger clue.  We read in Chapter 3, Verses 13-15, “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”

Furthermore, according to Mosaic Law, the earliest age a priest could begin his duties in the temple was thirty.  Luke goes out of his way to tell us that Jesus was thirty when he began his ministry.  His baptism may be a prelude to his service as the “great high priest.”

Perhaps a deeper and more significant reason is connected with a king’s coronation.  A king had to be first purified with water – baptism – and then anointed with oil by a priest.  Jesus was preparing for his sovereign reign.  He was first purified with the flowing water of the Jordan River – the highest form of baptism – and then anointed, not by a priest but by God Himself.  A dove descended, and the voice from heaven spoke the words, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”  Consider two Messianic passages.  Psalm 2:7 says, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father.”  Isaiah 42:1 says, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations.”  Jesus was baptized because it was his coronation as King.

We see a puzzling passage in Luke 3:16.  People are confused about the meaning of John’s words that Jesus “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”  Some say it means the Holy Spirit and hell.  I can tell you that the Internet offers little help.  The first fifteen entries or so come from Mormons or Pentecostals.  Go to the Scripture.  Pray about it.  This reference may connect with the next verse that mentions a winnowing fork, a tool used on the threshing floor to separate wheat from chaff.  The kernels were retained and stored while the chaff was burned.  This passage may also hint toward Pentecost.  We read in Acts 12 about the day of Pentecost when the disciples saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that rested on each of them, filling them with the Holy Spirit.

In praying about this passage, I thought about fire and its connotations.  Fire is often presented in a very negative way, as in a sign of judgment or condemnation.  I choose, instead, to think of the fire’s many good functions:  illumination, warmth, purification.  Chris Kurtz prayed earlier in the service that the passion of Jesus would be like an ember that kindles in us a desire to know more and more about God. His comparison between fire and an ember is very appropriate.

Our baptism is important.  The baptistery in this Sanctuary looks like a picture window.  Baptism is a picture that is worth a thousand words.  It is a picture of what Christ has done in our lives.  When I baptize a person I repeat words that come from Romans 6:4:  “Buried with Christ in baptism…and raised to walk in newness of life.”  We have been baptized with the Spirit of God.  We have been baptized with fire because we now contain this ember, this desire to know more, to be purified, to be holier, to share the warmth of Christ with others.

The Jordan River connects two large bodies of water:  the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea.  The Sea of Galilee basically serves as the water reservoir for all the nation of Israel.  You see that it is the bread basket, surrounded by life, by beautiful farming areas.  The river flows out of the Sea of Galilee south through the Jordan Valley and past Jericho, which is also a lush, fertile region.  Some years ago Syria wanted to run a pipeline to the Sea of Galilee to tap into this water supply.  When the Israelis would not allow it, a war over water rights resulted.

The Jordan River then flows into the wilderness area of the Dead Sea.  This second body of water, however, is absolutely dead, so filled with salt that nothing can grow.  It has been discovered that the Dead Sea has rich deposits of potash that can be mined and used for fertilizer.  The evaporation there actually becomes life-giving.  While the sea may not have an outlet, the water yields to the heavens, becoming in its own way, life-giving. The truth is that if we fail to have an outlet of giving in our lives, we, too, can become dead.

Do you who allow the living water of Christ to live in you and flow through you so that you become a source of nourishment to others?  Have you yielded to God so that through your life can enrich the lives of others?

Kirk H. Neely
© January 2014

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