Epiphany 1C Sermon (1995)

The Baptism of Our Lord
Texts: Luke 3:15-38;
Is. 42:1-7; Acts 10:34-38


This morning’s gospel lesson from Luke tells the story of Jesus’ baptism. When we resume our reading of Luke in two weeks, we will pick up with the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. There are a number of verses that we skip over in between. They begin:

Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work. He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph, son of Heli, son of Matthat, son of Levi, son of Melchi, son of Jannai, son of Joseph, son of Mattathias, son of Amos, son of Nahum… (Luke 3:23-25)

Yes, that’s right. We skip the genealogy. Fifteen verses worth; a list of Seventy-seven names, all the way back to Adam! Aren’t you glad we skip that part?! And when we sit down to read the Gospel of Luke, most of us wish Luke would have skipped this part, too. Was it really so important to list all seventy-seven names?

Obviously, it was to Luke, or he wouldn’t have done so. Surprisingly, this has also been a very important passage to people of other cultures, of other times and places. Take Papua, New Guinea, for example. A missionary tells the story of his experience there, when he worked some years ago among a ‘primitive’ group of natives, under some rather difficult conditions. This missionary’s world and the world of those for whom he translated the Bible were two very different worlds. In order to help bridge these worlds the missionary translator always worked with a language helper. First the missionary would make his translation. Next he would share his translation with his helper. If the language helper thought the translation was adequate he would in turn read it to his people to get their reactions to the material.

One day as his translation task was proceeding, the missionary made an amazing discovery. He had shown some photographs of places in the Holy Land in order to undergird his translating work. The people were surprised that the events of Jesus’ life took place here on earth. They had believed these stories all to be true only of the spirit world.

And then an even more astonishing event of translating took place. The missionary was translating Luke’s gospel. The genealogical list given in the gospel seemed to the missionary to be quite extraneous and beside the point. So he skipped over the genealogy and went on. The missionary concluded this task, however, by translating the genealogical list, and an astonishing thing happened.

The missionary translator read his translation to his language helper fully expecting him to be bored to death with the whole thing. The helper was not bored at all. Rather, he promptly announced to the missionary that a very important meeting was to be held that night so that the missionary might read today’s translation to as many people as possible.

When evening time came the appointed house was completely full of people. The missionary had never seen so many people attend a Bible reading event before. The language helper asked the missionary to read his translation for the day. The missionary began to read name after name after name. As he read he realized that something strange was happening. The crowd of tribespeople was crisply attentive. They closed in upon him as he read. He was actually afraid they might crush him. He was afraid that what he was reading must have offended some ritual taboo about which he knew nothing. Perhaps they were angry with him. And he had no way to escape. He forced himself to keep on reading the names.

When the missionary translator had finished reading one of the men said to him: “Why didn’t you tell us all this before? No one bothers to write down the ancestors of spirit beings. It is only real people who keep track of their genealogy.” “Jesus must be a real person!” another voice cried in astonishment. “His genealogy is longer than ours!”, cried out another. Still another said, “Jesus must have been a real man on this earth. He’s not just white man’s magic!”

What the missionary translator took to be a boring and meaningless list convinced these people that the truth of scriptures could no longer be in doubt. Jesus must be a real person! A real person and the Son of God!

Perhaps it is easier for us to understand now, too, why Luke thought it so important to include this long, seemingly boring, list of names. Luke wants us to understand two things: (1) that Jesus is a real person; and (2) that Jesus came on a mission for real persons. Jesus’ message wasn’t just about some magical powers in the spiritual realms.

In this morning’s story of Jesus’ baptism, the spotlight is definitely on Jesus. The Hollywood version would literarily use a spotlight at the dramatic moment of Jesus rising up out of the water, with a dove descending and God’s voice calling out. But Luke also makes it clear that the dove is the Holy Spirit in bodily form. Luke is even emphasizing the down-to-earth nature of the Holy Spirit, which is centrally about the task God had for Jesus to do. The Holy Spirit is the power behind the mission Jesus came to accomplish, and that mission began before Jesus and continues after him. Luke follows this story of the baptism with the reminder of all those who came before. Jesus was a real person who came for real people. Later, at the beginning of the book of Acts, Luke tells the story of Pentecost, that the Holy Spirit also comes in a powerful way to Jesus’ disciples, so that they might carry on the mission of Jesus. In our baptisms, the Holy Spirit comes to each of us, so that we might be empowered to carry on that same mission.

What was that mission? We have the rhythm of the whole Church Year to keep us on track with that mission, to follow Jesus through the stories of his birth, his ministry, and finally his death and resurrection. I think we summed it up well in this morning’s children’s time: that Jesus came to start a kingdom of love, let loose God’s power of love in this world. And we have talked about the fact that Jesus’ mission wasn’t just about a revolution in the spiritual realms of beings. His mission was about nothing less than the total renewal of this realm, the realm of God’s creation. Jesus came to save us, so Jesus came to truly be one of us. And Jesus’ real sonship makes us truly sons and daughters, too. The natives of Papua, New Guinea came to understand this fact most clearly through the reading of a genealogy.

We can truly come to understand this good news by witnessing what we witness once again this morning. We are reminded about the down-to-earth nature of Jesus’ mission by such down-to-earth things as the sprinkling of water and the anointing of oil. We use that water and oil with tiny Madelyn and young Deborah here today. And they should remind us that this isn’t simply about ‘spiritual’ matters, like going to heaven when we die and leave this earthly existence behind. The water and the oil should help us to truly grasp the significance of the fact that Jesus Christ came as a real person to save real people, and that the Holy Spirit descends bodily as a dove, because Jesus’ mission was to save all of God’s creation, not just a handful of deserving spirits. That’s what you and I are called to, something big! It is nothing less than the power of God’s love to renew all of creation, beginning with you and me. God reaches out to each of us in our baptisms, takes each of our hands, and says to each one us, “Come, my child, in you I am well pleased. Come, follow as a disciple of my Son Jesus and let us build together this kingdom of love.” Perhaps we can even finish with the same simple prayer. Let’s stand and hold hands together and pray: “Lord, you have baptized us with your Holy Spirit that together, hand in hand, as your true sons and daughters, we will continue to build Jesus’ kingdom of love. Thank you, Lord; help us. Amen”

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, January 7-8, 1995

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