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Sunday, January 13, 2013

One of Us.



Luke 3:15-38.

I.
            John the Baptizer’s ministry apparently stirred up enough attention that people began to wonder whether he might be the Messiah… even though he wasn’t doing anything particularly Messianic.  No one expected a Messiah who lived out in the desert dunking people in the Jordan River.  But people were clearly hyper-alert about potential Messiahs. 
            John is adamant that he is not the Messiah, but just preparing the way.  He even compares his baptism in water, demonstrating repentance for the forgiveness of sins, unfavorably with the much more powerful baptism of the One who is coming.  That baptism will be with the Holy Spirit and fire.
            He uses the image of winnowing to explain this.  You may know already, but in ancient times part of the process of making flour was to separate the good wheat kernels from the non-edible parts of the wheat stalk.  First you had to beat the stalks violently so the seeds detached.  This still left you with a pile of mixed wheat pieces.  In order to separate the seeds you used a device like a pitchfork to lift the piles into the air and shake them.  The heavier seeds would drop straight to the ground while the other material, called chaff, would be carried away by the breeze.  You had to do this over and over. 
            So John is saying that just as the wind separated wheat from chaff, so the Holy Spirit, or Holy Wind, would separate good from bad people.  And just as the chaff had no use except as fuel for the fire, so also John is saying that those bad people not chosen by the Spirit would also be liable to destruction.
            But his real point is that the day of this great sorting, this separation, this winnowing is nearly at hand.  And that the Messiah’s role will be to perform this task.
            So John is saying that the time is now to get your life in order so that when the separation comes you will be found among the wheat, the saved, the valued produce that is gathered into the granary, the barn or silo.  You don’t want to be among the worthless chaff that has no use but to be thrown into the fire.  In other words, you want your life to produce good fruit, which John has already identified as a life of sharing with those who have less, and not stealing or extorting money from your neighbors.
            It is interesting to me that John has this particularly economic understanding of the matter.  Bearing good fruit is presented as advocating and practicing a redistribution of wealth from richer to poorer, and scrupulous fairness, even to the point of taking a financial hit yourself, in your economic dealings.  John does not deal with other matters of personal morality, like some of the sexual sins we have come to think are so important. 
            It is our practices regarding wealth, money, work, and property that John presents as the indication of whether a person is bearing good fruit and therefore worthy of being saved. 

II.
            The idea of Jesus coming as the great winnower who separates the wheat from the chaff, the sheep from the goats, the good from the bad, is a persistent theme in the gospels.  It is not one that we stress very much these days.  That’s probably because of a justified trepidation about which side of this equation we might find ourselves on. 
            Luke reminds us that this is supposed to be good news.  And it is good news, if you are someone who habitually shares with others in need, or if you are poor and able to be grateful to someone for their generosity.  But it’s not good news if you are wealthy and powerful, and disinclined to sharing.
            So we are immediately informed of what would happen to John.  He gets arrested.  The reason is that he was overly critical of the King, Herod Antipas.  This is the son of the murderous King Herod from back when Jesus was born.
            But the main thing John is critical of the King about is that he married his own niece, who was also the ex-wife of his brother, another King, Herod Philip.  This is explicitly against the law in Leviticus 18 and 20.  But I suspect that Herod Antipas’ main sin in John’s eyes was imagining himself to be exempt from God’s Law.  Luke mentions “all the evil things that Herod had done,” in addition to this incest.
            Thus we have set up for us the dynamic in which these two men, John and later Jesus, find themselves at odds with the ruling authorities.  We know from many hints in the first few chapters here that what God is doing has to do with the turning upside-down of the world order.  It was especially explicitly declared in Mary’s hymn.  Now we see this antagonism starting to happen.  John runs afoul of the King and gets thrown in prison.
            The rulers do not come off well in any of the gospels.  They are habitually resistant to what John and Jesus are about.  Like the whole Bible, the gospels are deeply suspicious of human leaders generally.  People are too easily bought off and corrupted.  They become addicted to wealth and power, and sacrifice others so they can acquire more of it.  They disregard or marginalize or deliberately and self-servingly misinterpret God’s Law.
            Locking John up in prison is Luke’s way of telling us that the word had been effectively neutralized by power.  That is the situation when Jesus is baptized.  Of these two figures we have been reading about, one is knocked out of the story before it really even begins.   

III.
            But John relates to the age of the prophets and the law, and that age is now quickly drawing to a close.  The days when the wealthy and powerful could eliminate their problems by arresting the ring-leader and cutting off his head, are over.  The new age of the Messiah and the Spirit officially begins in the next few verses.  Now the problems for the leaders are going to be a lot bigger.
            This new time begins with Jesus’ baptism.  In his baptism Jesus identifies completely with us, sharing our life and our death.  He finds himself among the masses of people, Jews, who had come to John for a new start in their lives.  And it turns out to be a new start for Jesus as well.  Not because his life was mired in sin, although we know nothing of his life since that one incident when he was 12.  But because whatever his life had been, it is now something new and different.
            Luke words this in such a way as to make it clear that Jesus is among “all the people” who had been baptized.  In fact it is not even totally clear in Luke that John personally baptizes Jesus at all.  We almost get the impression that he is one of the crowd of people who have been baptized until, as he is praying, he is singled out by God.  “The Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” 
            This is his anointing by the Word and Spirit of God.  This is where he gets his title: “Christ,” which is Greek for “Messiah,” which is Hebrew for “anointed.”  The event itself is wildly understated; the other gospels give much more detailed and even spectacular accounts. 
            But Luke apparently doesn’t want this to look like Jesus was anointed by John, or that John is passing his torch to Jesus.  By the time Jesus is baptized, John’s work is done.  It is God who baptizes Jesus.  This is a new thing God is doing.  Jesus goes into the water like everyone else, but what happens in that is different from what happens to everyone else.  Luke wants his readers to know that Jesus’ baptism is God’s doing, not John’s. 
            Certainly there is continuity between the new age of the Spirit and Messiah, and the old age of the Law and the Prophets.  But there is also a break.  There is a new start.  John was doing prophet-stuff; Jesus will begin to do the things the Messiah was expected to do.  If John is about getting your house in order, Jesus is about getting a new house.  If John is about becoming good fruit so you’re ready for the winnowing, Jesus is the winnower, the one who separates those who have a place in God’s Kingdom from those who have already received their reward here on earth.

IV.
            So we are expecting Jesus’ ministry to commence now… but Luke has one more digression to make.  And one wonders why.  What is so important that he breaks up the momentum and trajectory of his story with, of all things, a genealogy.  Genealogies are one of the most famously boring and apparently pointless literary forms in Scripture.  When we come to them we kind of glaze over and skim until we get to something more substantive. 
            But it is here, in the middle of the story, between Jesus’ baptism and his battle with Satan in the wilderness, that Luke places Jesus’ genealogy.  There were plenty of other places to put this, if it even had to be included at all.  But Luke chooses here in order to fully identify the Messiah at the very outset of his work.
            First of all, Luke seems to undercut the whole thing by inserting the words “as was thought” at the beginning to remind us of what we learned in Chapter 1, that Jesus is not biologically the offspring of Joseph.  Rather, Jesus is, we might say today, adopted by Joseph. 
            Now, I am the father of an adopted son and I understand the rather different dynamics and language that accompanies adoption.  People can be conceived by accident, but you can’t be adopted by accident.  To be adopted is to be chosen in a very direct way by at least one parent.  And once you are chosen, you are legally as good as descended from that parent by blood.  That’s why Luke can move right into a genealogy of Joseph as the genealogy of Jesus.  The whole point, one of them, about the faith that Jesus will inspire is that it’s not about blood and genealogy anymore.  Whether you can trace your lineage back to Abraham is immaterial; now what matters is your birth in the Holy Spirit.
            But Luke persists with giving us a genealogy anyway, for several reasons.   Notice that Luke does not name any of the kings of Judah as an ancestor of Jesus, except David.  Many of the names we do get are unknown, which tells us that Jesus springs from the more marginal and anonymous descendants of David.  He does not have in his background even any of the better kings; the disobedience of the royal family who were mostly corrupted by their power is not part of Jesus’ identity, as far as Luke is concerned.  Until we get back to David, Jesus’ ancestors include nobody famous or powerful. 
            Another point Luke makes is to bring the genealogy all the way back to Adam, whom he identifies as “son of God.”  Had he stopped with Jacob or Abraham, this would be about the Jewish Messiah.  Because he goes back to Adam it means Jesus is related to all of us.  He is Messiah for the whole world, all people, the whole creation… which is a truth that we have already heard from Simeon.

V.
            In any case, what we can apply from today’s reading is that the Messiah is one of us… because he chose to be one of us.  He is a descendant of Adam, which is to say a human being.  He submits to baptism, just like all the Jews who gather at the river.  Outwardly he is nothing special… until he is anointed by the voice and Spirit of God in a very visible and public way.
             What this tells us is that Jesus’ ministry is not going to be beyond our ability to understand or participate in.  He is born of Mary just as we are each born of a woman.  He is adopted into Joseph’s family, and so shares in a long line of sinful, anonymous, and sometimes good and glorious people.  We are children of God indirectly through Adam, into whom God breathed life and from whom we are all descended.  Yet he is the Son of God directly, declared to be so by a voice from heaven and the descent of the Spirit in the form of a dove.
            When he emerges from the waters of baptism, he is declared Son of God, he is God to us, he represents in the most comprehensive way the saving, healing presence of the living God in human life.  He is God’s transcendent love, made flesh.  He is the promised Messiah for whom the world has long been waiting.
            And at the same time he is one of us in every important way.  He also represents our truest humanity.  He is in some sense what God intends us to be in our humanity.
            Therefore, we may journey with him, learn from him, and especially follow him as trusting disciples.  Certainly we can’t do everything he does, especially in a literal sense.  But we can live by his light and energy, we can obey his commandments, and we can show his love in all that we do and are.
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