Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
My commentary for this first sunday after Epiphany focuses on the Gospel text and the reading from the book of Isaiah.
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. 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 granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and 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.’
The baptism of Jesus has always been one of my favorite Gospel texts. It appears nearly verbatim in all four Gospels, with the words of God, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” It’s also one of the very few Gospel texts that mention the Holy Spirit. But I think I love it most because it’s evidence of an active God who descends from an opened-up heaven into this world.
My work leads me into places where I NEED to know that God is not far away. In bloody trauma rooms and at interminable bedside vigils and in chilly morgues, I need to know that God has already shown up and has gone before me. I need to hear that God continues to break open the clouds and descend upon this broken world with the grace of a dove. Baptism is not a baby blessing or a welcoming party to the Christian community, it’s a defiant declaration that death does not have the final word and that God walks among us and lives in us.
We are all beloved, no matter how wretched our lives may be, and with us, God is well pleased.
But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, ‘Give them up’, and to the south, ‘Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth— everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.’
Do not fear…for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name; you are mine.
One of the most powerful tasks of my role as chaplain is to bless and commend the dying to the care of God. To name the beloved and entrust them to the care of God. It is a bookend of sorts to baptism, where we name God’s child and entrust their keeping to the Body of Christ on earth. To proclaim, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Go in peace.”
Yesterday, I knelt next to a woman who was in her last hours. Her awareness was flickering and her eyes only opened when I spoke her name aloud and said, “As you complete your baptismal journey, rest deeply in the arms of God who calls you by name.” A small smile passed over her face and she drifted back into her liminal sleep.
In baptism, we are named and claimed, and in our death, we are also named and claimed by the one who created us. Saying, “Do not fear” is easier said than done. With death comes fear of pain, fear of the unknown, fear of how we will cope without our mother or spouse or child. But in this naming and claiming, we hear a more powerful message, “You are mine.” This is not a guarantee that we will never experience suffering, but rather, that we are not alone in that suffering.