The first Sunday after Epiphany is traditionally a time to think about the baptism of Jesus. It is common on this Sunday for preachers to make connections between Jesus’ baptism and our own. That seems like a natural move, for most sermons are directed primarily to the baptized. And it fits well with the lectionary pairing with Romans 6. But a sermon based on epistle this week should probably have a different focus than one based on the gospel. Paul addresses our baptism, while Luke, especially in verses 21-22, draws attention to the baptism of Jesus. There is some continuity between the two, to be sure. And there is good news in both. But the discontinuity is worth taking seriously.
In the following, I will make some observations about how the preacher might use both continuities and discontinuities to proclaim the gracious promises of God in Christ.
- The context for Jesus’ baptism was John’s fiery preaching. Beginning at Luke 3:7, John is on the attack. He proclaims the wrath of God, the inescapable need to repent, and the promise of punishment by fire (3:9, 17). Commentators debate what John meant by saying that Jesus’ would baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire” in verse 16. But this debate is mostly significant if the sermon focuses on our baptism. If it focuses on Jesus’ baptism, however, the contrast between God’s judgment and his pleasure stands out. The Father is not happy with the children of his servant Abraham (3:8), and he doesn’t hide his displeasure. With the child of his servant Mary (1:48), however, he is “well pleased” (εὐδόκησα, 3:22). He doesn’t hide that, either. Luke uses the same language in 12:32, but there Jesus calms the disciples’ fears by telling them the Father is pleased (εὐδόκησεν) to give them (his “little flock”) the kingdom. God’s stated pleasure with his Son suggests that it is good for us (members of his “little flock”) to stay close to Jesus. More importantly, it is good that Jesus stays close to us.
- Luke’s description of the Holy Spirit’s presence at Jesus’ baptism is distinct from the Spirit’s presence at our baptism in several ways. First, the Spirit descended in bodily form, like a dove. While it’s true and right to talk about the reception of the Spirit at our baptism (Acts 2:38), we don’t actually see it. We live by the promise of the Spirit. The closest we get to seeing the Spirit in bodily form is the existence of the church. The Spirit incorporates us into the body of Christ and bears fruit through us. If you choose to highlight the Spirit’s presence in the church, you might also note the continuity between Jesus’ baptism and ours in verse 21. There Luke (unlike Matthew and Mark) points out that Jesus’ baptism took place among the baptisms of “all the people.” It’s a reminder that baptism is a not a solo job.
- Rarely in the Scriptures does the Father speak directly from heaven. Even more rarely are the heavens “opened.” On the latter, Genesis 7:11 comes to mind. There the windows of heaven were opened for judgment as the waters flooded the earth. But in Luke 3 the opening of the heavens ushered in the Spirit and cleared the way for the Father’s words of affirmation. As he would do at the Transfiguration (Luke 9:35), the Father spoke from above to affirm Jesus as his Son. This is good news, for the Son delivers the grace of God through his promises of forgiveness, life, and salvation. These promises don’t normally come to us directly from heaven, but rather through God’s deputies—preachers and Christian witnesses—as they proclaim his Word on his behalf.
These observations about the continuities and discontinuities between Jesus’ baptism and ours should not be used simply to talk about Jesus baptism. Such a sermon would be deadly dull and disconnected from the daily grind. Instead, they should foster proclamation of God’s present promises in Christ for the strength and edifying of your hearers. Jesus is God’s Son for them, and everything he does following his baptism proclaims that good news loud and clear.
Concordia Theology: Various helps to assist you in preaching Luke 3:15-22 from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO.
Lectionary Podcast: Dr. David Scaer of Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, IN offers insight to Luke 3:15-22.