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“…and then a bird landed on his head”

Date: January 11, 2021/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey
The baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist.

Luke 3:1-22

If you read my newsletter column this month, you know I’m not in the habit of making New Year’s resolutions.  I don’t think most of them get kept very far into the new year—at least that’s been the case for me when I have made them.  And most of them seem to be about undoing the excesses of the holiday season, which doesn’t always translate into lasting change.

I remember seeing somewhere awhile back that gym memberships go way up in January every year (maybe not this year with the pandemic, but it’ll be awhile before we see statistics on that).  Then, by mid-February, a lot of people are paying for memberships they’re not using.  That’s good for the gyms, I suppose; they rake in the money without having to worry about wear and tear on their equipment.

This year, people have made resolutions to lose weight and get in shape, but would rather not have to go to a gym where there’s no telling what kind of bug they might pick up.  So there are lots of companies advertising for their product, whether it be a stationary bike, a weight machine, or one of those fancy mirrors that have personal trainers in them.  I predict that before the first of March rolls around, there are going to be lots of dusty hatracks taking up space in people’s houses, and those mirrors will be…well, just mirrors on the wall, shaming us every time we walk by them for our failure to keep our resolutions.

My solution to all this?  I don’t make New Year’s resolutions.

How about you?  Did you make a resolution this year?  How’s it going?

I think there’s something to the idea of making resolutions and trying to be better at certain times of the year.  When we take down the old calendar and put up a new one—assuming you even still have a paper calendar hanging in your house somewhere—is one of those times.  Another might be in Lent.  I have sometimes undertaken this kind of project at the beginning of summer, or the beginning of fall.

(I don’t necessarily stick to them any better then, I’m afraid.)

We make resolutions at these times because we know we could be doing better at some things.  We have fallen off our diets when presented with holiday tables groaning with rich food and sweets.  We do let our relationships with others get stale, or maybe we’re not very nice to those we love, who love us and have seen us at our worst.  We may have let our habits of prayer and Bible reading and church attendance—however that’s possible for us right now—slip away.

We know we should be doing better, and we want to do better.  So we make resolutions.

You know, that’s what the people who went to John the Baptist were doing.  His was a baptism of repentance, for the forgiveness of sins.  People went to John because they knew something needed fixing in their lives.  They wanted to turn away from something they were doing wrong, or from not doing something they knew they should have been doing.

John’s baptism, of course, didn’t actually cause a person to develop the intestinal fortitude to resist wrong and do right.  It was a symbolic act, demonstrating publicly that the person had had a change of heart and decided to turn their lives in a new direction.[1]

But I don’t think a whole lot of John’s response to those who came out seeking baptism.  He yelled at them.  He called them snakes!  He questioned their motives.

But he also said something else, that I think is worth our consideration.  “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”

It’s not enough to have a change of heart and go down in this river.  That’s meant to be an outward sign of your inward commitment, yes—but the better outward sign is to start living differently.

If I go to bed with an aching stomach—as in the old commercial, “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing”—and say I’ll never eat so much again, and then the next day my breakfast is as excessive as last night’s supper was, what then?  Did my words at bedtime actually mean anything about my intentions, or was I just reacting to my indigestion with no real interest in preventing it going forward?

“Bear fruits worthy of repentance!”

We want to do better.  We want to be better.  We just don’t always have it in us to stick with the “better” we want to do and be.

It’s at this point that Luke draws our attention to one person standing in the line of people waiting to be baptized.  But Luke really minimizes Jesus’ presence there, and the reality that—as all four Gospels say[2]—John baptized Jesus with all the others seems to embarrass him a little.

There might be two reasons for that.  First, John himself says that he is there to prepare the way for the one coming after him, who is Jesus, and that that one coming after him is so much greater than he that he’s not even fit to serve him as the lowliest slave would do.  So why does Jesus submit to a baptism offered by someone who even describes himself as vastly inferior?

Second, there’s almost the implication that Jesus began his adult life as a disciple of John’s, not the other way around.  The place of John the Baptist in Christian theology may have been a sticking point in the early church.  We even hear in Acts that some believers in Jesus throughout the Roman world were baptized not into Christ (or in the name of Christ) but into John’s baptism, which is for the forgiveness of sins but doesn’t apparently cause a believer to receive the Holy Spirit.[3]

(The only thing is, we learn in all four Gospels that when Jesus is baptized by John, the Spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove.  So what do we make of the people in Acts who received John’s baptism but not the Holy Spirit?  I just don’t know, except that Luke wants us to make sure we know baptism into Christ is more important and more substantial than John’s baptism—as John himself admits in today’s reading.)

Those two reasons are probably why Luke says so little about Jesus’ baptism, and that only after he tells us that John was imprisoned by Herod.

The question of why Jesus goes to be baptized “with all the people” is an important one, regardless of the relative importance of the two baptisms, and regardless of what John says about himself in relation to Jesus.  We will probably remember another time in the opening chapters of Luke when the phrase “all the people” came up.  Remember the angel talking to the terrified shepherds?  “Do not be afraid,” they[4] said; “for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.

One of the main messages Luke has for us in his Gospel and its sequel, Acts, is that in Christ all people, Jew and Gentile alike, male and female alike, regardless of anything we have set up as a barrier between anyone and God, are now invited into God’s beloved community.  It is good news for all the people, and what makes it good news for all the people is that Jesus has become one of us, living a life like ours, receiving a baptism like ours (well, somewhat, anyway), eventually dying a death like ours and making eternal life available to us through his own resurrection.

And so, when we ourselves are baptized (and probably even before, because just like John’s baptism, baptism into Christ is an outward sign of a decision we’ve made), like Jesus we just might hear God say to us, for all the world to overhear, “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.”

And you know what?  Having that tremendous love tucked under our jackets, and put into action through the Holy Spirit that we receive at baptism, we now have what it takes to keep our resolutions, to do better and to be better than we have been, to bear fruits worthy of repentance.


[1] In both Hebrew and Greek, there are two words that mean “repentance.”  One indicates a change of heart or mind, and the other quite literally means “to turn.”

[2] In the Fourth Gospel, we only know about Jesus’ baptism because the Baptist tells us what he saw when Jesus came up out of the water.  See John 1:29-34.

[3] See Acts 18:24-28; 19:1-7.

[4] I use this pronoun quite deliberately; angels don’t have gender, and English hasn’t really had a word that can be used for a being whose gender is unknown or undetermined, until “they” began to be used in that way—and this started well before we became aware of the variety present in gender identity and expression.