Incarnating the Reign of God

DoveBy Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson, Commentary on Readings for Jan 10, Baptism of the Lord

[John] proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. : And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1.7-11)

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.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison. 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.” (Luke 3.15-22)

During Advent, we listened to the first part of this scene, where John the Baptist challenged people to “bear fruit worthy of repentance” in concrete and specific ways. This week, we hear how Luke reshapes Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism. Mark has John show up out of nowhere in his “Elijah suit” of hair and leather belt (2 Kg 1.8). Luke, in contrast, omits the Elijah visuals. Luke’s John has “known” Jesus since before either was born (1.41). The John the Baptist Luke presents is the son of an urban priest, not a desert wildman. He is thereby someone to whom Luke’s Roman urban audience could more easily relate, as they enter into a narrative that urgently demands that a radical choice be made. Luke shows John responding to the people’s expectation, as they wonder whether John himself might be the messiah. Luke signals the powerful urgency of this choice through the double image of fire (3.16, 17). Luke then intensifies the mood by placing here the notice of John’s rebuke of Herod (cf. Mk 6.17-18; Matt 14.3-4). By suggesting that Herod’s imprisonment of John came immediately after John’s wilderness exhortations, Luke highlights the danger of discipleship right from the start.

We now focus on two images that Luke adds to the scene of Jesus’ own baptism. First, we hear that Jesus had been baptized “and was praying…” Luke regularly shows Jesus communing with God apart from others, and almost always on the earth, as the means for discerning his Way (5.16; 6.12; 9.18; 11.1; 22.32, 41-45), exhorting his disciples also to practice regular prayer (6.28; 11.2-13; 18.1ff; 22.46), and warning against prayer-as-pretext (18.9-14; 19.46). As we noted two weeks ago, this is part of Luke’s larger theme: it is direct encounter with God that opens up the Way.

The second image is that the Spirit descends “in bodily form” (Gk, sōmatikō eidei) like a dove. The root eidos emphasizes the visible appearance of something (as Jesus’ face, 9.29), which is underscored by the rare root, sōmatikōs. Although the wording is slightly different, we find a parallel image in Acts 2.3: “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.” In both cases, the presence of the Holy Spirit is visible and tangible, connecting directly with human bodies.

The image of a tangible “spirit” seems, at least at first, oxymoronic. Doesn’t “spirit” mean something not physical or visible? Luke insists on the palpable experience of the Holy Spirit, both to Jesus at his baptism and the disciples at Pentecost. What can this mean?

Israel’s trust in YHWH was always deeply embedded in the created world. While YHWH is never presented in the form of a physical image, Roman deities were posted and paraded around the empire in countless, visible, bodily forms: statues, images on coins, arches and monuments. For Romans, “religion” wasn’t spiritual, but physical: gods protected the nation in war, provided rain and sun for crops to grow, and punished religious neglect or improper behavior with illness and bad fortune (e.g., Acts 28.3-5). Most importantly, the gods preserved the Pax Romana, through which Rome solidified its hold on the unjust status quo via violence and propaganda.

Luke thus confronts his audience’s loyalty to Roman religion and the Pax Romana by portraying God’s Spirit in the physical form of a dove and fiery tongues, just as Jesus is the physical presence of the Creator God. He is not doing this simply as a reaction against Roman religion, though. Luke is grounding readers in the reality that the power of the Creator God revealed through the Scriptures and now through the person of Jesus has always been physically manifest in the world. This physical presence of God is meant by Luke to inspire his hearers to incarnate the reign of God in place of the Pax Romana.

In this ongoing season of Incarnation, may we be prayerfully open, like Jesus. May we welcome the tangible gift of the Spirit and fire into our very bodies, enlivening and empowering us to discern and walk on the long and dangerous Way of discipleship.

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