The Baptism of Jesus and The Missing Verses in the Lectionary Gospel Text

JB in prisonWhile musing on the readings for this coming Sunday, I came across these notes that I made the last time these readings came up – Baptism of Jesus 2010. I offer them to my preaching colleagues in the hope that we might move beyond the story as it has been read during worship so that we might challenge old assumptions and images of the Divine.

According to the Revised Common Lectionary, the appointed Gospel reading for this Sunday when the church celebrates the Baptism of Jesus is Luke: 3:15-17, 21-22. But what about the missing verses 18-20?

Whenever the RCL leaves verses out of an appointed reading, I can’t help wondering what they are afraid of. Could the missing verses contain some hidden information that might threaten some established Christian doctrine? 

Most of us have heard this story of Jesus baptism so many times that we think we know it all. John the Baptist, proclaimed that the Messiah was coming and that the children of God, needed to repent and be baptized. This baptism of repentance was popular among Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries but troublesome to the Roman Empire. As his first public act Jesus went down to the Jordan River and even though John protested that he was unworthy to baptize Jesus, Jesus submitted to John’s baptism of repentance.

That’s how so many people learned the story and the way most people remember it. That is after all pretty much what the what the Gospel according to Luke actually says provided you leave out verses 18 to 20.  

         Why don’t we read those verses during our worship on the Sunday that celebrates Jesus baptism? What’s in those verses that caused the folks who decided what is read in church on a Sunday morning shouldn’t include those particular verses?

Well if you consult the lectionary commentaries most of them will tell you that these verses are left out so as not to confuse the people in the pews. These verses are left out to protect worshippers. The so-called “experts” believe that if these verses were read worshippers might become confused and their childhood memories of this story would be challenged.

So here is the story as it appears in print:

“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, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. With a winnowing fork in hand, he will clear the threshing floor and gather the wheat into his granary, burning the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

       Note well the missing verses:

“But Herod the ruler, whom John rebuked because of his wickedness, including his relationship with his sister-in-law, Herodias—committed another crime by throwing John into prison.”

Those are the two missing verses. The two verses that the experts decided should not be read this morning lest they confuse you.    Herod throws John the Baptist into prison, but we leave that out and without a buy your leave, we read on:

“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 Jesus in bodily form like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven,  “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I AM well pleased.”

If John was thrown into prison when Jesus went down to the Jordan to be baptized, who baptized Jesus?  Now you could say, as many interpreters have said, that the order is not significant and that the writer of the Gospel of Luke didn’t really mean to say that John was already in prison when Jesus was baptized. But if that’s true, then how can we put any faith in the writer’s ability to get the order correct in the other stories he writes about the life of Jesus?

HMMM, as Luther would say, “What does this mean?” Could it be that we don’t know everything about this story? Could it be that there’s more to learn? Could it be that the writer is trying to say something that we’ve failed to consider in the past? Is the writer trying to distance Jesus from the teachings of John? Could it be that the writer of the Gospel is trying to let us know that the Baptism of Repentance practiced by John is different than Jesus’ actual baptism?

John proclaimed that the Messiah will baptize with fire. “The Messiah will carry a winnowing fork 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.” As soon as we hear this, we begin to wonder if we are wheat or chaff and being raised as good Christians we know that we are unworthy and we can almost feel the unquenchable fire singeing at our heels. But according to the writer of Luke, Herod tosses John into prison and we don’t hear from him again until just before his head is lopped off and served up on a silver platter and John sends his disciples to inquire as to whether or not Jesus is the hoped for Messiah. With John in prison the writer of the Gospel according to Luke, has Jesus go down to the Jordan for a different kind of baptism: Not a baptism for the repentance of sin, but a baptism in which God claims Jesus as his beloved son, in whom God is well pleased.

The best kinds of parents that I know, don’t keep their children in a state of constant fear and guilt. They don’t use the treat of punishment as a way to encourage their children to grow. The best kinds of parents encourage their children to grow by loving, nurturing and encouraging them. Really good parents know the importance of empowering their children.

If you read this story carefully you can almost hear the Creator of all that is and all that ever shall be beaming with pride as he says, “That’s my boy! My beautiful child!  Just look at him! Isn’t he marvelous!  I get such a kick out of him.  I could watch him for hours!  I’m so very pleased with him!” No wonder the skies opened up and the Holy Spirit descended on him! What parent wouldn’t empower a child that pleased them so?

If we insist on anthropomorphizing the Creator of all that is and all that ever shall be, then shouldn’t we at least create an image of God that reflects the best in us? Forget the image of God as an abusive parent and begin to see God as the best parent we know how to be. That image will still fail to reflect all that God is, but surely it will give us a better glimpse of some of what God is. And then we can begin to see that like any good parent our God is a God who empowers us. Then we can begin to see that in our baptism the power of the Holy Spirit was given to us. That we too are children of God, and that God delights in us. Maybe then we can begin to claim our inheritance as children of God. Maybe we will see that the power of forgiveness has been given to us and that mercy is ours to bestow. And empowered by the Spirit God we can grow into all that God created us to be.



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