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Commentary: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Clearly, the Spirit is the central theme of the lectionary passages for this Sunday. The Spirit rests upon the herald of good news in Isaiah 61:1-4. Peter and John are sent to Samaria to pray for the Spirit's reception by a group baptized in name alone in Acts 8:14-17. The voice of the Lord breaks cedars and flashes flames in Psalm 29, the "wind" and "fire" of the Spirit's presence from Creation through Pentecost. What then, we must ask, is the Spirit up to in Luke chapter 3?
One's first reaction might be: Not much, in verses 1-20; but a great deal, in verses 21-22. It would appear we have been handed one of those "before and after" moments so useful and familiar in Christian preaching and teaching. Like the people "without" then "with" the Spirit in Acts 8, Luke seems to posit a time "without" then "with" the Spirit in the transition from John to Jesus. This contrast is only deepened by the lectionary's division of the passage into two blocks, one on either side of the divide.
However, before the preacher or teacher gets off and running--citing similar "before and afters," especially along the lines "maybe we need to pray so that we can get the Spirit too"--let us analyze this spiritual division to see if it holds up.
A structural analysis of Luke 3:1-20 heightens our focus on the Spirit. I hope it's not just the preacher in me that sees a three-fold structure throughout. There are three stages for John's ministry: Preparation (vv. 1-6); teaching (vv. 7-17); and imprisonment (vv. 18-20). There are three points to John's teaching: Warning (vv. 7-9); practical ethics (vv. 10-14); and christology (vv. 15-17). Even the points subdivide, each kicked off by a question followed by three moves, as with the questioning regarding John's messiahship followed by arguments regarding worthiness, baptism, and judgment in our verses 15-17. Thus one is prepared to hear Jesus' baptism described in three moves (heavens opened, Spirit's descent, vocal proclamation), moving in reverse and contrasting order to John's christological words cited above. John talks about judgment; with Jesus the heavens eschatologically open forth (cf. Is 64:1-3). John foresees a baptism not of water, but the Spirit; with Jesus the Spirit descends in bodily form (cf. a similar corporal proof in Lk 24:42-43). John anticipates the messiah's coming and talks of sandal service; with Jesus a heavenly voice breaks forth in language similar to God's presentation of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 42:1, but also reminiscent of God's selection of the royal son in Psalm 2:7. The three-fold christology of John is thus set-off against the three-fold baptism of Christ--with the Spirit at the center of each. Luke ushers John off the stage in order to bring Jesus on (note John is not even mentioned in relation to Christ's baptism!), but the Spirit seems the main new actor on the stage.
Wider Context
The problem with this "before and after" approach to the Spirit is the wider context. First, the Spirit is present and active in both John's and Jesus' life prior to Jesus' baptism. John is promised the Spirit before his birth (1:15). Mary is overshadowed by the Spirit at Jesus' conception (1:35). Elizabeth (1:41), Zechariah (1:67), Simeon (2:26,27) are all filled with the Spirit in proximity to either the infant Jesus or John. The Spirit's presence in Luke 3 points back to activity of the Spirit which has prepared the way.
Second, John's reference to baptism with the Spirit and fire points beyond Christ's baptism (mentioned almost in passing with no reference to fire) toward the baptism of Christ's church much later (as anticipated in Luke 24:49 and Acts 1:4-5 and shown forth in Acts 2). The Spirit's movement at Christ's baptism is thus simply one in a series of movements of the Spirit in Luke, particularly associated with the advent of some new public ministry (cf. the "witnesses" in the previous paragraph).
Third, therefore, the lectionary's linking of this bodily manifestation of the Spirit with "spiritual" stories before and after is entirely consistent with Luke's understanding of the ongoing nature of the Spirit's work. The long historical perspective matters so much to Luke "that beginnings and endings are shaped to find their places within it. They punctuate but never disrupt it."1 Luke's emphasis is always more on continuity than discontinuity. The story of salvation history is one narrative because its author is one.
To speak of God keeping promises is to be reminded that the central character in Luke-Acts is God. Some Christian writings are so christocentric that in reading them one tends to forget what Luke does not forget: The story of salvation is God's story. God led Israel; God inspired prophets; God sent John the Baptist; God sent Jesus; God raised up Jesus; and God sends the Holy Spirit. Since God continues to lead and to work the divine purpose, Luke neither longs for nor calls the church back to a golden age, of Jesus or of the early church, but shows that each time and place has its own appropriateness in the plan of God.2
We have now come full circle. From a perceived moment of discontinuity in the movement of God's Spirit toward a re-appreciation of the way Christ's baptism reflects the ongoing and persistent empowering of God's people for public witness. Yes, the heavens opening, the dove descending, and the voice speaking highlight the new aspects of the Spirit's action in relation to Christ. But we must remember that Jesus' ministry in Luke is always linked to the birth and spread of the church in Acts.3
It might, therefore, be appropriate on this First Sunday after Epiphany to ask how our baptisms together reflect the Spirit's activity in Christ's. How have our baptisms marked an opening of the heavens, a reentry of God's power into this world burning away the chaff that the wheat might be gathered and saved? How does the bodily existence of Christ's church shine forth the bodily descent of the Spirit so that those who witness this know, really know that God is yet alive and well? Finally, how does the balance between service and sovereignty, captured in the vocal proclamation of Luke 3:22, sum up God's evaluation of the church's ongoing witness? Ours should not be some "before and after" story of God's presence. Each time and place does indeed have its own appropriateness in the plan of God and the ongoing movement of God's Spirit.
Richard Boyce
1. John Drury, "Luke," in Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, eds., The Literary Guide to the Bible (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), p. 419. 2. Fred Craddock, "Luke," in James L. Mays, ed., Harper's Bible Commentary (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1988), p. 1013. 3. Craddock, "Luke," p. 1013.