Sermon Ideas For Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 Part 4
The passage brings us to the beginning of Jesus' ministerial work (Lk 3:23), and therefore is pregnant with anticipation. From the outset of Luke 3, John is presented as a prophet to whom the word of the Lord has come, and whose task it is to prepare the way for the decisive salvation of God. His rigorous, even severe message is one of extraordinary urgency ("Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees..."), and it includes emphases on judgment, repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and obedience. Jesus is the Messiah for whom John prepares the way.
From a historical-critical perspective, it often is surmised that the relationship between Jesus and John was problematic for early Christian communities, and that this is one reason why it receives considerable attention. (See also Mt 1:18-23; 3:1-12; 11:2-15; Lk 1:5--2:40;7:18-29.) Did the movements led by Jesus and John complement one another, or were they in competition? If Jesus was indeed greater than John, then why was he baptized by John? Could Jesus have been a follower of John who took up the task of publicly proclaiming the kingdom only after John's imprisonment? Did Jesus and John envision the coming kingdom in the same way?
Theologically speaking, one way to view our passage is as furnishing answers to questions such as these. For the writer of Luke, the ministries of John and Jesus are continuous in the sense that John prepares the way for Jesus, and both proclaim the kingdom of God. Nevertheless, Jesus is the incomparably greater figure, and his baptism at John's hand is an occasion for his distinction as God's beloved son. John clearly is a transitional messenger. Although both John and Jesus preach the kingdom, John is the end of the pre-kingdom era, whereas Jesus is the inaugurator of the kingdom itself. John heralds the coming decisive event; Jesus is the decisive event.
On this point, the Lukan symbols and language are unequivocable. John baptizes with water; Jesus with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Of those born in the pre-kingdom era, none is greater than John, and yet the least of those in the kingdom inaugurated by Jesus is greater than John, (Lk 7:28). That is, Jesus, the beloved son of God, is the one equipped with the decisive salvific power of God. This is why he works the final judgment or the final separation of wheat and chaff. This is why, immediately before he takes up his ministry, Jesus is marked off, chosen, and empowered by the descent of the Holy Spirit "in bodily form like a dove."
There are a number of things to be said about Jesus and his empowerment (some might say adoption) in the Spirit. The Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to resist temptations to other sorts of power: The power to turn stones into nourishment, the power to rule all the kingdoms of the world, and the power to command God's special protection, (Lk 4:1-13). Filled with the power of the Spirit, Jesus begins a ministry of teaching and healing that will culminate in the peculiar and costly victory of the cross,(4:14). He launches the decisive proclamation and embodiment of God's kingdom, preaching release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed,(4:18). In the foreboding shadow of Herod's arrest of John (3:19-20), he embarks on the long-awaited and as yet unfilled project of unswerving faithfulness to God and God's purposes, even in the face of confrontation and death.
Thus, if John is the final messenger, Jesus is inaugurator of God's kingdom. Inspired with the power of God's Spirit, Jesus teaches the truth. Directed, oriented, and shaped by God's Spirit, he embodies a way in life that is faithfully responsive to God and God's purposes. Empowered by God's Spirit, he empowers others to receive full and abundant life. Jesus Christ, the one on whom the Spirit descends with power, is more than a prophet, more even than John, the last of the prophets. He is the proclaimer of God's kingdom in whom that kingdom is made manifest, the one whose sandals John is not worthy to untie. Jesus Christ is the power of God.
For Paul Tillich, affirmations such as these meant that Jesus Christ, as the bearer of the Spirit in power, is the New Being. Jesus Christ bears the power of re-creation; he is the one equipped with the healing power of salvation that overcomes the sinful estrangement of persons from God and from one another. Jesus Christ is the new creation of the divine Spirit, and thus whoever participates in the Christ is made into a new creature by the Spirit. Or, again, we might say that, in Jesus Christ, the project begun and corrupted with the primeval history in Genesis reaches its saving denouement. Human beings are once again (and this time, decisively) set on the path to true and abundant life.
Jesus Christ is the one on whom the Holy Spirit descends, the power of God, God's own son with whom God is well pleased. He is the salvation of God that John, quoting Isaiah 40, claimed that all flesh would see,(3:6). That is why, when John later sends his disciples to ask Jesus whether or not he is the expected one, Jesus answers, "Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news preached to them," (7:22).
In sum, the basic theological meaning of the Gospel lesson for January 12 is both simple and direct. The final preparatory messenger has come; the salvation of God is now appearing.
Douglas F. Ottati