Sermon Ideas For Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 Part 6
One striking portrait of John the Baptist is by the painter known as Caravaggio. Caravaggio was active around the beginning of the 17th Century. The painting currently is held in the permanent collection of the Nelson Art Gallery in Kansas City. This painting is a powerful portrait for several reasons. First, it is a very large painting which dominates whatever room in which it is placed. Also, draped across the lap of the Baptist is a brilliant red garment. Further, Caravaggio has achieved in this painting sharp contrasts between light and shadow. Finally, this painter has chosen as his model for this subject, a person apparently dragged in off the street, as evidenced by dirty hands and feet.
In this painting, the Baptist is seated in a region which has become the boundary between the deep shadows behind him and the brilliant light ahead. This technique reinforces the sharp contrasts drawn by Luke between, on the one hand, the Baptist who baptizes with water, and, on the other, the Christ who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Isaiah 61 similarly creates drastic contrasts in its presentation of a hope that breaks with what has come before.
These contrasts are significant for Christians. Christians look forward to the coming of a kingdom of light, while living in a time of deep shadows in the world. Baptism is the hope of those who dwell near that boundary.
As such, baptism presents dramatic possibilities for those living at the boundary. These possibilities are such that they provide a passage toward a new life.
Borrowing a phrase found in the Greek tragedy, The Bacchae, by Euripides, baptism might be called, "the path that no man thought." Consider the chorus in which this phrase is found:
There may be many shapes of mystery, And many things God makes to be, Past hope or fear. And the end men looked for cometh not, And a path there is where no man thought, So hath it fallen here.
Similarly, consider these words a guard speaks in another great Greek tragedy, Antigone, by Sophocles:
No joy is like the sweet delight which comes beyond, above, against our hopes.
Baptism is that "path which no man thought." It strikes a dramatic contrast with all that has come before, and grants a sense of joy which soars like a dove, beyond, above and sometimes against our hopes.
It is difficult to read Luke's account of the baptism of Christ without discerning the theme of judgment which is carried in verses like the 17th: "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." (RSV)
The baptism of Christ is a popular theme of religious art. One example of this theme is a Byzantine mosaic which features the feasts of the church. It is located in Florence, and dates from the 14th Century.
At first, nothing seems striking about this mosaic. Jesus is standing in the river. John the Baptist is on one bank. Three women stand on the other side, ready to hand Jesus some garments. Only after the painting is studied for a few moments is one likely to notice the small tree located near the feet of the Baptist. On the ground by the tree there is an axe. It is realized then that baptism embraces both judgment and grace, and its promise stands in bold relief beyond, above and sometimes against our hopes.
Joel Whiteside Louisville, Kentucky