Luke 3:7-14, 19-22
We said last week that we are going to be spending some weeks camping in the book of Luke between now and Easter – getting an idea of who Jesus was from the stories that Luke tells us about him. There are others who tell us about Jesus birth and life and death, of course, but we are going to be learning about Jesus through Luke’s eyes.
And we said that Luke never knew Jesus personally or spoke with him and or heard him speak. So at the beginning of his book he is careful to tell us that he’s going to be compiling the stories of people who did know Jesus and who did hear him speak. And we said that Luke is writing his stories of Jesus about the year 80 or 85 – about fifty years after Jesus died.
So I picture it this way: That Luke is sitting down at his writing desk with his quill pen in his hand and his parchment papers beside him. I picture that at his left elbow, he has the book of Mark, which was written in about the year 70, about 15 years earlier. And Luke copies from Mark – pretty much word for word in many places, as you may have noticed. Luke simply copies Mark’s stories about Jesus into his own account.
And I’m picturing that at his right elbow he has a document called Q. We don’t have a copy of this document called Q, but what probably happened is that a person who knew Jesus well, and heard him often wrote down, on the spot, the words that he said, and compiled them. A pretty much first person, eye witness report of what Jesus said. That document has been lost for us over the years, but Luke had it. And as he wrote his story about Jesus, he quoted from what Mark had written a few years earlier and from this document called Q. AND it seems that Luke had some stories about Jesus that none of the other authors had. Stories that others had told him directly – perhaps they were women. Large sections of the story of Jesus’ birth, for instance, are only told to us by Luke, if you remember, Mark doesn’t tell us anything about Jesus’ birth. And neither does this mystery document called Q.
So I picture that Luke sits at his writing desk with all these stories around him, and compiles his own story of Jesus.
Now think about this, please. It’s about the year 26 or 27. Picture a lonely, wilderness area. There are scrubby little bushes and little bits of grass here and there and a few rocks but mostly it’s dessert. It’s way off the beaten path and far from civilization and far from any decent roads. There is a man camped there in a rugged sort of camp. His name is John and he’s thirty years old and he’s wearing animal skins with a leather belt tied around his waist to hold them all together. He’s eating grasshoppers and drinking water from the river nearby. People are coming for miles and miles from the cities and towns on the other side of the river to hear him speak. They are religious leaders and rich wealthy landowners, and soldiers and tax collectors. Now you remember the religious leaders. They had forgotten their faith and they had crossed over to the enemy and collaborated with the Romans, and they had refused to protect the people who should have been able to trust them. That’s the religious leaders. And you remember the rich wealthy land owners. They were foreclosing homes and land out from under the small farmers and you remember how the rich were getting richer and richer and the poor were getting poorer and poorer in the process. That’s the wealthy landowners. And you remember the soldiers. They were harassing the women and threatening the men and demanding huge bribes from the common citizens and accusing people wrongly. That’s the soldiers. And you remember the tax collectors. They were charging huge amounts of money in taxes – much more than they were supposed to - and they were putting the extra in their own pockets and getting very rich themselves. That’s the tax collectors.
And the minute John sees them all coming – these religious leaders and wealthy landowners and tax collectors and soldiers – the minute he sees them coming he lays into them. This man John has no tact whatsoever and he’s not the least bit diplomatic. He calls them all poisonous snakes and whatever else he calls them. He attacks the religious leaders and tells them to change their ways and threatens them with dire punishments. He tells the wealth landowners to share their food and take care of the poor. He tells the tax collectors not to charge more than they should and the he tells the soldiers not to extort money and or make false accusations against people. Even when they ask what seem to be reasonable questions, he’s pretty harsh on them.
Now just as an aside - this man John has also made the very big mistake of attacking Herod who was the governor up in Galilee up in the northern part of the country. Among other things, Herod had been having an affair with his brother’s wife and finally divorced his own wife and married his brother’s wife. John was openly critical of what Herod had done. Now we might have advised him to be a little careful around such a powerful man, but John had simply lashed out at him in his usual angry, tactless style. Herod was not amused and had John thrown in prison. And in the end, Herod beheaded him. You might remember that story.
And in that setting, that wild and crazy kind of man is shouting at people and lashing out at them to repent and be baptized. And they are. Right there in the Jordan River.
And in that setting, here comes another young man, also thirty years old. His name is Jesus. The people who knew him may have been whispering that the two young men are related in some way – cousins or something. And I’m picturing that the noise dies down and the shouting stops and wild and crazy man stops his ranting. And this young man, Jesus also walks into the river to be baptized. He stands in the river praying. Quietly. In the perfect silence. All eyes are on him. And as they watched, the clouds opened up, and a dove came floating down on him - the Holy Spirit. And a voice from heaven said, “You are my son. My beloved son. I’m very pleased with you.”
And Luke is telling us, one more time, that Jesus is no ordinary young Jewish man. He is not the son of Joseph the woodworker. He is the son of God. And we’re about to see what all that means.
And God is speaking to us. And saying to us “I am here.” In a world where occupation Roman soldiers are harassing the women and threatening the men and extorting huge sums of money from people. I am here - in a world where political leaders are behaving immorally. I am here - in a world where the wealthy are gouging the poor and where the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. I am here - in a world where masses of people are cold and going hungry. I am here - in a world where the religious leaders have forgotten their own faith and are siding with the Romans and refusing to protect their own people. Into that world, God comes. The Holy Spirit comes. And God says, “This is my much loved Son. I am very pleased with him.”
Now it’s easy for us to suppose that God is with us when things are going well. When everybody we love is happy and healthy and well and our children seem to be doing all the right things. When we seem to have enough in our retirement accounts and our saving accounts. When we like our jobs and we have a beautiful relationship with our spouse and a strong circle of supportive friends who give us pleasure. When we have lovely homes and go on very nice vacation trips. When we look up in the morning to see a glorious sunrise and we know it’s the blazing splendor of the Glory of God. It’s pretty easy to see God in all of that and to feel that God is near and to thank God. And on those days we flash a little prayer up to God, or we sit in silence in front of God for several minutes in deep gratitude.
But there are those other days. When we’ve had bad news from the doctor – or when somebody we love is seriously ill. Or when our income doesn’t begin to cover our expenses. Or when there is trouble in our families and we are deeply distressed about our kids or our marriages are in trouble. Or when we hate our jobs, or wish desperately that we had a job. Or when we are lonely or lost or depressed or battling alcoholism. Or when everything we attempt seems to fizzle and we have forgotten how to be hopeful. That’s when we wail out to God, again and again, in the middle of the night. We call out to God in our utter anguish. But it seems that God is not answering us and God seems to be very far away or looking in the other direction and finally we feel like giving up on God.
Now I say this carefully because I do not presume to describe your situation. And our wailing at God is very real and our deep, deep loneliness for God is very real, and our hopelessness is very real.
But maybe it’s in those moments that we remember the promise of our baptisms. We hear God’s voice saying to us, “You are my beloved. I love you outrageously. I have named you and claimed you and you belong to me. You live your life in my hands, and while you live your life in my hands nothing bad can really harm you.”
We grab on to what we know to be true, even when we do not feel it. And we rest in that comfort.