Before I get rolling on the reflection proper, I want to exhort folks who are preaching the gospel text this week to add in the verses that the RSL omits from the reading. Luke 3 is doing something very cool, in terms of narrative arrangement, and cutting out the middle three verses of the passage keeps folks in the pews from seeing that. Beyond that, as I’ll discuss shortly, Luke 3:18-20 reminds those with ears to hear that real prophetic speech has real consequences. But I’ll get to that.
For people to wonder whether John is christos, the one anointed, is nothing short of insurgency. Palestine, in the decades after Marc Antony’s brutal wars against the Parthians and Octavian’s brutal war against Marc Antony, is not only a vital corridor for food to travel from Egypt to Europe but also stands as the frontier between the Parthians, some of whose kingdoms are ethnically Jewish, and the Roman Empire. Those gathered at the Jordan under that hot Judean sun are less like the small bands of the Protestant pious that Americans associate with river-baptism and more like the folks that some news outlets call “Middle Eastern radicals.”
That’s why, in the middle of this narrative, Luke’s narrator stops to note that the leader of the religious extremists (that’s John, folks) is locked up. John’s reproach of Herod’s marriage certainly packs no less punch than a religious celebrity’s finger-wagging at the latest political sex scandal, but beyond the personal offense, which Herod might or might not have cared about, John’s condemnation of the marriage meant that Herod’s heir, the single most important factor in a client-kingdom’s stability, stood to become illegitimate in the eyes of Galilee, a territory just itching to find Rome’s appointed goon illegitimate anyway.
With all that in place we modern readers are finally ready to hear what John has to say about his coming successor and to realize just what sort of person is calling for one who burn “with unquenchable fire” the as-yet-unidentified “chaff” (Luke 3:17). In Palestine, during the reign of Claudius and a mere generation before the rebellion that will tear down Herod’s great temple, John’s are not the small-minded condemnation of a street-corner preacher but the script of a radical desert religion’s manifesto.
Luke 3 jumps from John’s call for the king of fire to his imprisonment, and then back to the man he awaits, Jesus of Nazareth. The narrative largely hides John at this point with a passive verb (Jesus along with others “had been baptized” in Luke 3:21), but a voice from Heaven reminds readers of the Christian Scriptures that John’s apocalyptic fervor has not fallen empty; the words that conclude this pericope come directly from Psalm 2, the song sung when free Israel crowns her king and YHWH of hosts promises that king that any nation that rises against the throne will have its teeth broken. (They don’t mess around in the Psalms, folks.) Luke will take 25 more chapters to demonstrate just how inadequate the people’s and even John’s apocalyptic expectations are next to the cosmic revolution that Jesus bears, but we modern Bible-readers do well to remember that, for an embattled province of a merciless empire, “You are my beloved Son” hits with no less force for a people terrified of Rome than “Let my people go” did for the too-numerous Egyptian Hebrew slaves. Revolution is coming, without a doubt.
At this moment I remember that, among the stories that circulated after I got fired from preaching a year ago–there were a few, and none of them accused me of any particular crime–one was that my sermons didn’t include enough “application.” I suppose some preachers, trying to capture that dull beast, would likely turn the corner at this point and say something like, “You should get baptized like Jesus did” or something of the sort. (I never was much for “application,” and Phil Cary vindicated my suspicion of it long before I got canned.) If I were preaching this text this coming Sunday, the rhetorical aim of the homily wouldn’t be to give ritual advice (as if people needed reminding that the basin of water at the front of the sanctuary is for dunking people) but to remind people that their own baptisms, the ones that we moderns tend to take as a personal identifier at most and an empty rite most of the time, still stands as a renunciation of the rulers of our dark moment, a refusal to take our own Herods as ultimately legitimate, a statement that our sins are not merely the discrete acts–sexual or otherwise–that we hope people don’t remember but the real spiritual forces that keep us from entering into God’s reign. If Jesus hears coronation songs when he emerges from Jordan’s waters, then our baptisteries are nothing less than insurgent training camps.
May the powers of our moment find us dangerous enough to worry, and may Jesus reveal to us, time and again, that we really didn’t know why until God gave us the gift of the gospel.