"How Bizarre" is a 1996 one-hit-wonder. The writer was a New Zealand gang-banger who got his musical training in their juvenile prison system. The song "was all very random and surreal"(99 Red Balloons, 9). It reflected how bizarre the author's track to musical stardom was. But his story is not nearly as bizarre as our text.
How bizarre are these events! Luke signals as much with the words the King James translates "it came to pass." This is the Greek way of saying a Hebrew expression that signals something big is about to take place. We first hear it when aged Zacharias is chosen to offer the incense in the holy place. The Christmas story begins with "and it came to pass, "and the actual time for Mary to be delivered has the same expression. Then comes our text. "and it came to pass when all the people were being baptized also Jesus was." How bizarre!
Why? Because Scripture jumps from a 12 year-old boy to a 30 year old man. The Eastern church actually has celebrated the birth of an Infant and the baptism of a Man on the same day for 18 centuries. One historian observed, "What can be more absurd than the introduction in the first scene of a child in swaddling clothes, who in the second appears as a bearded man" (From Dawn to Decadence, 166).
But the bizarreness has just begun. Why should heaven be opened by this event? John baptized people by the hundreds and with this One the heavens were opened? How bizarre! And what's with this phrase: "and the Holy Spirit descended on Him in bodily form like a dove?" How else does a physical dove descend but bodily? None of the other evangelists tell you that the dove that descended did it bodily. How bizarre!
While we're looking at the Spirit, let's look at the Father too. When's the last time you remember seeing the Trinity? O references to the Trinity are throughout the Old Testament, but the last time you see them is at creation: "God created the heavens and the earth and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said." Now thousands of years later at the beginning of recreation the Trinity shows up again. How bizarre!
More bizarre things are to come. Consider the Son's humiliation. God the Son receives a baptism that was only for sinners who confessed their sins. Luke emphasizes this. Jesus was baptized "when all the people were being baptized." See Jesus standing in line with people guilty of lying, gossiping, worrying, lusting, killing, stealing. People like you and me. Luther saw the bizarreness of this: "Jesus comes to him [John] at the Jordan from Galilee and desires to be baptized. How marvelously backwards this is" (LW, 58, 44). How backwards? No, how bizarre!
So far we have the holy Son of God standing in a muddy river having confessed sins He couldn't be guilty of but carried in place of the world, and we have Him praying. I can't tell you how many times a layperson has said, "Isn't Jesus just talking to Himself when He prays?" Well it is bizarre. This is the first of occurrence of what is a regular event in Luke's Gospel. He prays before choosing the 12, before Peter's confession and His first Passion prediction, before the Transfiguration, before giving us the Lord's Prayer; He prays at the Last Supper to strengthen Peter's faith, in the agony of Gethsemane, and while dying on the cross.
How many of you prayed before the big moments in your life? Probably and this is going to smart only when you thought your life was really on the line. Did you pray before asking for your wife's hand? Did you pray before taking the holy vow of confirmation? Did you pray before moving your family hither or yon? Did you say which by the way would have been more than adequate even a Lord's Prayer before buying or selling a house, a car, or choosing a career path? I didn't either. How bizarre! The holy Son of God who could make no poor decisions humbles Himself to pray at every deciding point, while I who am prone to making not just poor but wrong and even evil decisions prayed at nary a handful. How bizarre!
And God the Father is pleased by this humiliation. He has to be. He says so. "With you I am well pleased," He says about His Son standing there with our sins having now been applied to Him dripping off of Him. Our sins of unbelief, misbelief, and other great shame and vice hit the waters of the Jordan making oil stains, blood spots, sweat plops, and tear drops. And the Father is well-pleased? How bizarre!
You think it's bad when you're humiliated. It was bad when I confidently said in seminary that Noah led Israel out of Egypt. It was bad when I introduced myself on my first hospital call: "I'm pastoral care from the Paul Harris department." It was humiliating when I got beat up in 9th grade, but it is far worse when your child is. You want to die when you're humiliated; you do die a little when your kid is. And you die even more when you actually see the humiliation taking place. Yet the Father is not just pleased but well pleased and if that isn't bizarre I don't know what is!
Perhaps because the Baptism of Our Lord is like stepping into Superman's Bizarro world, the Western Church, from which Lutherans descend, has avoided it. I told you the Eastern Church has been celebrating it sense the 2nd century. The Western Church didn't get on board with that till 1978. How bizarre! Unless. Unless they, we, us didn't really get what a big deal the Baptism of Jesus is.
Several times in years past I've referred to the 16the century painting by El Greco that depicts the Baptism of Christ as "reverberating through all creation" (Ox. Hit. of Worship, 823). It was an earth shaking, heaven opening, sin forgiving moment in history, and it's the last I wish to focus on. How bizarre that baptized sinners miss the forgiveness as if the Baptism of their Lord is much ado about nothing.
How bizarre that baptized sinners still see heaven shut to them after the Baptism of Jesus opened heaven to sinners. How bizarre that baptized sinners whose obligation to be holy was publicly taken on today along with their debt to pay for their sins should act like heaven is still closed to them. It's a leaden sky that bounces back their prayers. It's a thick black cloud hanging over them that the Spirit can't pass through to get to them. How bizarre that Jesus undergoes all this humiliation for us men and our salvation, as we confess in the creed, and we aren't ecstatic about it. No, heaven isn't open to me. Angels and archangels don't join me in adoration around the Christ in Communion. The door to heaven is shut, bolted, locked, and sealed. Well that's not how it is, but that is how we act. How bizarre!
I was struck some years ago while praying "The Pastor's Prayer" in The Lutheran Hymnal Agenda that twice I directly asked for the Spirit. "Send down Thy Holy Spirit to cleanse my lips." "Let Thy Holy Spirit direct me" There was my problem! I had been doing the ministry unaware that I needed Him to do it. So how about you? You think you have any chance of being a Christian parent, church member, citizen, employee, or employer without the Spirit? You don't. Without the Spirit, You're crazy Saul tormented by evil spirits from the Lord. Without the Spirit, you're Samson shorn of the Spirit wrongly thinking he can still easily escape the Philistines.
How bizarre then that baptized sinners doubt that they receive the Spirit won for them by Jesus' holy life and guilty death and left for them in Baptism. The Spirit comes upon Jesus because it could not land on sinners dead in their trespasses and sins. Jesus was the only living Man in that long line. So the Man Jesus was the only one who could receive the Spirit, and He kept the Spirit by never sinning to drive Him out, and He paid for the right to give this same Spirit to sinners. What does Scripture say about the death of Jesus? John 19:30 says, and compare my literal translation with modern ones, "And bowing the head He did give up the Spirit." See the S' on Spirit capitalized.
How bizarre that baptized sinners doubt they receive the Spirit that Jesus put for them in Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, Holy Communion. Where else are you going to find the Spirit of holiness except in the Holy Things Jesus left for you and commanded you to use? Therefore, you are to believe that in these 3 you have all the Spirit you need to be and function wherever God almighty has placed you in life. You are not to doubt that the Holy Spirit who fluttered down out of heaven at the Baptism of Jesus has failed to land on you in Holy Baptism, fails to be in your ears in Holy Absolution, or fails to be eaten and drank by you in Holy Communion.
How bizarre that we baptized sinners not only doubt this, but live in doubt of God's approval. All English translations are going to read the Father saying, "With you I am well pleased," but you know from Bible class that this is the Greek preposition en. You know this is diagramed as being in the object. Jesus is the 'You' and the Father declares, "I am pleased in You." So are you in Jesus or not? Did Paul lie when He said, "As many of you who've been baptized, you have put on Christ." Did Jesus lie when He said those absolved on earth in His name are forgiven in heaven? Do the words of distribution mislead when they say, "Take Eat My Body;" "Take drink My Blood?" Where to you think Jesus' Body and Blood go but in you? And if He's in you, you're in Him and the Father is well-pleased with you.
You can get up each morning make the sign of the cross in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost assured the Father is pleased as punch with you. You can go to bed at night doing the same thing and fall asleep knowing that in Jesus God doesn't want you doubting His approval. You've probably had the experience of waking up to the realization that your parent or spouse is rightly mad at you. The Baptism of Jesus says you never have to wake up that way with God.
The Baptism of Jesus does so much for us; shows so much about us, and gives so much to us. Yet it's not thought of or used much by us. How bizarre! Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Baptism of Our Lord (20160110); Luke 3: 21-22