Right before the gospel of today, Luke gives us some historical background and context, “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the reign of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas , . . .” (Luke 3:1-2a).
Luke is setting the stage for the ministry of John the Baptist and also for the ministry of Jesus Christ. The Emperor, the governor, the rulers and the kings and even high priests, were there. But, there was no room for the Jews, God’s people, the common folk, and especially for the poor, the oppressed, and the voiceless, and the marginalized. They are not the protagonists in their story. They are invisible in the history. And, Luke keeps telling us, “then, the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, . . .” (Luke 3:2b-3).
And then, today’s gospel tells us, “the people come out to the Jordan river to be baptized, being filled with expectation and questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, . . .” (Luke 3:15). They are filled with the expectation of the coming Messiah. And Their question is “Where is our Messiah? Who is our Messiah?”
Before coming Vancouver, I was a stage director and stage manager. While directing and stage-managing, my first work in each theatre was to decide where the center of the stage would be, and then, mark its center on the stage with tape or small light. After the center was marked, I usually let the actors, the dancers, and the technical staff know and see where the center is for the show that they were called to perform and work. In fact, without the center mark, every actor or dancer, and every staff, has own center on the stage. Without center mark, they will move around this way and that way, not knowing where the center is. Standing upon the stage, upon their own centers, in chaos, in darkness, they ask one another, “Where is the center mark?” “Where is my center?” “Where is our center?”
However, with the center mark, all the people on the stage come to know not only where the center is, but also who the center is, and what stage they all are called and invited to do their parts in. To begin with, on the stage, in the theatre, they should know where their center is, who their center is, where they should stand and act.
“As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God? My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’” (Psalm 42:1-3)
This psalm 42 has become a prayer and a song for the people coming from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem who were going out to John to be baptized in the river Jordan. They lived in chaotic reality. They lived in darkness. They did whatever they wanted. Because, there was no center in their lives. Their enemies asked, “Where is your God?” (Psalm 42, 115), and they asked one another, “Where is our God?”
In Jesus’ coming down into the chaos of our human world in flesh a child in a manger, God shows us His divine love for his creation and sympathy with his people awaiting the Messiah’s coming. And now, in Jesus’ baptism with the sinners, God shows us His divine solidarity with human beings in need and darkness. He did not need to take human flesh, but he came human. He does not need to be baptized, but he comes to the Jordan river to be baptized among the sinners. Now, Jesus, our Lord, the Son of God, plunges into the setting of human life in sympathy and in solidarity with his people.
Jesus’ coming and his baptism are a true expression, and a real, concrete act of God’s sympathy and solidarity with his people, especially with the people in need, ignored and forgotten from the history, isolated from their own stories.
Luke tells us, the people come out to the Jordan river to be baptized, being filled with expectation. And now, just as in the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was in chaos, and a wind from God swept over the face of the waters, and then a voice came from God, “Let there be light”; and there was light (Genesis 1:1-3), when Jesus is baptized among the sinners living in chaos, the heaven is opened, and the Holy Spirit descends upon him, and the same voice comes from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
This is the voice coming from the center. The voice of the Lord “upon the waters; the God of glory thunders; the Lord is upon the mighty waters. The voice of the Lord is a powerful voice, the voice of the Lord is a voice of splendour. The voice of the Lord splits the flames of fire; the voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;” (Psalm 29) This is the voice of the center, the voice from heaven. And it is a voice of creation, and a voice of love and mercy, which is not only confirming that Jesus is the Son of God who will rule the world and fulfill the will of the Father on earth as in heaven, but also confirming that the people joining in the baptism of Jesus will be given strength and the blessing of peace.
We begin with baptism. We come to join the Christian community with baptism. Through the baptism of Christ, we know where the center is, who the center is in our stage, in this divine theatre. Jesus’ baptism marks the center, and lets the people know where their center is, who their center is. In the baptism of Jesus, we see His compassion and solidarity with the invisible from our society, our neighbourhood. Christian community is a community of the baptism of Christ, confessing he is our center, he is our Lord. In his baptism, we join Jesus’s suffering and death in which God’s love and mercy for us, and God’s sympathy and solidarity with his people are revealed. In receiving the baptism of Christ, we all are called to follow his teachings of love and mercy and justice, and called to join his ministry of sympathy and solidarity with our neighbors in need. We are the community of the baptism of Christ.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, today we are going to renew our baptismal vows over the water of Christ together. Let us mark the center again in our mind, heart, and spirit with the water of Christ to remember where our center is, who our center is, and let us come to the Jordan river to see and serve our neighbors in need. The voice comes from the center, and from our neighbors, “You are my children, the beloved. I am well pleased with you all.”