The gospel for the first Sunday after Epiphany describes John the Baptist’s understanding and expectation of the Messiah. It also tells the story of how God publicly revealed Jesus as his Beloved Son.

The gospel for January 9th (Luke 3:15-17,21,22) begins, 

The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” ….

A sense of anticipation pervades the scene: The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. To those who came to hear him, John seemed to meet the criteria of Messiahship. But John said, in effect, ‘your standards are too low’. Then he described the coming Messiah in terms of surpassing power and majesty… the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. …” John urged his followers to await someone far greater than he was.

When he said, “I baptize you with water. But …he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”, John’s words seem to foresee Pentecost when suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:2-4) 
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A few verses before the beginning of this gospel, John addressed the people who came to hear him as “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?  Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. In keeping with this assessment, he added that the Messiah would be a fierce apocalyptic reaper who would separate the wheat from the chaff, by which he meant that the Messiah would separate the good and bad people. The bad he would burn with unquenchable fire. It was an impressive and intimidating set of Messianic images, seemingly intended to change people’s behavior with a death-oriented morality.

His prophecy of a baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire was vague and his words may have created a different and possibly an incorrect impression, especially when he told them that unquenchable fire would be the Messiah’s instrument of punishment. That fire could bless and punish, depending on the circumstances, may have blurred the understanding of his listeners.

John, himself, may not have fully understood the words that he spoke. Like the Magi of Epiphany, he may have been urged to speak and act without comprehending the deeper truths or the details of his words.

Furthermore, when he told people that the Anointed One would arrive soon and judge people, but without describing any of the Messiah’s miracles, life or teaching, John may have created the impression that the savior would arrive in glory in order to dispense apocalyptic justice shortly thereafter.

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When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. Despite John’s portrayal of power, glory and judgment, Jesus’ actual appearance was much humbler and gentler. It seems that even John did not recognize him. Jesus was so much like one of the crowd that he merged with those being baptized and did not stand out as the one whom John had described.  

Jesus’ unassuming arrival for his baptism is in keeping with the spirit of the Incarnation. In Jesus, God appeared as a normal human rather than in majestic robes or as a stern judge. 

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Still, Jesus’ participation did not go unnoticed, because, as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” 

The phrase like a dove and is adverbial, “dove-like in its hovering over”, which emphasizes how the Holy Spirit appeared…rather than ‘looking like a dove’. Furthermore, the appearance of the hovering Spirit, recalls Genesis 1:2, the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. The Spirit of God had blessed this specific creation of Jesus as it had blessed the original creation of the heavens and the earth. 

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John’s description of the Messiah, particularly from our knowledge of how Jesus' life unfolded, invites us to consider how accurate John’s prophecies were. 

John wasn’t wrong in his predictions of majesty. As we now understand God’s work, the word has been creating the universe with its hundreds of billions of galaxies and trillions of stars for roughly 13.7 billion yeas. Our place in this vast creation is vanishingly small. If anything, John’s sense of God’s grandeur was understated. We have only begun to explore the dimensions and mechanics of the grand scale of creation. At the same time, we continue to discover the intricacy of the universe in genetics, atomic and subatomic structures, including particles that theoretically “must” exist but that cannot yet be detected. 

John used the language and understanding of his day to try to express this sense of God’s splendor. In doing so he was directionally correct, even if his description lacked the scale that we can now appreciate.

However, John’s recorded words failed to grasp the depths of God’s love in taking human form to show us how to live. The incarnation was an act of surpassing care but John omits that, at least in the gospel accounts. Instead, in his description of the winnowing fork and the unquenchable fire, John focused on the consequences of refusing the grace that God’s human life offered. 

That said, John’s own teaching… Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Telling tax collectors … “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” and soldiers … “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely” … showed the same concern for the marginalized that Jesus would.  John did not stress ritual prayer and sacrificial offerings, instead he spoke of how to live a holy, daily life.

We still believe, as John did, that there will be judgment. These days, we tend to strike a different balance between God’s judgment and compassion than John did, stressing God’s forgiveness and mercy, based on our observations of Jesus’ life and ministry.

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Jesus validated much of John’s spirituality of turning to God in everyday life, by accepting his baptism. But Jesus would reject John’s dualism of wheat and chaff and instead shift his own emphasis to loving each person, recognizing the potential for each one's holiness, even as they lived in a bent system that held them back. This love was at the heart of his incarnation.  

All four evangelists regard John’s baptism as the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. God used it as the launchpad for Jesus’ Messianic work. Jesus’ life, works and teachings articulated the specifics that John had only glimpsed.

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  • Catherine de Hueck Doherty (https://crc-canada.org/en/biographies/catherine-de-hueck-doherty/) lived a life of radical service and simplicity, like John the Baptist… as I imagine him.  She challenged everyone with her holy life. Have you ever met someone like that? How did you respond?  
  • What is your sense of Messianic judgment? Is it of a terrifying recounting of your failings and unquenchable fire, of mercy, reconciliation and welcome or something else?  
  • Does Jesus’ anonymous and humble appearance for his baptism, amid the crowd, remind you that we live in the presence of God, … the Divine Milieu … even when he is unrecognized?

Peace

Michael