A Nice Tidy Story…

… This is not.

I’m grateful to Karoline Lewis for pointing out a detail my brain so easily missed early this morning: the Lectionary kindly skips three verses from Luke 3.  If we read the story, as it is presented in the RCL, Luke’s version of the Baptism of our Lord seems like another quaint baptism narrative.  People have gone down to the river to pray, and are being stirred by John’s preaching enough to baptized in droves.  “All the people” were baptized, according to Luke, and next comes Jesus.

The story, however, isn’t quite that clean.  You see, much happens in verses 18-20 that the Lectionary conveniently skips past.  Here are the missing verses, with some context.

“… His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  So, with many other exhortations, [John] proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.  Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized…”

To quote a wise preacher I heard on Sunday, “this is not the story we were looking for!”  Luke’s chronology makes this whole thing very difficult to understand.  Did John not baptize his cousin?  If not, who did?  Why is Luke including the unseemly story of John’s arrest by Herod over that icky Herodias situation anyway?  Afterall, Luke gives only a passing mention to John’s death from the lips of Herod in chapter 9?  This whole tidy story about Jesus: dressed in white, with his brown beard flowing and blue eyes gleaming, being baptized by John as the crowd hears the voice from heaven and sees the Spirit descending like a dove; what is Luke trying to do by ruining it all?

Perhaps the better question is, what is the Lectionary doing by trying to tidy it all up?  From the very beginning, Luke has made it clear that the story of Jesus is a story of social, political, and religious intrigue.  His baptism, a socially, politically, and religiously intriguing event, is certainly no exception.  I’m not sure what all this means for the preacher this Sunday.  I’m less sure what it means for the preacher who has seated in the first pew a set of gleaming parents, holding their precious infant, decked in white linen and silk.  What I do know, as of now, is that the baptism isn’t quite as neat and tidy as we’d like it to be, and since we don’t have one scheduled this Sunday, I’m more free to say that than I might otherwise be.

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