I am always interested to ask parents why they want their child to be baptized. I’ve heard lots of answers to this question over the years in my meetings with the parents as a part of the baptismal preparation. While no two answers are the same, a lot of them revolve around some common ideas.
The new parents of the baby girl, whom they took turns holding in their arms, simply wanted her to be a good person. The parents of the kindergartner, busily colouring a picture as we met, wanted him to know the Bible stories and to learn to follow the rules that God sets for us. The couple of the happy, gurgling infant, wanted their child to have a good moral compass and to know right from wrong.
So many different faces of wonderful people through the years, so much love held for their children, so many dreams and hopes for who their children would become, and the blessing of being able to baptize them, all of it swirls around in my memory. Their answers to my questions painting a picture of who we think Jesus is and what it was that his work and ministry and teachings were all about.
Because our answer to that question of why we wish to be baptized betrays our answer to a much deeper question. Who do we think Christ is? Who do you say that Jesus is? The image of Christ betrayed by these parents is not unique to them at all, it is an idea of Jesus that is broadly held by Christians, an idea so pervasive that even the secular world subscribes to it.
Who is Jesus? He is a spiritual and moralistic teacher who taught a message of love and how to be a good person. Through him we can learn right from wrong; his teachings are an instruction guide of sorts to live a good, happy, and fulfilling life. Jesus wants us to be good, loving, and kind people. In return, he will be with us through thick and thin, rejoicing with us in good times and carrying us through the bad.
In the popular imagination, Jesus is a spiritualized teacher who calls us to be better versions of ourselves; a soother of souls who makes us feel better when we are lost or hurting.
I find myself thinking of this popular image of Jesus as I read the gospel this week. I find myself holding onto the Jesus of our expectation alongside who Jesus reveals himself to be in this story.
Just to orient ourselves in the Gospel of Luke this morning, our story captures Jesus at the start of his teaching ministry. He has just been baptized by John in the Jordan and then driven by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted. Now, filled with the Spirit, Jesus begins to teach through the towns and the countryside, creating a name for himself wherever he went. But Luke does not record what it was that he was saying, what it was that so captivated the people, until he comes to the synagogue in Nazareth.
Here, in Jesus’ hometown, Luke shares his words for the first time. Opening up the scroll of Isaiah, Jesus finds the verse he is searching for and reads it to the gathered congregation.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then, taking his seat and with all the eyes of the people upon him, Jesus delivers what might be the shortest sermon ever.
Who does Jesus say that he is? He is the one who will bring good news to the marginalized of the world, the ones that have been turned out and cast aside by the world, and that good news is that the very things that have marginalized them, the very structures and powers that have cast them aside, will be overturned and remade. He offers not only the forgiveness of sins, but also the end of the sinful systems and structures of our world. Who is Jesus? He is a man of action who heals the sick and the blind and calls us urgently into right relationship, not just with one another, but with God.
What’s more, none of this is even a surprise by the time we hear it from Jesus’ own lips in Luke. In the first chapter, Mary prophesies in the Magnificat about what God is preparing to do in the world, a God who brings down the powerful from their thrones, who lifts up the lowly, who fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty. In the second chapter, the righteous Simeon meets the baby Jesus in the temple, proclaiming that Jesus is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed, and that Mary’s own heart will be pierced by what is to come. And in the third chapter, we meet John the Baptist who teaches the crowds about the Messiah that is coming, proclaiming that he will have a winnowing fork in his hand to clear the threshing floor and to gather the wheat, but warning that the chaff will be burned with unquenchable fire.
It is clear that there is a significant difference between Jesus as we commonly imagine him and who Jesus is revealed to be by word and action in scripture. It is a big difference between expectation and reality.
To be certain, I’m not saying that Jesus as he is commonly imagined is entirely wrong or has no basis in scripture. But he is certainly a narrow and sanitized version of the fullness of who Jesus was. The Jesus we expect is unobjectionable and anodyne. The Jesus we get is uncomfortable and troubling.
What does all of this mean to us? Well, that depends largely on who we are. For those of us who are marginalized in the world, it is the powerful hope and good news that God is for us, that God’s long promised justice and salvation is finally at hand. What’s more, not only will we not be left out of that salvation, but in fact it is coming first and foremost for us. It is the promise that we are at last being vindicated before all and given a seat in the Kingdom of God. It is the good news that Jesus loves us, even when the world does not, and that Jesus is for us, even when the world is not.
For those of us who are comfortable, it means something else entirely. Jesus does not reassure us in the comfort we feel and he offers no absolution for the power and privilege we enjoy. Rather, he calls us into faithful discipleship, to labour alongside the marginalized of the world as children of God together as we follow in his footsteps to feed the hungry, cure the sick, and proclaim the year of God’s favour. The salvation he offers is for us too—we are not forgotten in the Kingdom of God—but it is an invitation that requires us to give up our wealth and power and privilege. Like the rich young man who came to Jesus by the cover of night seeking what he needed to do to enter the Kingdom, only to turn away in despair when Jesus reveals that he must give up all that he has, this can be a difficult and uncomfortable thing for us to do. But it is also the good news that in Jesus we have the opportunity to be a part of the new creation that God is unfolding, that we get to be a part of healing the brokenness of the world, that we have a role to play in restoring right relationship in creation.
“Today the scripture is fulfilled in your hearing,” Jesus tells the congregation. We sit alongside them, the silence after his words washing over us. The Jesus that is before us is not quite the one we had expected.
How will we respond?