Thus says the LORD:
Here is my servant whom I uphold,
my chosen one with whom I am pleased,
upon whom I have put my spirit;
he shall bring forth justice to the nations,
not crying out, not shouting,
not making his voice heard in the street.
a bruised reed he shall not break,
and a smoldering wick he shall not quench,
until he establishes justice on the earth;
the coastlands will wait for his teaching.
I, the LORD, have called you for the victory of justice,
I have grasped you by the hand;
I formed you, and set you
as a covenant of the people,
a light for the nations,
to open the eyes of the blind,
to bring out prisoners from confinement,
and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.
Peter proceeded to speak to those gathered
in the house of Cornelius, saying:
"In truth, I see that God shows no partiality.
Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly
is acceptable to him.
You know the word that he sent to the Israelites
as he proclaimed peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all,
what has happened all over Judea,
beginning in Galilee after the baptism
that John preached,
how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth
with the Holy Spirit and power.
He went about doing good
and healing all those oppressed by the devil,
for God was with him."
The people were filled with expectation,
and all were asking in their hearts
whether John might be the Christ.
John answered them all, saying,
"I am baptizing you with water,
but one mightier than I is coming.
I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."
After all the people had been baptized
and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying,
heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him
in bodily form like a dove.
And a voice came from heaven,
"You are my beloved Son;
with you I am well pleased."
An event we now take for granted once created huge problems for the early church: Jesus’ baptism. As we hear in today’s Acts reading, biblical tradition made it the triggering device for Jesus’ public ministry. Among other things, it shows the historical Jesus began that ministry as a disciple of John.
Yet first and second generation Christians are not only embarrassed about Jesus’ baptism by John, some authors even refuse to mention it. The basic problem is a belief that superiors baptize inferiors. So, if John baptizes Jesus, he must be superior to Jesus. That’s exactly how disciples of John argued when they confronted disciples of Jesus, even two or three generations after the latter’s death and resurrection.
Contrary to popular Christian belief, all the Baptizer’s followers didn’t just close up shop and become Jesus’ followers after Herod had their mentor beheaded. A huge percentage continued to believe he was the Messiah. Neither his martyrdom nor Jesus’ ministry altered their conviction of his uniqueness. (According to some scholars, disciples of John were still active more than four centuries after Jesus’ historical ministry!) That controversy seems to have shaped today’s gospel pericope.
Though the passage mentions Jesus’ baptism, it’s not as clearly stated as in the two earlier gospels, Mark and Matthew. Luke simply refers to it in a participial phrase “. . . and Jesus having also been baptized . . ..” More important, this brief mention is preceded by a couple of references – in John’s own “Christianized” words – to Jesus’ superiority. “I am baptizing you with water, but . . .. I am not worthy to loosen the throngs of his sandals.”
Yet it’s significant that Luke copies Mark’s insight that this event contains an annunciation to Jesus. Just as an angel had earlier announced to Mary that her son was to be a special person, so “. . . A voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’” Most readers mistakenly presume the voice says, “This is my beloved Son,” making it an annunciation to others. But according to this tradition, one of the reasons Jesus’ baptism is significant comes from a belief that it was during this event that the gospel Jesus discovers who he is. The commitment contained in that ritual makes it essential to the person Jesus later becomes. Though embarrassing later, Jesus’ baptism made sense when it originally happened.
It also makes sense to have today’s first reading be Deutero-Isaiah’s initial Song of the Suffering Servant of Yahweh. At first glance it has nothing to do with anyone’s baptism, yet at second glance it has everything to do with Jesus’ baptism.
The prophet is reflecting on the implications of responding to Yahweh’s call. He never doubts God has called him to prophetic ministry. But he’s to be a prophet like no prophet before him, certainly not a hellfire and brimstone preacher. “Not crying out, not shouting . . . a bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench . . ..” He quickly learns he’s unique, with almost no role models on which to fall back.
The gospel Jesus fits into the same category. As a human being, he has no idea what Yahweh’s calling him to become. His annunciation, like all biblical annunciations, was composed at the end, not the beginning, of his life. Though his baptism implies he’s certain of his call, like all our biblical heroes, he puts no limits on his response. We presume Jesus spent a lifetime discovering to what precisely he’d been called.
Too bad Jesus’ historical situation eventually created problems for those narrating his baptism. Reflecting on it might help us in creating our own personal annunciations.