In the Gospel passage for today, John the Baptist emphasizes that one is coming who is mightier than he is, that while he baptizes with water, the one coming after him will baptize with water and fire (Luke 3: 15-16). Luke, who is also the author of Acts, is already pointing ahead to Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit will descend on the apostles. In Luke’s gospel, there is a frequent parallelism between what happens to Jesus and what happens to Jesus’s disciples. For example, Jesus endures rejection in his hometown, and then later gives advice to the apostles as to how to deal with rejection, by shaking the sand off their shoes. Here, Jesus is baptized, but this points ahead both to the practice of baptizing followers of Jesus, and the “baptism” by fire of Pentecost. Thus, the way Luke writes ought to encourage us to think about not only Jesus’s baptism as an historical matter, but how his baptism also points to our own.
I notice three elements of the baptism of Jesus in Luke’s longer account. First, Luke emphasizes that Jesus is baptized along with other people. He willingly puts himself in the midst of a community of people undergoing conversion, even though Jesus himself is sinless. We, who are sometimes sinful, also undergo our conversions in community. Our internal challenges and changes, our conversions of heart, happen along with the internal conversions of others, our fellow travelers.
Second, Jesus prays. At every crucial moment in the Gospel as Luke presents it, Jesus is praying. He is communicative with God and keeps his heart open to the Father. He does not hold back his interior life but allows God “in” to all the moments of his life. We, too, can pray with authenticity, being open hearted with God through every human experience.
Third, the Spirit descends on Jesus in the form of a dove and announces that God is pleased with his son, his “beloved.” Our own baptisms also ought to remind us that we, too, are named beloved daughters and sons of the Father. God delights in us, even with our faults and failings, when we return to God and are willing to undergo conversions. Our failures are never simply failures, but always also ways to learn. And we can keep in mind that this is also true of others, who are our fellow learners as well as fellow travelers, and so have compassion and understanding for others.