Thursday, July 12, 2018

Luke 3:18-22

A few years ago I read about a movement somewhere along the church's history that claimed God's plan was to have two surpassingly great prophets -- John the Baptist and Jesus -- and that Herod screwed up God's plan by having John killed. According to this movement, God's intention was that Jesus and John would have worked together to create a great partnership, a double Messiah, more or less.

To be clear, I totally reject this view, primarily because it flies in the face of everything the Bible has to say about both John and Jesus. John is incredibly important and has a critical role to play. The Bible is consistent in naming him as the archetypal prophet who will prepare the way for the Messiah's coming. This is why all the "Elijah" associations -- verbal and symbolic -- are so critically important when the New Testament describes John the Baptist. Faithful Jewish people in the first century knew their Bibles, and they held Malachi 3:1-5 and Malachi 4:5-6 constantly in mind that tells how God will send his messenger, Elijah, to prepare the way.

Herod does not, in fact, circumvent God's plan, but his evil action in arresting and murdering John plays right into God's hand. John was completely submitted to God, completely eager to do his will. No doubt John would have chosen a different fate for himself, but in the end his unpleasant end serves to highlight the singularity of Jesus. And John got it. "He must increase, but I must decrease," John said even before his arrest (see John 3:30).

The biblical text consistently highlights Jesus as the unique agent of God's design. This is the heart of the consistent theme that arises in the gospels naming Jesus as God's one-of-a-kind Son. "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased." In Matthew and John, the voice (from the heavens in Matthew, from the mouth of John the Baptist in John) is speaking to the bystanders, bearing witness to Jesus' identity; in Mark and Luke, the voice speaks to Jesus himself, affirming his identity and his calling. It is tantalizing to wonder just how much Jesus knew about these things before his baptism, but it seems clear at least that after his baptism he had a much clearer sense about himself. This makes his temptation (which we'll get to next week) that much more poignant.

"You are my beloved Son; in you I am well pleased." The book of Hebrews launches from this point into an amazing testimony to the greatness, the surpassing supremacy, of Jesus. It is an amazing declaration.

Have you ever heard a parent speak words like this? Can you imagine what it would be to have an earthly father who spoke words like this to you? You are my beloved son / daughter; in you I am well pleased. This is a parental blessing that is all too rare. What a powerful thing it is to have the privilege of naming, of blessing, of pronouncing favor! I know a father who has struggled with his young adult daughter's feelings of shame and inadequacy, and he wonders how to love her well. Yet he continually reverts to evaluating her actions. "You did this really well," he says. "Now if you would just ..." This is judgment, analysis, criticism, evaluation. It is not blessing.

God speaks not in response to our actions or inaction; God speaks out of his own initiative, out of his own love. "You are my beloved," he says. "In you I am well pleased." God may very well go on to tell us many things he loves about us, and that, too, is a blessing. But his love begins with his own affection for us, with the identity he has given us as a gift. God never loves in response to our worthiness. We live out that identity, the mission God has designed for us, in response to his initiative of love for us. Late in his life the apostle John would write, "We love because he first loved us." God always makes the first move.

It disturbs us, of course, that God's love for John might well look like letting him be beheaded by Herod as a party favor. Herod's actions are the farthest thing from God's character. He is weak and selfish and afraid of people's opinions, and so he becomes violent and capricious. We will get to the story of John's death later. Here, however, Luke wants us to see the contrast. John is the opening act; Jesus is the main event. John is the prophet; Jesus is the Messiah. John is the forerunner, Jesus is the Son of God. God has spent all of history setting up this moment, as Jesus' genealogy makes clear. We'll head there tomorrow.

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