Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

"In the Details"

Titus 3:4-8a

Luke 3:15-22

     One day when Cory was just three, his grandma came over to babysit him.  Cory’s parents

were going to be gone a few hours, so his mom set out some of Cory’s favorite DVD’s. Grand-

ma was all for it as there was a limit as to how much time she could spend on the floor playing

with Cory’s trucks and dinosaurs.  There was only one problem.  Grandma was not very tech

savvy, and it required three different remote controls to watch a movie; one for the TV, one for

the surround sound receiver, and another for the DVD player.  She expressed her concern:  “I

don’t think I can remember which buttons to push.  Maybe you’d better write it down for me.” 

Mom just laughed and reassured her, “Don’t worry about it.  Cory knows which buttons to push.”

      If you’ve spent any time watching DVD’s with a young child, you’ve experienced a phenomenon

that educators and child experts have observed.  Not only are very young children savvy with technology,

able to negotiate multiple components and remotes.  They also see more on the screen than most adults do.

A youngster watching a video will notice all the background details supporting the story, while an adult tends

to notice only the elements critical to thestoryline.  Those details in the background often add depth and

richness to the story which adults are likely to miss.  Maybe that’s one of the reasons Cory can watch

the same episode of Thomas the Tank Engine a hundred times and never get bored.  Sometimes,

those details even turn out to be the story.

      When we read the Bible, it is often easy for us to miss the details.  Just as the fine points can

be important to a video story, they sometimes carry the message of a Bible story.  The narrative

of the baptism of Jesus which we heard in this morning’s gospel reading is a good example of

how the details we tend to miss bring richness and a depth of meaning to the story.

      Those who are students of the gospels are quick to point out that Luke’s account of Jesus’

baptism is different in a number of ways from Matthew’s, Mark’s and John’s narratives; a glaring

difference being that unlike the other three gospels, Luke never actually states that John

baptized Jesus. 

      Matthew, Mark and John do give us significant details about John the Baptist; his wardrobe

for instance, which was a camel’s hair garment with a leather belt around the waist.  They des-

cribe his diet, which was locusts and wild honey.  They say John baptized many in the Jordan

River, and that John scolded the religious leaders when they came, presumably for baptism. 

They all make clear that the Baptist viewed Jesus as a much greater prophet than himself; one

whose sandals he did not even feel worthy to carry, or to stoop down and untie.

      Yet we wonder: how does John fit into Luke’s peculiar account of Jesus’ baptism?  In the

verses leading up to Jesus’ baptism, Luke records John’s ethical admonitions to the crowds

coming for baptism; then in agreement with the other gospels, John’s admission that Jesus was

“more powerful” than him.  Yet notice that Luke inserts just before speaking of Jesus’ baptism

that John had been imprisoned by Herod on account of his wife Herodias, who hated John’s

guts; a detail not included in the baptism narratives of Matthew, Mark and John.  It’s almost as if

Luke yanks John the Baptist out of the storyline.  Then Luke states, as if in passing, “Now when

all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized…..” 

       Now understand, Luke was not denying that John the Baptist baptized Jesus.  He simply

removed John from center stage.  In John’s absence, Luke adds:  “….and when Jesus also had

been baptized and was praying, the 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 Son, the Beloved;

with you I am well pleased.”

      We cannot know for sure why Luke departed from the story line common to the other three

gospels, adding this detail of John’s imprisonment prior to John’s imprisonment, a detail we

might easily gloss over or miss entirely.  Yet we do see a result, and something of a theological

emphasis on Luke’s part.  By taking John out, Luke intentionally shifts our focus.  And in so doing,

Luke emphasizes that what was important about Jesus and His ministry was not the part that

others played in His life, as important as those others may have been.  What was most impor-tant was

the power of God at work in Jesus’ life.  Luke does not seem overly concerned with

John the Baptist in this story.  Or for that matter, he doesn’t seem overly concerned with the act

of Jesus baptism per se, merely saying  “…and when Jesus had also been baptized.”  Luke’s

focus and concern is on and with the mighty acts of God, which reach their zenith in the person

of Jesus Christ.  In Luke’s estimation, that is the depth and richness of the story.  John the Baptist

is in the picture, but stage right.  Front and center is the Almighty, even as God affirms Jesus and

His ministry to come upon His baptism, the baptizer notwithstanding:  “You are the Son, the

Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

      All that having been said, how does this detail in the background of the picture, which Luke

alone provides, inform our understanding of the narrative of Jesus’ baptism?  How does it add

depth and richness to the story?  I would suggest that on one level, it teaches us something of

the act of baptism, which we of course deem sacramental.  Many see baptism as a human ini-

tiative;  as something we do to demonstrate our level of devotion or commitment.  A lot church

traditions and denominations -- mostly in evangelical circles -- will not baptize babies and young

children as they are not yet able to articulate or demonstrate their level of faith.  And sadly, in

all traditions and denominations, baptism is often [and pardon me for being frank] a show; more

about optics than about devotion, or commitment, or even intention to live out the vows made

upon baptism.  Just witness how many persons or families with babies come forward for bap-

tism, then rarely darken the doors of the church again. 

      Luke is making a clear statement in his background details that baptism is not of human

origin and initiative, but of God’s origin and initiative.  In baptism, God alone is front and center;
not the person performing the baptism, or the church in which the baptism is being performed,

or even the one being baptized.  For Jesus’ part, upon His baptism – and for all of us upon ours –

it’s about responding to God’s initiative and invitation. 

      On another level, Luke is teaching that baptism is not about human affirmation.  It’s about

God’s.  In Luke’s narrative, God’s affirmation of Jesus is not presented as an affirmation for the

public benefit, but as an affirmation for Jesus’ benefit:  “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you

I am well pleased.”  That endorsement, that confirmation of God’s love and grace, takes

precedence over any and everything else.  In Luke’s detail, it doesn’t matter if the Baptizer is

even on the scene.  God’s love and grace is nevertheless lavished upon Jesus in fullest measure.

      So it is for all of us.  Our baptisms, which are acts of response to God’s initiative – whether

brought by our parents as babies, or coming forward on our own – are first and foremost affir-

mations of God’s love for us; of God’s grace lavished upon us; of God’s blessing upon the mini-

stries to which each and every one of us is called.  Upon and through our baptisms, we hear God

saying to usYou are my children, my beloved; with you I am well pleased.  Not only is this God’s

affirmation of us, but a powerful connection between us and Jesus, who identifies with us in and

through the sacrament of baptism.

      By the time Cory’s mom and dad got home, he and grandma had watched the same DVD

episode of Disney’s “Cars” a half dozen times. Grandma was totally bored by the second viewing. 

Cory on the other hand caught all the subtle details, finding something new and fresh each time

which added to the depth and the richness of the story.  With such childlike attention to the

details in the background, may we approach the words of Scripture, finding depth and richness

in the story of God’s love and grace. 

Lord our God, Your word is so rich and so full.  By Your Holy Spirit, bring us daily to fresh

understandings of the ancient Scriptures, even in the details we are apt to miss.  Grant us the

eyes of a child, in whose hands You’ve placed the keys to the Kingdom.  May it be so, in Jesus’

name.  Amen.