Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Rev. Peter Faass
Are you ever just a little curious about scripture readings that omit some verses? I mean, what is that about? Are the redactors of the lectionary trying to hide something and engaging in some selective editing? Conventional wisdom offers a few reasons why verses are omitted.
Sometimes, the editors simplify the story line to clarify the theme. Other times, they edit it because they are discomforted by the verse. For instance, our lectionary does not use some of the writings from the pseudo Pauline epistles where women are admonished to be subservient to men, or the Levitical passages about condemning homosexual behavior, or the passage from Deuteronomy requiring that parents take a rebellious teenager to the town square to be stoned to death.
The editors may play the overbearing parent, assuming that the verses are too challenging for people to understand – or for the clergy to interpret. I think this last reason is insulting to the intelligence of the people in the pews and the clergy, as well.
I believe it is a combination of the first and final reason that is at play in the omission of verses 18-20 in the heart of Luke’s story of the Baptism of Jesus today. These missing verses record the account of the arrest of John the Baptist:
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
Tucked in where they are between the description of John’s ministry in the wilderness and Jesus’ baptism may be curious chronologically, but they are critical theologically.
In the other gospel accounts, John's arrest comes after Jesus' baptism, which makes sense – if John was in prison, how could he baptize Jesus? By arranging the story this way (and not mentioning John specifically in the verses about Jesus' baptism), Luke turns this passage into a hinge in the story’s plot. These three verses are a theological hinge that undergirds the message of Luke’s entire understanding about the Good News of Jesus.
John’s arrest signifies the end of the era of how God's promise to the people of Israel was understood – that the Hebrew people were the exclusive chosen people, beloved by God over and above all others. This doesn’t mean God loved the Hebrews any less after this hinge swung open – it means that God’s embrace grew wider to include all people when Jesus’ ministry commenced.
Jesus’ baptism signifies a new era of who God loves and saves. This theology is clarified immediately after this passage, when Luke launches into Jesus’ genealogy. Unlike Matthew’s genealogy, which only goes back to Abraham and David (a distinctly Jewish genealogy), Luke traces Jesus’ lineage back to Adam, the first human.
Luke was a Gentile and his is the "Gospel to the Gentiles." The fact that his genealogy goes to the beginning puts what God is doing in Jesus in a universal – and not just a Jewish – context. His gospel’s laser-focused intent demonstrates that God has become human in Jesus to bring the good news of salvation to all people. As the angel proclaimed to the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night, the night Jesus was born, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”
When Luke places John’s arrest smack in the middle of Jesus’ baptism, he is saying something critical: Our baptism literally takes us from an old way of life to a new one. Jesus’ baptism ended one way of thinking and inaugurated a new one to understand that God’s love is all embracing: Jew and Gentile, free and slave, male and female. That’s why omitting those three seemingly incongruous verses in this passage is a mistake – it undermines Luke’s message, which is as vital to us today as it was at the time of Jesus.
Today's reading opens with “the people were filled with expectation.” Expectation means they were looking for a new way of life. Under the brutal heel of Rome, the decadent yoke of Herod and the hypocritical behavior of their religious leaders, people were sick and tired of the way the institutions of government and religion treated them as either second-class citizens or chattel. They were tired of being abused and misused. They expected and longed for God to send the long-awaited Messiah who would lead them to a better way of life.
People were so eager that they thought John the Baptist was the Messiah. But he abjured, saying no, that someone even more worthy than he was coming. John is the hinge; Jesus is the door, leading people into God’s realm, where all God’s beloved are equitably treated with dignity and respect.
We currently need the message of who God’s salvation is for. The world is a broken place, fractured by the belief that one tribe is better than another. That belief invariably leads to bigotry, violence, deprivation and genocide. As Christians, we need to own the fact that we have fallen short of apprehending and living the good news of Jesus in Luke. Our Baptismal Covenant commits us to proclaim to the world towards values and practices that reflect the characteristics of God’s realm, which are justice, compassion, inclusion, respecting the dignity of every human being and loving one’s neighbor as oneself. In those words, we repent to complicity with evil that lures us to the broken belief that one faith or people is superior to another. In that repentance, we follow Jesus and join in harmonious community with one another – Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist and all others – to build a better world with God.
No religious leader in our time has expressed this deep wisdom of building a harmonious interconnected community better than His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. In his New York Times article, “The Last Dalai Lama,” Pankaj Mishrac revealed the Dalai Lama’s profound understanding of how the current exclusivist religious beliefs need to change to restore the harmony of humanity that God desires.
The article is premised on the growing realization that while the leader in exile is an international icon, the future of his office and the Tibetan people are in serious jeopardy. Communist China has been dismantling traditionalist Tibetan culture in many ways, and has specifically sought to marginalize the Dalai’s Lama’s spiritual and political role in the world.
Sensing that the Dalai Lama may never return to Tibet, Mishrac writes that the Dalai Lama “speaks beyond religion and embrac[es] ‘secular ethics’ which he defines as ‘principles of selflessness and compassion rooted in the fundamental Buddhist notion of interconnectedness.’”
“Increasingly the Dalai Lama addresses himself to a non-denominational audience and seems . . . determined to undermine the authority of his own tradition . . . he has asserted that certain Buddhist scriptures disproved by science should be abandoned. He has suggested that the institution of the Dalai Lama has outlived its purpose . . . he chuckled when [the interviewer] told him his younger brother thought his office was past its sell-by date. Then quickly becoming serious, he added that all religious institutions . . . [were] developed in feudal circumstances. Corrupted by hierarchical systems, they began to discriminate between men and women; they came to be compromised by such cultural spinoffs as Sharia law and the caste system. But he said, ‘time[s] change: they have to change.’”
The world picture as he saw it was bleak. People all over the world were killing in the name of religions. Even Buddhists in Burma were tormenting Rohingya Muslims. This is why . . . he has started to emphasis the . . . values of compassion. It is no longer feasible, he said, to construct an ethical existence on the basis of traditional religion in multi-cultural societies.” 
The Dalai Lama recognizes that an old way of life needs to end – a way of life based on the entitlement of one people at the expense of another. He understands that a new way of life is imperative, one that emphasizes selflessness, compassion and our interconnectedness in order for us to harmoniously coexist as the beloved of God, regardless of who we are, or which faith we adhere to.
The Dalai Lama is a hinge, transitioning us from one way of life to another. He is also a door, as he incarnates the reality of truth and a holy way of life.
Epiphany season has begun. An epiphany is a revelation of God’s truth in unexpected and life-changing ways. Jesus’ life was one of many epiphanies, as is the life of the Dalai Lama. We can heal this broken world by going through the door to the way of life they both espouse. This Epiphany, let’s be alert to seeing this revelation of God’s truth in the one we don’t think is beloved by God. Doing so will be to give good news to the poor, sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free.
We’ll realize that God’s favor is for all, especially those whom we reject, overlook, regard as undeserving of justice, or worthy of God’s love. Because in God’s realm there is no such person.
Let’s walk through that door.
 “The Last Dalai Lama?” Pankaj Mishra, The New York Times Magazine, December 6, 2015, pages 43, 82
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