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Expectations Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Imagine the scene! An audience is in a theatre. They are all waiting expectantly for their favourite pop singer to stride on stage, the one and only who’s flown over from America for the first time in ten years; this is a once in a lifetime chance to see her in the flesh. Will she be as good as on her CD’s? Will she sing some of the favourite numbers? There is an air of excitement between the support act and the main attraction. The lights dim and dramatic music pumps out of the speakers. Will the performance be worth the long trip to the venue and the high ticket prices? Will the punters leave after the gig with their expectations fulfilled?

Excitement in Bible times
Nowadays the entertainment industry is able to create excitement with a subtle blend of technology and psychology. We are used to seeing amazing things and highly charged emotion on our TV screens or in places of entertainment. But in the time when Jesus walked this earth preachers and healers were the ones who created a stir. You could say they were the celebrities of the day providing diversion from the struggles of everyday life, whether it was in the form of stirring religious speeches or offering some kind of healing for sickness and injury. I don’t mean to trash Jesus, for we believe he was genuine, unique and taught both the truth and offered genuine healing. But I do mean to paint a picture of how such figures as John and Baptist and Jesus would have been received at that time. Luke says that the people were filled with expectation especially about whether John was the Messiah. He must have created such an extraordinary stir in comparison with other preachers of the time that he seemed a candidate for top spot in the religious celebrity stakes.

Looking at the whole picture
If we take a step back we can see the wider picture that Luke is painting as he tells the whole story of Jesus. Luke wrote two books which are really parts one and two of one longer story. He addresses his book to a certain Theophilus (which means God-lover in Greek). In part one (the gospel of Luke) he tells the story of Jesus and then in Acts the story of the followers of Jesus. By the way he puts the stories together he begins to build up a picture of who Jesus is. One of the ways he does this is through describing the expectations of those amongst whom Jesus lived. The people of Israel were expecting that one day a saviour figure would come. Their ancient prophets had foreseen this kind of a figure. The people were well acquainted with their Hebrew scriptures and when John the Baptist broke on the scene, he seemed an ideal candidate. But Luke makes it clear that there is a fundamental difference between John and Jesus.

John the last of the old
In various places and ways Luke paints John as a Hebrew prophet, as an Elijah figure. Despite what the people expected, John himself said that he was a lesser figure than Jesus. “I might baptise you with water as a way for you to show that you have changed your ways,” he said, “but Jesus will baptise you with the energy that really makes you change: he will baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” At the beginning of his gospel Luke describes John’s origins and birth in ways that connect him with the old, with the Hebrew traditions. His father was a priest in temple offering sacrifices and the time-frame Luke places him in is a Hebrew one: in the days of Herod of Judea. It is only when he begins to tell the story of Jesus that Luke mentions the Roman rulers. John made a dramatic entrance onto the stage, and the people were very excited about him. But the stage is an old one, not used for a long time, but still an old stage. John is the last of the old. He called people to be ready for the Messiah, but was not the Messiah. He had a great effect and many people showed they changed their lives in response to his message. They received a ritual washing in the waters of the Jordan.

Jesus the first of the new
One of the things that Luke wants to tell Theophilus, a Roman citizen, is that Jesus was different. He was related to John and he lived at the same time as John, but he was also very different. There are two reasons why Luke wants to show how different Jesus was to John. One reason is political and the other is religious, but both are to do with a proper understanding of who Jesus is. The political reason why Luke wants Theophilus to understand about Jesus is that the followers of Jesus are not unruly Israelites. The followers of Jesus, Christians, were growing all over the Roman Empire. From time to time there were riots and trouble and Christians often seemed to be involved. If Jesus was an Israelite, then influential people like Theophilus would naturally think there was still trouble bubbling up all over the empire after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. There had been a very bloody and upsetting rebellion in Judaea which had been brutally put down by the Romans in AD 70. It was easy to assume that disgruntled refugees were still causing trouble elsewhere in the empire. Luke wants to emphasise that the followers of Jesus were not part of a failed rebellion. Although they had connections with Judaea they were not politically Israelite.

The religious reason Luke wants to show Theophilus that Jesus is different from John, is that the followers of Jesus had come to believe that he was not just human. Luke gradually builds up a picture of Jesus throughout the whole of his gospel and then continues it in the book of Acts. John himself emphasises that Jesus is qualitatively different from him. John says that he is not even worthy to untie Jesus’ sandal-strap. John says that Jesus will baptise with things that humans cannot handle: fire and the Spirit of God. Luke describes how the Spirit was seen descending on Jesus, even though he was baptised in water by John. The voice of God said, “You are my Son, the Beloved with whom I am well pleased.” Luke begins to demonstrate that Jesus is more than human – he is divine. On one occasion, before AD70, some followers of Jesus had a visit from the Apostles Peter and John. They discovered that they had not been baptised in the name of the Father and the Spirit. They could easily be misunderstood as followers of John and a purely human Jesus. They also needed the baptism of the Spirit to be truly followers of the Son of God who is both human and divine.

So from both a political and a religious point of view, Jesus was very different from what might be expected of him. It was important to get a true picture of Jesus in order to understand who his followers were and not feel threatened by them or allow injustice to be done to them mistaking them for disloyal citizens. They might be found connected to social unrest, but it was important not to confuse why they were involved: they were not part of the old, part of John’s people, they were part of the new, of Jesus’ people.

How does all of this apply to us?
First, like Theophilus, we need a proper understanding of who the followers of Jesus are. Although we are connected to the old because the new grew out of the old, we are part of the new. We are followers of the Son of God who is human and divine. We are baptised in the name of the Holy Trinity so that we will have the power to live as followers of Jesus. Without the Spirit we simply go through a ritual of water-cleansing. Most of us would have been confirmed at a later stage in life. Confirmation is really just baptism part two. Receiving the Spirit completes Christian baptism. We are not just followers of a perfect human, we have fellowship with God himself through the mediation of his Son and by the effective power of the Spirit.
Secondly, it is good for us to be reminded that when we commit ourselves to following Jesus, we have divine power to help us. The Methodist Covenant service affirms that a human decision to follow Jesus is echoed by a divine acceptance and gift. God may have said in a unique way to Jesus: “You are my Son, my beloved, in whom I am well-pleased”; but God also speaks to each of our hearts. When you commit or re-commit yourself to following Jesus, you are to receive the divine affirmation: you are beloved! You are a daughter or a son with whom God is well-pleased. With this divine affirmation ringing in our hearts we may move forward into the New Year, into the future, with confidence and joy. Jesus is one who exceeds all expectations of him especially when he walks onto the stage that is each of our hearts and lives!

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith




Heavenly Father,
at the Jordan you revealed Jesus as your Son:
may we recognize him as our Lord
and know ourselves to be your beloved children;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour.