Scripture: Luke 3: 1-22
Today we return to Luke’s account of the origins and life of Jesus. Personally, I have appreciated this season’s sequential readings through Luke’s Gospel more than, I think, I ever have before. They have allowed me to focus on the care that Luke when he built up the story. To tell the truth, last week’s Epiphany detour into Matthew’s Gospel was an intrusion for me. It interrupted Luke, while it failed to include Matthew’s poignant tale of the Holy Family’s time as refugees in Egypt. That will have to wait till next year, when we will read from Matthew.
How Luke edited Mark’s version of Mark’s version of today’s Scripture
Most scholars believe that Luke used Mark’s Gospel as a template for his own narrative about the life and teachings of Jesus. Typically, Luke added some details to add colour to Mark’s narrative. Thus, Luke tells us that the events took place in the 15th year of Tiberius’ reign. He amplifies John’s call to repentance (You brood of vipers, etc), as also does Matthew. Luke also gives much more detail about what repentance meant for the people John preached to. Tax collectors must not rake in more money than the amount of the taxes. Soldiers must not use threats and false accusations to extort money in the form of bribes.
The big difference between Luke and Mark is that Mark showed no interest in Jesus’ origins or early life. Mark’s Jesus ‘strides onto the stage’ after the proclamation of his coming by John the Baptist.
Immediately next comes his baptism and the words of the heavenly voice, “You are my beloved Son.” This makes Mark’s Gospel consistent with many early Christians’ belief that Jesus was an ordinary man whom God ‘adopted’ at his baptism. Then he returned to ordinary human status on the Cross when he despairingly cried out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”
Luke stressed from the outset of his narrative that Jesus was the Messiah
You cannot possibly take the message that God only ‘adopted’ Jesus when you read Luke’s Gospel. There were heavenly interventions in the births of Jesus and his cousin John the Baptist. Luke identified both of them as descendants of King David. A whole series of people recognized Jesus as Messiah – the shepherds, the Temple Jews Simeon and Anna, and Jesus himself when he was twelve years old. Now, finally, God’s own voice authenticated his mission. “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.”
All these events testify to the holiness of Jesus. That is why I want to take what seems like a detour to talk about sacrifice. “Sacrifice?” you say. “Surely that’s about what happened at the Crucifixion?” Bear with me …
To sacrifice means to make holy
The word ‘sacrifice’ came into the English language in the 13th century from the Latin word sacrificium. That word combines the elements sacri- (from ‘sacer’ meaning holy) with -fic- (from the verb ‘facere’, to make or do). Sacrifice therefore means ‘to make holy’. It does not necessarily have anything to do with killing.
However, killing is the context of the animal sacrifices that the ancient world’s temples carried out. Both Jewish and pagan priests made ordinary animals holy by saying prayers as they killed them. That made the meat holy, and acceptable for the priest to offer it to the temple god. Grace before meals is the same concept. We give thanks for the animals and plants that we sacrificed – in the sense of killing – to nourish our bodies. By blessing the food, we make it holy.
In a similar way to what happened in ancient temples, we make a sacrificial offering of the bread and wine at Communion. We say special prayers to sacrifice (make holy) ordinary bread and wine. Therefore we must then treat the consecrated bread and wine with respect. We do not throw any leftovers in the garbage or down the drain. But notice: ordinary bread and wine are not innately holy. Nor were the animals in the sacrifices of ancient temples. We make them holy by our actions.
Sacrifice does not have to imply death
Nevertheless, the word sacrifice has become inextricably bound up with death, especially the deaths of soldiers killed in wartime. Prior to WW I, soldiers merely ‘died’ in battle. The soldiers who died fighting for or against Napoleon were just indentured pawns who had to fight for their king or emperor. There were no war memorials. In the 20th century, the soldier’s role changed. World Wars I and II gave those who perished a noble status; they sacrificed themselves for a greater cause. Therefore the pointless deaths of Canadian soldiers at the Somme became sacrifices. In that sense they did not just die; they became holy. The soldier fought for a worthy cause such as the German Fatherland, La France, or the British Empire; later, to save the world from Nazism or Communism.
Traditional Christian terminology views Christ’s death on the Cross as a sacrifice in the greater cause of defeating human sin – the theology of atonement. That idea does not come from the Gospels. It originates in Paul’s letter to the Romans. “All have sinned …. they are now justified by [God’s] grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood” [Romans 3:24-25]. This deliberate sacrifice for a greater good has the same meaning as in chess, when one player deliberately loses a piece in order to advance the game. As in, “White sacrificed his queen, which led to Black’s checkmate in three moves.”
Praise and worship are sacrificial offerings
But I want to return to less negative uses of the word sacrifice. In some of our Eucharistic prayers we offer ourselves as ‘a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving’ [BCP and BAS Prayer 3]. That means that we make ourselves holy because we offer praise and thanksgiving to God. It has nothing to do with death. BAS Prayer 1 makes this abundantly clear: “Send your Holy Spirit upon us … that all who eat and drink at this table may be … a living sacrifice in Jesus Christ, our Lord.”
Those words take us back directly to the Baptism of Jesus. The voice from heaven said, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” God attested to Jesus’ holiness, just as Gabriel, the shepherds, Simeon, and Anna had done previously. All of them had made Jesus holy — a living sacrifice.
Our work as Christians makes us holy — that is, a sacrifice
I have belaboured this point for two reasons. First, I want to dispel the negative perception of many Christians about the word sacrifice. As I have stated, it does not have to imply death. It simply means “to make holy.’ Second, I would like everyone here to see themselves in the same way that God saw Jesus at his baptism – holy; a living sacrifice.
Jesus’ mission of preaching and teaching was possible because God had affirmed him as holy – a living sacrifice. That is why we will reaffirm our own baptismal covenant this morning. It is not so that we can re-enact what happened two thousand years ago at the River Jordan. It is instead to reconfirm that we are God’s people living and working in our ordinary, secular world. Call it evangelism; call it mission. Those are just fancy words for doing our best to be the face of Christ to the people we meet. Our baptismal covenant tells us how to do it. Continue to gather together as a parish. Respect other people, no matter who they are. Care for God’s Creation. Then each of us will be a living sacrifice – people made holy.