“The heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove” (Lk. 3:21).
There are times when everything changes: when what has gone before is disrupted and something new emerges. What’s happening appears to be discontinuous with the past, as something genuinely new. Maybe the signs were there before; maybe in retrospect we should have seen it coming. But there it is: the new thing, the new fact, the new event, and everything’s different.
Jesus’ baptism is just such an event: a new opening up of heaven, and a new descent of the Holy Spirit. The Gospel writer Luke gives us a number of such occasions, where God the Holy Spirit shows up and begins to act. On this occasion, Jesus is filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, which propels him forward into his ministry.
It says in the next chapter, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness…” (Lk. 4:1). Jesus then preaches a sermon in Nazareth, where he reads from the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor… release to the captives… recovery of sight to the blind… to let the oppressed go free…” (Lk. 4:18). God the Holy Spirit has been unleased through the ministry of Jesus Christ, beginning with his baptism.
It’s the Gospel writer Luke who also gives us the story of Pentecost, in the second chapter of Acts. Here, the Holy Spirit descends upon the church gathered in Jerusalem, filling it with “power from on high” (Lk. 24:49), as Jesus had foretold in the Gospel. There is a sound like a rushing wind, and (as it says in Acts) “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (Acts. 2:4). Once again, it is God the Holy Spirit, promised by Jesus, who propels the church forward in mission and ministry. It’s the power of the Holy Spirit, irrupting into our lives, that makes possible our own service, and our own relationship with God in Christ.
God does a new thing at Jesus’ baptism; but God’s propensity for intervening in the world doesn’t start at the river Jordan. You might say that God has been stirring things up for a long time, maybe even since the very beginning of time. Creation itself, the initiation of space and time itself, starts in Genesis with the Spirit of God moving like a wind over the waters of chaos (Gen. 1:2). It’s the same wind that’s blowing on the day of Pentecost. God did a new thing then, as well, in making the world, and humanity itself, through the creative power of the Holy Spirit.
So, everything changes, with Jesus’ baptism. The power of the Holy Spirit irrupts as heaven is opened, and a new path forward is created. Bishop Gregory of Nazianzus, in the fourth century, preached that the heavens needed to be opened because the gates of paradise had been closed (Oratio 39). The sin of Adam and Eve created a different sort of disruption in space and time, one that divided human beings from God and from one another. Sin is fundamentally absence, a break in relationship, an internal contradiction within reality itself. The original fault, too, was a new event, but one with deadly influence. The gates, once closed, needed to be opened again. God did a new thing to mend the breech, and to open the kingdom of heaven.
God the Holy Spirit continues to do new things in our lives; new things that bridge the chasms that open up in our world; new things that mend what is broken within us. Each of us experiences that feeling of being “stuck,” sunk in a bad place with no way out. The effects of sin continue in our lives, which is why the power of the Holy Spirit has been unleashed within each one of us, to make us new people through water and the Word. That power is given to us as grace, the generous margin God gives us, on which we live a new life.
None of us should remain stuck where we are, because God the Holy Spirit is mending relationships and creating a path forward. The Spirit is moving us ahead in mission and ministry, showing up in our midst and doing new things in our lives. There’s a new thing, a new fact, a new event, as God acts in the world by raising Jesus Christ from the dead, and giving us his Holy Spirit in our hearts so that we can do the work we are called to do.