From the Waters
Lectionary Texts: Matthew 3: 13-17
Baptism of the Lord A
First United Methodist Church, Wharton
Sunday, January 8, 2017
- Down to the River Jordan
What is it about the water in the River Jordan that so fascinates us? It’s wet and its cold—it’s just like any other water—and yet for more than 2,000 years, we have been captivated by it. When I had the opportunity to go to Israel a few years ago, I, like most Holy Land tourists, could not wait to touch the water in the Jordan River. When that day that had the Jordan River on our itinerary arrived, I was so looking forward to it. This would be the place…this would be the place where I would connect with Jesus Christ.
Well, at the risk of bursting your idyllic Jordan River bubble, I was really disappointed. I imagined a calm and contemplative place on a quiet and peaceful river where I could have a high spiritual moment. Instead, I got some version of a Holy Disneyland. The truth is, they have recently moved the place commemorating where Jesus was baptized (yes…I thought that was a little odd too!) and have built a large, modern complex with a huge gift shop where busloads of people buy white robes tastefully monogrammed with the Jordan River logo (yeah, I’m sure that’s what Jesus had in mind!) so that they can get into the water and be baptized. Ugh!
But we paid our money and went through the turnstiles and made our way to a place on the river. I hated the noise; I hated the crowds; but the river was beautiful. Somewhere in its depths, there WAS a peace, a calm, a contemplative, spiritual moment of peace. We found a place and had a short service renewing our Baptism. (And in the process had some people get upset with us because we were apparently taking prime real estate and never intending to be “really” baptized. Those Methodists just always get in the way, don’t they?) And then, one by one, we walked down to the river, placed our hand in the water, and touched our forehead, reminding ourselves that we are Beloved, a son or daughter of God with whom God is well pleased. And in some way from the water, I did have a moment. In the midst of the yelling and the crowds, and the cold, modern structures, I felt the water and from the waters, I somehow in some way felt Christ.
- A Return to the Waters
In our Gospel passage today, we are once again taken to those waters. The reading begins simply: “Then…” It is such a common connector, that we probably sort of gloss over it. But look a little more closely. It wasn’t just the thirty years that Jesus had waited to commit to public ministry. It was the centuries upon centuries and ages upon ages that all of Creation had waited for the dawn to break. In essence, from that very moment when we are told in the first chapter of Genesis that God’s Spirit swept over the face of the waters, Creation has been groaning and straining for this very moment, the very moment when life would emerge from the waters.
Thirty years was, in fact, the traditional time that a rabbi waited to be committed to God. In those thirty years when we tend to hear so little about Jesus or his life, Jesus would have been caring for his mother, and making a living, and preparing himself for ministry. I don’t really think that, contrary to what some may say, Jesus was confused about these roles. He was always serving God. But now…then…the time had come. And as eternity dawns, Jesus is ready to begin. And so he goes to John at the Jordan to be baptized and for a very short amount of time was then actually a disciple, a follower, of John’s.
Because Jesus was from Nazareth, he would have had to make a trip of about 70 miles in order to arrive at the Jordan. This was in some sense a sort of “mini-pilgrimage”, an intentional journey to be baptized by John. Now, according to the Matthean version of the Gospel, John knew who Jesus was. So, you can imagine, how uncomfortable he might have been at actually baptizing Jesus, at actually accepting this Son of God as part of his following. But Jesus reassures John. “Let it be so now.” Now is the time. It is now. “And,” asserts Jesus, “this is the way to fulfill all righteousness.” This is the way to fulfill the will of God. At this moment, in an odd twist of events, Jesus and John become partners in carrying out God’s plan for salvation. And so, just as each of us received the gift of water in our own Baptism, Jesus kneels in the Jordan and John bends over him and baptizes him. And from the waters, the work has begun.
From the waters, the heavens are opened and the Spirit emerges. And we hear what all the world has always been straining to hear: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Even though the writer of the Gospel has presented Jesus as the Son of God in the birth story, it is not until this moment that the title is actually conferred. From the waters, comes Jesus Christ as Savior and Redeemer of all of Creation. From the waters, comes life.
III. The Meaning of Jesus’ Baptism
Most of us can probably identify with how uncomfortable John must have felt. How, in the world, could he envision himself worthy of being part of this act of baptizing the Messiah? This was not the proper order of the way things were done. But, it becomes apparent that John was not breaking tradition. He was going beyond it. Even as Jesus’ ministry begins, we already find him shaking the gates and walls of what is “right” and “proper” worship. Essentially, Jesus was telling John: “Put all that aside. Do not worry what the world thinks. Do not get so wrapped up in what society expects you to do. There is work to be done. Get on with it. Now is the time!”
Because, you see, Jesus had to present himself for ceremonial cleansing. This was not a new thing. There are cleansings and calls for cleansing throughout the Old Testament. Remember…”create in me a clean heart…wash me thoroughly from my iniquity.” But Jesus didn’t really need cleansing. He needed to be changed. He needed to change others. He needed to involve us. He needed to have that entry point into what he was called to do. He needed to submit his own life and empty himself for God to work. He needed the new Spirit that would emerge from the waters.
John the Baptist was accustomed to baptizing to mark those who had repented, those who had turned their lives around. But when Jesus was baptized, something else happened. There was a shift from human action to God’s. Chosen by God, baptism is a sign of God’s presence and activity. Baptism is a sign of newness, a sign that the former things have truly passed away. Baptism is not something that we do. So Jesus could not do his own. There was no greater or lesser person that day. Jesus just needed to become. He needed to begin. And from the waters, he begins.
- Our Own Baptism
This story of Jesus’ Baptism calls us to remember our own. It, too, is our beginning as the gift of God’s grace washes away those things that impede our relationship with God and gives us new birth, new life. And it calls us to do something with our life.
But what if we don’t remember our Baptism? What if, like many of us in the United Methodist Church, we were baptized as infants? I don’t remember the day that I was baptized. I was a little over seven months old. It was Palm Sunday, April 15, 1962. It was at First United Methodist Church, Brookshire, TX and Rev. Bert Condrey was the officiant. I had a special dress and lots of family present. That would be all I really know. I have found one picture of my grandfather holding me in front of the church.
And yet we are reminded to “remember our baptism”. What does that mean for those of us who don’t? I think “remembering” is something bigger than a chronological recount of our own memories. It is bigger than remembering what we wore or where we stood or who the actual person was that touched our head with or even immersed us in water. It means remembering our very identity, what it is that made us, that collective memory that is part of our tradition, our liturgy, our family, our church.
That is what “remembering” our baptism is. It’s not just remembering the moment that we felt that baptismal stream; it is remembering the story into which we entered. It is at that point that the Christian family became our own as we began to become who God intends us to be. And for each of us, whether or not we noticed it, the heavens opened up, spilled out, and the Holy Spirit emerged. And we, too, were conferred with a title. “This is my child, my daughter or son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
And in that moment, whether we are infants or older, we are ordained for ministry in the name of Jesus Christ. We are ordained to the work of Christ and the work of Christ’s church. Caroline Westerhoff says that “at baptism we are incorporated into Christ’s body, infused with Christ’s character, and empowered to be Christ’s presence in the world. [So then], ministry is not something in particular that we do; it is what we are about in everything we do.”[i] In other words, our own Baptism sweeps us into that dawn that Jesus began. And, like Jesus, our own Baptism calls us and empowers us to empty ourselves before God. As we begin to find ourselves standing in those waters with Christ, we also find ourselves ready to be followers of Christ. From the waters, we are changed.
But that means that we are called to be something more. The reason that John was worthy of baptizing Jesus is that it was not about Jesus. Jesus was not a king that held power; Jesus came to empower the church for service rather than limiting that power to himself. And that means that we are called to do something. Remembering our baptism is about setting our sights on a new journey to which God calls us. It is the journey that God has had in mind for us all along.
The anthem that the choir sang is entitled “Down in the River to Pray”. It’s a traditional American song, perhaps an African-American spiritual. They’re not really sure. But I’ve usually seen it as “Down TO the River to Pray.” But this title is a lot more descriptive. Baptism doesn’t just call us to the waters; baptism calls us to immerse ourselves in their power.
Baptism is God’s gift to the church. It is not something that we do. That is the reason that we in the United Methodist Church often baptize infants that will not remember what they wore or where they stood or who was there. It is God that does the work and it is the church that affirms that work. Baptism is a means of grace. It is a new beginning. It is God’s gift of who we are.
That is why we just do it once—because God is the one who is at work. So in a moment, we will have the opportunity to remember that, to remember our baptism and be thankful, to remember the story to which we are called, to remember the work that we are part of. From the waters, God has made something new. Then…the journey begins. So remember who and whose you are. Remember your baptism and be thankful for it is who you are.
- From the Waters
Jesus was still wet with water after John had baptized him when he stood to enter his ministry in full submission to God. As he stood in the Jordan and the heavens spilled into the earth, all of humanity stood with him. We now stand, wet with those same waters, as we, too, are called into ministry in the name of Christ. As we emerge, we feel a cool refreshing breeze of new life. Breathe in. It will be you always. Something has happened. Maybe we can’t explain it; maybe we don’t even understand it; maybe we’re not called to–but in the midst of the noisiness of life, in the midst of things that we don’t think can lend to our spiritual walk at all, in the midst of everything we know and everything we don’t, God takes ordinary, everyday water, wet, cold, nothing special and from the waters, we emerge with new life.
The truth is, there is nothing special about the water in the Jordan. There is nothing special about our own baptismal water. It’s just ordinary water. But something happens. From the waters, comes life. As in the beginning of Creation, God’s Spirit once again sweeps over the waters. And from the water, our life comes. But it is up to us to do something with it. The waters are not made holy because Jesus was baptized in them; they are not made sacred because we clergy stand up there and bless them; the thing that makes them so incredible, so of God, so filled with life, is that from the water emerges the one that we are called to be, the son or daughter of God with whom God is well pleased. From the waters, we begin to become who God means for us to be.
[i] Caroline A. Westerhoff, Calling: A Song for the Baptized, (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1994), xi.