“Baptismal Solidarity”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

January 15, 2017

Matthew 3:13-17

 

If you ever have the good fortune to travel to the Holy Land as a tourist or a pilgrim, one of the opportunities you will very likely be offered is to make your way to the Jordan River to visit the site of Jesus’ baptism.  Actually, you could do so several times without getting bored, because there are several different sites that claim to be The Site.  It is difficult to know precisely where the events recounted in today’s scripture lesson took place.  The ancient gospel writers didn’t leave GPS coordinates or satellite maps to guide us to that holy riverbank, and reconstructing history and geography from what indicators we have is an imprecise thing at best, more of an art than a science.

When I was in Palestine and Israel two years ago, we visited one of these locations.  We learned about why this site might be the best guess based on scripture, and history, and archaeology, and tradition.  And even if it is not, in fact, the place where Jesus stood on that fateful day, it is at the very least near the place where it all happened, and that counts for something.

It is not, of course, exactly as it would have been when Jesus approached John the Baptist there on the riverbank.  Up at the top of the hill, a dusty parking lot accommodates the tour buses on which the pilgrims arrive.  By the side of the road, there are stalls where you can purchase a flowing, white garment in which to enter the water.  As you approach the river, large platforms with stairs and railings make it easy to descend to the water’s edge and into the river to be baptized or renew your baptism.

But if you are expecting a clear, beautiful, cleansing flow, as I was, you are in for quite a surprise, because the water of the Jordan River as it flows through that area is not like the water you might see in the Quinebaug, or Bungay Brook, or the Little River.  It is not transparent or even translucent.  It is muddy and brown and, if I’m honest, kind of gross-looking.

 

It was that water—muddy with the accumulated dirt of human sin and error, brown with the muck of mistakes and regrets, kind of gross-looking because it was full of injustice and evil and all the things we shouldn’t have done but did anyway—it was that water into which Jesus chose to enter in the moment recounted in this morning’s scripture lesson.

John the Baptist was out in the wilderness at the edge of the Jordan, preaching about repentance and forgiveness.  He urged the people to change their ways because the kingdom of heaven had come near—because God’s love had broken into the world in the person of Jesus.  And many people from across the region came to John and were baptized into a new way of life, leaving behind their mistakes and regrets, the ways they had hurt others or been hurt themselves, the things they had loved more than they had loved God or their neighbors.

And then Jesus arrived and asked John to baptize him.  John was taken aback.  “You want me to baptize you?  You don’t need this—I do!”  But Jesus insisted, and John consented, and into that murky, turbid water he went, under the surface and up again.  John was right; Jesus didn’t need repentance, for he already embodied a new way of life.  But Jesus chose that baptism, because Jesus chose to identify with all humanity—to get down and dirty in the river of sin and regret and frailty, and so to bind himself deeply and completely to broken-down, messed-up, trying-again people like us.

In this Epiphany season, we look for glimpses of God, for revelations of God’s character and ways.  Today, in the story of Jesus’ baptism, this is the revelation:  that God is a Deity who chooses the muck and mire, that Jesus is a Messiah who opts for complete solidarity with our brokenness and our desire to begin again.

The story of Jesus wading into the Jordan with John, right in the midst of all the other imperfect people like us who had come looking for a fresh start, a second chance, a clean slate, a new beginning, gives us the assurance that no matter what rules we may have broken, no matter what hurt we may have caused, no matter what mistakes we may have made, no matter how we may have failed, no matter how filthy we might be—we will never be alone in our muckiness, for we have a God who chooses to go there with us.  Jesus does not turn away in disgust at that muddy, brown, gross-looking water, but wades in willingly, even eagerly, because he wants nothing more than to be with us, to be one of us, to by your side and mine, come what may.

Now.  If that message were all we took from the story of Jesus’ baptism, perhaps it would be enough.  To know deep down that you are loved, that you are cherished—that nothing you can do, nothing that can be done to you, can come between you and the love of God—that is a potent truth, a powerful assurance, an identity that gives you the unquenchable courage you need when you find yourself in the rocky, arid landscape through which all our journeys lead at one time or another.

But there is another piece to this story.  When we remember Jesus’ baptism, we remember our own baptisms, too.  When Jesus was baptized, he chose to unite himself with us in the deepest, most profound way imaginable.  When we, in turn, are baptized, as most of you and I have been, we are, in turn, united with him.  Which means we have been inducted into the ranks of Christ’s disciples, planted deep in the heart of his way of life.

When we are baptized, we become followers of the One who chose muck and filth and sin and regret.  We become, as he was, servants of the last and the lost and the least.  We become the ones who go, as he did, to the places where the brokenness of the world is on full display, and we meet it, as he did, with solidarity and with the hope-filled promise that things can, and will, be better.

Because in entering into that muddy, brown, gross-looking water, Jesus demonstrated his love and solidarity not just for us, but for every person touched by sin or regret or shame—which is to say, every person who has ever lived.  And in entering into the waters of baptism, we become part of the Body of Christ, the Family of God, that includes not just this congregation, but every person touched by God’s love and mercy and forgiveness—which is to say, every person who has ever lived, and all those yet to come, too.  And since we live, as Jesus did, in a world that does not treat every person as though they are God’s beloved children, reflections of God’s image—sisters and brothers, that means that we have work to do.

 

Back to the Jordan River.  When you visit the site where Jesus is said to have been baptized, as you walk down from the dusty parking lot, past the stalls selling their flowing, white garments, down the stairs and across the platforms, you will see groups of people of all races and origins and nationalities, wearing all different kinds of attire, speaking all different languages, singing and praying in all different ways—some strumming guitars and ukuleles, some chanting a capella, some clapping their hands and stomping their feet, some swaying and dancing and raising their arms.

And in the midst of all those singing, praying people, you will also see 18-year-old soldiers in black boots and khaki uniforms, wearing army-green bulletproof vests and carrying machine guns.  This is, primarily, a reflection of the climate of fear and violence that has afflicted the Holy Land since time immemorial, and still does today.  But I think it is also a reflection of the power that is embodied in a life shaped by baptism.

A life shaped by baptism is a threat to the powers and principalities that rule by fear, because when we know we are loved as deeply as we are in baptism, we no longer need to be afraid.

A life shaped by baptism is a threat to the powers and principalities that rule by division, by lifting up some and tearing down others, because when we grasp the depth of Christ’s solidarity with the whole human race, we are compelled to resist any attempt to deny or degrade a sister or brother’s human rights and dignity.

A life shaped by baptism is a threat to the powers and principalities that perpetuate injustice and inequality, because when we understand ourselves to be part of the Body of Christ, we know that what hurts one part of the Body hurts us all, and what heals one part of the Body heals us all.

A life shaped by baptism is a powerful thing indeed.  And so we do well to remind ourselves from time to time of our baptisms—and that is what we are about to do now.

If you are not, or not yet, baptized, don’t worry—this is not a baptism; I’m not trying to pull a fast one on you.  If you are already baptized, don’t worry—this is not a re-baptism; I’m not saying that your first one didn’t take.  Rather, it is a reminder for us all.

As we sing the hymn, please remain seated, and I will come around the sanctuary to do an ancient Christian practice called asperges, which is a practice of sprinkling.  As you feel the drops of water fall upon you, remember the grace and the mercy of God that pour down like rain.  Remember the identity we are offered in Christ.  And remember the call to which we are summoned.

Here we go.

 


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