This week I soaked for a bit in Chalk Creek at Mt. Princeton Hot Springs. I love the feel of icy cold air on my face while enveloped by steam from the 100 plus degrees of the water. I sat in a pool where the rocks separate the hot, hot water from the freezing temperatures of the river itself. Once in a while, the cold water would rush in between the rocks and surprise me.
There’s an old spiritual written about the river where Jesus was baptized. It says, “The Jordan River is chilly and cold.” If I didn’t know better from seeing and touching that river itself, I would assume that the Jordan was a bit like Chalk Creek: “Chilling the body but not the soul.” The reality isn’t much like that, though. The Jordan River, separating the modern day nations of Israel and Jordan, is a tepid, muddy stream whose water barely gives any relief from the relentless desert heat.
Last year on this Sunday, I talked about visiting what is believed to be the authentic site of Jesus’ baptism. Before it was opened to the public several years ago, following the removal of land mines from the access road, almost all Holy Land pilgrims went to another spot on river. The Yardenit baptism site is many miles north near the Sea of Galilee. It’s a popular place for full immersion baptisms, and you have to enter the river through a tacky gift shop filled with t-shirts, Scripture plaques, and tiny bottles of Jordan River water. When I looked down into the water there, I was shocked to see an enormous muskrat clawing its way up the same steps that tourists used to enter the river. Two huge catfish swam nearby. As we watched the lines of people from around the world descend into the water to be dunked, a small group of Russian Orthodox pilgrims were being baptized. All who enter the river are required to wear a white gown rented from the gift shop. Someone had neglected to this particular group that it’s important to wear clothing under the flimsy white linen that becomes transparent when wet. After their immersions, they made a frantic dash back to the changing rooms!
A little more than two thousand years ago, a crowd gathered by that river. A man named John had acquired a large following of Israelites who were fed up with how the world was treating them. They were angry about the ongoing occupation of their land by armies and political leaders supplied by the Roman Empire. They were frustrated with their own religious leaders who had turned the temple in Jerusalem into an exclusive religious club. They felt marginalized within the nation of their birth and they looked around desperately for any sign of the promised Messiah. John looked like a good candidate, so they hung on every word he said and they gladly followed him to the river.
John’s message at the Jordan might not have been what they expected. He was an anti-establishment dissident for sure, and his political statements were about to result in his own death. But on this occasion, he reminded the people that a new order begins within. He urged them to do an about face and get their hearts right and make it official by leaving their sins behind in the Jordan River. We don’t know how many followed John into the water, but one of the gospel writers said that all the people Jerusalem and the surrounding area were there. That’s undoubtedly an exaggeration, but it shows that John’s movement was more significant than most of the would-be Messiahs who appeared during those days.
And Jesus was right there, ready to be baptized with everyone else.
A really good question is: Why did Jesus need to be baptized? Traditional Christian doctrine emphasizes the sinless state of Jesus. The gospel accounts say that those who were baptized did so after confessing their sin. But maybe Jesus not so much? The Gospel of John helps a little when it quotes John the Baptizer as saying that he was baptizing with water so that the Messiah could be revealed to Israel. He said that even he did not know who it was until he saw the Spirit descend like a dove on Jesus.
There is a lot of speculation about why Jesus was baptized, and there isn’t a lot of agreement. I tend to gravitate toward the idea that Jesus was fully identifying himself with humanity through the act of baptism. From this point forward, he was the one that was followed. And those who followed him were the hurting, the angry, the broken, the sick, and the marginalized. The human Jesus was fully evident as the water enveloped him in his baptism and prepared to serve all people.
This passage from Luke is one of the few places where there is reference to God as Trinity. Or at least this is one of the places the Christian church has looked to in establishing that doctrine. Jesus is in the water as the Holy Spirit appears as a dove and as the voice of God is heard from heaven, speaking the words, “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased”.
During our forum after worship today, we will welcome our former pastor Pete back into regular participation in our church. When I was meeting with groups from the church during the Candidate Weekend in May of 2014, the youth group barraged me with a series of practical and theological questions. The first was this: “How do you feel about following a pastor who we have loved so much?” In other words, they were asking “Are you sure this is a good idea for you?!” My answer was that I really want to serve a church that has shown that it is able to love and care for its pastor. I said, “The fact that you have love Pete is a good indication that you can love someone else, too.”
In times of pastoral transition in the past, when I have been the one who is leaving, I have selected the story of Jesus’ baptism for a final sermon. It’s a transition story. People have been following one leader and then they are introduced to another. John understood that his place was to do the work of preparing people for the future. Pastors do that as well. Someday I will be the one who is referred to as the former pastor, hopefully many years from now. In the meantime, like John the Baptist, us pastors are just pointing people to Jesus and to his message of love and mercy. I’m very grateful for the work that Pete did here for twelve years, and I’m glad that he has been beloved, just as Jesus was called “beloved” by God in the river.
The people who came to the river and were immersed in the warm, muddy water felt like strangers in their own land. John was a voice that represented God’s coming realm that welcomes people without exception or condition. There are many who still need to hear that message.
Langston Hughes wrote the poem about rivers that Cathy read this morning. Both of his paternal grandfathers were slave-owners. Each of them had a child with one of their slaves. Hughes’ father, James, was an educated man who left his family and fled to Cuba and then Mexico because of the enduring racism in the country of his birth. Hughes lived in Harlem for most of his life, and he contributed much to the arts community that was part of the Harlem renaissance of the 1920s. His poetry and his music were a means of confronted the disparities of life between those with privilege and those without means or power in the country of his birth. I’d like to imagine that God would pronounce the same words to Hughes that were spoken to Jesus: “You are my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased.”
On Friday, a woman named Rosa Hamid was ejected from a political rally to which she wore a hijab and a shirt bearing the words “Salam. I come in peace.” She was silently protesting a presidential candidate who has called for a ban on the immigration of Muslims to the United States. She is one of many who are marginalized and routinely hated in a land they have embraced as their own. Many people booed Rosa Hamid, much as they taunted Rosa Park sixty years ago, but I can imagine the voice of God coming from the sky, saying “This is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.”
A week ago, a group of protesters took over a federally-owned building in Oregon to express their outrage over matters of personal liberty. The standoff continues there this morning. Ammon Bundy and his followers, also, believe that they are marginalized in their own country and that their rights have been ignored. Bundy believes God asked him to do this. The armed takeover is considered an act of terrorism by many, and most certainly would be deemed so by all if the perpetrators were other than white Americans. I admit I have a hard time imagining God saying “With you I am well pleased.” But can I still hear the affirmation, “This is my beloved child”?
I don’t think God discriminates between the righteous and the oppressed and the humble and the selfish and the brave and the bullies in the simple act of love. Langston and Rosa and Ammon are all much-loved children of God.
The gospels don’t make it clear whether God’s voice was audible to everyone that day. It’s possible that only Jesus heard the words from the sky, but it was an affirmation that began a movement that is still changing the world wherever Jesus’ message is shared and lived. What if everyone understood that they are God’s own son or daughter? And more, what if they perceived every other person on earth as God’s own beloved? Will we join God’s movement of affirmation that affirms the worth of every person and ultimately welcomes God’s realm here on earth as in heaven?
The song we’re singing right after I stop talking is “Down in the River to Pray” which was popularized by the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou.” Three men escape hard labor on a chain gang and experience many things on their journey to freedom including a baptism service by a river. Two of the escapees, Delmer and Pete, are immersed. George Clooney’s character, Ulysses, declines. As the three drive away in a stolen car, they pick up a hitchhiker, a young musician, who tell them that he has just sold his soul to the devil. Ulysses, remarks “Well, ain’t it a small world, spiritually speaking. Pete and Delmar just been baptized and saved. I guess I’m the only one here that remains unaffiliated.”
Jesus affiliated with us and with all of humanity when he got down in the muddy water. God affiliated with Jesus when he said “This is my beloved son.” I believe that God is fiercely devoted to each human being because we are God’s beloved. Who are you affiliated with? And will you choose to love in ways that reflect the same love that God spoke to Jesus in the river?