The Baptism of Christ 2016, UPC of Amsterdam, NY
But now, Leah and Rachel and Jacob, hear the word of God— the One who created you, the one who fashioned you, Israel: Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the seas, I will be with you; when you pass over the rivers, you will not drown. Walk through fire, and you will not be singed; walk through flames and you will not be burned. I am your God, the Holy One of Israel, your deliverer. I give Egypt as ransom for you, Nubia and Seba in exchange for you. You are more precious to me than Assyria; you are honored, and I love you. I will give people in exchange for you, whole nations in exchange for your life. Have no fear, for I am with you; I will bring your descendants from the east and gather them from the west. To the north I will say, ‘Give them up!’ and to the south, ‘do not hold them back! Bring my daughters and sons from afar, return them from the ends of the earth— everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my Glory, whom I formed and made!
In those days, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, ben-Zechariah, in the desert. John went through the entire region of the Jordan proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, As is written in the words of Isaiah, the prophet: “A herald’s voice in the desert, crying, ‘make ready the way of our God; clear a straight path. Every valley will be filled, and every mountain and hill will be leveled. the twisted paths will be made straight, and the rough road smooth—And all humankind will see the salvation of God.’ ” John said to the crowds who came out to be baptized by him, “You pack of snakes! who warned you to escape the wrath to come? Produce good fruit as a sign of your repentance. And don’t presume to say to yourselves, ‘we have Sarah and Abraham as our mother and father,’ for i tell you that God can raise children for Sarah and Abraham from these very stones. The ax is already laid at the root of the tree; every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be cut down and tossed into the fire.” When the people asked him,“what should we do?” John replied, “Let the one with two coats share with the one who has none. Let those who have food do the same.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to John, “teacher, what are we to do?” John answered them, “exact nothing over and above your fixed amount.” Soldiers likewise asked, “what about us?” John told them, “don’t bully anyone. don’t accuse anyone falsely. be content with your pay.” The people were full of anticipation, wondering in their hearts whether John might be the messiah. John answered them all by saying, “I am baptizing you in water, but someone is coming who is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not fit to untie! This one will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire. A winnowing-fan is in his hand to clear the threshing floor and gather the wheat into the granary, but the chaff will be burnt in unquenchable fire.” Using exhortations like this, John proclaimed the Good news to the people. When all the people were baptized, Jesus also came to be baptized. and while Jesus was praying, the skies opened and the Holy Spirit descended on the anointed one in visible form, like a dove. a voice from heaven said, “You are my own, my beloved. On you my favor rests.”
When I was 15, I took a trip with a group of high schoolers to a Young Life camp in Colorado called Frontier Ranch. When I was in high school I was way into Young Life and had just spent a month and a half working at one of their camps in the mountains of North Carolina, and this trip to Colorado was amazing, if only for the sights of sitting atop high mountains that looked out over sprawling vistas. Now, at 15, my fear of heights was already well-cemented into my psyche. At the same time, I was staying with a group of primarily older guys, juniors and seniors in high school, and it seemed that none of them had any sorts of qualms about going fast, or high, or any of the things that young men in high school seek to do to display their toughness, manliness, courage, whatever. And not wanting to seem like the little (I hit my teenage growth spurt incredibly late going from 5’6″ in my junior year to 6 foot tall by the end of my senior year), bookish nerd of the group, I had over the course of the trip allowed my mouth to talk me into places that my body had no interest in going to and so it was that I had been completely out-voted when the group surveyed the options for activities and chose rappelling the side of a cliff over a nice, safe, and completely on the ground hike. And in Frontier Ranch’s defense, there was nothing that said anyone had to do any of the activities but like I said, my mouth had spent much of the trip in a competition with the other guys on the trip over who would do the bravest (or craziest) activity and there was no way I was going to walk around for the whole rest of the trip with the distinction of the guy who wussed out of doing something. And so it was with some degree of terror that I joined my comrades in making our way up the steep cliff to what I was becoming increasingly sure was my impending demise. Once there, the folks tasked with supervising the rappelers began to ask for volunteers to go first and while I knew there was no way that was going to be me, there was no shortage in my group of folks that wanted to do this and so I slipped further and further into the background. And, from a distance, watched folks seemingly effortlessly dropping two hundred feet only hitting the side of the cliff once. And I was confused as to why anyone would do this kind of a thing for pleasure. But our numbers continued to decreased and my ability to hide became increasingly challenged until it was just me and the instructors and a group of hyper-masculine dudes down at the bottom waiting for me to get there. I slipped my harness on, tightened it up, clipped into the line and began to walk back down the cliff when the instructor stopped me. “That’s not how you do it. If you want to rappel down you have to sit into the harness with your back parallel with the ground below.” Um, what? It was bad enough being hooked into this thing and walking down the side, now they wanted me to sit down in it and trust that I wasn’t going to go careening down the 200 foot drop. And I remember thinking, “well, if I’m going to die, at least no one will call me a coward.” And so I sat. And then I pushed off the side of the cliff the way I’d seen others in the group do it and I dropped like 20 feet. And breathed. And pushed off again and dropped another 20 feet. And looked around. And saw God’s creation in a way that I had never seen it before. Hanging by a single line on the face of an honest to goodness Colorado cliff. I pushed off again another 20 feet. And then another. And then another. And somewhere in the midst of all that pushing and looking out, and dropping 20 feet or so at a time, I realized that I had forgotten about my fear of heights for a few seconds and was simply having a good time. And when my feet came to rest on the terra firma below me, all I could think was how thankful I was for the ground but also for the cliff and the rope and the harness (especially the harness) and while everything had seemed scary and uncertain and frankly dangerous just a few minutes ago, when I was willing to place my whole trust in the people around me, in the rope and harness, and let that trust propel me to sit with my back parallel to the ground, it was an amazing ride, but it had to start with faith.
It is odd that for someone that we follow, for someone we entrust our whole being to, for someone that so many have studied so carefully for two thousand years, that we really know almost nothing about Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospel of John suggests that Jesus’s ministry lasts for three years and that is usually taken to be the most accurate of the historical timelines. But the other three gospels layout the whole of Jesus’s ministry across the expanse of a single year. One year to completely change the course of human history. Now, of course, we have the two birth narratives in Matthew and Luke and the single story of Jesus in the Temple teaching the Elders as a child of twelve in the gospel of Luke, but beyond that, he lives almost half a lifetime in relative seclusion. There are those intellectuals out there who have tried to fill in the gaps so to speak. The New Testament scholar Marcus Borg, hypothesizes that Jesus spent at least some of his adult years studying religion in East Asia, having made his way over trading caravan route, and, for him, that explains the similarities between Christianity and Buddhism. Others suggest that he had a relatively normal life, had a family, a job, and one day felt the movement of the Spirit and walked away from it all in order to quell the insistence of the Holy in his life. Others still, that Jesus was some kind of revolutionary Zealot seeking to overthrow the Roman Empire when he feels the call of God to seek the Realm of God and not political authority within the Roman Empire. All these theories make for good academic discussions and debates but the fact is that we are all grasping at straws, trying to pick up the few clues offered about this child of God and his life prior to the beginning of his ministry of love and grace.
And while trying to create a singular story from the collage of details offered about Jesus’s life from the four tellings of it that were put in the Bible, it seems of critical importance that all of them agree that Jesus’s new life, his life as the bearer of God’s love and light for the world, began when he came to the Jordan River and requested of his cousin John the same ritual of baptism that John was calling on all the Jews to undertake that they might be made clean once again in the eyes of God. And as a great number of his fellow Jews were making their way down to the river, so, too, was Jesus. And, again, we have no sense as to why. Maybe he was following the crowd. He had heard that his cousin John was doing this thing and he wanted to check it out. Maybe he had been out on a walk one day and heard the commotion that inevitably arises when large numbers of people have congregated in the same area and he wanted to see why they were all together. Maybe, there was a yearning deep within his spirit that propelled him towards that river, towards the people, towards John. A yearning that he could not fully understand. A yearning that had grown with him as he transitioned from a baby, to a boy, to a young man, to now an adult. Whatever it was, we see him coming to the water, to his cousin, to take part in this ritual with all his brothers and sisters. And you get the sense that John sees him working his way through the crowd from some distance because the Baptizer who has spent the last few verses berating the people around him of the coming fire and the threshing room floor and calling them a brood of vipers, almost immediate changes his tune in the presence of Jesus. The one who just a verse ago is proclaiming judgment on an entire country and religion, is reduced to declaring that the one that is coming into their midst is so much greater than John that John is unworthy to untie the straps of his sandals. And as Jesus neared the river, maybe he, too, was awashed in a sea of emotions; excitement, terror, uncertainty, faith. Maybe as he entered the river, his cousin John serving as his guide, he saw that his life was about to be irrevocably changed, that he was at one of those moments in his life, that we all have, one of those moments in which to go one way or the other will forever alter the course of our existence. Maybe he knew like me, dangling high about the earth, that he had to drop down into the water and give over any vestiges of hesitation or doubt over to God, that God might use him for the betterment of creation. I wonder if he stayed down there a couple of extra seconds wondering if he was ready for all that, wondering if he could be the ultimate conduit for God’s love and light on the world, I wonder if he stayed down there until he could stay no longer, just to linger in those last few moments of normalcy before he gave his life over to God. And when he emerged from the River, a new person, a clean person, when the skies ripped open atop of him and God’s Holy presence appeared before him like a dove of peace, I wonder if it was then that he knew, that he understood the stirring that had been in his spirit all those years, I wonder if he was ready to embrace being the Christ, the redeemer, for a world that desperately needed to be saved from itself. I wonder.
I am convinced that from that first age when we become cognizant of our place within the grand scheme of the world to our last breath, that there are those moments that come over and over again in which we are called to place the whole of our trust in God, believing that we are surrounded by love and light. To cast ourselves into the waters of doubt and let those waters clear any stray thoughts, and hesitation from our minds and our souls and allow us to hear, with the clarity of Christ, the Holy One call down to us and proclaim us, “Beloved.” But more than that to take that status, that proclamation and offer to each person we meet. To allow all people to feel and know that they, too, are the beloved of God, knitted together in their mothers’ wombs by the commingling of spirit and flesh, give the opportunity to experience God’s good creation and called to pass that along to the next and the next and the next until we are see that we are each only a part of the web of life that covers the whole of the earth, that moves and breathes throughout the universe, that is forever and always bathed in the grace of God. I don’t know specifically where each one of you is in your life but I believe with my whole being that God is not yet done with you, that God is still calling, still demanding, still desiring each one of you to be the conduit for God’s love and light for the world until we are all awashed. So lean over the edge, drop down in the water, step out an inch, just an inch, and have the faith that God will catch you and love you and change the whole course of human history through you. Alleluia, amen.