Isaiah 42:5-9, Matthew 3:13-17
January 12, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
5 Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: 6 I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, 7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. 8 I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. 9 See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.
Matthew’s gospel is primarily concerned with answering a central question of Christianity: who is this Jesus? For Matthew, the question is the hinge of faith – who do you say Jesus is? So this gospeller starts out his account of Jesus with a genealogy, establishing the lineage. The second chapter of Matthew gives the account of the magis’ visit and the murderous King Herod’s plan to kill the child, prompting the holy family to flee to Egypt. It’s almost like a reversal of the Moses story, when he led the people out of slavery in Egypt, into the promised land. Except in Matthew’s story, the direction is reversed. Instead of running from a murderous Pharaoh, out of Egypt, the Holy Family runs from a death-dealing king, into Egypt. Then, abruptly, Jesus is an adult, and he is on his way to the river Jordan. It is there that we find him in today’s scripture reading, there with his cousin, John, and a crowd of John’s followers.
Matthew 3: 13-17
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.
16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
The Jordan River, where this scene is set, is now a tourist attraction in the Holy Land. There are signs pointing to the place where it is presumed Jesus was baptized. There are other signs along the paved, elevated concrete path along the Jordan – signs that say “Going down to the water is forbidden.” Apparently, farther down river, signs indicate that the water is polluted. When you follow that paved path, at the tourist site, you come to a place where there are stone steps down to the water, and platforms that allow you to wade out a bit.
There are stanchions and fences stuck down into the river, so if you want to be baptized there is a designated, fenced off area for it. The water is clean at that point, kept clean for baptisms. Further down river, the water is used by Israel, Syria and Jordan, all of whom pump wastewater back into the River Jordan. At times, even the baptism site has been too polluted to allow people in. Much of the aquatic life, once rich and varied, is gone. The water level has declined precipitously, which has further damaged the biodiversity of the area.
A once fertile valley from Dan in the North to Beersheba in the South, the Jordan river flows into the Sea of Galilee, and ends at the Dead Sea. Jordan was the river crossed by the people of Israel, when they finally crossed over into the promised land. And Jordan was the river where John the Baptist went to preach and baptize.
Matthew doesn’t spend a lot of time introducing him – the writer assumes we know who he is. We won’t hear much more about John the Baptist in Matthew, at all, except for his imprisonment, a brief dialogue by messenger with Jesus, - are you the one that is to come? and then the news of John’s beheading by Herod Antipas, the son of the King Herod who tried to murder Jesus. When Jesus heard about John’s death, he tried to go away to be alone for a time. We can only imagine his grief.
But that is all still in the future. Now we are at the River Jordan, and here is John the Baptist, looking wild-eyed in his animal skins, standing in the river chest-deep, preaching and prophesying. You may recall that John and Jesus are related - cousins of some sort. John is slightly older, but according to Luke’s version, not by much. Their first “meeting” was when their mothers, both pregnant, met.
We don’t have any other gospel accounts of them being together, but it is hard to imagine that they were not. You know how it is, family get-togethers, meals, worship. It’s nice to think of them this way, cousins, nearly the same age, playing, laughing, running around, helping with the chores, leaving the table as soon as they were excused to go play hide and seek in the dusk, to pick up toads and chase the girls with them, or sit by a fire and eavesdrop on the men. Think of them at temple, sitting together with the women, listening one minute and the next minute suppressing their giggles over some little-boy joke. Later, when they were older, look at them bending over the scrolls, puzzling out the Hebrew, talking earnestly with the rabbi.
But boys grow up, and like a river, they run in their own direction, now slowing in a lazy curve, now rushing down a rocky incline. John went his own way, understood himself as the one preparing the way. "I baptize you with water for repentance,” he said, “but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
Then came Jesus, down to the river to be baptized.
Don’t you wonder what else transpired, there on the banks of the Jordan?
Did John see his cousin, and come wading out to embrace him?
Was there conversation first – how are you? how is your mother?
Did the people gathered there murmur amongst themselves? “That’s Mary’s son, Jesus. John’s mother is her cousin Elizabeth. There’s going to be a family squabble now.”
There was disagreement, it turns out, but not a squabble. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” John protested. But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” And John consented.
I wonder if Jesus took off his sandals, before he went into the water. And I wonder if John untied them, and carried them gently to a flat rock on the bank. Then, there they were, John wet and wild-eyed, Jesus, trusting, quiet as a child at rest, in his cousin’s arms.
As Jesus’ head went underwater, the sounds above the surface would have been muffled. He’d have felt his cousin’s strong hand gripping his shoulder, warm compared to the cool caress of water on his skin. And if, while he was underwater, Jesus felt anything – a rush of feeling, a sudden jolting presence, we cannot say. If he heard, underwater, the sharp clap of stone on stone, the jangling reverberations of what was yet to come, we do not know. If he knew, at that second, who he was and what he was to do, if he knew, we do not know.
He went underwater, into that murky, weightless world, with shafts of sunlight filtering in all around, little fish and ferns floating past. And then he burst back out above the surface, taking a deep sobbing breath, turning to face John, both of them hearing the voice “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” both of them knowing that everything, everything had changed.
If you’ve ever been swimming or fishing in a river, you know that the current can be swift, swift enough to take you off your feet and carry you along for a good ways. For baptizing, they’d have wanted a wide spot, not too deep, without too much current, and without mud at the bottom – preferably rock, or sand. It would help to have space on the banks for people to stand, so a clearing on the shore would be best.
River water is moving, all the time if the river is healthy, so it is called “living water.”
It was in this living water that Jesus came to be baptized. River waters, from the beginning of human life on the planet, have been sources of life – not just providing water for drinking and washing, but providing natural borders between countries and tribes, creating habitat for aquatic and amphibious animals, and giving us a way to get from one place to another and to transport our goods along with us.
The waters of baptism do the same. They cleanse us, refresh us, and set us apart to call us holy and beloved. They create a boundary-- between the old way of life and the new kingdom. The waters of baptism provided a habitat for a new life. They create a space for our lives to connect to others, and carry us along on the current of Christian life. And at the end of our days, the water is poured back into the font, closing the circle of life, making our baptism complete.
Living water, river water, is powerful and sometimes dangerous. The force of moving water can dislodge boulders, uproot trees, submerge entire towns, wash away bridges, and carve into the earth such magnificent wonders as the Grand Canyon. Just so, the waters of baptism dislodge us from our old ways, uproot our selfishness and our belief in our own power, submerge self, wash away sin, and carve into our world a new pathway, beautiful, splashed with color. The waters of baptism shape deep channels of grace into our hearts of stone.
Recently, biologists and conservation scientists have learned how to determine biodiversity in a river simply by testing the water for the presence of traces of DNA. There are apparently markers in the water itself of various species. For us, it operates in reverse – not traces of us in the water, but traces of the river water in us, exhibited by the way we speak, think, and act. You can detect that river water sometimes just by watching a person, observing kindness, mercy, humility and love in their lives.
Other times the river water speaks quietly within us, revealing God’s loving presence, brushing against our foreheads as softly as a dove’s wing, speaking into the silence of our souls the words that drench us with longing and joy: you are my beloved.
You are beloved.
That’s what the river water says – that’s what baptism promises.
You are beloved.
That’s what is true.