We do a baptismal renewal service every year for The Baptism of our Lord, always very moving (see how we ramp into it here at the 23 minute mark). Martin Sheen, the great actor and devout Catholic, told Krista Tippett (in his fabulous interview with her on On Being) how he felt about standing in line in worship: “How can we understand these great mysteries of the church? I don’t have a clue. I just stand in line and say Here I am, I’m with them, the community of faith. This explains the mystery, all the love. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed, just watching people in line. It’s the most profound thing. You just surrender yourself to it.”
Or as Dom Jeremy Driscoll put it, “Monks are always processing. When we go from one place to another, we don’t just do it helter-skelter. I am reminded again and again that I am not just vaguely moving through life. I am inserted into the definitive procession of Christ. I am part of a huge movement, a definitive exodus. I am going somewhere.” I love that. Wonder if my choir will sing “Down in the River to Pray” from “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
Isaiah 42:1-9 won’t be preached on at my place. But the preacher can reflect on texts like this is an intriguing way, I’ve discovered – by asking the question: When Jesus came to the Jordan, did this text come into his mind? “Here is my servant, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him…” Read the rest of the text, envisioning Jesus standing by the river, then in the river. Did they look up at the sky and recall v. 5, “Thus say the Lord who created the heavens and stretched them out”? As they sighed or gasped, did they recall “…who gives breath to the people and spirit to those who walk in the earth”? When Jesus stepped into the water, and (as I imagine it) John reached out and took his hand, did v. 6 echo in their hearts? “I am the Lord, I have taken you by the hand and kept you.” Jesus hadn’t done a thing publicly just yet. Did v. 9 whet their appetites and dreams? “New things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.” Matthew saw the Baptism as fulfilling just this text!
Matthew 3:13-17, so simple, so provocative, needing so little explanation! Can the preacher usher people into the scene by the river, and then get out of the way? Here are some background thoughts. Karl Barth (in the skinny volume of Church Dogmatics, IV.4, published not long before he died) shrewdly suggested that “Jesus was not being theatrical. When Jesus was baptized, he needed to be washed of sin -- not his sin, but our sin. When faced by the sins of all others, he did not let these sins be theirs, but as the Son of His Father, ordained form all eternity to be the Brother of these fatal brethren, caused them to be His own sins. No one who came to the Jordan was as laden and afflicted as He.”
Telling a Baptism story can be helpful: an especially meaningful or poignant one, or your own. I baptized a 45 year old man dying of pancreatic cancer. As I splashed water onto his forehead, he began to shake, then to cry – and then as he became supremely calm and at peace he said to me, “I feel younger. I feel lighter.” I’ve renewed Baptism in the muddy creek called the Jordan – and describing what it looks like invites people into the moment.
I love (wrong word, since it’s harrowing) Flannery O’Connor’s story “The River.” A young boy, Harry, hears a preacher, named Bevel, who’s baptizing people in a stream, say “Leave your pain in the river.” The boy has much pain indeed, and the story ends tragically. Well worth the preacher’s time to ponder – even if it’s not used in the sermon! We need to experience, know and feel more than we tell.
There is an ominous tone here. Jesus, after all, is headed out to the wilderness to engage in combat against the devil. Justin Martyr wrote that just as Jesus was baptized, a miraculous fire was ignited right in the middle of the river! Davies & Allison say this: “Jesus interpreted his prospective dark fate in eschatological terms… so, Jesus could have gone to the Baptist not in order to obtain forgiveness but rather to receive a pledge of ultimate deliverance, a seal of divine protection.”
Jesus, dripping wet, climbing the bank, an echo of creation as emerging from the watery chaos, or the people coming up out of the muddy Red Sea – or even an infant plopping out all wet from the mother’s womb. And the dove, maybe a descendant of the one Noah sent out from the ark. The text is about Jesus, not us – so while resisting this perennial temptation to think the text is about me (reminding us of Barth who reminds us that to speak of God is not to speak about us in a loud voice!), we might touch on the way Jesus becomes one with us, and so when he is declared “Beloved,” we are as well. Never forget that your people just don’t feel all that beloved. They are Americans, earning their way, feeling entitled, or lonely or just plain hardened to life. Clergy, maybe you included, are a bit numb and weary, not sensing your belovedness. With Jesus, you are beloved. Like a newborn infant.