Matthew 3 - Jesus' baptism
...The Jordan River is a character itself in the Older Testament – it’s mentioned about 200 times. The river was the promise of life itself, and the Israelites were always talking about living on its banks, and hearing God promise it to them.
This river is the border between foreign lands and home. It’s the boundary between the past and the future. It’s a place of abundance and refuge. It’s where Jesus will be baptized, often where he teaches, and where he goes for solace in the book of John soon before his death. It is so important to the Israelites that they tell stories of killing thousands of people to claim the riverbank. While we won’t condone the genocide, we can relate to this profound longing. We’ve all had the same need, for refuge, for home, for the promise of life, for the possibility of abundance.
Crossing this river may have been so important that the Israelites wandered the wilderness for 40 years just to prepare. See there’s a funny thing about the geography of this story. Have you noticed this before?
The Israelites escape slavery in Egypt and are returning to Canaan. There’s a pretty clear path between Egypt and Canaan, and it doesn’t involve crossing the Jordan. Biblical scholars believe the wilderness wandering took place over here (southeast of the Jordan and the Dead Sea). It seems the Israelites passed by their destination and twiddled their thumbs for awhile, then found a more complicated way to get home. Is this simply the result of poor planning? No GPS?
I doubt it. I think, like every other detail in the stories we read in the Bible, this was a deliberate detour. Whether we ascribe it to God or the people recording the story, the 40 years in the wilderness are someone’s intent. Without these 40 years, the Israelites would never have crossed the Jordan. They still would’ve ended up on its banks, but the moment of crossing over would have been unnecessary. And this story tells us clearly that crossing the Jordan was necessary for this tired, cranky, confused band of travelers.
The Israelites have to cross the river because they need a border between the old and the new. Moses, Miriam and Aaron have led them out of Egypt and through the desert, but because they wander around, all three of these essential leaders die and are buried along the way. Moses says many times that he won’t live to cross the river with the people, like in Deuteronomy 4:22 “For I am going to die in this land without crossing over the Jordan, but you are going to cross over to take possession of that good land.” Moses urges the Israelites to remember their faith in God and asks Joshua to lead them across the river. They bury Moses, and soon after, they cross the Jordan and enter the Promised Land.
Lafayette Church of the Brethren doesn’t have to wander 40 years in the wilderness to prepare for the next thing, but you are also in a time of transition. As you await your next pastor, you’re not lost at all – you’re preparing for your Jordan River, your new beginning. You’re living your mission of loving like Jesus by serving others and witness for peace, you’re working on committees, you’re sharing in prayer, you’re joining your voices and spirits in song and worship.
Lafayette Church of the Brethren is sharing all over this community too: food at the food pantry, presents with families through Jubilee Christmas, veggies and conversation with the neighbors, time and energy in all of the relationships you foster, and all of the ways you each live out your faith in your daily lives as vets and nurses and principals and teachers and bus drivers and famers and grandparents and aunts and secretaries and technicians and counselors and engineers.
Lafayette Church of the Brethren is not wandering, and this is no wilderness! Though you’re not going to pause your journeying this summer as you live in-between pastors, this will be a time to get some rest. Summer church life is always different, people traveling in and out (even more than the rest of the year), more opportunities to gather as church outside the church building, and this summer, a variety of voices in your pulpit, bringing fresh perspectives and vitality.
In the year we’ve spent together we’ve reflected on who and where we’ve been in order to discern how God is calling us to live into the future. Summer is when the earth begins bearing fruit, and this summer, as your internal and external search processes are complete, you can enjoy the fruits of your growing.
The Israelites wandered the wilderness for 40 years and said goodbye to Miriam, then Aaron, then Moses. And you all know something about that – you’ve said goodbye to so many pastors over the years. Most of you have known this congregation over the sweep of at least three pastors, or as many as sixteen!
I’ve seen a lot of strengths in you because of this dynamic – you know that Lafayette Church of the Brethren is not dependent on any certain person – even a pastor – to be the church. You have a true sense of shared responsibility to nurture the life of this congregation.
And there are challenges to saying goodbye and hello so many times – you get worn out on the emotional work involved with all these relationships and it’s easier to relax into surface-level engagement with one another. And the easiest thing, with all the search committees and settling in work to do, to focus internally rather than externally, losing sight of mission and service.
Think about the Israelites’ 40 years in the wilderness – when they say goodbye to Miriam, they just keep going, don’t stop to grieve, as far as we know, they stay fixated on their journey. And when Aaron dies they stop walking and mourn for 30 days. Then when Moses dies they mourn 30 days again, and then immediately prepare to cross the Jordan and enter the land they have been aching for, the home of their past and their destiny.
We have all these options and more available to us in the midst of change. We can just keep going like nothing is happening. We can take time to reflect and grieve. We can step back and consider what we are being called to next. Think about what else we can try – picking fights with each other, finding a scapegoat for tensions, checking out and hoping that other people will figure out what needs to happen next, distract ourselves with golden calves, oh, the list is endless.
All of the best and worst behavior we can think of has already happened here, it will happen again, it happened in the Israelites’ 40 years in the wilderness and after they settled in Canaan, it happened amidst Jesus’ friends and followers as they witnessed his death and wondered at his resurrection.
How would you like to hold yourselves – and each other – in gracious accountability in the midst of change? How do you want the people around you to respond to you when your stress and confusion spills over into dominating discussions or tuning out when things get tough, or you pass judgment and blame on someone else? Can you picture the scene? Imagine the script? When someone else responds to you graciously, and holds you accountable for your own behaviors – what does it look like? What does it sound like?
And then imagine applying the golden rule – if that’s how you would like to be treated, perhaps someone else would like to be treated similarly. So when you notice someone else acting up or acting out in stress amidst all this change, imagine offering that kind of gracious accountability to them.
Though waiting can be so hard, though goodbyes might ache, though starting over with a new pastor once again is a lot of work, I believe you have what you need to not only survive, but thrive, amidst all this change. Though some days you’ll wonder why the heck you’re taking such a long route to the promised land, you have so much to see and touch and taste and learn and share along the way.
God is at work in this gathered body and in each one of our bodies, setting us free from slavery, leading us to nourishment in the midst of famine, raising up new leadership, raining manna from the sky in the sunshine of this day, and the sweet hugs we get every Sunday, and the sincerity of a church that strives to love like Jesus by serving others and witnessing for peace.
This is plenty of good news – but there’s more! Today we remember that Jesus returns to the Jordan River to do another new thing. Jesus is about 30 years old now, and if we were reading Matthew chronologically, we’ve barely heard anything about him since he was born and then fled to Egypt with his parents. Suddenly he’s 30 and getting baptized. And he goes to the expert – his cousin (according to tradition) John.
John’s father Zacharias, the priest, has found a place in mainstream Jewish society. John flees the city’s security and seductions and lives as a hermit in the desert, eating locusts and honey and letting his hair dread. It doesn’t seem like John would be particularly popular, but Jews yearning for spiritual meaning flock to him and he begins baptizing people to symbolize repentance and forgiveness.
Some of you were baptized as babies, some as adults, some not at all. In Judaism there isn’t only one baptism. The ritualistic full body immersion called the mikveh is used for converting to the faith, before entering the temple, cleansing after ejaculation, menstruation, childbirth and other times when special body fluids are released, as well as preparing objects or people for religious ceremonies. So what John and Jesus are doing isn’t a brand new thing, but it certainly is weird – and moreover, it is revolutionary.
Here’s this wild man in the desert baptizing people not to go to the temple – the center of established religious and political power, but to live the lives they are drawn to. This is self-selected baptism, not ordered by a priest. And this is baptism with wild John, not an official leader from the Pharisee or Sadducee parties.
That’s the power of the Jordan River – or any other border we create for ourselves – when we enter the boundary waters, we are creating a new reality.
Jesus is a new kind of leader. He doesn’t ascend the mountain to speak to God in secret like Moses. Jesus wades down into the water to be with John and the yearning Jews, joining them in a ritual of repentance and forgiveness. For heaven’s sake I’m grateful to Moses and Miriam and Aaron for leading the Israelites out of slavery, but perhaps there’s a reason they couldn’t cross the Jordan and enter the promised land. It was time for a new way.
And 1500 years later Jesus and John enter the Jordan to make another new way. And 2000 years later we are still making new ways, we are still crossing borders, we are still learning how to get close to God by ascending mountains, by descending into rivers, by joining one another in wet repentance and forgiveness, by looking in our own hearts to find God pulsing within us.
There are plenty of Christians who struggle with this moment in the good news gospel story, because many of us don’t want to think of Jesus having any sins to repent of. I look forward to hearing what you have to say about that! What I think matters more than Jesus’s sin status is that he chooses to announce his ministry in the company of the folk who gather at the river – far from the temple or the mountaintop.
Even John is offended that Jesus comes to him for baptism, saying, “You should be the one to baptize me!” We hear the same shock in Peter a couple years later when Jesus kneels to wash his feet – “no, let me wash yours!” Jesus is here to turn the world upside down, not from a comfy throne or safe distance, but in the mucky river along with the rest of us. He wades in with us in our flaws and failures, in our worries and weakness, in our longings and lapses, in our beloved brokenness.
And God sees it, and calls it good. The good news gospel of Matthew says, “When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And her voice came from heaven: 'You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.'"
Imagine stepping foot in this building each Sunday is like dipping our toes into the Jordan River. If this building is the Jordan River, the Holy Spirit has many times taken flight in this room and expressed deep pleasure at the love and service cultivated in this place.
And the Jordan River reminds us that we shouldn’t get too comfy, because you can’t step in the same river twice. Lafayette Church of the Brethren has been riding a river of change for years, and gospel good news is around each bend. Wade on in, the water’s fine! We are never alone on this journey.