Last week our story revolved around seeking, finding, and being changed by an encounter with Jesus as a very young child.
This week, by contrast we meet Jesus, now fully grown to adulthood.
Here in the text we’re told Jesus has joined in with many others already gathered at the edge of the muddy waters of the River Jordan.
We know that the others have come longing for change to their current circumstances.
The text doesn’t tell us what’s called Jesus to the river.
It just tells us that he has arrived and has mucked in with the others.
The backdrop to this story is that we know that all gathered together do so at some risk.
Living under the tyranny of the Roman Empire as they do, we and they know there is watchfulness and danger.
But, also, we know the gathered community does so out of deep motivation for change that needs to happen.
Along with that the gathered community at the river’s edge also bring their expectation and hope for a decidedly different world.
This is the same longing and expectant hope we saw in last week’s story about the wise ones who had travelled such a long and arduous road.
Here this morning, the scene opens with a fiery speech by Jesus’ cousin, John, the Baptist. John, the Baptist has also now grown into adulthood.
He’s a wild, wooly, and wonderful ‘over the top’ example of prophetic messenger sent from God.
Here at the river’s edge John calls the people to a baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins.
Now, I don’t know about you, but for me, the language of a baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins always gets me to feeling more than a little twitchy, even at church.
On the one hand, I want to gloss over John’s invitation to a baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins and on the other I don’t.
Quelle dilemme for a preacher on the first Sunday after the Epiphany.
I like with Catherine Faith MacLean and John H.Young have to say about sin in their book, Preaching the Big Questions, Doctrine Isn’t Dusty’
In the book she says:
“The word sin is a short, large word that lets us be human…Sin is estrangement….Sin is being separated from that to whom we belong . And the One to whom we belong yearns for us. God created us in God’s own image and God won’t let us go, not even to a short, large word. When we are able embrace sin understood that way, Catherine says ‘there goes the elephant in the room!’ p. 115, United Church Publishing House, 2015
So, thanks, Catherine, for this definition one giving me courage and permission to talk a bit about this thorny issue.
From my own personal perspective, what I hear John, the Baptist is saying is this:
Come all ye who are seeking to be of new mind and new hope!
Come, ready to let go all that weighs you down-all your burdens, your frustration, your resentments, your grudges, your regrets.
Come, ready to be set free of all that keeps you at arm’s length from God.
Friends, do with that what you need.
Coming back to John’s prophetic speech at the river’s edge, I hear John also telling the gathered body he is not the One, the longed for liberator they await.
No, he, John, is not the one come and turn the upside down world right side up.
From there, John offers his own most apocalyptic vision, his own expectant hope for what that longed for liberator will do.
Indeed, the text goes on to tell us that that it is John who is about to face his own apocalypse.
Shortly he will be imprisoned by the most corrupt of the corrupt, Herod, for speaking truth to power.
Soon and very soon, John’s life will be cut short.
However, you may have to go home and read through those verses for yourself as they are not included in today’s reading.
What is included, however, is what happens after Jesus is baptized.
You see, though Jesus may have come down to the river expecting his experience to be no different than anyone else’s, he is in for a surprise.
Here, in Luke’s gospel, after being immersed in the muddy waters of the River Jordan, the story tells us that Jesus emerges and prays.
Though many an artistic rendering and faithful Christian has tried to interpret Jesus praying through the lens of their own culture and own context, it is really not clear to us what that actually looked like.
What is clear is that it was a life changing moment of transformation.
To my way of thinking, I imagine Jesus communing with the elements of nature.
I imagine Jesus’ being coalescing with the water in the river, the wind, and the sky.
In that coalescing, the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus in bodily form, and a voice from heaven declares his new identity as God’s own beloved Son.
It must have been quite an experience, not only for Jesus, but for all present in that moment.
Galvanized in this new identity, Jesus will be sent out and tested in the Wilderness for forty days and nights.
I really like this story of how when Jesus and other gather together in community at the water’s edge are in this together, God also shows up.
Here at the rivers’ edge God exceeds all their expectations by becoming not only audibly but visibly present.
Here in this morning’s text from Luke’s gospel, we have our template for the sacrament of baptism, our rite of membership in the Church modelled for us.
For me however, the story also reminds me of what can happen whenever two or more are gathered in God’s name.
Each Sunday as we gather for worship, many us come expecting to be called to let go of all that weighs us down, many of us coming expecting to let go of all that separates us from loving ourselves and loving others; many of us come expecting to be welcomed, cleansed, claimed, and then commissioned by God.
People of Trinity, whether we come together out of long habit or of it being the right thing to do, whether we come because our friends are here, or whether we come together out of a common longing to gather with other like minded folk striving to embody a new way of being in relationship and to take our parts in turning the world right side up, there is good news to be found in this text.
The good news here is that our God, who loves us more than we might ever imagine, is our staunchest ally.
Whether we bring little ones or own selves as mature adults for baptism, I know that we, like Jesus, are precious and beloved.
To quote the prophet, Isaiah, I also know that God has called us by our names and we are God’s.
For me the purpose of the story of Jesus’ baptism at the River Jordan is not offered so that we will enter into the ritual of baptism as a way to be protected from the world’s ills.
The purpose of the story is to be of new mind, to let go all that burdens us and that separates us from God and each other.
Acknowledging and accepting that good news frees us to feel welcomed and to celebrate God’s claim on our lives in community.
From there we are commissioned, sent forth in Christ’s name as God’s beloved ones.
For me, one of the take away questions for today is this:
What prevents us from accepting and embracing the good news that we are all precious in God’s eyes?
Perhaps it’s one for you to consider as well.
Meanwhile, let us conclude with a prayer of commitment attributed to Miriam Therese Winter 1987 entitled Living Water, Source of Life, found at VU 645:
God, our Mother,
River of Mercy,
Source of Life,
In whom we live and move and have our being,
Who quenches our thirst
Refreshes our weariness,
Bathes and washes
and cleanses our wounds,
Be for us always a fountain of life,
And for all the world
A river of hope
Springing up in the midst
Of the deserts of despair.
Honour and blessing,
Glory and praise
To You forever. Amen.
Rev. Elizabeth Bowyer reserves all rights © 2019.
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