January 16, 2011
Baptism of the Lord
(The Second Sunday after Epiphany)
Eighteen-wheeler dropped me off at that city limits sign
Sunday morning sunlight hurt my eyes
It’s a long way from where I been back to my hometown
But there’s a man in me I need to drown
Baptize me in that muddy water
Wash me clean in amazing grace
I ain’t been living like I oughta
Baptize me in that muddy water
These are just some of the lyrics to “Muddy Water,” written and sung by Trace Atkins. The words remind us, among other things, that if Jesus were to come to the Jordan River today for his baptism, he would need a tetanus shot … or a Hazmat suit.
That once mighty river, the river that Joshua and the Israelites miraculously crossed with God’s help, the river that shielded David and Elijah from their enemies, and the river where John the Baptist proclaimed the coming of God’s Messiah; is now little more than a stinking, bacteria-infested, polluted little creek.
At the site where many believe that Jesus was baptized, down near the Dead Sea, Christian pilgrims still plunge themselves into the brown water repeatedly. This, despite the fact that it’s so replete with bacteria and raw sewage that the Israeli government has banned people from entering the water. (They still can enter from the Jordanian side, although the Jordanian government strongly advises against it.)
A few miles north, the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism, the river is still very narrow but somewhat cleaner near where the shrinking Sea of Galilee spills into the Jordan. Here, in this scenic spot, the Israeli government has set up an official site for people who want to get baptized or remember their baptism in the Jordan. There you can rent a baptismal robe and change in a locker room before stepping down into the green water to be baptized while your tour group looks on and the fish nibble at your toes. For many pilgrims coming from around the world, it’s a memorable experience. Earlier I said Jesus would need a tetanus shot or a hazmat suit; here he would need his wallet, much like the commercialism for his birth.
Although getting into the same water that Jesus did is a spiritual high, we’re still reminded that, even here, consumerism is another dominant world religion. There’s a snack bar overlooking the site and, as you exit, you have to journey through the extensive gift shop, which features bottles of filtered Jordan River water to take home, along with other trinkets and souvenirs. Some might call it Baptisms-R-Us.
It was much different 2,000 years ago. Sewage and sales pitches weren’t part of the Jordan River experience in the days that John was baptizing. Rather than avoiding the water, “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and the entire region along the Jordan, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins,” Matthew tells us. Like the prophet Elijah of old, John was a forerunner and messenger, pointing to the Messiah who was to come. John’s message to the people was to get cleaned up ritually and spiritually before Jesus arrived.
Jesus would have walked along the Jordan as he traveled from the shores of Galilee down to John’s area of ministry near the Dead Sea, which was closer to Jerusalem and more accessible to large crowds coming from the city. That Jesus was baptized in the Jordan and not the Sea of Galilee, closer to home, is significant, especially for Matthew. Remember that for Matthew and his Jewish audience, Jesus is revealed as the new Moses, delivering God’s people from slavery of sin and death. In Matthew’s gospel, the infant Jesus escapes the murderous intent of Herod, just as Moses escaped Pharaoh; comes out of Egypt and Jesus will cross the water and enter into the desert for 40 days for a time of testing and preparation; a reminder of the Israelites’ 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. The Jordan is thus not only symbolic as the crossing point of liberation but also as a foretaste of entrance into a new kind of Promised Land that Jesus would proclaim as the kingdom of God. Jesus’ baptism thus functioned as a sign that the king had arrived and his kingdom project had begun.
Although the Exodus story is present here in Matthew’s gospel, so, too, is the story of creation. Jesus emerges from the water, which the Old Testament often uses as a symbol of the watery chaos that existed at the beginning of creation. As the Spirit or “wind” of God moved over the waters in the beginning, so the Spirit of God moves over Jesus “like a dove”, reminding us of the Noah story, when God saved his people from the watery chaos through the ark. As God spoke creation into existence, God speaks his Son’s commission to renew creation through his life, death and resurrection: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased”.
The story of Jesus’ baptism is a glorious one that sets the tone for our own baptism, even if that baptism occurred when we were infants. As adults, we can now better understand the significance of what we’re going to see as a “dangerous” baptism. Christians sometimes have a hard time agreeing on the proper mode of baptism, but its meaning merges these ancient stories into a present reality for every Christian. In baptism, we are liberated from slavery of sin and death through the forgiveness of our sins. We receive a new identity and new life through a relationship with God, who is present at our baptism as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And we are invited to once again take on our vocation as people created in God’s image; a vocation that involves stewardship and care for each other and for God’s good creation.
What we might miss, however, is the fact that baptism, regardless of the water source, is also a dangerous act. We may not be exposed to nasty parasites and diseases such as those pilgrims who still insist on plunging into the stinking Jordan. But, like Jesus, we will be exposed to other, even more frightening, dangers. Our baptism is dangerous because it marks us as belonging to Jesus, the crucified Messiah. When we go down into that water, we’re doing nothing less than taking on the mission and message of the one in whose name we are baptized.
For example, Jesus emerges from the water and, in the next scene, is starving and wandering in the desert while being tempted. Satan invites Jesus to an easier kind of life and death than the one Jesus seems to know is awaiting him. The baptized followers of Jesus face similar temptations to be comfortable, powerful and satisfied instead of focusing on the life of service and sacrifice God calls them to lead. Baptism marks us as being set apart for a different kind of life that denies much of the temporal, pleasurable and consumable things the rest of the world values. Jesus teaches us to live simply and generously in a culture of excess. For us, like the rich young ruler, walking away from our possessions, our status and our former life is painful.
Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God and God’s justice for the poor, the infirmed, the immigrant, the stranger and the lost. His ministry took him into back alleys and hostile territories, where he risked his reputation and his life to bring the good news of God’s coming kingdom to those who needed it most. His calls for justice and his identity with outsiders would make his detractors angry enough to want to kill him. When Jesus’ followers stand for and with people who cannot stand for themselves, those who seek to retain power, wealth and the status quo will react negatively and, as history teaches us, sometimes violently. Jesus told his disciples that their identity as his followers would mark them as being guilty by association in the eyes of many.
Baptism is a commissioning to a dangerous vocation, but when we live it out, that vocation is world-changing. Our association with Jesus marks us in the eyes of the rest of the world but also marks us in the eyes of God as his own beloved children who will participate with him in the renewal of God’s good creation. As John Dominic Crossan puts it, God is engaging in the “Great Divine Cleanup of the World” through the ministry of Christ and his church. Whether our tasks are easily doable or imminently dangerous, the baptized are called to follow Jesus out of the water and into the world.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.