Wade in the water
This sermon was originally delivered in the Ravenswood Covenant Church.
Text: Luke 3
We have an unusually generous theology and practice of baptism in the Covenant Church. There was wisdom in the minds and actions of our ancestors who chose unity over difference and dogma. We believe that baptism is a sacrament and an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace. Whenever and wherever one is baptized, in the community of believers, God is present and is endowing grace on the individual baptized to walk in the love and light of God and to live faithfully into baptism.
I was raised in the Roman Catholic tradition and educated at parochial schools. I knew God to be faithful and true. When I went to college, I hung out with some Baptists there. It was then I started feeling pressured to be baptized again. But somewhere, deep inside, I knew that when I was baptized as an infant by my parents, with the witnesses of godparents, family, the church and the presence of God, that I belonged to God always. I knew that no matter my failings and my sin, nothing could separate me from the love of God – not death, not life, not things I could see nor things that were hidden. I was convinced that, as Psalm 139 reminded me, God knew me even before I was formed in my mother’s womb and would never leave me. I knew that my baptism, which took place before I had memory, was in God’s memory and that was enough.
In the middle of my life when I was in seminary in a chapel service at North Park, Professor John Weborg invited those present to remember our baptism. When I touched the waters of baptism in the font that day, the grace of God was present once again. This time to remind me of God’s presence and the grace God was giving me to live into my baptism.
As we read this text, we enter into baptismal waters again as we wade in the baptismal waters of Jesus, the tax collectors, soldiers, crowds, and us. These are the waters of baptism made muddy by our sin, but made holy by our Lord.
John the Baptist looms large in our story today and throughout the gospel of Luke. Even before he is born, John is leaping in his mother’s womb at the greeting of the mother of Jesus, Mary. His very conception shuts up his priest father Zechariah – ironic for the father of a prophet!
There is no mistaking John for something other than what he is. In his animal clothes and paleo diet John has all the markings of a prophet in the tradition of Isaiah. He lives in the wilderness, Matthew tells us, until the time arrives when his message must go forth. And go forth it does!
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Not exactly a feel-good message, yet they keep coming. In fact, John’s message fills them with expectation and hope that the Messiah was near, that perhaps even John himself was the long awaited Messiah.
This got them questioning how they were living their lives. His listeners responded by asking, “What should we do? How do we repent? How do we bear fruit in keeping with repentance?”
John’s “congregation” included all sorts of folks, from all walks of life. The tax collectors who were known to pad the invoice or skim off the top and the soldiers who were known to threaten and extort money from the local people.
If this is all true, Prophet John, if you are preparing the way for the Messiah, tell us what to do!
And he does. John tells them if you have two tunics, give one to someone who needs it. You only need one. If you have more food than you need for the day, share it with someone who needs it. If you collect taxes, don’t take any more than is due! If you are a soldier, stop threatening and stealing from people!
In other words, love your neighbor, love your enemy, even if they owe you money. Even if they are poor. Even, maybe especially, if they are “other” or different from you.
Repent – turn – change – for the kingdom of God is at hand! And when God’s kingdom is at hand, there is a grand reversal.
Be baptized for the forgiveness of sins so you are ready when the world is turned upside down!
Luke writes, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
All of this precedes today’s text, and it created an expectation and anticipation in those who heard John’s message. Yet, the salvation of God comes in a most unexpected way.
In the midst of all of these “sinners” and these crowds who trudged out to the wilderness to hear John, in the middle of this growing crowd of baptismal candidates stands Jesus, the Messiah. He was just another traveler waiting in line to be baptized like all the rest and wading in the waters of the Jordan. Did anyone notice? This Jesus, just one of the crowd?
The River Jordan was the same water that Joshua led Israel through on dry land into the Promised Land – where rocks were taken to build Ebenezers (or altars), so all who would go by that way would be reminded of the goodness and faithfulness of God to God’s people.
What Promised Land awaited those who crossed the Jordan this time? The Jordan River that would receive the sinners and the sin. The Jordan would wash and hold their sins so they could come out of the waters ready to move ahead in righteousness/rightness and walk in the way of God. To be ready to heed John’s admonition to live lives that bore the fruit of repentance.
But why did Jesus need to be baptized? Why was Jesus, who was in every way like us, except without sin, waiting in the line with all the sinners and wading into the waters of the Jordan?
Maximus of Turin wrote in the fifth century that Jesus was not baptized for himself but for us, for “Christ, entering into the Jordan washed the waters of that river.”
Glenn Palmberg, president emeritus of the Covenant Church, in a sermon he preached 20 years ago said that, “Jesus, along with all the other sinners, enters the dirty waters of the Jordan, waters made figuratively filthy by the washing away of sins.1 He then reminds us that it is after Jesus comes up from those waters that a voice declares,
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
What pleases God about what Jesus has done?
Here God is affirming and confirming Jesus before he has done anything except to identify with sinners, with those who are asking, “What must we do?” Jesus here begins his public life how he ends it – from the muddy waters of baptism to the bloody cross of redemption. It is a messy thing, this good news.
In the Jordan River, Jesus is in solidarity with the crowds, the tax collectors, the soldiers and the sinners as he moves toward them. Standing there, Jesus is just another one of the crowd, in the line waiting and wading. On the cross, Jesus hangs in solidarity with all who suffer, regardless of the reason or type of suffering. Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows but Jesus. The spirituals get it right, I think.
We note that here in Luke, the actual baptism of Jesus is not recorded. Instead, the emphasis is on the presence of God following his baptism by John. The presence of God is made manifest in words and the dove.
We read that Jesus is in prayerful expectation when the Holy Spirit descends on him in the form of a dove and a voice from heaven declares, “You are my son whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
The heavens open and the identity of Jesus is made clear. In Luke the voice and dove come to Jesus alone. One scholar writes that Jesus alone would have to endure what lay ahead for him in ministry. Here God commissions Jesus for the ministry that lay ahead.2
Another author writes that Jesus’ identity as the son of God is revealed, as the Son of Man, in his solidarity with sinners. Here Jesus is at the threshold of fulfilling his purposes in the realm of God and about to go into the world. As he stands there in prayer, God speaks his approval and affirmation.
Jesus did not need to be baptized by John but was compelled to join sinners who did. Jesus begins his ministry by wading in the muddy waters of the Jordan and moving near to the sinners of his day. And Jesus spends his life moving near those considered unholy, unclean and unremarkable, those at the margins of first-century Palestine.
John’s was the voice crying out in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord and to make the paths straight. Declaring that every valley will be filled and every hill made low, the crooked straightened out and the rough ways smooth. That all people will see the salvation of God. God was saving by coming near and by coming to all! This is the grand reversal of God’s kingdom. God coming near, standing with and dying for. Emmanuel, God with us.
Living into our baptism begins by asking the questions: What should we do? How do we bear fruit that is in keeping with repentance? Does our life reflect our faith? Are we living into our baptism?
I think at the very least it means moving near; moving near to God by moving near to others, especially to the others that we may consider unworthy or strange or just plain “other.” Living into our baptism means following Jesus into the muddy waters and the messiness of life. It means loving our enemies and sharing our tunics and our food. It means being generous and fair and having integrity in the small and the big things. It means moving toward others by promoting justice for someone other than ourselves, especially those who are other than us.
I know this is asking a lot, but I also know that it is all of our work, individually and corporately. It is social and political because discipleship is about all of life.
When you have opportunity to remember your baptism as a part of a communion service, as you touch the waters, remember also Jesus, who waded in the Jordan to come near sinners like you and me, and that he calls us to do the same. May we remember that as God has come near to us, the light of Christ grows in us. As we move toward others and toward justice and toward love, may the light of Christ grow stronger and brighter in the world.
Please pray with me as I offer this prayer, written by president emeritus Glenn Palmberg.
O God, you have moved toward us despite what we have done and despite who we have been. Help us to move toward others despite what they have done and despite who they have been, that they, like us, might find new life in you. Amen.
1. Glenn Palmberg. “The Dirty Waters of Baptism.” Sermon. 1/29/2001. Midwinter Conference.
2. John Nolland. Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word Books 1993. 165.