Monday, January 12, 2009

Wading Into New Life

It would take a wide-angle lens to do justice to the scene at the Jordan River. St. Mark uses few words to tell what happened. “People from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” were going to John the Baptizer, who appeared in the wild, on the banks of that river, preaching “a baptism of life-change that leads to forgiveness of sin.” (That’s how Eugene Peterson puts it, in “The Message.”)

This was an outdoor revival meeting, but no tent. No meeting either, not in the sense of orderly rows of folding chairs facing a stage and a choir. No. That’s why we need to see this on the big screen. It may be the beauty of holiness, but this is no pretty picture: John’s got fire in his eyes as he stands knee-deep in that muddy water, and as his words hit home, people slide down those riverbanks and run to him, splashing, thrashing to be next to let go a soiled life and rise to what is new and clean.

This is not Anglican liturgy, done decently and in order. This is not well-dressed ushers pointing a neat row of worshipers to the next opening at the communion rail. This is the old social order cracking open and disordered lives spilling out turning, churning that ancient river into a muddy froth, as conversion of life works its messy way, hearts breaking open with grief at the past, conviction that there must be a better way, readiness for it to be now.

John the Baptizer has come, preaching a baptism of repentance. Want to hear his sermon? This is St. Luke’s version, as Eugene Peterson expresses it. I’m going to change it just a little; see if you can tell where.

7-9When crowds of people came out for baptism because it was the popular thing to do, John exploded: "Brood of snakes! What do you think you're doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to deflect God's judgment? It's your life that must change, not your skin. And don't think you can pull rank by claiming, ‘We are Episcopalians!' Being an Episcopalian is neither here nor there—they’re a dime a dozen. God can make them from stones if he wants. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it's deadwood, it goes on the fire."
10The crowd asked him, "Then what are we supposed to do?"
11"If you have two coats, give one away," he said. "Do the same with your food."
12Tax men also came to be baptized and said, "Teacher, what should we do?"
13He told them, "No more extortion—collect only what is required by law."
14Soldiers asked him, "And what should we do?"
He told them, "No shakedowns, no blackmail—and be content with your rations."
15The interest of the people by now was building. They were all beginning to wonder, "Could this John be the Messiah?"
16-17But John intervened: "I'm baptizing you here in the river. The main character in this drama, to whom I'm a mere stagehand, will ignite the kingdom life, a fire, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He's going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He'll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he'll put out with the trash to be burned."
18-20There was a lot more of this—words that gave strength to the people, words that put heart in them.

So you caught where I made a small change? Yes, the Episcopalians part. If that story is going to serve us, we’d better get ourselves into it, I say.

And that is what Jesus did. He was there, watching this Bruegelesque scene, this human equivalent of a buffalo stampede. And then suddenly he was there in the turgid Jordan up to his knees in the same water that thousands had pilgrimed their way through before him. He waded in.

Consider what that action said. The crowds hunger and thirst for the Messiah, God’s anointed agent who would set right the ancient wrongs. Could it be John? He answers clearly, “No, but he’s coming.” And then Jesus steps down that riverbank into the Jordan.

The timing makes the message unmistakable: This is the Messiah! But the action makes them wonder. Would the Messiah get his feet wet and his hands dirty with all this miserable mud? Wouldn’t he stand high above them on a mountaintop, not be last in line for this exercise in revival that we’ve all gone through?

Welcome to the world of Jesus of Nazareth, Messiah of radical equality, Word of God made flesh of man and woman. To make us new from the inside out, our Savior first becomes one of us, one with us.

He announces the platform, the social agenda of his public ministry, standing there with his feet in the oozing riverbed: it is to stand with us, for us.

He opens his three short years of recorded ministry by bringing up the rear of this vast procession of life-torn human beings seeking new life. He’s doing it himself. But because of who he is, when he does it, earth and heaven are gathered into one and we see the heavens torn apart as much as to say that the very heart of God is torn open in compassion for all this human suffering and becoming, all this dying to the old and being birthed into the new. There is nothing in the way between humanity and God in this moment when Jesus sums up all this passage through the waters of new birth. Unzipped is the firmament that ordinarily shrouds human existence. The usual silence is punctuated by the voice we would hear more if we sought it. “You are my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

We’re certain God says that to Jesus, about Jesus. But isn’t God saying it about all with whom Jesus is standing? A sweet twelve-year-old girl who was the last one in, just before Jesus… And the old fellow who couldn’t see to find his way down the riverbank and had to be helped…And the two who helped him, one in fine clothes and the other in the rags of a beggar. A young woman old beyond her years, holding a child. That hardened man who cracked a smile as if he liked the feel of a thawing heart… God says it about them all, seeing them all stand in the same muddy waters of revival. God says it about us, who find new life in Jesus Christ. “You are my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” This is the voice that puts heart in us.
Heart which impels us to wade in and go knee-deep in life, again and again.

We remember today a woman who did. Barbara Mahon, Jim’s Mom, Paula’s mother-in-law, Evie’s grandmother, Jina’s friend and friend of many. She moved to Williamstown in 2006, recognizing that she needed help navigating the cross-currents as her health was failing, and fighting that need, for she had spent her life helping, being the helper.

She was a speech pathologist, helping countless children find their voices. She volunteered at a hospital for children with cerebral palsy. She counseled AIDS patients and their surviving children, served as a mentor through her local Drug and Alcohol Abuse Council, taught handicapped children to swim, taught English as a second language, brought meals to shut-ins, created a reading and discussion program for young adults. Even in these last two years, she volunteered at the Women’s Exchange, the Milne library, the Berkshire Food Project.

Wherever do we get the idea that conversion of life is simple? This helper, in her last years of life, had to become a receiver of help. That’s about as challenging as it gets, deep water, muddy. That’s when you must dare hear God’s approval—You are my Beloved, with you I am well pleased—as sheer grace, undeserved, unearned, pure gift.

The story of our Lord’s Baptism is about the revival of the human heart. This story calls each of us to be amazed by the grace, the overflowing abundant love, the heaven-unzippering passion of God for us, for each of us. Our Messiah of radical equality stands with us, when we are inspired to wade into life, and when we cannot.