Monday, January 17, 2011

Flow On, Jordan

Scripture for the first Sunday after the Epiphany includes Isaiah 42:1-9; Acts 10:34-43; and Matthew 3:13-17

I have never seen the Jordan River, but my trusty “Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible” tells me that the Jordan Valley, down which the river runs, lies in a deep rift in the earth’s crust which is part of the same line of weakness that, much farther south, shows itself in the Great African Rift cutting deep into East Africa.

Let’s put that in our tool kit for understanding the baptism of Jesus. It happens right where the earth is weak, in a depression that cuts across international boundaries, linking peoples and cultures of many lands.

Of course, we know that the Jordan River figures in Israel’s history, from the primitive times of Father Abraham to the bloody conquest of Canaan, where the river was the last obstacle to be surmounted before the Israelites crossed over into what they called the promised land, Moses dying on one side, God not permitting him to set foot across the Jordan, passing on that leadership to Joshua. In subsequent generations, in one military campaign after another, the Jordan River will be a strong line of defense.

America has the Potomac, and the Mississippi, Old Man River. In Israel, the psalmist sang, “There is a river, whose streams make glad the city of God…”

And for our toolkit today, the Jordan figures in the miracles of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Remember how Elijah, before his ascension to heaven, took off his cloak and struck the water with it, causing the river to divide, allowing him and Elisha to cross on dry ground (a reprise of the Passover, when another body of water flowed into the oral history of Israel).

When Naaman, commander of the army of neighboring Syria, at odds with Israel, sought out Elisha for his healing power, it was to the Jordan that the prophet sent him to bathe. To be cured of his leprosy, the enemy had to swallow his nationalistic pride, sputtering all the way about how, back home in Damascus, they had the Pharpar, a river sparkling clear, not like the dirty muddy waters of the Jordan.

So look where it happens, the baptism of Jesus. It was there at the Jordan where John the Baptizer emerged from the wilderness like Elijah, and, like Elisha, prescribed a cure—but for moral illness, not physical—calling all sorts and conditions of people to come and bathe in the muddy waters of the Jordan, and confess their greed, their violence, their toxic values, their missed opportunities, their misplaced passions…

And there, on the fault line traversing the Indian and African Plates, at that symbolic place still soaked in the bloody encounters of Israelites and Canaanites, there on holy ground and holy water with a great cloud of patriarchs, matriarchs, and prophets swirling in the collective memory of these crowds pressing in to claim the healing, to be slapped by the ethical challenge, of John…

There is where Jesus receives his first and forever mission, to bring forth justice to the nations, to open eyes that are blind, to bring prisoners out of their dungeons, to declare new things.

“The voice of the LORD is upon the waters,” we heard the psalmist sing.

Not far from the Sea of Galilee is Nazareth, Jesus’s home. Fed by the Jordan, that little sea and the cities all around it would be where the early months of Jesus’s public ministry took place. The watershed moment in his career, if it wasn’t the baptism we celebrate today, was at Caesarea Philippi when he confronted his disciples with the question, “Who do men say that I am?” And yet more to the quick, “And you, who do you say I am?” And Peter answered, “You are the Messiah sent from God!” And all this happened at the most eastern source of the Jordan. And down the east side of that valley he walked, teaching, healing, freeing, disturbing, revealing the equality and the dignity of all people.

For the last time he crossed the Jordan at Jericho, and from there embarked on the final chapter of his public mission in Jerusalem, the mission he received from John, from God, that day, knee-deep in the silty Jordan. To roil the waters of unexamined privilege until they give way to justice. To calm the waters of chaos, until they rise to swallow him. And then to wait until God is pleased to give new voice to the Word from deep within the belly of the grave, and then to rise to new life in us who are baptized into his Name.

For our tool-kit to understand his baptism: notice the great leveling that goes on between John and Jesus as they face off in the Jordan. John insists, “I need to be baptized by you! And do you come to me? This all feels wrong.” And Jesus insists, “It must be this way now, trust me.” Jesus will not let John keep a hierarchical world. All things are being made new; even John, as full of light as he is, must think new thoughts, must move beyond his old categories that could keep him from growing.

The New Testament remembers John for having summoned people to a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of their sins. John’s insistence that he isn’t qualified to baptize Jesus—or is it that Jesus doesn’t qualify as a sinner?—either way, misses the point of the new creation that God is about.

As the breaking of a mother’s water is the sign of new birth, what is breaking open here in the Jordan is radical human equality. John was already midwifing that birth. All sorts and conditions of people were drawn to that river, compelled by John’s vision of justice being theirs to accomplish (“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”) He was wakening in them a power to transform a brutal and selfish world, first freeing them from their failures, then freeing them for their responsibilities.

Jesus receives this baptism at John’s hands. As he comes up from the water, there is given to him a vision of the Spirit of God coming down like a dove and alighting on him. He hears a voice, yet the message is for us: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

In two ways the message is for us. We need to hear God say who Jesus is. And we need to hear God say who we are, because of who Jesus is. We need to hear God singing this lovesong over every person we meet. We need to hear God singing this lovesong to us, one by one. “You are my daughter, my son, beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

In the new creation in Jesus, God puts us on a surer foundation, more secure even than the freeing power of forgiveness of sin. God puts you, God sees you, God declares you God’s own, beloved, a source and a recipient and an agent of God’s pleasure.

You may or may not find in today’s Gospel all that I am claiming. You will find it in the baptismal covenant that unites us to God in Christ. In our collect we prayed for grace to keep that covenant.

Such keeping requires, for sure, the keeping of vows. Required, also, is keeping close the moral commitment and the divine mercy of John the Baptist’s vision.

But first and forever, keeping the covenant of our baptismal standing with God requires that we dare to hear God’s passionate favor spoken to us, person by person, and to hear that Word being formed over each person we meet, leveling us in radical human equality in keeping with Jesus Christ.