Sunday, January 11, 2009

Baptism of Jesus

Mark 1

4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

This river is the dividing line between east and West. It inspires poetry and great works of literature: from “Ol’ Man River” to the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It is a river but it is also a theme: the new frontier, adventure, escape and freedom. It is the canvas on which bridge builders practice their art and where engineers struggle to maintain her banks.

Another river enters history as Romulus and Remus are throw in and subsequently rescued by a She-wolf. It too acted as a boundary, until the conquering ways of her people united both banks. In spite of this, or maybe because of this, the area “across the river” (Trastevere) remains proudly distinct. The river is considered sacred (and symbolic) whereby an Anglican converting to the Roman Catholic faith is said to be “swimming the Tiber.” The reverse, of course, is “swimming the Thames.”

A final river is also a boundary line with sacred associations, a source of poetry and prose as water emerges in the north and flows through the desert places down to the saltwater sea. “Crossing over” can mean entering the Promised Land and can mean entering into death. It appears and reappears in sacred verse: it represents a promise fulfilled, liberation and a new land.

Three rivers, the Mississippi, the Tiber and the Jordan, each exist in the literal and the figural. Each river inspires meaning beyond a water channel through dry land. And each represents some form of beginning: the beginning of freedom, the beginning of history and the beginning of new life. The passage through or over has meaning, as does the act of entering the river. Huck’s raft is swamped by a passing riverboat, and he must try to carry on without his new friend Jim. Romulus and Remus are saved by being set adrift in the river (a familiar story) only to be resaved and nursed by that famous she-wolf. Jesus enters the river at the urging of John the Baptizer, and emerges with a blessing and the name above all names: son of the Most High.


John the Baptist finds a place on both sides of Christmas. He is the New Testament prophet, calling us to repent in the time of preparation before Jesus’ birth. He is not the light, we are told, but a witness to the light. He was called to testify concerning the light, and make a path in the wilderness for his coming. In John’s gospel we are given poetry as the light appears, but in Mark only prose, and thin prose at that: “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” Mark is in such a hurry that he almost leaves it at that, but not quite: A voice came from heaven saying ‘you are my beloved son, in you I am well pleased.”

There are some that argue that certain words carry eternity: certain words convey meaning of a level we struggle to understand. Compare sun, sea and sky to puddle, yard and shrub. There are words that engage the imagination and words that do not. There are words that evoke powerful associations and those that do not. Granted some words stand out because they describe vast things or formerly scary things, but at the end of they day they all describe things.

Some might argue that these “larger” words benefit from former sacred associations. There was a moon god in almost every ancient culture: the same cannot be said for shrubs. The sea is by definition infinite, since we can only ever see 15 nautical miles to the edge of the horizon (unless you have a crowsnest). A shrubs is finite and almost foolish when compared to his cousin the tree. Vastness and danger seem to be a factor then, and whatever words the ancients twinned with mystery.

Down by the river, then, Jesus came to be baptized. He comes to participate in the sacred associations of this special river, a river that meant crossing from wandering to a promised home, from bondage to freedom, and the uncertainty of life without their leader Moses. For Moses, Jordan means the end of a journey, and the transition to another reality. This will also find resonance in his baptism, as later writers will mark baptism as a little death, one that forms a boundary between an old life and the new life that begins after baptism. More on that later.

Part of the resonance of the Jordan is also very current. The right to inhabit this land is disputed: Some point to the same sacred associations and justify aggression in the name of security. Others point to different associations, and enlist the help of rogue nations to undermine the international order. At the end of the day the entire conflict seems tribal, small groups fighting over small places, a variation on cold war where Washington and Tehran are content to allow others to do the heavy lifting while the people suffer. From the left or the right I think we can agree that neither Israel nor Hamas care about the people of Gaza. The world looks on in horror.

And not to downplay the horror, but some of the same associations are driving this conflict. Israel-Palestine is tiny: we drove the length of it in an afternoon, but the resonance is powerful. Sacred to three religions, we look on with concern. But worldwide, there are many conflicts with more horror and more death that carry on unnoticed. Are we concerned because we are concerned or are we concerned because the media suggests we be concerned? Either way, we pray for peace.


The most powerful association at the riverbank is renewal. Primitive ancestors realized quickly that stagnant is bad and flowing is good. Rivers serve up life in the form of water, when we are wise enough to not soil our own water source. Look for the core of every great city and you will find a river: providing water, bringing trade, powering industry. The river is a source of life and nourishment and beginning and therefore the first choice for baptism: we go down to the river to leave our old selves behind, and emerge from the water a new person. We die with Christ and emerge from the water a new person altogether.

The riverside is also the place where life begins. Jesus’ vocation begins with baptism, hearing a divine affirmation and beginning an earthly ministry that remains active today. Baptism, then, is also a place of sacred vocation, where we emerge from the water to undertake our ministry, the unique way we each serve God. As a congregation, we look in, remembering our baptism and making a recommitment to our discipleship. This begins by helping little Sydney find her sacred vocation, and guiding her in a life of faith. But there is more: remembering our baptism, we are called to leave the riverside once more and retrace our steps as believers. We are called to reassess and reconsider our life with Christ and continue to honour him in our lives.

We go down to the river to pray: and witness the rebirth that comes from the waters of baptism, opening a way to new life. Amen.


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