By the Very Rev. Sherry Crompton
January 13, 2008
Read: Matthew 3:13-17
Today we remember and celebrate Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. It seems a little strange to jump from Jesus as a baby, the Christmas story, to Jesus being Baptized as a man. In Matthew’s gospel, though, the baptism of Jesus marks the beginning of his ministry to the world. Like being born, it is a new beginning.
It also seems strange that Jesus would actually be baptized by John. As you know, John the Baptist was preaching about the need for repentance for forgiveness of sins…that we need to repent, to change our ways, and mark that new, fresh beginning with baptism. Now, Jesus is the Son of God, so he has no reason to repent…he has not sinned and is already pure. But, when John asks that obvious why question, Jesus claims that it is “proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness”.
Fulfilling all righteousness is doing God’s will. It is God’s will that Jesus be born in human form and live as one of us. Epiphany, this season of Epiphany, is our reminder that at Christmas, God entered into our world…the same world that you and I live in.
My friend Barbara has a Greek friend who writes… “Near my house the priest throws the cross into the sea to make it holy. And then all the divers go into the water to find it. Maybe it’s not as cold in January in Greece as it is here, but it’s brisk for a swim. Greek Americans do the same thing here in New York — leap from the pier right into the East River, after a cross the priest has tossed into the waves. That’s a lot more than brisk: it’s freezing.
Is this Strange? Pagan? Irrational? Well, maybe, but it’s also an great visual summary of what the Incarnation means. Into the chaos of earthly life comes the Son of God, joining us in what we face in life. And we can find ourselves in some strange situations when we become part of that adventure in love.”
Some call this Jesus’ downward mobility. That Jesus doesn’t seek to climb a ladder as many of us do in this early life. We constantly try to bring ourselves up and out. Jesus however, came down, as the poet Christina Rossetti puts it “Love came down at Christmas, love all lovely, love divine”.
Now today, we see that Jesus comes down to the riverbank and joins the rest of the sinners in being baptized. It’s part of the larger plan.
There is a vital connection between baptism and mission. Another way to put it is that there is a vital connection between going down and going out. We do not play our part in the world’s redemption when we climb ladders so much as when we are pulled downward. It is out of our pain that we heal. It is out of our poverty that we make others rich. It is from our ignorance that we enlighten others. It is by our brokenness that others become whole. It is from our dying that others come to life. We must follow Jesus in his descent, we must accept his downward mobility and our own if we are to be his true disciples, if we are to allow resurrection in our lives.
In this terrible demand that we go down with Jesus in downward mobility, that we go down with him in the murky waters of the river and the dark waters of death — in this terrible demand there is good news for us. For we already know what it means to go down. Perhaps you went down at some time in the past — an unhappy childhood, a broken marriage, a career failure, a horrible bereavement. Perhaps you find yourself down at the bottom right now — estranged from a loved one, troubled by an aging body, upset at a world that’s changed too fast. You already know what it means to go down. You feel confused, ashamed, and without any power. Your downward descent leaves you groggy.
The good news is this: there is power in that downward descent. Not power to grab and keep yourself, but power to use in serving other people. Whatever it is that has taken you to the bottom has been a baptism — if you stand out of the way and let it work. The death you have experienced can be life for someone else. That baptism of yours, horrible and unwelcome though it was, can lead you to some unexpected mission where Christ will rise again in you and your neighbor.
When Jesus emerges from the Jordan, with water dripping off his beard, he wipes his face and gives Cousin John a big grin and a bear hug. And in that instant, all those standing around – including Levi and Miriam, Simeon and Benjamin… real sinners – know instinctively that being worthy of such a thing isn’t the point. Being willing is what matters. Grace is the issue. Being willing is what matters.
Ann Patchett has written a book called The Patron Saint of Liars. It is the story of a woman named Rose and her daughter Cecilia. They live at Saint Elizabeth’s Home for Unwed Mothers in Habit, Kentucky. Rose is the cook and Cecilia has become sort of the mascot of the place.
One day, when Cecilia is fifteen years old, she meets one of the new girls who has come to Saint Elizabeth’s. Her name is Lorraine, and she’s about to have a nervous breakdown while she waits to be interviewed by Mother Corinne, the nun in charge. Cecilia decides to give this newcomer some advice.
“The guy who got you pregnant,” she tells Lorraine. “Don’t say he’s dead. Everybody says that. It makes Mother Corinne crazy.”
Lorraine sits on her hands and is quiet for a minute. “I was going to say that,” she says.
“So what do I tell her?”
“I don’t know,” Cecilia says. “Tell her the truth. Or tell her you don’t remember.”
“What did you tell her?” Lorraine asks.
And Cecilia is speechless. She’s never before been mistaken as one of them – one of the weak people whose bad decisions had derailed their lives, who had done something so shameful that their own families had packed them off to live with strangers until the evidence could be put up for adoption. Cecilia thought she was going to pass out because she had been mistaken for a sinner.
If Jesus had done it Cecilia’s way – if Jesus had done it our way – he would never have gotten in that water. Oh, he might have declared himself a friend to sinners, but he never would have wanted to be mistaken for one of them. He could have stood on the banks of the Jordan and given a blessing to all those who emerged dripping wet. He might have even given Cousin John a hand in administering some of the baptisms. He could have said to the people, “I feel your pain.” He could have acted like one of them without being one of them.
But that wasn’t good enough for Jesus. It wasn’t enough for Jesus. He wanted to fully identify with sinners – “to fulfill all righteousness” – and he was willing to be taken for one if need be.
Thank God for God’s grace and that “love came down at Christmas” and that we have the gift of repentance for the forgiveness of our sins. May we be willing to jump into the waters and enter into the adventure of God’s great love. Amen.
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