I listened to an interview of an author who had just written a book about trees, and I learned an interesting little factoid. The pomegranate, probably because of the many little seeds in its fruit, used to be considered the tree of life.
Brides would throw the seeds on the threshold of their new homes to promote fertility. Pomegranate is also the root of the word grenade, which breaks into many little pieces when it explodes. Ironically, the tree of life gives us a word for a weapon that causes death.
Water and its many meanings
Water is like the pomegranate; it can symbolize both life and death. We began our lives in water, floating before birth in a tiny ocean-like womb; then the waters broke. We passed through the waters, and we were born into a huge world of sights and sounds, voices and gusts of moving air. Forever after that moment, we have all felt, at some level, away from home.
Water is crucial for life, every day, but it can threaten us with death. It can refresh us and cleanse us, but may also swirl up to our necks, or worse, as people who live on the Gulf Coast hurricane zone know all too well.
Waters on earth are often borders: to cross over water is to leave one place and enter another, to leave one kingdom and enter another. And crossing waters can dramatically change the game on the ground. Odysseus crossed the Aegean, Caesar crossed the Rubicon; Washington crossed the Delaware.
Remember the story: passing through the waters of the Red Sea was the way the Hebrew slaves were born into the world of freedom. The waters were broken open, they passed through them, and were born a free people, ready to hear the voice of God from the cloud on Mt. Sinai and to feel the gusts of a new wind blowing.
And again, remember the story of 40 years later, of the new generation passing through the broken-open waters of the Jordan River. The Hebrew people at last left their wilderness-wanderings behind, and were born into the promised land.
John at the Jordan River
Our text today opens onto a Jordan River scene again, but many years later. John is telling them to enter the water again – for what? What will happen? Will they come out cleansed by that water? Will they cross over into a new kingdom?
When they go under the water, as John baptizes them, into that silent world – like the grave, and then come out, will it be like a new birth? Like leaving the womb? Will they be like newborns, feeling the gusts of wind, hearing voices in a new world? Is being baptized in that ancient Jordan a kind of border-crossing into a new kingdom? What in the world is happening?
Our text begins with curiosity: the people want to know what is going on.
15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts…
Questioning is where we enter the story. We are with them. What in the world is going on, we wonder? What’s going to happen next? We have come this far – it has often not been easy; there have been times when the water has gotten neck-high. But we have come to this point: what will the future hold for us? Will we make it?
John has a script in mind for the answer. It’s an old script – he learned it as a child. It goes something like this: “God is going to make his grand entrance someday, on our behalf. God is going to crack the sky open and come down in a blaze of glory to set things right; and, the fires will burn! Watch out Mr. Wicked! The Solution that we all seek is on the way.”
The people are still puzzled, but they respond. They enter the border-waters with John. As John baptizes them, they go under. They come up out of the waters, feel the wind, wait to hear a voice, and for the sky to crack open; for the fire; the solution.
Jesus enters the scene
Then Jesus comes into the scene. He too enters the waters of the Jordan. Look at him: now he is there, in the waters, with the people. He is baptized too, going under – with them. He goes down into that silence – like the silence of the grave, or the silence of the womb – and rises up; the waters break open.
Suddenly the sky does indeed crack open! Something is coming down from the heavens! The Solution is finally here!
But it is not the angry, punishing fire of retribution descending; rather, it is the gust of the Spirit. This is an entirely different wind now blowing; it is in the form of a dove. The people gathered at the river watch. Jesus looks up; he is in prayer. He is somewhere between one world and another when suddenly there is a Voice.
The voice from the cracked-open heaven makes the announcement of God’s Solution.
22You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Like a scene in a film that begins blurry then grows to sharp focus, now we see the pieces of this story coming together. John was right about the script – up to a point. God was indeed ready to act. He was indeed sending his Solution. He did crack the sky and descend.
His solution, however, was not to smite the wicked with the fire of punishment, but – watch what happens in this story. He gets down into the water with them. He stands next to us, in that ancient river, wet with the same water, identifying with our history, our longings, and even our complicated, sinful humanness.
Picture that day: Jesus went down into the waters of death, and broke them open as he arose into a new world, a new kingdom. The Spirit of God came down on Jesus as the dove of peace. God is not at war with his people; he has come to be permanently, thoroughly with us, and for us.
The Solution in the Water
This is God’s solution to our deepest needs. In our baptism we were there in those waters. Picture yourself standing in that river. When we were touched by the wetness of baptismal water, we went through those waters, we were baptized into Christ, into His death, that we might be “raised with him to walk in newness of life.” He is now not ashamed to look at us and call us his beloved children. He sends down his Spirit on us as we rise up out of those waters, and says, “You are clean now; you are mine; with you I am well pleased.”
In the words of the prophet Isaiah, he says to us,
1Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. 3For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior… 4Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, (Isa. 43)
What is God Doing?
So let us return to the question: What is God doing? What is next? Well, of course details we do not know. Maybe we will have to pass through some more deep water before it’s over. One thing we know: He is with us, for us. The one who got down into that water with us will never abandon us. His Spirit has descended. His Spirit is here – now, always.
So now, as baptized, newly born, cleansed, raised-to-life people; as people who have crossed the border into the new kingdom; as people of the Spirit of the God of peace, it is our joy, our calling, and our mission to extend his love. He got down into that sea of humanity with us – and there is no one outside of his will to bless with that same love.
We live into our baptisms as we extend that circle of love as we tutor children, as we provide homes for orphans, as we offer food and help to people in need. We live into our baptisms as and extend that circle of love as we open our arms to embrace people who are considered untouchable. We extend that circle of love as we bear witness to people who are in deep waters that they are not there alone; God is there, with them; Jesus is in those waters with them; we are in those waters with them!