Down to the River to Pray

Sermon on Luke 3 for Baptism of Jesus Sunday, Year C, Jan. 10, 2015

Luke 3:1, 3-6, 15-17, 21-22 (The Message)

While Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea; Herod, ruler of Galilee;… John, out in the desert at the time, received a message from God. He went all through the country around the Jordan River preaching a baptism of life-change leading to forgiveness of sins, as described in the words of Isaiah the prophet:

Thunder in the desert!Screen Shot 2016-01-09 at 4.23.02 PM
“Prepare God’s arrival!
Make the road smooth and straight!
Every ditch will be filled in,
Every bump smoothed out,
The detours straightened out,
All the ruts paved over.
Everyone will be there to see
The parade of God’s salvation.”

When crowds of people came out for baptism because it was the popular thing to do,

The interest of the people by now was building. They were all beginning to wonder, “Could this John be the Messiah?”

But 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.”

After all the people were baptized, Jesus was baptized. As he was praying, the sky opened up and the Holy Spirit, like a dove descending, came down on him. And along with the Spirit, a voice: “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.”

The reading above is  from the Message version of the New Testament.  Screen Shot 2016-01-09 at 4.19.42 PMThe language is fresh and unusual.  Instead of saying that John the baptist is preaching a baptism of repentance, it says he was “preaching a baptism of life-change”.

Instead of Isaiah’s line about a voice crying out in the desert, the Message version says, “Thunder in the desert!”  I like that – sometimes powerful prophets “thundered” their prophecies.

The Message version says that many people were coming out to the Jordan River to be baptized by John “because it was the popular thing to do.”  That’s where I’m not so sure.

John’s baptism was popular – so much so that it was recorded by the Jewish historian Josephus in his history of the Jews.  But it was popular for a reason.

The Jordan Location: Reenactment

It was not just that John baptized people – lots of religions from the ancient past to the present use ritual baths of one kind or another.  At Qumran, the desert community, they would ritually bathe multiple times every day.

It was not just the baptism, it was the location that mattered.  It was baptism in the Jordan River.  That is the river their ancestors crossed, led by Moses’ successor, Joshua, as they Screen Shot 2016-01-09 at 5.09.30 PMleft their forty years of wandering in the wilderness and entered the promised land.  The Jordan was the border.  It marked the transition from a landless people, to a people in their own land.  It marked the beginning of their existence as a nation.

So, to go down to the Jordan, and come up out of it was a re-enactment.  It was like a drama.  We might call it “street theater” only it was out where there were no streets.  I suppose we should save the name “street theater” for the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on the donkey, but that is getting ahead of the story.

Why would people leave the couch and the hearth and go out to the border of the country and reenact their ancestor’s initial entry into the land?  For one reason.  John had led them to expect something big.  John’s message was that God was about to enact his great “clean up operation” (to borrow J. D. Crossan’s language).

God was about to do something to put right everything that was wrong.  It was going to be big and flashy.  It would mean putting an end to the evil, the injustice, and the oppression of the present, and punishing those responsible.

So, it was time to get ready.  It was time for each person to be baptized; to clean house in each ones own life, and to return home to await the apocalyptic intervention of God.

Jesus and John: With, then NotScreen Shot 2016-01-09 at 4.19.58 PM

What did Jesus think about this plan?  Well, he was baptized by John.  Some scholars say that fact is about as well established as any historical fact can be.  Clearly, at least for a while, Jesus bought in.  At least while he was under the water, as Crossan says, Jesus thought John’s program made sense.

But something changed Jesus’ mind.  What it was, we are not told.  Some suggest that it was the fact that Herod Antipas had his soldiers round up John, and that he killed him, and God did nothing to stop it.  The great apocalyptic intervention from beyond never happened.

Could John’s murder have been the spark that ignited Jesus’ further, deeper reflections on God, and what God wanted to do in the world?  Perhaps so.

Well, what happened, in the river that day, and subsequently?  I will say what happened out of order.

After that river experience, after baptism – either right away or a bit later, Jesus eventually parted company with John’s movement, and went out preaching that the time had come, that God’s kingdom had already arrived.  And yes, personal repentance was called for, a “life change” as the Message version says, was necessary, because it was happening.

The Great Clean up Operation is Underway

What was happening?  God’s great clean-up of the world had begun; that’s what the kingdom of God is all about.  God’s work to put an end to the evil, the injustice, and the oppression of the present, just as John expected, was now in-progress.

But it was not going to come out of the sky like a thunder bolt from God’s Screen Shot 2016-01-09 at 5.24.30 PMhand alone.  God’s great clean-up operation, according to Jesus, was going to have to be collaborative.   It was a call to people to join in the vision of a world made right, the way it was created to be.  It was supposed to be like the idyllic picture of Adam and Eve in a plentiful garden, before power and corruption, jealousy and violence messed it up for nearly everyone.

Telling a God-story

It is hard to tell a story with God in it.  Whatever you do tends to distort God.  If you make God too great, the omnipotent Creator of the Universe, God ends up sounding cold, distant and impersonal, like the Force in Star Wars.

But if you make God personal and loving, God ends up being a being who is watching, perhaps interacting with the world, but also not interacting with the world in an inexplicable way.  God steps in Screen Shot 2016-01-09 at 5.28.48 PMto do things, and then fails to step in at other times, in a very unpredictable way.  Lots of bad things happen.  So, it is hard to tell a story with God in it.

Most ancient stories with God in them (though not all) presume a three storey world.  We are here on earth.  There is a world of the dead below us.  God is up in the sky above, looking down on it all.  That is the most common way to tell a story with God in it.

The baptism of Jesus story assumes a three-storey world too.  Jesus and John are on the earth, in a river on earth; nothing is said about the dead below, but God is up above.  And from God, up above, the way Luke (and Matthew and Mark) tell it, God’s Spirit comes down on Jesus in the form of a dove.  God’s voice thunders from heaven, and Jesus gets the message that he is God’s Son, loved by God, pleasing to God.”  And the next thing we know, Jesus is off preaching that the kingdom of God has arrived.

During Jesus Prayer

The way Luke tells the story, there is one interesting and unique feature.  Screen Shot 2016-01-09 at 5.33.13 PMAll of that descending Spirit dove and Voice action happens as Jesus is praying.  In other words, it is a visionary experience Jesus had during prayer.  (Lk 3:21)

Luke often tells us about Jesus praying.  He even tells us that Jesus’ habit was to go  out and pray, sometimes all night (see for example Luke 5:16; 6:12; 9:18).  Jesus was a deeply spiritual person; Marcus Borg calls him a “spirit man,” who was aware of, and in touch with, God’s spiritual presence.

For Jesus, God was accessible everywhere.  Every hillside was a potential temple of prayer.  And the God that Jesus prayed to out in the Galilean countryside was knowable.  Just look at the birds of the air, look at the lilies of the field.  Learn to trust as they do.  Learn from them to value things that are real and important, not treasure or power, but relatedness.

Jesus’ openness to God led him to join all of those going down to the river to be baptized by John.  He did what they all did: reject the evil, the oppression, the injustice of their day, and long for a time when God would begin his clean up operation.

But when John was killed, scholars believe that is when Jesus concluded that the way John imagined God would bring in his clean-up operation, God’s kingdom changed.  John spoke of an axe ready to chop down trees and a fire ready to destroy evil; an apocalyptic intervention from the heavens above.

A With-us God, Collaborative Action

Jesus, the man of prayer, the Spirit man, left the three storey world of the God that looks down on the world from above.  He became aware of, and in touch with the God who is at work already in the world.  The God who is present to the world, always; everywhere.  The God who gets down with us into the waters, the God who even suffers with us as we suffer from the messed up way the world is.

And, in a way that can only be captured in a story of him, in prayer, in the Jordan River, Jesus came to understand that he was filled with the Spirit of God; he was named by God as a beloved Son, a child of God, and nothing in the world could ever change that.

Our Baptismal Quest

Our quest, is to follow the Jesus path.  Our quest is to understand our relatedness to God as Jesus did; to know God as our loving Father.  To know God intimately; to be people of active and frequent prayer.  To be people who live every moment from an awareness that God’s Spirit is alive in us.  To live with the confident trust that our lives are grounded in the solid knowledge that God calls us his children; his sons and daughters.

This is what we enact at our baptisms.  Water, symbolizing a deep river is poured on our heads, and we are named.  We become children of God.

And that baptismal identity shapes our lives.  We are aware that God is calling us to a love-relationship that includes open access; frequent contact; contemplative prayer, silent meditation, just as Jesus practiced.

And that baptismal identity shapes our lives in other ways.  We hear the call to participate in God’s collaborative clean-up of the world.  We hear the call to work for justice, to end oppression and discrimination.  We feel the tug to be a part of God’s good will, to identify with the Galilean peasants of this world, the refugees fleeing violence, the multitude of decent Muslims under attack, the gay people of Alabama who want to marry,

We are people who can no longer live in a three storey world.  God, for us, is not above, somewhere, in the clouds, looking down on us, deciding to intervene, or inexplicably refusing to intervene.  God is down in these waters with us.  God is not a being separate from the world, but is the source of this beautiful, complicated, fragile, evolving world.

God is here, in this moment, and in every moment, luring us towards everything that is good, everything that is beautiful, everything that is true.  God is at work filling us with a longing to know ourselves at one with God, to truly know ourselves as God’s own, intimately connected to God as sons and daughters, to know ourselves as part of the family.  Longingly, lovingly engaged in the world, on the side of the suffering ones, just as God was, as the story of Jesus’ baptism shows us.


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