First Sunday after Epiphany, Year C, 2019
(Baptism of our Lord)
Kevin Gore, St Andrew’s, Mountain Home
The more I preach, the more I often feel like an apologist for the Revised Common Lectionary. Today as we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord, as is always the case on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, we have moved our narrative from last week’s Jesus being somewhere under the age of two, to adulthood and about to start his ministry. Added to this fast forward is the way in which the lectionary pieces together a life story of Jesus that isn’t always congruent. In fact our baptism narrative today is from Luke, which is where we will spend most of our time in this liturgical year. But Luke’s nativity does not include magi or the martyrdom of the Holy Innocents. It does not include the holy family’s flight to Egypt either, all of which is found in Matthew. Instead, Luke’s story includes a narrative of Jesus growing up in Galilee. The circumcision and dedication of Jesus, the stories of Anna and Simeon in the Temple, and Mary and Joseph losing Jesus in the temple when he is twelve years old, because he wandered off to teach. Luke is creating a narrative of a very traditionally raised Jesus, one who has undergone all the proper ceremonies and rites for a Jewish child of the time. So we have skipped over all of that, we have already talked about John the Baptist as portrayed in Luke back in Advent, and now we are at the end of John the Baptist’s ministry with the baptism of Jesus.
If you notice on your handouts there are three verses missing from the Gospel reading today. We stop at verse seventeen and pick up again at verse twenty one. What we miss out on are these three verses: “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.” I understand why the writers of the lectionary left it out. It might appear distracting or maybe even confusing from what seems to be the main event, the baptism of Jesus. However, I think that the consequences of leading a life following God, of proclaiming the good news, are certainly exemplified by what happens to John the Baptist. He decries the evils and sins of the insane ruler and because he speaks truth, he is punished for it. We also know that John is not the last person this will happen to. Jesus, of course, will be crucified for his declarations of the Kingdom of God, and his followers will suffer a multitude of gruesome ends as well. These events are reminders to us that what we undertake, as followers of Christ, as those whose work is to live with one foot in the Kingdom of God, is not always going to be an easy task. It is not always going to be popular or welcome, but to proclaim the Kingdom in the face of danger or persecution is all part of the mantle we accept.
I have been to one of the two pilgrimage spots on the Jordan River where it is believed Jesus was baptized. Qasr el Yahud is in the West Bank, Palestinian land by right, but occupied by Israeli military forces. It is a surreal experience. After leaving Israel proper, traveling through giant concrete walls with armed guards, knowing we are only getting through because we are a tour bus full of Americans, you drive through the countryside to finally reach the turn off. By now we have gone into the wilderness and it is fairly flat, rocky terrain. The spot is four or five miles directly north of the Dead Sea, east of the city of Jericho. This is a place where Christians have observed the baptism of Jesus for centuries, with archeological evidence that they started worshiping there between the 2nd and 5th centuries. The existence of churches and monasteries is what we base a lot of our evidence on in deciding on the spot, in addition to geographic clues from the bible, and common sense about how the Jordan river was during the life of Jesus. So you travel along a highway for awhile getting to a very non-descript turn with a small sign indicating the spot. You drive about 1000 ft down a two lane road, before you begin to see the signs behind a simple wire fence on either side of the road. Caution. Landmines. This goes on for another 1000 feet or so and then you begin to see old shells of buildings. Some more intact than others, but all exterior walls pocked from the repeated gunfire of conflicts past. You go by two old monasteries, one looking someone like an old medieval fort. All abandoned. The signs warning you of landmines are still all over. Eventually about a mile and a half down this road you reach the guard station. We almost didn’t make it in that day as we had come very late. The military let us pass anyway, and we drove a little farther to the parking lot. Once there you walk to the river, and there is a structure with steps and tables, lots of places for people to gather, sit, pray, change into clothes to go into the river, and showers to rinse off afterwards. And roaming all of this are Israeli soldiers with assault rifles.
You go down to the water, where there are steps leading down into it to aid in immersion. People often will wade in to be baptized. But in this little section of the Jordan River, amidst reeds and cloudy water, there is a bright yellow rope with floats on it halfway through the water, accompanied by signs warning that you will be shot if you cross the rope. Then you see, standing on the other side of the river, which is, mind you, no more than maybe 30 feet across, Jordanian soldiers carrying assault rifles. There is a visitor’s center on the other side, Jordanian flags flying, and not too far off a Christian monastery that the King of Jordan has allowed to exist. All this surrounds the spot where Jesus may have been baptized by his cousin, John. All this surrounds the place where Jesus, joining the queue with soldiers, tax collectors, and all the others who came to hear John’s message, joins in the subversive and holy act of baptism.
I don’t paint this picture to talk about Israeli politics or occupation or the uneasy borders with Jordan. I offer this image to you because that day, reflecting on miles of land covered in explosive devices and bullet riddled ghosts of monasteries and churches, in approaching this holy site surrounded by weapons and threats of death should one misbehave, it offered me such a disturbing and moving image of what baptism really is. Jesus did not undertake this task lightly. He knew that standing with the broken people in this act of water and renewal showed him to be other to the popular life. We too, cannot enter into our own baptism lightly. We are marked as Christ’s own forever, and with that comes the joy of being part of that family, and also the burden. We make promises in our baptismal covenant that are not in keeping with how most people choose to live in this world. These promises and the act of baptism set us aside as other, as dangerous, as those who are called to live in the Kingdom of God at hand. That has to be the first and greatest rule to which we apply our lives.
It won’t be a perfect application. Jesus even knew that. He still had to navigate the world, even if the world was ultimately going to kill him. He pushed the boundaries and rules, and we too have to be willing to stand with God and the values of God’s Kingdom regardless of the cost of our discipleship. It is a dangerous thing to enter in to, to be marked as God’s beloved children. No wonder the path to and from is littered with land mines, the site itself watched over by uneasy guards carrying deadly weapons. Baptism is dedication of our lives to something greater than we can understand. It is the point where we are invited into the mysteries, the joy, and the danger of following Christ’s footsteps. At the end of the baptism liturgy there is a welcome that the celebrant and people say together to the newly baptized: “We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.” Remember as you go out from this place today that as you are marked as Christ’s own, so too you are called to the work of the Kingdom of God. No matter what the road looks like, no matter who looks askew as we strive for the Kingdom of God, there is one thing we can be assured of. God has looked upon us, and said as Isaiah reminds us, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”