GOSPEL: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Imagine with me for moment. That we are far away from the cold winter, and in a warmer place with more comfortable weather. We step down into knee deep water, a gentle stream rolling by. The water swirls around our feet. It is cool, and refreshing. The movement is gentle and easy. It feels good to be in the water.
We have been floating down the river for a while now. Each year, we hop into the boat together and start the trip all over again in Advent. We float towards Christmas and through Epiphany. It is a journey that is familiar yet also new each time we take it. It is a Journey that begins with end times, that stops to hear John’s sermons and questions. Then it makes its way, with Mary and Joseph to the stable manger. We hear Simeon and Anna’s song of promise upon seeing the Messiah they waited a life time for. Then we see the magi follow the star to the child.
Today we pick up speed and fast forward 30 years, we float down the river Jordan where Jesus is baptized by John. Jesus’ baptism is an unusual story, an uncomfortable scene for Christians. Why does Jesus need to be baptized? For forgiveness of sins? Repentance? What does it say about John as he baptizes instead of being baptized? In many ways the story of Jesus’ baptism invites more questions as we hear it again.
In Advent, we heard John’s preaching on the river bank. His stiff condemnation of the crowds and his warnings of the Messiah. This time, Jesus shows up at the end of the sermon. The spirit of God descends upon him and along with John, the crowds witness an incredible thing.
But John and the crowds do not see what is going on. They are full of expectation. They are wondering if John is the one they are waiting for. They looking for a fixes to their problems, for hope and salvation. They are hoping for a powerful Messiah. A warrior who will end injustice and who will remove foreign powers from control in Israel, but Jesus is not those things. It is the beginning of the problems that John, the disciples, the crowds, the Pharisees, scribes and temple authorities will have with Jesus. Some will want an ally, some will want a powerful warlord, some will want Jesus to go away. But Jesus simply refuses to fit their categories. Jesus is going to show us God in ways that don’t see… that we can’t see… that we refuse to see.
Remember the feeling of standing in the water, feeling the cool fresh flow around our legs? Well the further we float, the more the current picks up. The gentleness is replaced by force and weight. The water doesn’t smoothly pass by. It pushes and grabs, it pulls and drags. The cool gentle stream that cooled our feet now pulls us in and drag us along. The power of the river is more than we could have ever imagined.
Like the crowds who gathered along the banks of the Jordan, we gather to wait also. We are waiting for the world to get better. But it doesn’t. We are full of expectation, searching for hope and promise, looking for fixes to problems and an end to struggles.
As we hoped for a more normal Christmas, the pandemic kept rolling on. Plans were dashed and changed in a hurry. And then many became sick, maybe even friends and family sent those texts or made those phone calls, ‘I tested positive.” And worry and anxiety ensued, It has all felt like a great setback.
Our world hasn’t changed all that much since John and Jesus met in the river. Sure, we drive cars, live in heated houses and can talk to anyone on the other side of the planet instantly. But, we are no different than those crowds standing on the rive bank, full of expectation, wanting our world to be different, wanting our problems to disappear.
The weight of all of this threatens to drown us in the inability to care any more. We hear the reports, read the news articles and it is too much to take, too much to grieve for. Not only is it hard to see what is going on as Jesus is baptized by John, it is hard to see where God is at all.
Today, it might feel like the cool refreshing water of the river has pulled us in and dragged us under. The current is churning and spins us about. We bounce in all directions, sputtering for air, aimed over the cliff, over the waterfall.
This is not what the river journey begun in Advent is supposed to be like.
This is not what God is supposed to allow to happen in the world.
We are not supposed to drown in the waters of grief and apathy.
And a voice pierces the chaos.
“You are my beloved. With you I am well pleased”.
Words of promise, words of hope.
As John dunks Jesus down into and then brings him up out of the water, as breath and air flood back into empty lungs, God speaks. God speaks in a way that hasn’t been heard since the beginning of creation. God speaks and the world is transformed.
We tumble over the waterfall, we plunge into the deep pool at the bottom. We are squeezed and crushed under the weight, we can’t tell which direction is up. Death under the waters seems imminent.
And then all of a sudden, while we are tossed about in the churn, not knowing which direction is up or down, we pop up and out of the water. Air rushes back into our lungs. This is where God’s action begins. In drowning, in death. This is as strange a place as we can imagine God to be working. And yet, God speaks as Jesus comes out of the water “You are my beloved children and with you I am well pleased”. What a weird and wonderful God who can push us below the surface in order to make us His own. In order to give us new names as child of God, as Christian, as beloved.
This is why John doesn’t know what is going on when Jesus asks to be baptized. This is why we cannot see God working in the world. It is too radical, too unbelievable.
And yet, this is promise that was made to us in the waters of Baptism, and it is the promise that is renewed each day and remembered each time we witness another child being drowned AND raised in these waters of life. It is a promise made that in the place we lease expect it, in death God is showing us something new, something life filled, something surprising. Something that can come only from a God like ours.
A God who comes into the world as baby born to a unwed teenage mother,
a God who lives a poor carpenter in 1st century Israel,
a God who died on a Roman cross as a common criminal,
a God who was raised from the dead and who in turn calls us to be drowned and then raised,
New life can only come from a God who does not act like we believe God should.
The radical God of water and Baptism comes to us in ways that are so unimaginable and so crazy, that we can hardly make them out. The journey that God is promises is not easy or gentle. The results of God’s work in the world is rarely what we imagine or hope for. Yet, as this unexpected God meets us in our world, and on our terms, we cannot help but be drawn in to this unexpected God whose story has become our story. Whose story we tell over and over again.
As we float down the river of Advent and Christmas, as we pass by Jesus and John in the river, we see again and anew the marvel of God’s love for us. We see a God who not only pushes us below the water to die, but who pulls us out again so that we may rise into new life. And today, we hear a God who speaks through chaos
“You are my beloved Children. With you I am well pleased.”