Isaiah 42:1-9 and Matthew 3:13-17
What a scene it must have been.
There is John, a big and imposing man, fierce in word and wild in dress, a stark counter to the norms of his day and a visual embodiment of his call for repentance. Dressed in a camel hair coat and eating locus it would have seemed as if a prophet of old had stepped out of the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures and onto the bank of the River Jordan.
Seeing John would have brought to mind that great prophet Elijah, a twin in dress of camel hair and belt, who the book of Kings tells us was taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire while standing there where John now stands, there on the banks of the Jordan.
In fact, the Gospel tells us that those who first came out to see John, wanting to know who he was, asked “Are you Elijah?” (John 1:21). Johns resemblance to Elijah is not coincidental. For Elijah, like John spent his life energy opposing the dominate culture of his day — striving with his whole being to call the people back into right living with each other and with God. Elijah lived though during ninth century BCE, during a turbulent time when the Kingdom ruled by King David had fractured into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. And he comes into his ministry during the time of King Ahab of the northern kingdom who was a particularly problematic and misguided ruler. Ahab who sought his own pleasure over the well being of his people and turns from faith in the God of Israel, and takes up worship of the local Canaanite god, Baal. So God calls Elijah to make it his life’s work call Ahab to repentance and the people back into covenant with their God.
And so it was with John. For King Herod, the ruler of John’s time was very much another Ahab, if not worse and the people like those long ago were losing their way and straying from who they were and what God was calling them to be.
So now, with this Echo of Elijah upon him, John cries out in the wilderness “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” And John’s words must have struck a nerve, in the very heart of the people for we are told by the Gospel that “the people of Jerusalem and all the region along the Jordan were going out to him.” What a scene that must have been.
Biblical scholars think this scene from the text this morning must have occurred sometime in the spring, at the turn of the rainy season when the river would have been high and flowing mightily. But I appreciate that those who crafted our liturgical year, placed this passage in the lectionary for today — here in the second week of January, just after the turn of the calendar year.
I appreciate it because I think John’ call to repentance is particularly timely as so many of us are getting up off our couches, making New Year’s resolutions and streaming — out to the gym, to the yoga studio, or to regular to walks around the neighborhood again. John’s call is timely as so many of us are repenting of the excessiveness that despite our best of intentions we may have fallen into over the Holidays. Repenting of all those cookies, and candies, eggnog and overflowing glasses of good cheer. A good cleansing, a purification in the waters of the Jordan seem just the thing to set us off into a new year of healthier, more life nourishing ways. A good cleaning is just what we need to set us straight from our worship of the idols of excess.
I am a resolution maker and I am sure that I would certainly have been among those that streamed down to the River Jordan that day to hear John and be baptized by him. I would have been one of those with repentance and a hunger for something new on my hearts. But the thing that I find troubling is that despite how much we may want to do something new, we find it almost impossible to actually sustain our resolve and to actually bring about the changes we so desperately want.
I read recently in an article in Forbes magazine that while 40% of the American population make New Year’s resolutions, only 8% actually end up succeeding in making the life changes that they had resolved to do.
Only 8%! I won’t have us count off but that means only one in every ten of us her today will likely see changes that he or she dearly seeks.
Why is that do you suppose? Why is it that of all those hundreds, perhaps even thousands of people that flooded out of the gates of Jerusalem and all over the region of the Jordan, why if this Forbes study is to be believed would only one in ten will be able to see the beginning that they so dearly sought. Why is it that the rest of us, the other nine within a matter of days or weeks will find ourselves right back where we were, stuck and dispirited more than ever at having failed in our resolve once again?
Why? Because we believe we fear we tend to believe the cultural myth that does its best to convince us that the new beginning we so desire the changes we wish to make, the joy and fullness of life that we want so very much are within our power to create. Our culture tells us we are self made men and women. We are lone wolves fully craft and be responsible for our own destiny. Most of us have come to believe that each of us must make our own way in this world and if that means stepping on another to get what we need, than that is just the way it is. We have come to believe that happiness is of our making so that when we do not feel happy, content and at peace we resolve to do more, different, better. We try and try but when that which we seek evades us still we feel lost and alone and cannot help but begin to despair. And this is true in not just our own lives but in the world as well. We just cannot seem to get it right and in our collective failings things keep getting worse and worse.
It is to a lost and despairing people that John cried. But his cry “Repent, the Kingdom of heaven has come near” is not one of personal doing better and trying harder. Instead it is a cry that heralds the dawning of a new consciousness, a realization of the deep truth that our identity and worth is not tied up with who and what we make ourselves to be but who and what God has already known and made us to be. And this identity is not for us alone. It is given expression and lived most fully when we as a community of faith are:
given as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
The deep truth to which Biblical witness points is that our lives are lives meant to be lived together. We are meant for cooperation, not competition. We thrive not by the power of our own will, but in and through communities of care and compassion that allow us to connect deeply with our own belovedness and the belovedness of those around us. I truly believe that it is only out of this connecting with this deep sense of belonging, belovedness and care that we can overcome despair and see realized the change we so deeply seek for ourselves and our planet.
But all this, this “kingdom of heaven”, this vision of being beloved and being part of a caring compassionate community where each person can grow and thrive as the person God created them to be, well all of that was still on the horizon line that day. John sensed it, could see it coming but had not yet experienced it fully for himself until that day when Jesus showed up.
Now theologians across the centuries have been tying themselves up in knots trying to understand and explain why it is that Jesus came to the Jordan that day, and why he had John lower him into those rushing waters of baptism. Even John himself, we read, protested saying “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
We do not know for sure, but I think what brought Jesus to the edge of the Jordan that day had everything to do with what Jesuit Priest John Kavanaugh, of Saint Louis University has said “Christ has come not only to reveal the divinity to us; he has come to reveal us to ourselves” And so I wonder if what brought Jesus to the Jordan is what might be bringing us to church on this day and that is wanting to discover and know again and again the blessing of our true selves.
Maybe up until that point in his life, Jesus was wrestling like most of us do, with a sol deep restlessness. Wondering about who he was and what he was meant to do. Maybe up until that day at the Jordan River, Jesus, like us, defined himself and his worth by what he did, and what he earned. A carpenter, earning enough to get by. Nothing special really.Did he wonder “Is this all there is?” “Could there be something more?”
Irenaeus that early Church father said and I paraphrase, “the greatest gift to God is a human fully alive.” Maybe that is what brought him down to the river that day. A hunger to know what it was to be fully alive.
Maybe that is want led him into the current, led him to let go and let the water wash over him. And as John’s strong arm lifted Jesus up again, as his face broke the surface, as the voice from Heaven spoke “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” Jesus came alive.
And from that moment of clarity there in the water’s of the Jordan, Jesus never looks back. From that moment the Spirit leads him off into the wilderness where he will be prepared for the ministry for which he was born.
If it is true, that Jesus has come to reveal us to ourselves, that his story is our story. His baptism is our baptism. His being claimed by God and blessed as beloved, is our being claimed and our being blessed. His discovery of who he was and what born to be, is our discovery too of who we are and what we are born to be.
So in this New Year, may hear the cry of John and Elijah to oppose the dominate myths of our time that try their best to convince us that we are to be self made men and women and if that mean stepping on someone else to get ahead well that is just the way that it goes. And may we follow the example of Jesus and not just tinker with the edges of our lives making resolutions we very well will not be able to keep, but instead may we go deeper into restlessness and yearnings that may be stirring in our deepest hearts. And we find there again and again the promise of baptism that we too are claimed by God and called beloved. And may we, by living out of being beloved may we engage the life giving, world healing ministries to which we too are being called.
In closing, May I ask one thing of you this week. When you feel despair for yourself or for the world. When you see nothing but dead endings but long for new beginnings, will you stop for a moment and remember your baptism, remember the words spoken to Jesus and through him to us. “You are my beloved, with who I am well pleased.” Spend a moment in those words. Let them wash over you. Know that you are not alone but you are one with God and with this beloved community. And then listen for and then dare to follow those words into whatever new beginning (little or big) that God has in store for you. Amen.