If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?
It’s the second Sunday in Epiphany, the ongoing manifestation of the light. It’s the celebration of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist who keeps showing up in our lectionary texts; first as Jesus’ baby cousin, then as the one who prepares the way, and now as the one who baptizes Jesus so he can turn towards his new life, his ministry as the Messiah.
Wildman John, Elizabeth’s child who recognized Jesus while still in the womb, lives outside the temples of Jerusalem preaching the need for radical change as the first step in liberating oneself from the chains of oppression---personal and political. Locust eating John with honey
dripping from his beard is similar to the Green Man that appears as an ornament on ecclesiastical buildings as a symbol of rebirth with leaves covering his hair and spewing vegetation from his mouth. Both John, and later the Green Man, remind us of our primal connections to the earth lest we think sacredness is not of and part of the natural world too.
If sacredness is part of the natural world then how do we respond to the fact that the muddy river Jordan is no longer deep and wide but shallow and polluted caused by Israel, Syria, and Jordan diverting its waters upstream for domestic and agricultural uses, for supporting illegal Israeli settlements in the Joran Valley on confiscated Palestinian land? How do we respond to the fact that on the West Bank of the Jordan, the Israeli side, the baptism site has been a closed military zone for 50 years due to over 5,000 antitank and antipersonnel mines set during the 1967 Israeli Arab war?
Barbara Brown Taylor and other theologians and preachers have made much of the fact that Jesus is baptized in sacramental mud but what does it mean to be baptized in a cesspool? How can this still be a ritual rite of purification if pilgrims today are warned not to go into the river for fear of illness?
Jesus was baptized outside civilization to a wilder discipleship---called out from conventional and social constructs. What is our call when even the wilderness is being destroyed or is under a closed military zone?
John the baptizer is also part of that prophetic genealogy of truth tellers like Isaiah and Elijah who came to challenge imperial powers and principalities. He was executed by Antipas for calling people to radically change the power structures of the world, not just themselves. For this he was beheaded. We are reminded that Jesus came to John to pick up this prophetic mantle. It is a red herring to argue or spend time wondering about whether or not Jesus was without sin and needed repentance. I believe it is more instructive to see how his plunge into those muddy waters with other Jews was an act of solidarity with humanity, or that the call to repentance doesn’t only mean a turning away from sin but a turning towards God’s kin-dom coming and his own role to make it manifest on earth as it is in heaven.
Theologian, liturgist, poet and friend Ken Sehested, in his poem John the Baptizer, talks about this turn toward as also a letting go, willingness to drown:
Don’t mind the mud
a certain drowning is required as Breath
from above is delivered on the wings of a dove.
The Baptizer’s bargain is this:
there’s no getting right with God.
There’s only getting soaked.
I asked Ken what we meant by “there’s no getting right with God.” He said, “There is no transaction or bargaining, no negotiated settlement or judicial ruling.” Baptism, he says, “signifies ecstasy, the dispossession of our shriveled egos, so that we may claim our rightful immersion into that Presence.”
“Our rightful immersion into that Presence.” I love this. Jesus’ journey begins here. Only after He takes a step forward and allows himself to be immersed can he hear: “You are my Son, My Beloved. As he hears this, accepts this, he then witnesses the sky tearing open and a dove descending. Drenched in the waters of the muddy Jordan, he then hears, “with you I am well pleased.” The words are familiar from scripture, from prophet Isaiah: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine---you are precious in my sight, and I love you (Isaiah 431b-4a).
Our name is “my Beloved.” Is there anything sweeter than this? Baptism is an act of inclusion as well as grace. We don’t earn it. We receive it. We accept it. This is the essence of baptism. It is done in community because we are welcomed into the household of God, a faith community, so that we may act on our baptism vows to work toward the building of God’s beloved community together. To be peace builders, we must accept that we are God’s beloved sons and daughters too. God knows that our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate: Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
Spiritual leader Marianne Williams says, “It is our light; not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?”
Easier said than done. Let’s pause here and explore this invitation to live into our true name. I invite you to pay attention to how easy or difficult it is to believe you are indeed beloved by God, that you are gorgeous and fabulous in spite of your faults and imperfections? Let’s take a moment to sit with this. Be gentle with yourself, dear ones.
When you have done this, I invite you to look around the church today and with your eyes welcome all you see as also God’s beloved ones too including those who don’t always seem like they are.
Then, I invite you to bring into your circle all those who you struggle with outside this church, in your families, in your workplaces, in your communities, and even our political leadership. See their belovedness. Notice how easy or hard this is. Don’t worry about why but try to find a way to acknowledge that they too are God’s beloved daughters and sons. Ask God for help if you need to.