Isaiah 42:1-9 Matthew 3:13-17
A couple of years ago, when a group from our church went on a bike ride in the Finger Lakes in upstate NY, Martha & I took a side trip up the Watkins Glen gorge. Over thousands of years water carved through the mountain’s rock to fashion an intricate and glorious path, filled with deep pools of crystal clear water and imposing cliffs. We climbed up the walkway, created by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. As we looked down into this gorge in all its beauty, I was struck by the wonder of smooth stone slides and round deep pools, all hung with moss and pine. The power of water over time is astounding – it is able to carve pathways through stone.
Chinese Sage Lao Tzu, writing in 500 BC said: “Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong.”
We have a similar lesson in our scripture reading this morning – a choice that Jesus, the messiah makes as he begins his ministry. In this season of Epiphany, the season of revealing the divinity of Christ, we learn this lesson – that Jesus chooses the path of immersion, of lowliness, and transformation through love and healing. God’s way is like flowing water – finding a low place, moving down into the depths of our lives. When Jesus came to be baptized, he was observing a long-standing ritual practiced by all Jewish observers of his day. The Mishnah (oral laws explaining how to accomplish the written Law) speaks of six orders of ritual immersion that are to be observed. The highest order, Living Water, is for the forgiveness of sins and is to be done in water that is flowing. Jesus preaches later about ‘living water’ – water that is flowing and leads to forgiveness of sins.
John the Baptist was confused. The moment he sees Jesus approaching the flowing water of the Jordan River, he realizes in a flash that this is no ordinary penitent. Jesus has a radiance and glory about him, a lightness of step and shimmer in his face. All of John’s hopes and dreams for the arrival of the messiah, the one sent by God to redeem this world – are suddenly revealed. Here was the Christ, the Savior!
What threw John off was when Jesus asked to be baptized by John. Wait – why would John baptize him; he should be baptized by Jesus?! Who is in charge here? Isn’t the Christ the one to come to rule; to be king and lord – to restore Israel and defeat the Romans? Isn’t the Christ without sin – so why would he do a baptism of repentance to cleanse him of sin to come with power, with majesty, to rule over all – right? He should be baptizing John, right?
Like John we’d expect that Jesus would set himself up to rule over the earth, right? After all, he’s the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, Lord of Lords and King of Kings. You’d think he’d stride in and take over Herod’s palace, and then move up to Rome and depose Emperor Caesar Augustus – setting himself up in his place. This is the Creator, the power behind the universe, the one in charge. He’s the power broker, the King, the Lord.
Many Christians claim this view of Jesus – calling him King, Lord, Holy God, setting him up on a pedestal or throne to worship and revere – seeing Jesus as Emperor or ruler. But wait, this is a very different view of power, right? What does Jesus do at his baptism? Does he take charge, organize an army, grab control, and take over? Does he baptize John? No. He submits. He says: “‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteous-ness.’ He allows himself to go down under the water; he submits, is immersed, and goes with the flow. At the very get-go of his ministry, he lets us know he comes as one who serves.
Richard Rohr writes: “Most religion begins with a transcendent God up there in heaven, and then we try to explain everything down here in relationship to that transcendent God. Jesus taught us to find God incarnate in this world, in our neighbor, in the Eucharist—that is, in the ordinary elements of this earth.”
Many people want a strong leader, someone who will come and make it all right; who will sit on the throne and lord over others, bringing order and clarity. People have nostalgia for a person who will take a firm hand, make it all right, and who will give answers and tell us what to do. The irony of our faith is that we worship the ‘lamb on the throne,’ rather than the king on the throne. The lamb is one who serves with mercy, justice, and thoughtfulness, rather than controlling with an iron fist. In fact Christians are generally skeptical of human lords and rulers, knowing that they most often fall victim to temptations of wealth, power and fame.
Jesus faces this same temptation right after his baptism. He goes out into the desert for 40 days on a prayer and fasting retreat, and is confronted by the devil. The ‘Lord of Lies’ offers him temptations – first to create bread for himself out of stones – tempting him to look to himself for satisfaction and sustenance rather than God. The Devil offers power – the option to rule over the nations, to be the dictator and lord. How tempting that must have been; to make it all right, to make a decree and have everyone follow, to fix all that is broken in the world. But no, Jesus refuses, choosing to follow God’s way and the humble path of service. The Devil also tempts him with fame and magic; saying he could go to the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem and jump off, and angels will catch him – showing all is magical abilities. But no, Jesus says, one does not put God to the test. So Jesus refuses to go that way – to be the wonder-worker, the lord on the throne, the army general, the magician. Jesus submits, goes with the flow, walks the humble road. In this way, he defeats the devil. He carves through the stone of sin to create a pathway to God, to life.
Look what he does later on: He flows down rather than up. He goes out into the streets to heal and minister to the poor and rejected. He embraces lepers and talks to sinners, prostitutes and tax collectors. He includes the excluded. He washes the feet of his disciples. He submits to his arrest, to slander and injustice, to torture and to a hideous death on a cross. He goes down under the water of sorrow; he immerses himself in the grit and grime of humanity – and finds in that God’s holy way, God’s resurrection life.
This is his model not only for his ministry, but for the church. This is the model he passes down to us – to be the servant church – to lay down our lives for others, to feed the hungry, to release the captives, to give sight to the blind, to allow the lame to walk – physically and spiritually. We are to immerse ourselves in daily living, in the hurts and sorrows of common people, to do what we can to offer healing and wholeness and a measure of peace and joy.
Immersion – going under – going with the flow. That’s what we’re called to do. As followers of Christ we are to go through a transformation, a metanoia, deep inner change to become servant leaders rather than self-centered, power-hungry egotists. Baptism is our model for us in this, to go under water rather than climbing up on the throne; to go down into the depths of pain and beauty, rather than floating up above. Jesus comes as one who enters in, gets down, who immerses himself – who comes to walk with us in our trials and sorrows.
So what does that mean for us – in our own lives? How do we apply this lesson?
First, we are meant to be humble: to follow Jesus’ example and go with the flow. We are to get down deeply into the everyday and the lives of those around us, rather than being aloof and protected, defended and shut off. We immerse ourselves into the ordinary – and the lives of others –and find beauty.
I had a friend years ago who ran a day-care center for toddlers. She told me that when she interviewed new child-care workers, she would bring them into a room full of little ones and ask them to play with them. Sometimes those being interviewed came all dressed up, in high-heels or fancy dresses; and they would not get down on the floor to play with the children. The only people my friend would hire were the ones who were willing to get down on the ground and play.
Martha & I just got a new little kitten, a sleek black 3-month-old named Milo. Milo is hyper and crazy like most kittens. He gets really upset and cries when we sit up on the counter in our kitchen; as soon as we get down on the floor and play with him and pet his head, he starts to purr.
Jesus gets down to be with us. Jesus does not stay up on a pinnacle or a throne; Jesus comes into the streets, into hospitals and nursing homes, into our workplace, into our homes, into our deepest disappointments and fears and grieves. Jesus immerses himself to be to offer us healing and hope.
Secondly, we are meant to learn from our mistakes and to be transformed – as we were in our baptisms – to become people of God. When we are immersed in ‘living water,’ then we are cleansed, renewed, forgiven and offered a new pathway back to God’s realm.
I ran into this story this week from Jim Winkler, President of the National Council of Churches. He writes: “Bishop Tom Bickerton tells the story of being passed on the road one day by an angry man who gave him the finger as drove by. It turned out to be one of his parishioners. The following Sunday, when congregants were invited to pray at the altar, the man came forward and asked for forgiveness. He also started attending Bible study and seeking ways to deepen his faith. He went on to become a Bible study leader, a small group leader, and a little league baseball coach. His life was changed because he flipped off his pastor.”
Sometimes we have to sink down – to be humbled – immersed – before we can rise back up. That is our model of faith found in Jesus’ baptism and on the cross. We go down, as if under water, before we can come back up and serve. Jesus gives us this model for our lives and for our church – to be servant leaders, to go with the flow down into the path of God. If we do, then we carve a channel through our stony hearts to the light and salvation of Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.