This picture is said to be the place in the Jordan River where John baptized Jesus. Hundreds of thousands of visitors have required the Israeli government to make some changes for the sake of safety and convenience and, no doubt, to protect the environment from the crush of humanity descending on it each year. As a result, the scene is more reminiscent of a big city bus station than the location of one of the most remarkable scenes in the New Testament. What’s missing is a sense that Mark hints as he leads us to the scene, captured best, perhaps, by the ASV: “John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness…” The word “appeared” brings a magician to mind, a stage performer who surprises the audience by making something appear out of nothing, with no explanation. And what strikes me about that is the way a really great trick makes the audience feel: surprised, astonished, astounded. We know it’s a practiced trick, but if we give ourselves over to the moment we are confronted with the rare experience of mystery and wonder. We are confronted with the notion that there are powers and forces at work that are larger than our lives, larger than our carefully constructed world. Mark doesn’t explain John’s arrival on the stage of history. Instead, he simply appears. The Israelites are surprised, astonished, astounded
And where he ‘appears’ is worth noting as well – “in the wilderness”. John’s place in the Jordan is no accident. This is the river that marked the boundary between the Jews wandering in the wilderness and entering into God’s promised rest. This was a place rich in symbolism and meaning for the Jewish people, as was the act of baptism. Well known to the Jews, the act of baptism signified a completion of cleansing from sin and allowed one to re-enter the community from which their sin excluded them. John combines these to offer a potent symbolic act as he compels the faithful to seek forgiveness of sin, to re-enter their relationship with God and become, once more, full participants in God’s plan for the nation. In other words, he is offering them a chance to begin anew and, in that act, he presages the ‘born-again’ experience.
But there’s something else, besides the sense of astonishment, which we are missing as we consider Christ’s baptism. Take another look at the photograph above. The shoreline appears to have been cut back into the curved shape it now assumes. Stone walls have been erected. Pathways have been paved, fences erected to stop people from falling – or from traveling out into the river itself. There are handrails for safety. And therein lies the difficulty for us as we consider this moment in Christ’s life this week. Safety.
The wilderness is not a safe place. If one’s intent is to maintain the status quo of their life – or continue in the direction one was traveling – then John the Baptist was not necessarily a safe person. Nor, for that matter, could one say that Jesus is ‘safe’. We find it hard to imagine John in a robe of camel’s hair, with long matted hair, dirty, unshaven, standing waist deep in the water and bellowing at the people to repent of their sin. Should we see the same figure on a street corner downtown we would immediately ensure that the car doors are locked, tell the children not to look and drive away, quickly. The Israelites, however, recognized him as a prophet, thereby increasing the ‘danger’ of hearing to his message. If one wanted their life to continue as it was then going out in the wilds of the desert to listen to some bellowing, bug-eyed prophet preach could hardly be conducive to that goal. God had come to talk with his people, and he was making demands.
And consider the ferocious wildness of the act of baptism. In the beginning of all creation, we are told, the Spirit of God hovered over the waters. And here we are, standing in the Jordan River, standing in the water, about to be plunged beneath its timeless current, plunged into death. We willingly, advisedly, enter into death itself, enter into the primordial chaos of the universe, with nothing but the hope that we will be raised again. And isn’t it just like us to try and tame that ferocious wildness? Isn’t it just like us to build a baptismal font, or a tank at the front of our church, with its Plexiglas strip to protect the carpet from splashes? Isn’t it just like us to require that there be handrails, and paved walkways, and fences to limit the risk?
In the midst of this wildness Jesus is revealed. It is here, in this pivotal place in the history of the Jewish people, in the waters that divide their spiritual wanderings and their spiritual home, Christ appears. The Father, Son and Spirit, present in the waters of creation, meet in the waters of baptism. The Spirit, in the form of the dove – the same bird that signified Noah’s flood waters had receded – descends on Jesus. And here, in this moment, the word of God’s love and grace is spoken as he affirms his love for his Son.
And we mustn’t allow our fear of the act, of the demands that God might place upon us, or the very public nature of baptism to dissuade us from participating in this witness to death and rebirth. For it is in this moment that the presence of Christ – in our lives and in our world – is revealed to our community. It is a pivotal moment and a pivotal place in our lives, one that marks a boundary between the old way of life and the new. And in it, Jesus is present, the Holy Spirit is present, and the love and grace of God is spoken aloud. And this too, is part of what we celebrate in Baptism, and in the Theophany.
Image from Wikimedia Commons