13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" 15 But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."
“What Are You Doing Here?
January 9, 2010
Rev. Justin Nickel
Of all the realities that I do not miss about my life in Minnesota, the way that the snow begins look in January might sit atop that particular list, and those of you who have spent some time in perennially cold places will know just what I am talking about. Around this time of year, snow that has been on the ground and in the streets since the fall begins to turn a distressing shade of grey. Because it does not melt, the snow acts as a sort of magnet for exhaust, gravel, dirt and any number of things that sort of assault your eyes. While the first snow of any season might bring a peaceful hush to one’s state of mind, this does not at all apply to snow that has been on the ground for months. There is nothing soothing about staring at snow that has turned black under the influence of car exhaust. It is simply depressing, and while we have the sunshine here in Colorado to actually melt that snow, I cannot help but feel like it is still a good symbol for January as a month. What is January if not a magnet for all the emotional and physical car exhaust that is waiting to be collected and recognized after the bluster of the holiday season? Yes, given the amount we spend monetarily, emotionally, even physically to ensure that our holiday celebrations are all that we need them to be, it make some sense that January would be the space in which all that we have ignored seeps back into our realities. There is, simply put, no way to avoid this movement of time. The joys of December give way to January, and the oppressive routine from which we glimpsed a freedom, maybe manufactured but a freedom nonetheless, reasserts itself as the way this old world functions. The suspension cannot continue forever, and the “real world,” with all of its demands, startles us out of our ease. Oh January, it is seldom good to see you.
The temptation, I suppose, is to assume that God had more to do with Christmas Eve than January the 9th, that God’s presence and activity in our lives follows this same movement and that we ought to expect the same letdown from God that we experience in the rest of our lives. Or more simply put, is God just as present when the sanctuary has been stripped of its beautiful décor and our trees are now little more than kindling? Where is God when vacation ends and we have to once again say goodbye to the family that we do not get to see often enough anyhow? Can we count on God’s goodness when our lives are no longer marked by joy and levity, but rather by sameness and routine? Is God present when our anticipation is now past tense? Where, then, is God when the snow is not white but polluted and stained?
Well, with those questions in mind, we can perhaps understand John the Baptist’s question for Jesus, today. “Do you come to me to baptized, Jesus?” Or, in another way of phrasing it, what on earth could you possibly be doing in this place? You, Jesus, are not where you are supposed to be. Why would you, the Messiah, the chosen one of God, come out here to the Jordan? For this baptism that John was offering only served one purpose: repentance of sin, and so it makes good sense that John is completely baffled by Jesus’ request, nay command, that John would baptize him. It does not make any sense that the Messiah for whom John was preparing the way would want to take part in a ritual that was part of this same preparation. It would be like waiting for someone at a restaurant only to have that person arrive and say that the two of you should wait a little longer. It makes no logical sense, but with this God, we are not necessarily after logic. So, as Jesus drops his head beneath the stale waters of the Jordan, flies buzzing in spiteful heat and the air baking the putrid smells of motionless water, the question arises once again, “why, exactly, is Jesus where he is not supposed to be?”
It is in attempting to answer that question that we stumble upon the beginning of the Gospel’s urgency: the borders that we establish for God are being torn asunder in this Jesus. This transgression will mark his ministry from the beginning, as he jumps into the Jordan River to demonstrate just how serious he is about loving the poor and unwashed. Yes, this love will cost him dearly, but this is his own baptism. The movement that begins in the incarnation, as God enters the human story, continues as God demonstrates just how deeply God is planning to enter this particular story. This will be no superficial engagement on God’s part, for God is far too intent on reclaiming a humanity that has lost sight of God. No, this is a God who will show up not in an idealized version of reality in which all pain and fear are suspended, but a God who will quite literally jump right into the midst of our messy lives so that we may never fear that this God has left us. Yes, Jesus the Christ, God’s own chosen one, has drop his head under Jordan’s waters, and in so doing has named reality, that is our daily grind, as his own. What is more, he has done so with the following purpose in mind: to name you all as beloved children of God right in the midst of your pain and sorrow, your fear and mourning.
This is the work of Christ: to show up in the most unexpected of places, and how often these places are that which we would deem too mundane, too trivial for Christ to enter in. However, Christ defies even that expectation and has come with his loving presence, his healing touch, into this world, into your life, as it actually exists. There is, in short, no situation, no life circumstance that is somehow unworthy of his presence: for Christ has jumped into the river with sinners. As our reading from Isaiah states, he is one who has come to heal blindness and to tear down the prisons that hold us captive. Prisons like our fear of death or our continued mourning, concerns over failing health or whether we will be able to make it through another day at a job that asks too much and gives us too little in return. Oh, these typically human concerns, these are the places where Christ is active. We need not face the subtle pain of our normalcy alone. God is no less present, no less active, on a Tuesday in the middle of January than God is on Christmas Eve; God is no less present when the snow has turned grey, so to speak. And in your baptism, the same ordeal which Haley is about to undergo, you were given the faith that sees this God active in the world: you were given the hope that God in Christ is already redeeming this world and that you are a beloved child of God. Yes, your baptism means this: you have been made God’s own child, and given the name beloved, and with that name a new reality into which you now live, a reality that is not marked by fear and competition, but rather by trust and community: community with God through the Holy Spirit, and community with the entire world that God loves so dearly. Baptism is nothing less than this: than the death of one life and the resurrection of quite another. Yes, yours were baptisms into Christ, into his death and life, which means that your baptism now sends you into the world so that others may know the hope of the God made flesh, the hope of the a God who greets us right in the midst of our lives and their seemingly unending demands. For this is what that name, beloved child of God means. It means that your God shows up in the most unexpected places so that you may do the same. Go forth, because like Christ, your baptism, Haley’s baptism, is really just the beginning of the story. In Jesus’ name, amen.