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The Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston The Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston

The Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston is senior pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York, NY.

Member of:

Presbyterian Church (USA)

Representative of:

Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York, NY


How's the Water?

Matthew 3:1-18

Baptism of the Lord

January 09, 2005

On the shelves of his office, my former colleague at Austin Seminary, Stan Hall, keeps an unusual assortment of bottles. It's his water collection. Containers of various shapes and colors display Stan's growing array of special waters. There's a plastic bottle of spring water blessed by Pope John Paul II. There's a bright blue flask of caffeinated water. There is even a tin of dehydrated water-just add water and you'll get.... My favorite piece in Stan's collection is a clear medicine bottle in which tiny clusters of green algae float suspended in a murky-looking liquid. The hand-printed label simply reads "Jordan River Water." This small glass bottle originally belonged to a pastor who had smuggled it back from the Holy Land. His intention was to use its muddy contents to add authentic flavor to his liturgical practice. You see, every time this pastor would perform a baptism, he would contribute a precious drop of Jordan River water to the baptismal font. Why? Well, as rational beings we know that there is nothing magical about water from the Jordan River. It has no special properties, no distinctly Christian qualities that make it any more holy than safely chlorinated tap water. Water is water. Surely, this pastor knew this. Surely he knew, as he measured out each treasured tear, that any old water would do for a baptism.

As Matthew tells the tale, a lot of people were heading down to the Jordan to listen to sturdy preaching and to pray that God would forgive their sins. It is the original revival-a preacher stands by the bank of a river clamoring for repentance, then one by one contrite sinners step forward; and trusting themselves to calloused fingers which pinch their nostrils shut, they are plunged-every bit of them-beneath the moving waters. It is a straightforward, modest ceremony, nothing more than a bath in the river really; and, yet, something about this washing beckons to people, pulling folks from their busy lives to make a trip down to the Jordan.

What was it, do you think, that compelled all of those people to go down to the river to pray? Perhaps some of them were looking for a cure. Maybe they came to the river hoping that a watery immersion would take away their ailments, their hurts. No doubt, others hoped that being washed by the current would provide them with a clean slate, a new beginning for their relationships, for their lives. Or maybe in the end the thing that motivated people to attend John's revival was really very simple. John's actions took something that our bodies know so well-that just-bathed, tingling, freshly toweled-off sensation-and managed to replicate it for people's spirits. Dunk. Splash. Sputter. And from the muddy flow, drenched converts emerged with scoured souls. Certainly this is part of what baptism is about: cleansing the human spirit, wiping away sin, standing unsoiled before God.

But there is more to baptism than purification, and this becomes imminently clear as another group of folks wind their way down to the river. In the midst of dousing converts, the Baptizer looks up to see the approach of Pharisees and Sadducees, religious rivals who are vying for popularity and power in Israel, politically savvy men who had taken note of the recent well-trod path leading to the river. Like all good politicians, the Pharisees and Sadducees knew that kissing a few babies at the county fair and getting dunked in the water with common folk could only help their position in the polls. What they did not know was that this strange man in the camel-haired tunic would refuse to allow his riverside revival to be co-opted. Catching a whiff of hypocrisy, John launches an invective against these opportunists with a rage unequaled in the New Testament. You brood of vipers! Do you come to the water without repenting? Be careful because your religious pedigree does not protect you here. Repent, you disobedient children, for God wants good fruit, and trees that do not bear good fruit will get the axe. The evangelist will not allow folk to take this ritual wash in the Jordan lightly. These waters have meaning, he asserts, that is not to be turned to political gain. This sign has consequences for people's actions in the world. John seems pretty clear about what this whole baptism thing is about. To be doused is to be cleansed of sin; and then to honor our freshly laundered status, we are to lead clean, ethical lives.

Baptism is about repentance. It is about bearing good fruit. But even as a scolding John dangles a metaphorical axe over those who would betray the ethics of his watery ritual, someone else walks down toward the river asking to be baptized. And, ironically, for the second time in this chapter, John, the one whom we call "The Baptizer," attempts to talk someone out of getting baptized.

It's a scene beloved by painters like Bruegel and Rembrandt: Jesus picking his way through the crowds, slowly moving down the embankment seeking his cousin, the wild-eyed preacher, and the waters of Jordan. On seeing Jesus approach, John protests, "I need to be baptized by you. Why are you coming to me?" John's confusion makes sense. He has just been telling us that baptism is about repentance, so why would the Messiah want anything to do with it? The stainless one doesn't need to be washed, right? It's a difficult question. Why does Jesus request baptism at the hand of John? It concerns John deeply. Perhaps he's worried that Jesus will be tainted by the sign of washing. He may sense that dunking the Messiah will imply the presence of some hidden corruption. But I wonder if John is also worried, in the presence of one who comes to baptize with fire and spirit, that his simple cleansing ritual will lose all meaning if Jesus is plunged into the water. For when Jesus wades in, the water itself is at risk.

Early Christian icons, devotional pictures of this scene at the Jordan River, depict Jesus submerged up to his neck in the water. John stands nearby, gently touching the Messiah's head. Above, a lone dove glides down a ray of heaven-sent light, while on shore, angels wait with ready towels for God's beloved Son to emerge. My friend with the water collection, Stan, once pointed out to me that these icons usually include a curious figure. There in the water along with Jesus you can often find a small elderly man carrying a jug. He is the river god, the spirit of the Jordan, the sometime enemy of humankind. This aqueous sprite reminds viewers that water is not always so friendly. It destroyed the earth in Noah's time. It threatened to swamp the disciples' boat in a storm. It nearly drowns both Peter and Paul. In one Eastern icon (Ohrid, Yugoslavia, c.1300), Jesus raises his foot to squash this river god. And that's not the only adversary that the Messiah will find in the depths. The waters of the Jordan in these icons are frequented by dragons and great sea serpents. In these icons, when Jesus goes into the river, he goes to do battle against the powers of evil. It makes for rich imagery, but does it have anything to do with Matthew's Gospel?

Biblical scholars point out that the first three chapters of Matthew are primarily concerned with the question, "Who is Jesus?" A reader can almost drown in the deluge of answers provided by this gospel:

o Jesus is the Messiah.
o He is the son of King David.
o The son of Father Abraham.
o He is also the child of Mary.
o The offspring of the Holy Spirit.
o He will save people from their sins.
o He is Emmanuel, God with us.
o "The King of the Jews," says Herod.
o He hails from Galilee.
o He is the Nazarene.

Names upon names.

In the first part of Matthew's Gospel, Jesus is assigned more titles than a person can bear. And it's not over. As Jesus comes up from the waters, the heavens open, the Spirit descends, and a voice from on high speaks, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." After all the names have been given, Epiphany, God speaks. God names Jesus. And the words that God uses to name Jesus before the crowds have a familiar tone to them. If you listen closely, you can hear the resonance of the great prophet Isaiah. Like a tuning fork, Isaiah hums when the tone of Matthew 3 is struck. Listen to how similar they sound. "Here is my servant," God says to Isaiah, "my chosen, in whom my soul delights. I have put my spirit upon him. He will bring justice to the nations." As Isaiah's prophecy reverberates in the background, we are told that Jesus is the beloved son, but we are also given a picture of what kind of son he will be. He is the gentle servant, who will not break a bruised reed, who will not extinguish a dimly burning wick. He is also a holy warrior, commissioned to bring light and freedom and justice to the blind, the shackled, the forsaken.

So maybe those Eastern icons with their river gods and coiled serpents were not all that far off the mark, for when a dripping Jesus surfaces on the Jordan, he emerges as the one chosen to do battle with evil. Curiously, this brings us back to that pastor with his medicine bottle and a few murky ounces of Jordan River water, for it looks as if he had it right all along. Sure, it's sentimental, wanting people to be washed with the water that John stood waist-deep in, wanting folks to be baptized with the same waters that covered Jesus. But beyond sentimentality, the pastor's small bottle (algae and all) reminds us that water is special. On the day Jesus entered the Jordan, water changed, and it will never be the same for Christians again. For when a Christian is washed with the waters of baptism, Christ's mission of justice becomes our mission too. In baptism, we are called to contest the evil serpents and oppressive gods that lurk at the bottom of the river bed. We are charged to strategize on behalf of children's healthcare and to work for peace between warring peoples. This campaign for justice falls to the baptized because Jesus changed the waters.

But that's not the final word in this passage, for Matthew tells us that something else happened at the Jordan. The waters changed Jesus. The Christ was altered by John's washing, and forever more, we worship a baptized God. Wait a minute! God got baptized? What could that mean? Well, for one thing it means that God intimately knows the trials involved in being a humble servant working for a kingdom that has yet to be fully realized. But, perhaps more important, Jesus in the Jordan demonstrates that the Christ will never ask us to go somewhere that he is not. Knowing that God has been washed by the waters of baptism reminds us that we're not called to fight the dragons alone.

Whenever you see someone doused at the font, remember, my friends, your baptism, and carry out with all energy the mission to which you have been called. But also remember the baptism of Jesus and give thanks and praise to our river-washed God who stands by us battling evil until the end of time.

Let us pray.

Gracious God,
Give us the courage and comfort
that comes from being claimed by you in the waters of baptism.
This we ask in the name of our Redeemer,
who stands with us, dripping from head to toe,
even Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.


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