Matthew 3:1-6, 11-17
Large crowds were coming out to hear John preach and to be baptized by him. His preaching was pretty pointed. He called the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers” and he publicly rebuked Herod Antipas for stealing his brother’s wife. His fiery preaching was probably one of the things that drew the crowds—that and the fact that he dressed and lived like a wild man of the desert, but the main attraction was clearly the baptisms. Matthew says “the women and men of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and the whole region of the Jordan, and they were baptized in the river Jordan by him, confessing their sins.”
It never really struck me before, but all these people going down to the river? It’s kind of remarkable. What was it that made them feel a need to go out to the wild man at the river to confess their sins and be baptized? Something made them all feel that they needed to clean house and have a fresh start. I think we’ve all known that feeling at one time or another.
Their religious institutions with sin offerings and a Day of Atonement apparently didn’t seem to offer enough relief for the sense of not-rightness were feeling. Watching a priest slaughter a poor animal on their behalf or send one wandering out into the wilderness didn’t give them the catharsis they were craving. They wanted an experience that told them body and soul that they were washed clean inside and out—that their sins were forgiven and it was a new day. So they came to the wild man at the river. It seemed like the right thing to do.
There is something deeply, powerful and symbolic about going into the water, whether it’s a baptistry, a swimming pool, the ocean, a lake, a river or stream—or even just the shower or bathtub. It speaks to the body, mind, and soul all at once. That’s what all those people coming to John at the Jordan were looking for—something that spoke to them body and soul. They wanted that deeply personal, powerful feeling of being washed clean and made new, and at the same time a feeling of being part of a community of others who had the same experience.
John made it clear that his was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And that raises a question: why did Jesus come to John to be baptized? He didn’t need to repent of anything. In Matthew’s telling of the story, John, himself recognized this and said to Jesus, “I can’t baptize you! You should be baptizing me!”
Jesus tells John, “Let it go now; for this way is proper for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Basically, he tells John it’s the right thing to do. But what does he mean by that? Why is it the right thing to do?
Could it be that Jesus came to be baptized not because he needed something from the baptism, but because he wanted to give something?
In his baptism, Jesus gives a gift of affirmation. When he enters the water of the Jordan, he affirms the ministry of John. He affirms the power and importance of confession. He affirms the power of forgiveness, redemption and renewal.
When Jesus goes into the water, he affirms all those others who have come to John for a new start. He acknowledges that he is one of them—one of us—and that he will do whatever is right and necessary so that they—and we—have no doubts about him being one of us. He declares his solidarity with them, with us, with all humanity. He inaugurates a fresh start for all of us.
When Jesus goes into the water, he affirms the goodness of water—the waters of the Jordan and all the waters of the earth. He affirms creation, itself. When he immerses himself in the water he is acknowledging the God-made goodness of the created, material world and showing us, if we have eyes to see it, that God is deeply present, immersed in this creation.
When Jesus was baptized by John at the Jordan, he was immersing himself into all the beauty and intricate complexity of the earth and at the same time into both the astonishing meanness and surprising generosity of humanity. He immersed himself into all the joys and sorrows of daily life with all its battles and triumphs and defeats. He immersed himself in life as we experience it. And so doing, he blessed it and affirmed it.
At the Jordan, Jesus affirmed the goodness and sacredness of all that God has made. And that includes you…and me. When he immersed himself in our world, our lives, Jesus affirmed that those words, “This is my child, my beloved with whom I am well pleased” were spoken for us, too.
When Jesus immersed himself in the Jordan, he affirmed the power of grace and the bravery of new beginnings. He affirmed our desire to turn things around and make things new when it’s the right thing to do.
We forget sometimes that this is exactly what Jesus has called us to do. We forget that in our baptism the Holy Spirit has given us the power to turn things around and make things new. We forget sometimes that with a word we can bring the light of Christ to the bleakest places and situations.
Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love tells a story about someone who did exactly that on a cross-town bus during rush hour.
“Some years ago,” she writes, “I was stuck on a crosstown bus in New York City during rush hour. Traffic was barely moving. The bus was filled with cold, tired people who were deeply irritated with one another, with the world itself. Two men barked at each other about a shove that might or might not have been intentional. A pregnant woman got on, and nobody offered her a seat. Rage was in the air; no mercy would be found here.
“But as the bus approached Seventh Avenue, the driver got on the intercom. ‘Folks,’ he said, ‘I know you have had a rough day and you are frustrated. I can’t do anything about the weather or traffic, but here is what I can do. As each one of you gets off the bus, I will reach out my hand to you. As you walk by, drop your troubles into the palm of my hand, okay? Don’t take your problems home to your families tonight, just leave them with me. My route goes right by the Hudson River, and when I drive by there later, I will open the window and throw your troubles in the water.’
“It was as if a spell had lifted,” wrote Gilbert. “Everyone burst out laughing. Faces gleamed with surprised delight. People who had been pretending for the past hour not to notice each other’s existence were suddenly grinning at each other like, is this guy serious?
“Oh, he was serious.
“At the next stop, just as promised, the driver reached out his hand, palm up, and waited. One by one, all the exiting commuters placed their hand just above his and mimed the gesture of dropping something into his palm. Some people laughed as they did this, some teared up but everyone did it. The driver repeated the same lovely ritual at the next stop, too. And the next. All the way to the river.”
Gilbert goes on to say this: “We live in a hard world, my friends. Sometimes it is extra difficult to be a human being. Sometimes you have a bad day. Sometimes you have a bad day that lasts for several years. You struggle and fail. You lose jobs, money, friends, faith, and love. You witness horrible events unfolding in the news, and you become fearful and withdrawn. There are times when everything seems cloaked in darkness. You long for the light but don’t know where to find it.
“But what if you are the light? What if you are the very agent of illumination that a dark situation begs for? That’s what this bus driver taught me, that anyone can be the light, at any moment. This guy wasn’t some big power player. He wasn’t a spiritual leader. He wasn’t some media-savvy influencer. He was a bus driver, one of society’s most invisible workers. But he possessed real power, and he used it beautifully for our benefit.
“When life feels especially grim, or when I feel particularly powerless in the face of the world’s troubles, I think of this man and ask myself, ‘What can I do, right now, to be the light?’ Of course, I can’t personally end all wars, or solve global warming, or transform vexing people into entirely different creatures. I definitely can’t control traffic. But I do have some influence on everyone I brush up against, even if we never speak or learn each other’s name.
“No matter who you are, or where you are, or how mundane or tough your situation may seem, I believe you can illuminate your world. In fact, I believe this is the only way the world will ever be illuminated, one bright act of grace at a time, all the way to the river.”
When John asked Jesus why he wanted to be baptized, Jesus replied, “Because it’s the right thing to do.” It was the right thing to do to remind us that by our actions we do have influence on each other. It was the right thing to do to show us that he was calling us to immerse ourselves in each other’s lives and in the life of the world. It was the right thing to do to show his compassion for us, to show that he understands that sometimes we all need to take our troubles down into the water and let them be swept away. It was the right thing to do to show us how we are constantly refreshed and renewed so that we can shine as children of the light, created in the image and likeness of God. It was the right thing to do to show us how we can illuminate the world “one bright act of grace at a time, all the way to the river.”
 Elizabet Gilbert, posted by St. Alban’s Episcopal Church
Painting: Baptism of Christ by Vladimir Zagitov