The Lower Jordan River consists primarily of untreated sewage and agricultural return flows, groundwater seepage, as well as brackish water from springs diverted into the river away from the Lake Tiberias area. The Lower Jordan River in particular is extremely polluted. According to the International Water Inventory The River Jordan is one of the most polluted stretches of river in the world.
Even so hundreds of people still take their lives into their own hands and climb into the water to be baptised or to renew their baptism vows. Personally I really don’t recommend it – I also don’t recommend bringing any water back to baptise babies in it – not without a disclaimer and a health warning – bathing in Jordan Water can seriously damage your health.
So it’s all very easy to get sentimental about Bible stories, and imagine that the Holy Land still looks like nativity plays or the black and white pictures in our old bibles. But it doesn’t. The traffic’s bad, the air pollution’s terrible, the bureaucracy is mind-numbing and, yes, it’s a war zone. … but then, even in Jesus’s time it was a war zone – although the River Jordan wasn’t quite so polluted then – although it probably was very very muddy.
So when Jesus turned up to be baptised by John, don’t imagine him all dressed in robes of purest white, with a holy glow of light all around him, hovering serenely into the water without even having to step on the mud. And then – as if by miracle – rising from the water with his white robes still perfectly white and probably perfectly dry as well.
No .. . when Jesus turned up, no doubt most people didn’t know him from Adam and he had to push through the crowds or line up like the rest of them. He took off his robes and went into the muddy water. John did recognise him, of course, and there was a brief conversation about who should baptise whom, and then Jesus went down under the muddy waters and comes up again, wet and a bit grimy – especially his feet.
So what is going on? Well, of course, in one respect, John the Baptist was right. Jesus did not need to be baptised. We need to be baptised, but Jesus didn’t. If anyone is free of sin – then Jesus is free of sin. If anyone is already at one with God – then Jesus is at one with God If anyone is a follower of Jesus – then Jesus is a follower of Jesus. So what’s going on?
That is a question that preachers have struggled with for 2000 years. I once invited a very well known scholar to preach at Montreal Cathedral on the feast of the Baptism of Jesus – we paid him $250 and gave him a very big dinner – he spoke for about 4 minutes and basically said that he didn’t know. Not the best $250 I have ever spent. But – after a great deal of searching – Rowan Williams has come up with a better answer… but for his answer we need to change the whole way we think about baptism.
Most of us think about baptism as being cleansed from all our sins and being forgiven, joining the church – and becoming a Christian. After all that’s what the words say. In some places they even give the newly baptised person a brand new white robe to signify that they have become pure.
For two thousand years baptism is the thing which separates christians off from the rest of the world. We are baptised, and are in the Christian club – whereas all the rest of the world are not.
But there are a lot of problems with this. First – Christianity is not a club. God is the God and Father of all people the whole world over, whether or not they are baptised. God loves baptised people just as much as God loves unbaptised people. Baptised people are not better than anyone else, and we carry on sinning after baptism just as much and just as often as anyone else does … we probably just feel more guilty about it – so back to my first question, why was Jesus baptised, if it’s about forgiveness of sins, purity, and joining the church?
Well – Rowan Williams says – what if it isn’t? What if the baptism of Jesus is not about being washed clean in the River Jordan but is actually about getting really dirty – getting right up to his neck in the mire and mud – in fact being almost overwhelmed by it all. What if what Jesus is doing at his baptism is getting into deep water – as it were – getting completely into the mess, filth, dirt, grime and sin of real water, real life – with us – because, let’s be honest, that is where most of us live most of the time, in messy, confused, sometimes dirty and grimy and nearly always sinful lives. What if the baptism of Jesus is Jesus is just another great story of Jesus being totally immersed in real human life – with us and for us …. after all isn’t that what the Christmas ‘Emmanuel’ – God with us – means.
And then … and this is the really exciting bit. What if our baptism is exactly the same thing. Not just being washed clean, or forgiven all our sins, or simply joining the church – but also reminding us that if we want to be a follower of Jesus then we have to get dirty as well. We have to face up to the mud, and grime, and dirt and pollution and sin of real life. What if our baptism is to remind us that Christians cannot live in ivory towers, pretending that we are pure and righteous and that all the rest of the world is sinful, but we have to totally immerse ourselves right in it – just like Jesus did.
In other words – just to spell it out – what if Mother Theresa – for example – in the slums of Calcutta – is the real centre of the Christian Church and not the Vatican or Canterbury Cathedral – or even the clergy – at all. Actually, in our hearts, I think we already know that that’s true!
So – what if our tiny efforts in comparison at community work here in this parish, not when we’re simply raising money for ourselves, but all those times when we actually touch the difficult edges of this our community – loneliness, poverty, mental illness, fear, isolation are actually the very heart of our mission and not the edges at all … now wouldn’t that be exciting? And different? And yes – wouldn’t that be difficult? The answer is yes!
So .. . what difference does this sermon actually make to each one of us when we go home this morning?
Let me offer you three thoughts.
First – It means that when our lives are really tough – when we are feeling low in spirit, or grieving, or poor, or a bit put upon, or put down, or meek, or hungry and thirsty – for food or for justice – then, actually, we are never alone. Jesus is right there in the mud and grime with us, by our side, .. we can count on Jesus, we can lean on Jesus and Jesus will pull us out. That is good news. What a friend we have in Jesus – all our pains and griefs to bear.
Secondly, though, it means that when we are feeling all right, but someone else is feeling low in spirit, or grieving, or poor, or a bit put upon, or put down, or meek, or hungry and thirsty – for food or for justice – and we are right there by their side to help them … then we are being genuine baptised Christians and true followers of Jesus. That should make us feel good inside – it is good news. Brother, sister, let me serve you, Let me be as Christ to you.
And thirdly – and I always like to add something that makes us feel a bit uncomfortable in our pews. It means that if you haven’t got a clue about what I’m talking about. If you haven’t worked out that you need Jesus every day by your side to help you, support you and raise you up – if you haven’t felt him close to you in your time of need …. .
And… if you haven’t yet worked out that being a Christian means getting your hands dirty and doing stuff to help other people, – being there for them, supporting them and raising them up in Jesus’s name And if you haven’t worked out that a real church has to do this as well – knowing our need of God and helping others in their time of need in Jesus’ name …. Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, Let the earth hear God’s voice; Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, Let the people rejoice;
If none of this connects with you this morning, then it would be worth thinking again about Jesus – about why he came at Christmas, about why he was baptised by John, about why he lived and died and rose again for us – and about how Jesus has changed our lives, and changed our world. It’s always worth thinking about the Good News.
The Very Rev’d Paul Kennington