01-12-20 RETURNING TO THE JORDAN


Matthew 3: 13-17

Presbyterian minister Mihee Kim-Kort helps us imagine what a visit to the Jordan River would be like—actually or spiritually—with these observations:
While baptism represents many things, for some Christians it is first and foremost a reminder that we are God’s beloved. That is rooted in Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan, which clearly marks the beginning of his ministry… [Christian Century, January 1, 2020, p. 19]

We might think the location was arbitrary—this place where John was baptizing others and then baptized Jesus—but it was an important location even before Jesus’ baptism. It was here that Joshua led the Israelites into the land of Canaan to claim it for God. The battle, as the song “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” describes, was at the Jericho city wall, not far from the Jordan River. There, at that place at the river, priests carried the Ark of the Covenant across the riverbed into what became the promised land. Listen to these words from Joshua 3:17 “The priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord stopped in the middle of the Jordan and stood on dry ground, until all the nation finished passing over the Jordan.” You probably have remembered that God parted the waters of the Red Sea so the Israelites could escape from Pharaoh in the event called “The Exodus.” But this was another God event, when the flow of a river stopped!
What else happened there? The great prophet Elijah stood before King Ahab—who did evil things in the sight of the Lord—and declared: “As the Lord, the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by his word.” And the word of the Lord came to [Elijah], saying: “Depart from here and turn eastward, [and go to the brook that is] east of the Jordan. You shall drink from the brook, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.” [I Kings 17: 1-3] A dry land depends on water sources. So Israel had brooks, wadis (or springs), the Sea of Galilee (which is actually a freshwater lake,) and the important Jordan River, fed by its headwaters on the towering Mount Hermon. The Jordan was a stronger river in those days; Israel today has developed irrigation for crops that siphons away a good portion of the Jordan waters. But a water source—like a river—was necessary for physical life, such water can renew our spiritual life as well.

You may or may not remember your baptism depending on your age; and others may not have ever been baptized at all or thought about doing it. Let me give you a primer: Baptism by John was offered to those who repented of things in their lives and pulled them away from God. So John, like us, was surprised to see Jesus—a man he already knew—coming to be baptized. John saw himself as the forerunner of the one coming in the name of the Lord. John recognized that, and said to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you!” But Jesus still asked him for baptism. John complied. Jesus there, dripping with his baptismal waters, had this happen: “The heavens were opened and the Spirit of God descended on him like a dove …. And lo, a voice from heaven [said] this is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” [Matthew 3:13-17] You might say, “Of course God is excited about the baptism of his Son! But be excited about my baptism? Really?” Today I want you to embrace that thought. I want you to think that as you told other people about the plan for your own baptism, or your plan to baptize your child, others either planned to be present too or to celebrate with you! God does both with the baptism of his children on earth: God is both present and celebrating. The book of Zephaniah is sometimes called “God’s love letter.” Hear these words in it, written as God’s people were away for so long were returning home: “The Lord your God is in your midst …he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you with his love; he will exult over you with loud singing, as on a day of festival.” [Zephaniah 3: 17]
Modern Christian pastor and writer Max Lucado puts it this way: “If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it!” Picture God being excited about the day of your baptism; a day when his Holy Spirit begins to enter your life, or your child’s life; a day of new beginnings. That is what happens at a baptism—theologically St. Augustine called it “An outward sign of an inward grace.” It is a day of rejoicing on earth and in heaven. It is an event that Jesus knew was not only important, but also joyful. So, according to the last verses of the Gospel of Matthew, some of Jesus’ last words were called “The Great Commission. He proclaimed: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”

Some people—especially those who have struggled in life with poverty, addictions, or poor choices and their consequences—find baptism exceptionally meaningful; a do-over time; a time to be washed clean; a time to hear, perhaps for the first time, a voice that says: “You are loved; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus told a number of stories about those who needed welcome and salvation. People like the Pharisees, who had attitudes of entitlement, were often his audience. One of his best parables those who feel lost and those who feel entitled was in Luke 15. There we find Jesus describing a Father who rejoices over a lost son, one who went to a far country and not only fed pigs, but also was so hungry he would have eaten what the pigs ate. Consider that image. The father had another son—one who was hard-working and faithful—and that son resented the lavish grace his father offered to “that other son of yours.” Now, consider all the people, of every color and walk of life, gathering at the river in heaven, the one described in the book of Revelation, having passed from this life to the next. Who might they be? Who will be there? Who might we be surprised by who we see? I want to finish today with a long quote that I will offer without further comment. Southern author Flannery O’ Connor wrote an insightful short story that takes place in a doctor’s waiting room! (Heaven’s waiting room??) The author of our Men’s Bible Study, Dr. Thomas W. Walker, says this about it:
In her short story “Revelation,” Flannery O’ Connor introduces her readers to Mrs. Turpin, a middle-class white lady in the deep south of the mid twentieth century…. For Mrs. Turpin everyone has a place, and her own place is in the upper echelon. She looks with some disgust at people she believes are beneath her, including those she calls “white trash” and the [people of color] in her town. Mrs. Turpin’s husband, Claud, has been injured by a cow on their farm and they find themselves in a doctor’s waiting room. As they wait, Mrs. Turpin both out loud and to herself, makes snide comments, sizing up everyone in the room, and she finds some solace in the thought that her lot is not that of anyone else in the room.
[She says aloud in the waiting room:] “If it’s one thing I am, its grateful. When I think of who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything and good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting, ‘Thank you Jesus for making everything the way it is! It could have been different!’” In response to that soliloquy, a young college girl who had gone away to school up north, (another failing that Mrs. Turpin notes,) throws a book at Mrs. Turpin. The mother of the young woman and the nurse end up having to restrain the girl, and she is eventually sedated, [but not before shouting hateful things to Mrs. Turpin. [Mrs. Turpin dismisses the girl as a lunatic.] The words from the waiting room [and there were more of them] continued to haunt Mrs. Turpin until finally she returns home and actually has a vision, standing by the family pigpen of her farm. {She finished feeding her pigs and began to wash her hands. Flannery O’ Connor closed her story with these words:

“A visionary light settled in [Mrs. Turpin’s] eyes …. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time, and bands of blacks in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people …like herself and Claud, who had always had a little of everything…They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key! Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.
At length she got down, and turned off the faucet, and in her slow way [trudged] on the darkening path to the house. In the woods around her, the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she [most] heard were the voices of the souls, climbing upward in the starry field, shouting “Hallelujah!”

Please join me as we offer a prayer in song to God with our next hymn, “Have Thine Own Way, Lord.” Since it IS a prayer, we will conclude it with an Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner January 12, 2020