A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on January 8, 2017 (Baptism of Our Lord, Year A)
When I returned from my October pilgrimage to Jordan I vowed that I would not begin every subsequent sermon with the words, “Back when I was in Jordan…” I mean, let’s be honest. That would get pretty old, pretty quickly. And I’ve dutifully kept this promise. Even during Advent when I preached about the imprisonment of John the Baptist, I didn’t once mention that I’d been to the site of King Herod’s palace. Or that I’d seen with my very own eyes the caves that were used as prisons along the hillside leading up to the palace. I could have painted a vivid picture of that cave in all its isolated glory and talked about the amazing selfies I took among the palace ruins. But, for the sake of not coming across like a pompous, know-it-all preacher, I demonstrated heroic self restraint and kept my mouth shut.
Well, that ends this morning. Because, say it with me, “Back when I was in Jordan…” I went to the very site on the Jordan River where John baptized Jesus. And I had the great privilege of celebrating the Eucharist with a group of Episcopalians right along the banks where Jesus himself was baptized. And we renewed our baptismal covenants — as we will all do in a few moments — while actually standing in the river. It was a magnificent, profoundly moving, once-in-a-lifetime spiritual experience.
Now, because there are a lot of hymns and spirituals that describe the Jordan, I kind of felt as if I’d already been there before. We tend to sing them during Advent as John the Baptist engages his forerunner role pointing not to himself but to the one who is to come. We sing, “On Jordan’s bank the baptist’s cry announces that the Lord is nigh” and “What is the crying at Jordan?”
The most well-known song, though it’s not in our hymnal, is probably “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore” — which, if you listen to all the verses, is less a children’s song and more a rip-roaring spiritual in which we hear that the Jordan River is both “deep and wide” and “chilly and cold.” Hallelujah. Well, I’m here to report to you, once and for all, that the Jordan River is neither deep nor wide, nor chilly, nor cold. So let’s just get that out of the way. In fact, it’s quite the opposite; but singing about a river that’s “tepid and narrow” just kind of loses something in translation. But the particulars of the river itself don’t really matter. Because what matters is that the place in question is holy ground. Something remarkable happened down by that riverside.
Now, the baptism we hear about this morning is…rather confusing. At one level, we rightly ask ourselves, why Jesus even needed to be baptized in the first place. If this ancient purification ritual is being offered by John as a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, why would one who lived among us yet without sin, need to be baptized at all? Perhaps it’s an expression of his solidarity with us; a connection between Jesus’ humanity and our humanity.
But I think this whole scene in Matthew’s gospel illuminates the question of Jesus’ identity. John had been pointing to the one who is to come, the Messiah, God’s anointed, the person whose sandal he is unfit to tie. And suddenly here he is, in the flesh. Asking John to baptize him! Well, this certainly threw John off his voice-of-one-crying-in-the-wilderness game. He wanted Jesus to baptize him. And in the natural order of things, that’s what we’d expect. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, we would expect that the master would baptize the servant; just as at the Last Supper, we would expect that the servant would wash the feet of the master.
But even as Jesus is claiming his identity as God’s son, even as the heavens rip apart and we see the Holy Spirit descending upon him in the form of a dove and we hear the voice of God affirming Jesus as his beloved son, the hierarchical norms are flipped upside down. And the forerunner baptizes the Messiah; just as the Messiah will wash the feet of his disciples.
For us, too, baptism is about identity. Identity as God’s beloved children; identity as members of a faith community that seeks to follow Jesus in word and action; identity as Christ’s own not for a limited time only but forever. That’s what happens when we wade in the water of baptism, whether we’re baptized as an infant or as a child or as an adult. Our primary identity becomes one who is a beloved child of God.
You know, I returned from that 10-day trip to Jordan late on a Saturday night. And as I stumbled into church the next morning, tired, overwhelmed by the entire experience, and severely jet-lagged after a sleepless 12-hour flight from Jordan to New York, a three-hour layover at JFK, and a post-midnight cab ride from Logan, I admit I was just trying to get through Sunday morning without falling asleep at the altar. And I just assumed that after that spiritual high of celebrating the eucharist along the banks of the Jordan, doing the same thing here, more or less along the banks of Hingham Harbor, would be incredibly anticlimactic. In my mind, the words “celebrate the eucharist” were replaced with the more pedestrian “get through the eucharist.”
But standing at the altar was exactly the moment the Holy Spirit arrived to put me in my place. Once again. Because far from feeling anticlimactic, my experience at the Jordan with my fellow Episco-pilgrims only enhanced my experience at home. Just as the heavens opened up when Jesus was baptized with the Spirit descending like a dove, it did feel as if the heavens had opened up at the altar before which I stood.
Suddenly, I was celebrating the Eucharist not just with a church full of fellow spiritual travelers in Hingham but with Christians everywhere across the world, with the fullness of the communion of saints in heaven, with Jesus himself as the chief celebrant.
Now, I’m not sure what others experienced that morning in October, but that’s where my heart and mind and soul were. Transported from the place where Christianity began to the altar at which I serve with people I love who seek, with me, to follow Jesus in their own lives and in their own ways.
That’s the baptismal identity we share; an identity that flows straight out of the Jordan and into our collective souls. Sometimes it’s transcendent. Sometimes it feels rather pedestrian. But through it all, we stand secure in our identity as beloved children of God; baptized into indelible relationship with our Savior.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017