Sermon – January 12, 2014
Concordia Lutheran Church – Concord, NH
John the Baptizer was performing the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This strange man who dressed in odd clothes and ate bizarre food had developed quite a following. He preached a message of repentance for all to prepare themselves for the powerful One who would soon come. He told the crowds present that he was baptizing with water but One greater than he would soon come and baptize with the Holy Spirit. And that One – that One was so great – that John wasn’t even worthy enough to untie His sandals. John was preparing the way for this powerful One, yet little did he know that on that day the One he was preparing for had arrived.
One by one John baptized the people who came to him in the banks of the Jordan River. “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him.” John tried to stop him as he said to Jesus, “You’ve got this all wrong. I need to be baptized by you. Why are you coming to me?” It’s a good question and one that many people still debate today. Why did Jesus go down to the Jordan River that day to be baptized by John? He was the sinless Son of God. He didn’t need His sins washed away. John knew that and yet despite John’s protests, Jesus said it was necessary. Jesus would insist.
It was so necessary that Jesus came down from Galilee to the Jordan River to be baptized. He came a long way. The Jordan River is a long winding river. It’s less than 100 miles long if you measured it straight, but because it is such a meandering zigzag it measures almost 200 miles long. When John spoke about making the crooked places straight, I’m sure he was thinking not only of the land, but that very river. The name Jordan means descender and the river descends from 1000 feet above sea level from its beginning in the north at Galilee near Mt. Harmon to 1300 feet below sea level into the Dead Sea. It’s a long way down.
And the further down the river travels the muddier it gets. The Jordan River is mention in so many songs and artists depictions as beautiful and pristine, but the truth is that the Jordan River , except for the very beginning in the north, is often a dirty and muddy river. Maybe the people of Boston aren’t the only ones who can lay claim to the song Dirty Water! And since the construction of a dam by Israel in 1964, the river has gotten even dirtier. It’s listed as one of the top 100 most endanged ecological sites in the world. It’s that polluted. And it’s hardly a place anyone would want to walk in never mind be submerged in. Yet that’s exactly what Jesus did. He went down from Galilee (where it was pretty clean) to the Jordan – the dirty, muddy Jordan – where you couldn’t even see the bottom, surrounded by a crowd of people. How did this happen?
That’s the question that was on the minds of millions of people back in 1987 including myself when a small 18 month old little girl named Jessica McClure fell into a dirty well in Midland, Texas. We were all glued to the television for almost three days as rescue workers tried everything to get her out, but it wasn’t easy. They tried looking down the well shaft, but they couldn’t even see her. They tried a backhoe, but it wasn’t strong enough. A small rig used to put in telephone poles was brought in, but even that wasn’t enough. Eventually they drilled a hole parallel to the well and began to dig a tunnel beneath the two wells – two feet below where baby Jessica was trapped. The entire world was frightened as we watched CNN’s live telecast of the attempted rescue. They piped in oxygen, but would it be enough and would they rescue her in time? Periodically they would hear her crying, or moaning, or talking, but sometimes there was utter silence for almost an hour. Silence is sometimes far from reasurring.
Silence can almost break a person if it goes on for too long especially if like Jessica, we find ourselves alone and afraid in a dark place. Maybe we haven’t fallen into a well, but we’ve all fallen into situations in our lives that cause us pain. It might be suffering through a terrible illness, or standing helplessly by as someone we love suffers through it. We might find ourselves struggling in the waters of financial oppression, or the waters of discrimination, or the depths of despair. Sometimes the waters can get pretty murky and we don’t see an end to the suffering. We wonder if it will go on forever. We wonder if God even hears our prayers. The words of the psalmist (130) cries, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice.” Like Baby Jessica, we wonder if help will reach us in time or if we will remain trapped too deep to rescue. The rescue workers kept on trying to free Baby Jessica as I and millions of people prayed for her deliverance.
God is in the business of deliverance and often it’s a messy job. But God doesn’t mind getting down in the dirt. From the beginning of creation, we read in Genesis that God goes down into the earth to form humans. We are made from the earth. Yet through sin we messed creation up and God attempted to rescue us. He sent prophets like Moses and Isaiah, but that wasn’t enough. And finally God sent Jesus into the messiness of this world. God came down – the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And this Jesus – whom we celebrated His birth – has come down again into the Jordan to be baptized – not to wipe away His sins, but to wipe away ours. When Jesus went down into the muddy waters of the Jordan, He was going down for us. Jesus’ baptism revealed who He was, “This is My Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus’ identity as Messiah, as Savior of the World, was revealed. Jesus’ baptism initiated His mission – to deliver God’s people once and for all.
Our baptism initiates our ministry too, for in our baptism we are claimed as God’s children. Baptism reminds us that birth and death are inseparable. Jesus willingly descended into the Jordan river to be baptized not because He needed His sins washed away – for He was sinless – but in obedience to His calling to fulfill God’s covenant promise of salvation for all people. Jesus plunged into flesh to transform our flesh. Jesus plunged into darkness to transform the darkness into light. Jesus plunged into death to transform it to life – a life that is filled with power through the gift of the Holy Spirit in baptism.
Through baptism our connection with God is sealed. We become children of God. And just as the Spirit of the Living God descended on Jesus like a dove, through baptism we are forever sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. Just as Jesus heard the words, “This is My Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” God speaks to us and pours grace upon us in the waters of baptism. We are strengthened just like Jesus for the task of public ministry and like Jesus’ ministry, it won’t be easy. Immediately after Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness. It didn’t suggest or guide Him; it drove Him – compelled Him – into the wilderness to face temptations. The first temptation to overcome, however, was to not go through with His baptism, which would begin His mission of salvation. Jesus descended into earth, Jesus descended into the Jordan, Jesus continues to descend with us into the places we find ourselves trapped. There is nowhere that God will not go to rescue us!
The rescue workers continued to work day and night to rescue Baby Jessica. At times they could hear her actually sing nursery rhymes to calm herself. We, like Martin Luther, can yell out “I am baptized!” to bring us peace during our difficult times. When we find ourselves shaken to the core, I am baptized! In the face of financial oppression – I am baptized!. In the pain of illness – I am baptized! In the face of ridicule – I am baptized! In the face of doubt – I am baptized! In the face of mistreatment – I am baptized! In the face of depression – I am baptized! In the face of loneliness – I am baptized! In the face of heartache – I am baptized! In whatever situation we find ourselves in – there is no place that the waters of baptism cannot restore and transform us. There is no place that we find ourselves in that God is not right there with us.
After almost three days, Baby Jessica was finally rescued from the depths of that dark well. Her family said it was like a “second birth.” She was cradled in the arms of the paramedic. Through our baptism, we too are given a second birth – united with Christ, a part of God’s family, and the community of faith. We have a new identity and are never alone. We are cradled in the arms of grace.
And once renewed and transformed we are compelled to share this Good News to the entire world – in our schools and in our jobs, our neighborhoods, prisons, the grocery stores, the banks, the movie theatres, the laundry mats, the local pub. Every day there is someone we meet that needs to hear that God has come to set them free. The voice from heaven is waiting to speak to others through us. It’s about responding with a word of kindness and love when someone says they hate us. It’s speaking a word of forgiveness when we have been wounded. It’s speaking a word of hope to someone who questions the value of their own life. It’s speaking a word of compassion to someone who has made a mistake knowing that we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. It’s speaking a word of grace when someone is speaking evil of another person. It’s speaking a word of love when someone is speaking a word of violence. We are baptized and we must descend on the world like a dove and be instruments of God’s peace and love – a love goes down into the depths of the darkest places and reveals God’s glory and light, a love that plunges into the depths of humanity with a light that cannot be stopped, a hope that cannot be extinguished and a fire that cannot be put out. Amen.