15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptise you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
21 Now when all the people were baptised, and when Jesus also had been baptised and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
What was that man doing in the river? We’ve become so used to baptism haven’t we? Everyone gets dressed up and comes to church and everyone feels awkward (both the baptism family and the existing congregation) and we pour water over the baby’s head and the baby screams and we all laugh and take photos and go home for Christening cake.
But then you stop to wonder why we do it and it all gets very strange. Most Christians will tell you that it’s about washing away sin, but how does that apply to a new-born baby? And, more pertinently still, why then was Jesus baptised, if we say he was without sin?
And it all comes back to this: what was that man doing in the river? Well, my favourite Christmas pastime is doing jigsaws, so let’s put the pieces of the jigsaw together this morning and see what picture emerges.
Piece 1: John was the last of the prophets and what he was doing was known as ‘prophetic action’. Prophets didn’t just go around saying “Thus says the Lord” and things like that. They also used to engage in actions that demonstrated what they were talking about. So Jeremiah, for example, as he carried God’s promises to the Jewish people in Exile, that they would one day be restored, bought a piece of land in the Holy Land as a down payment on God’s promise. Ezekiel ate a scroll to show how he was feeding on God’s word. So John stood in a tradition of prophecy that performed eye-catching symbolic acts to demonstrate the word of God they were preaching. And he was standing in the river performing a prophetic action.
Piece 2: the location. We’re so used to baptisms happening everywhere and anywhere that we overlook how deeply symbolic the River Jordan was to the people of Israel. The River Jordan was where the people first entered into the Promised Land. It was the happy ending to the foundational story of Israel’s identity: how they had been slaves in Egypt, but God had raised up Moses to release them from Slavery and set them free in the Promised Land. He famously released them from slavery by parting the Red Sea for them, and washing it back over their pursuing enemies. But the less well-known part of the story is that when they finally arrive at the Promised Land, after 40 long years in the desert, the River Jordan is in the way. So God parts the River Jordan for them, and they can enter into their Promised Land.
And now, 2,000 years later John is standing in the River Jordan back at the very spot where, according to tradition, the Israelites first entered the Promised Land. He is saying that God is taking them back to the beginning of their story, setting them free in a new way so that they can enter into the Promised Land.
Piece 3: “the people were filled with expectation” (according to verse 15 of our Gospel reading). What were they expecting? nothing less than the restoration of Israel. When they first entered the Promised Land, what made it the Promised Land was that they received it as God’s gift. Repeatedly the prophets reminded them: “not by our own hand did we receive this land, but by God’s right arm, because he delighted in you” And their response to that gift was to make God their king. This was the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven. It was that place that would set them free because God would be their king. It would be heaven because it was the place where God’s will was done, on earth as it is in heaven. It was the place where they were truly at home because God would dwell there with them – and he did, in the form of the fiery cloudy pillar resting in the Temple, the same pillar that had led them through the desert to their freedom.
But 2,000 years later, by the time John was standing in the river, that story had gone horribly wrong. They were a nation under foreign rule. Their Temple had been destroyed 580 years earlier by the Babylonians and God had not been seen in Israel since. There had been promises of restoration, partially fulfilled. Amazingly, they had survived mass-kidnapping and exile by the Babylonians (the only nation on earth to have survived), and they had been returned home, but though they were home, they were still effectively in exile. God was not their king, so this was not the kingdom of God. But as John took them back to the Jordan, to the entry-point to the Promised Land, it looked as though Israel might at last be restored and the people were “full of expectation…questioning in their hearts whether…John might be the Messiah”. Maybe the Lord’s anointed was here to restore God’s kingdom…
Piece 4: “I baptise you with water; but…He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire” If you’re a first century Israelite, that sounds very like the return of the fiery cloudy presence. And this matters because when the Temple had been destroyed the people concluded that God had left them because of their sin. And the prophetic promise of their restoration was that God would remove their sin and return to them, to live with them once more.
So John was performing a baptism of repentance. “Your true enemies” his action proclaimed, “are not the Romans, nor the Egyptians, nor the Babylonians, nor anyone else. Your true enemies are in your own heart, your own sin. That is what keeps you from God’s presence; that is what enslaves you; that is what keeps you out of the Promised Land. So repent: turn around, change direction completely.
So when John walked out into the River Jordan, he was symbolically doing what the whole nation had been doing: walking away from God, leaving the Promised Land behind. And then he plunged under the water as a sign that God was once again parting the waters for his people and washing them back over their enemies – their true enemies, their sin. And then he turned around and changed direction and walked back towards God – calling on them all to do the same (both symbolically and for real, in their hearts). And as a result, John left the piece of land that was Israel only in name and returned to enter the Promised Land, the true Israel, where God was king because God’s law was now written on his heart.
And when Jesus waded into the water with John, he was joining in John’s prophetic action. He was embodying Israel’s journey: sharing their experience of walking away from God and enacting their return. So at the moment when the Holy Spirit descended on him, the people knew that God had returned to Israel in the person of Jesus. Your exile is at an end. Your enemies are destroyed. Your God has returned to you. So come into the river, turn around from the path you have been on, allow God to wash away your enemies, turn right around and walk back towards him and crown Jesus as your king. And God will set you free. He will set you in the Promised Land, for real – and forever.
And it is God himself who does this. So it matters not whether we were baptised as infants, or as conscious adults. The same God makes us part of the same story – the story of release from our enemies and of being set free in the Promised Land.
I wonder, today, what enemies assail your heart? I can name the enemies in my heart. There is the selfishness that makes me self-obsessed and self-pitying, damaging my relationships with those who would love me. There is the grasping greed that keeps creeping in and makes me feel poor, when in fact I am so rich. There is the tendency to despair that threatens me with depression and tries to diminish my faith. And there is my fear which prevents me from relying on God’s mighty power.
For me, the waters of baptism stand as a constant reminder than my enemies will not triumph over me. They can do their worst, but even then, God would pick me up and give me something to live for. There is nothing they can threaten that I cannot face in God’s strength. There is nothing they can destroy that he will not redeem. For I have turned back to God, his Holy Spirit is in my heart, he has washed the waters of baptism back over my enemies and destroyed them. And I am living in the Promised Land, which I took not with my own hand, but which God took for me with his mighty arm.
Baptism reminds us that, though we live in this world, and though we share it’s suffering and pain, we are citizens of another world, the kingdom of heaven. We have a life beyond our present sufferings, so we can live with a strength and a hope that does not come from ourselves, or from anything in this world, because our hearts have crossed over Jordan.
Preached: – Askham (joint) 13 January 2018