Notes from the sermon by Adriaan van Klinken 13th January 2019 – Epiphany 1
“Baptised in the River of Jordan”
After 2000 years of Christian history, it can be difficult for us to think afresh about Jesus – who he was, what the meaning of his life and death is, how he was related to God. We are part of a long tradition of thinking about Jesus as the Christ, as the Son of God, indeed, as the face of God revealed to us. But sometimes this tradition can hinder us from seeing the Jesus of the Gospel, the Jesus of the early Christians, and to be surprised and excited about him.
The current period of the Christian calendar offers us a time to go back to the basics. In this period of Epiphany we try and move back to the early beginnings, when the truth about Jesus Christ had not yet been crystallised in doctrines and creeds, but when the first generations of followers of Jesus were trying to figure out who Jesus actually was.
Our Gospel reading today brings us back to that period. In the reading we encounter John the Baptist. He is presented to us as a religious figure, travelling through the region preaching a message of repentance for the remission of sins. In a highly volatile political situation (nothing new today), with Israel being occupied by the Romans, John reminds the Jews of the covenant of God, and he calls upon them to follow God’s commandments, to repent from sinful ways and dedicate their lives to God, because otherwise the wrath of God will come upon them.
John’s message is a radical one. It signals the understanding that the status quo has been found wanting. It constitutes a prophetic appeal for people to turn their backs on previous commitments, and align themselves fundamentally with God’s purpose. That message is accompanied by a ritual: baptism. A ritual that asks of people that they come away from normal existence, signify their renewed commitment to God’s purpose, then return to their normal lives but leading that life in a transformed way. John’s baptism is an assault on the status quo – to participate in it is to embrace behaviour rooted in a radical realignment with God’s purpose.
Apparently John is a highly charismatic figure, because multitudes of people are coming to listen to his message and be baptised by him. The people get excited and start wondering whether he is the long-expected Messiah, the saviour promised by God. But John calms down their expectations, stating: “I indeed baptize you with water; but One mightier than I is coming, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
A baptism of water versus a baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire. That is how John captures the difference between his own ministry, and that of the Messiah. His role is only preparatory, preparing the way for a successor more significant than him.
Indeed, in the Gospel of Luke, John is literally removed from the scene before Jesus appears. Before writing about the baptism of Jesus, Luke tells us that John had been shut up in prison by king Herod (exactly because he threatened the status quo). The people who compiled the church’s lectionary decided that these verses could be left out (did anyone miss them?), but obviously Luke had a reason to include them. Different from Matthew, who writes in great detail about John’s ministry and about John’s baptism of Jesus, Luke gives a very minimalistic account, and removes John from the centre stage even before Jesus enters.
Only after we’ve been told us that John is shut up in prison, Luke goes on and writes, as in a flash back, that Jesus was among the multitudes that had been baptised by John. Maybe this narrative contains an important lesson: for Jesus to appear, to be revealed to us, we need to shut up. Like John at that time, the church today – with its politics and structures, its quest for self-preservation – can sometimes hinder the appearance of the Messiah. Because the Messiah may well appear in a way very different than we expect.
That is certainly the case for John. He promises the people that the Messiah comes to enact God’s judgement. He announces a Messiah with a winnowing-fork in the hand, clearing the threshing-floor gathering the wheat into his granary but burning the chaff with unquenchable fire.
Later in the Gospel of Luke, we read that John, who had anticipated messianic judgment and not a ministry of compassion, is not sure at all whether Jesus is actually the Messiah.
John had to adjust and correct his image of the Messiah – and so we often have, too.
Luke only indirectly tells us that Jesus was, indeed, baptised by John. We may wonder why Jesus needed to be baptised in the first place. If Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, indeed part of God-self and as such is without sin, as the church teaches in its creeds, then why did he need to undergo a baptism of repentance of sins? But let’s remind ourselves: Luke and his readers did not have doctrines and creeds. They were part of the early Jesus movement trying to figure out who Jesus was. And Jesus himself, when growing up, had to figure out what his calling was. In that sense, the baptism of Jesus shows that he was fully human. That he went through the process of configuring his own identity and mission, just like each of us does in our own lives, and we together as a community. In that process, Jesus encounters the message of John the Baptist, of repentance and conversion, of committing oneself to God’s purpose, and it speaks to his heart, to his emerging sense of calling.
Jesus is baptised as one of a multitude of people, as one of us. Luke writes about it in passing: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and 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.’” These words resemble our reading from Isaiah, in which God declares his decisive love to the people of Israel:
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.
The beautiful phrase “I have called you by your name” sounds like an adoption formula. In the prophecy of Isaiah it means that Israel now is fully identified with, belongs to, and is cherished by, God. This intimate relationship is a present help in every danger – the danger of exile, of war, of hardship.
In the Gospel of Luke, the words “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased”, signal a similar process of adoption. Jesus is now fully identified with, belongs to, and is cherished by God. Jesus’ evolving sense of calling is approved; his vocation is confirmed by God. Perhaps we can say: Jesus received a gold rating. In each of the paintings of Jesus’ baptism (see screen), the artists use an abundance of yellow-gold paint, symbolising the divine light with which Jesus is surrounded in this moment, and from now on.
The story about Jesus’ baptism, then, is Luke’s second story about the birth of Jesus. In the first story, baby Jesus is born in the manger. The magi come to bring their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the child. This second story marks the birth of Jesus’ mission and calling, and it is God-self who approves of it with gold.
Jesus the Messiah is born out of the waters of the river Jordan. The river Jordan in biblical imagery is a highly symbolic place. In the first part of the Bible, as the Israelites journeyed from slavery in Egypt to the land that God had promised them, the river acted as both an obstacle and pathway. It was an obstacle for them to enter the promised land. Their leader, Moses, was not even allowed to cross the Jordan, as a punishment for his disobedience. Only after Moses had died, the people of Israel miraculously were able to cross the river, as the water stopped flowing and made a way.
These biblical themes are elaborated on in African American negro-spirituals, the songs of the black slaves in America. In many of them, the river Jordan features prominently. As a symbol of the borderland between this world and the next, in which slaves would be liberated from the harsh realities of life. Also as a symbol of the border between slavery and living in freedom, between the injustice of captivity and the relentless hope for justice on earth to come.
These negro-spirituals, like John’s baptism in the Jordan, fuel the resistance against the status quo of bondage, oppression, and injustice. Jesus’ passing through the river Jordan, and his affirmation by God, underline that God in Jesus rejects the status quo. That God in Jesus leads us into the promised land of freedom and justice on earth. That God in Jesus promises us abundance of life. This is what our Christian faith is about – what our belief in Jesus is about! And we are called to follow. Because Jesus is the first, but in him each of us is adopted as child of God, is welcomed into the promised land, is awarded a gold rating. With one of the classic negro-spirituals, we sing with all the slaves, with all the refugees stuck at borders, all the oppressed of the earth, with all God’s people:
I’m going down to the river of Jordan
I’m going down to the river of Jordan
Some of these days, Hallelujah…
I’m going to sit at the welcome table of the Lord;
I’m going to feast off milk and honey…