Sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany, January 13, 2008
Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, MA
In the River with Jesus
There are many ways to pray with Scripture, but when we come to a scene as dramatic as this one, I find it impossible not to do what Ignatius of Loyola recommended: to imagine every detail and in my mind’s eye to let it come to life with all its colors and smells and sounds. When I stand with that crowd beside the river and feel the warm sun on my back and smell the dust in the air – when I watch Jesus begin to wade into the Jordan and glimpse the determination on his face, for he’s come all the way from Galilee to do this: he wants to be baptized, he needs to be baptized – when I watch his bare feet find their footing on the river’s mud and stones, and imagine the cool, clear water splash around his ankles, then cover his knees and finally swirl around his waist – when I see John’s sudden gesture of hesitation and protest, his reluctance to go through with this, and I hear Jesus’ quiet words in reply, saying something like, “Do it, my friend. Do it. I must be baptized so that everything can be fulfilled” – when I imagine John’s eventual nod of consent and then watch as Jesus closes his eyes and drops beneath the water’s surface, I want to enter that river with him. I want those waters to wash over me, as well.
There is so much I want God to wash away – so much that my hands, and all human hands, have dirtied and spoiled, so many words I’ve spoken, that we’ve all spoken, that have been sour in our mouths as we said them; so many thoughts I’ve had, that we’ve all had, that have smudged and tarnished the people and the world around us; so many things I’ve done, that we’ve all done, that have caused other people pain. I know only too well my own greed and impatience, my self-centeredness and unfaithfulness to God, my daily failures to love. I know the uneasiness of not being right with myself, not being true to the person that God created me to be. So I want to run down that riverbank and wade in after Jesus. I want God to wash away everything that troubles and confounds me, all my pettiness and stinginess and fretful anxiety – and to make me clean again, to make me whole. I want to plunge into that river with Jesus so that everything less than love can be washed away, so that everything smug and small and self-serving can dissolve like dirt and be swept away at last in the shining stream of God’s mercy.
Deep in the human heart there is such a tender and tenacious longing to be good. Mary Oliver puts it well in one of her new poems:
I would be good-oh, I would be upright and good
To what purpose? To be shining not
sinful, not wringing out of the hours
petulance, heaviness, ashes. 1
“To be shining not sinful” – that deep longing is enough to bring us to the waters of baptism, that longing for our errors and failures to be washed away and for God’s light to shine through us again.
But that’s not the only reason I want to dive into the water with Jesus. It’s not just that I want to be made clean – I also want to set aside my fear of death. I don’t know whether we human beings are the only animals that think about their own mortality and the mortality of their loved ones, but I do know the dread I feel when death makes its inevitable approach, the way I catch my breath in dismay when someone I love is given a diagnosis I never wanted to hear. I do know how despairing we are all likely to be if the diagnosis is ours, how suddenly at sea we may feel, and in over our heads, wishing in vain that we could escape, as frightened as Jonah was when he was thrown overboard. As Jonah, that reluctant prophet, puts it: I was “cast into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountain” [Jonah 2:3,5].
Water can wash us clean, but water can drown us, too, so when Jesus begins wading into that river, he is showing us not only his desire and intention to wash away the sins of the world, but also his desire and intention to set us free from the power of death. He has come to rescue Jonah; he has come to rescue us all. So I want to wade in with him. Where Jesus is going, I want to go, too.
We know what happens next: he rises up out of the water and the heavens are opened to him. As Gregory of Nazianzus commented back in the 4th century, Jesus comes to the Jordan River “to bury sinful humanity in the waters,” and then “Jesus rises from the waters; and a drowned world rises with him.”2
“A drowned world rises with him.” In our baptism into Christ, we rise up just as Jesus rose, dripping, from the waters of the Jordan River. In our baptism, we are immersed in the waters of death. We die in Christ. We die with Christ. And then we rise with Christ. Imagine what that means: it means that from now on, our death is done with. It is behind us. That fearsome future event that lurks around some unknown corner has already taken place. We have died with Christ and we are now alive in Christ – and to whatever extent we can take this in, we are set free from anguish and anxiety. We are set free to love without grasping or possessiveness, without anxiety and without holding back. Maybe you know that in the early centuries of the Church, Christians were called “those who have no fear of death.”3
So when it comes to joining Jesus in the Jordan, count me in. I’m ready for my sins to be washed away and I’m ready to relinquish my fear of death.
The sacrament of baptism happens – and needs to happen – only once in our lives, but we reclaim its power every time we renew our baptismal vows, as we’ll do together in just a few moments. We reclaim its power every time we continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers. We reclaim its power every time we persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord. We reclaim its power whenever we abide by these and all the baptismal promises that we’ve made.
And every time we live them out, we step back into the river – not into the Jordan River this time, but into the river of grace. The river of grace is always full, and, as another long-ago bishop once put it, “the river of grace flows everywhere.”4 At every moment, day or night, wherever we go, whatever we’re doing, whether we are sitting or standing, whether we are walking or lying down, whether we are speaking or silent, we can step again into that shining river.
The river of grace is always here and always now. It flows only in the present moment, and the trick is to stay alert to it. The trick is to stay awake. “See,” says God in the passage we just heard from Isaiah, “the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them” [Isaiah 42:9]. Do we have eyes to see that? Oh, we may say to ourselves as we stand in line somewhere and drum our fingers impatiently on the counter, this is just another empty, boring moment to endure, something to hurry through as quickly as possible.
But in fact this moment – and every moment – is not empty at all. It is full of possibility, full of potential: it is a moment in which we can receive the love of God that is being poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit [Romans 5:5], and listen again to the voice that murmurs in our ears just as it murmured in the ears of Jesus after he rose from the Jordan: “You are the beloved.” Every moment is a moment in which we can consciously step into the river of grace and ask ourselves, What does love require? Is there a word I can say, or refrain from saying, that might encourage love to flow more freely? Is there something I can do, or refrain from doing, that will release a little more love into the world, a little more joy? And if there is no love in sight, if everything in me and around me is as dry as a bone, can I turn to God in prayer and ask God to send forth springs of living water?
Athletes and artists sometimes speak of being “in the flow” – caught up in that mysterious, almost magical consciousness in which we become completely attentive, present, and engaged in the task at hand. Maybe, for Christians, to be “in the flow” is to live in the river of grace – to be so united with Christ in his baptism, so attuned to our baptismal promises, so immersed in the present moment – that, without any trace of self-consciousness and whether we know it or not, we shine with his radiance. We reveal his glory.
1. Mary Oliver, “On Thy Wondrous Works I Will Meditate,” Thirst, Boston: Beacon Press, 2006, p. 57.
2. Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 39, quoted in Celebrating the Seasons: Daily Spiritual Readings for the Church Year, compiled and introduced by Robert Atwell, Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2001, p. 77.
3. Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, p. 107.
4. Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa, On Baptism, quoted in Readings for the Daily Office from the Early Church, ed. J. Robert Wright, NY, NY: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1991, p. 51.