When I moved to Richmond in 2014, I was definitely excited and interested to learn about this new place that our family would be calling home.
We moved into the little house next door here which we called Grace House so I walked to work and with two small children at the time I was a little slow to learn about Richmond first-hand by going out so I would often ask people who had lived here awhile to tell me about our city and its surrounding areas.
“so what should I know about Richmond?” I would ask.
I recall that people said this was a good place to live, that the people here are friendly, that Richmond has lots of things to do, and that you shouldn’t try to drive up to Washington D.C. if you care about the level of your blood pressure.
And people kept saying something that sounded strange at the time: Almost everyone said, “one thing you have to understand, people don’t cross the river.”
I probably asked, “But in the event that I do need to cross the river,there are bridges, right?”
And of course, I learned that this was hyperbole and that it’s not exactly true that people don’t cross the river, but it is true that when people cross the river it is significant.
It’s a big deal.
When Jesus comes to cross through the river to be baptized by John it is significant. It’s a big deal, not only because this instance of Jesus’ baptism functions as a bridge between the private, early life of Jesus about which we know very little and the beginning of his public ministry where he will begin God’s mission to heal, teach, forgive, and reach out in mercy to those in need.
But also because of what is revealed here at the river about Jesus’ identity. This beginning to Jesus’ public ministry is more than a mere ribbon-cutting ceremony.
In fact, there is a special name for what occurs here in today’s reading from the gospel.
We call this passage of scripture a Theophany, which means a visible manifestation of the fullness of God to humankind in which all the persons of the Trinity are explicitly present.
As JESUS bursts forth from the waters of the Jordan the heavens themselves burst forth and he sees the SPIRIT of God descending like a dove to him, and the voice of the FATHER says for everyone on the bank of the river and knee deep in the water, “This is my SON, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all present in this moment to reveal who Jesus is and to show that he is one with God the Father through the power of the Spirit.
Here Jesus is made manifest, revealed, and shown forth. But there is even more that Matthew wants to tell us about this Jesus who stands in the waters of the Jordan.
For Jesus to cross the river to come to John is a big deal, but especially because this is the Jordan River.
One of the greatest and most well-known stories from scripture is the crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites, but much-less-remembered is their crossing of the Jordan River.
Every children’s Bible recalls for us the Israelites walking through the Red Sea to escape from the clutches of the Egyptian pharaoh and how God saved the people from slavery
by sending Moses to lead them.
And many of the same children’s Bibles subsequently depict the events in the wilderness – the golden calf, the giving of the 10 commandments, the gift of daily manna.
But not one of the four children’s Bibles we have at home depict the story of the Israelites coming out of the dessert wilderness into the promised land by crossing the Jordan River.
And yet it is significant that God again parts waters – this time the Jordan – as his people are led into the promised land and to the place prepared for them to start over and live with God.
So, on the day of his baptism, Jesus crosses the Jordan to retrace the steps of the Israelites’ entrance into a new home with God to show us that he means to bring you and me and all God’s people into a new promised land.
For Matthew, Jesus is the New Moses who brings us out of the wilderness of our sin into friendship and intimacy with God.
Now I have been blessed to live here with you in this River City and, like you probably, I love to swim in the James River on a hot summer day – or a January day when its 70 degrees! – but I have also had people tell me that it can be quite dirty. And I have seen reports of the James River that say that you shouldn’t eat more than two fish a month from the river, which makes me reluctant to eat any fish from the James!
But the Jordan River was, and is, far dirtier and I have also been blessed to pilgrimage to the Holy Land and I have seen the Jordan River and what I would say to you about it, is that the Jordan River is a dirty river.
The Jordan River empties into the Dead Sea, which is the lowest point on earth. When Sarah and I visited my sister and friends in Palestine we rented a car and drove out of Beth Sahour, where she was living, to the Dead Sea.
You just nose your car down and drive and drive and drive like you’re driving into the center of the earth. And you see the Jordan River that goes down and down to the Dead Sea, which collects all the filth and muck and runoff and silt on its way there.
The Jordan River is dirty!
And Jesus wades into this river in order to wade into the filth of our lives.
Jesus steps into the muck. He comes to be with us in our sickness and the diagnoses that breaks our heart, Jesus is present with us even in the dysfunction of our human relationships.
Jesus is with us in our chronic pain, with us he comes into the midst of the nations that bomb and shoot down airplanes, and rage with the fire of hatred and injustice and apathy to help those in need.
In Jesus, God takes the initiative to come down, down, down into dirtiness of the world’s sin.
And that is what is behind John’s surprise.
John would have prevent Jesus from entering into the filth.
And if we’re honest, I think we often want to prevent Jesus from entering into all the totality of our lives.
We want Jesus to stay on his side of the river.
We want to domesticate Jesus and maintain the status quo. We want Jesus to be a good example of how to live, or an idea that points toward moral living that we can subscribe to, but in fact, Jesus is a living person who blows up the status quo, who is unafraid to enter into every part of our life, and even the parts we think of as private. Like in our homes, and what we do with our money, and our digital life.
Jesus enters so deeply into our human experience that he even dies – that inevitable end we cringe to imagine or pretend isn’t real by distracting ourselves – and Jesus gives his life publicly, on a cross, by the side of the road for every passerby to see.
But God builds a bridge for Jesus to walk from this life to the next life where death has been robbed of its power, and where Jesus now lives to God forever.
And God promises that we too cross the river to the promised land God has prepared for a home.
But amazingly, this happens to us while we’re still in this life.
In Baptism God crosses the river and comes down toward us in baptism and gives us eternal life now.
And the gift of this new life with God is something we all share, so that for each of us, our life of faith can be personal but it can never be private.
This baptism gives us a new public identity in God that we share, and we say as much when we welcome a person to this life of baptism in the moments when they dry their heads off or someone dries their heads off for them:
“We welcome you into the body of Christ and into the mission we share. Join us in giving thanks and praise to God and bearing God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world.”
Christ’s mission is to the world and we’re all part of it together.
A few of my friends and I like to think of ourselves as music aficionados. I don’t know that we are but we like to think of ourselves this way. And being subscribers of the cardinal rather than the ordinal decade, we have been putting together lists of some of our favorite albums from the past decade.
One of mine is a record called Helplessness Blues from the Fleet Foxes.
While I don’t know what their theological affiliations are if any, the lyrics to one of their songs gets at this sense of the unity and togetherness we share in our mission to witness to Jesus in a public way.
The lead singer intones:
I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes,
unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery
serving something beyond me
If I know only one thing, it’s that everything that I see
Of the world outside is so inconceivable often I barely can speak
Yeah I’m tongue-tied and dizzy and I can’t keep it to myself
Yeah I’m tongue-tied and dizzy and I can’t keep it to myself
Joined to God in baptism, we become wheels and gears and cogs in the great machinery of God’s love where we all share a part in the same function – touching one another, like gears, moving one another, dependent upon one another, intimately connected to one another, for the sake of serving the world in Christ’s name.
We know that not only the world God has made but God himself is so inconceivably good, and that while we do sometimes get tongue-tied, we can’t keep it to ourselves.
Like our Lord, we cross the river, because we’re called out of our comfort zones to witness with joy and to be Christ for this world.
So that if someone should happen to be new to our message or unfamiliar with us and if someone were to inquire of us, we might be ready with an answer.
“So what should I know about God?” They might ask.
May God grant us grace to tell how good the mercy of God is. And may God grant us the grace to tell how God choses to love us. How he chooses to forgive us. To come down to us. And how God is happy to enter into the mess and muck of our lives and the life of this world, and to bring the healing power that washes us clean.