The queue of people snaked along the edge of the winding, muddy stream, up into the brush the lining its edges. At the banks, small trees leaned over the water, blocking the view from the paths that led through the wilderness. There were springs here, along the river, whose water gushed to join the snow-fed river. In the early spring morning, the warm air swirled above the water in white puffs of fog.
The people had come from all over the country to see the prophet, who sloshed around, commanding them, grabbing them by the head and plunging them under the killing cold waters. They were ordinary folk, most of them, but among them were the worst of the provincial riff-raff: common criminals, hookers, tax cheats, and more than usual number of drunks. There were few in fine dress, aside from the whores, and most of them looked only down at their feet, until it was finally their turn to wade into the muck and look into the eyes of the wild man who ate bugs and screamed crazy curses at the occasional righteous religious person who happened by. Hardly anyone spoke to each other, lost in dark memories of deeds that made them outcasts from Temple and synagogue. They looked liked bruised and broken reeds along the riverbanks, hunched over, dimly, desperately hoping to find hope when the prophet touched them.
Then suddenly, they were looking at him, and the universe itself melted away. His eyes were aflame with a hot blue light that burned deep within their soul. It was if he knew them, knew what they had done, who they had done it with, and how long before they would do it again. “Do you repent and turn to the Holy One to be saved?” And they, one by one, would nod, and the prophet would smile, and grab their hair and push them, sputtering and panicking under the brown water. And when they came up, it was if their heart was suddenly white within them, and their soul as clean as wedding linen.
Taking his turn quietly among them was a man in a fine, seamless gown. His presence was so quiet and strong, and his appearance so different from theirs that those who glanced at him looked at each other, an eyebrow raised, a silent question forming on their lips: “What is he doing here?” But, then they shrugged and turned away, waiting for their moment with the prophet. Even men in fine, seamless gowns had hearts colored black with sin.
When he stepped into the water, the prophet looked up towards the shore, blinking for a moment in disbelief. His jaw went slack, his eyes lost their fire, and he stood, water dripping off his long, curly beard. He seemed to have lost all his prophetic fervor, speaking what everyone else held within.
“What are you doing here?”
All the days of the river seemed to flow towards them at that moment: the ancient tribesmen, carrying the golden Ark of the Covenant, while the river dried up suddenly around them; the long-lost altar built by the offspring of Manasseh as a promise between them and their relatives to never again learn war any more; the days when the water ran red with the blood of the Ephraimites murdered by Jephthah; the day when a Syrian general had his leprosy washed away; the day that Elisha’s axehead floated down the stream, bouncing on the rocks. This water was filled with so many stories of their people, since the days before you could even count the days, before they were even a people in any sense of the word.
The prophet remembered his mother’s words about the man in the fine seamless garment and their long ago childhood, when they had played in the dusty streets of their village. Watch your cousin, she told him, God is in this one. But, when the prophet had gone off to study with the desert mystics, the man in the fine seamless garment had settled into his father’s woodworking shop. When the prophet was studying the ancient scrolls, he was busy learning how to work a lathe, a plane, a chisel, an awl. They had chosen different paths, and now they stood face to face, Jordan’s cold spring waters swirling around them.
“I’ve come to be baptized,” the man in the fine seamless gown said softly.
This was horrible, thought the prophet. His cousin the carpenter was a good man, who kept the law, and kept to himself, caring for his aging mother and his brothers and sisters in the house their father had built. The prophet could not believe that his cousin had done anything that demanded that he be submerged in the river of repentance. No, he thought, I’ve misunderstood. And he took his cousin’s hands.
“I’m the one who needs to be baptized by you. Here, just—’’
His cousin touched his arm with a gentleness he hadn’t known since his mother caressed him. “It’s all right. Let’s just do this. It’s to fulfill all righteousness.”
All righteousness. All goodness. All mercy. All grace. The prophet shook his head. Then he took his cousin in the same way he took every sinner that had ever come to him, every sinner that would ever slip away in search of peace. He took him and pushed him down under the water, and nothing in all the world would ever be the same. The prophet held his breath as his cousin stayed down and then stood up, eyes aflame as his were.
The cloud that hovered above seemed to split and the prophet heard a voice that rose within him, that rose around him, that shook the rocks and bent the trees, that forced the breath out of his lungs as surely as if he himself were being held under the water by strong, invisible hands: “This is my Son, my beloved, listen to him.”
And all the prophet could hear was his own heart, beating like the world was ending. His cousin nodded his head in thanks and walked silently towards the riverbank. The people on the shore still stood in the line, shifting from one foot to another, the long line going back, back towards the desert that lay past the swampy lowlands. None of them had heard anything. None of them felt like the prophet did. But he didn’t call out to the next one in line.
The prophet watched his cousin step out onto the shore, his fine, seamless garment clinging to his body, muddy now with Jordan’s history. His cousin didn’t look back as he walked towards the desert. Finally, the next person in line stepped towards him through the water.
Well, what are we doing here? What does happen in baptism, that sacred bath of water, sin and repentance? What could possibly happen when someone is plunged beneath a flowing stream, or washed with warm water from silver cruet? What can you hear, other than the quick, deep inhaling of the baptized as the water runs off their heads? There are no clouds overhead, no white doves alighting, no heavenly voices. What does happen in baptism, other than some ancient cleansing ritual, whose meaning is long lost to a world that believes God is not there or never really was, and that prophets are best avoided, especially when you’ve set out the silver and invited over the neighbors to look at the photos over mimosas and coffee cake? Isn’t this all just a leftover relic of ancient superstition, like an amulet of garlic to ward off vampires?
But baptism is an epiphany, a light shining in the darkness, if you have eyes to see and ears to hear. It’s an “aha” moment that can split the clouds of our unknowing wide open into a sudden, crystalline awareness of who we are and what we must do next, if we’ll only listen to Jesus. It’s why Simon Peter, stuttering in an Italian soldier’s home, says, “Now I truly understand.”
Understanding flows from the baptismal waters. Understanding that the Gospel is not some flashing religious billboard, promising safety, health and riches, but a call to action, a revolutionary war cry, a gut-shaking, bone-shattering order from within the very fiber that holds together the universe: Listen to Jesus.
Peter sees Cornelius and his family get baptized, watches them dance and sing and praise God in strange and ecstatic hymns, and he understands that Jesus did not come to save the children of Israel—he came to save a world. He understands that when Jesus went about doing good, healing the sick, cleansing the lepers, restoring the sanity of the mad, and getting nailed to tree for the things he said, it all started with his baptism. As it all starts with each of us at baptism.
Just like the people who stood along the Jordan and never heard a thing when John’s soul was jumbled by Jehovah’s voice, we can watch a baptism and never see what happens. We can recite the promises to uphold the newly baptized without ever really meaning it. We can vow to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers and then leave here to be first line at the Lizard’s Thicket and sleep in the next six Sundays. We can vow to persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord, then walk right by a bruised, wandering homeless person on the way to the mall. We can proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ until we’ve reduced it to a cross-spangled version of the Rotary Club’s Four-Way Test. We can seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves, as long as they live behind the gates of our community, and have memberships at our golf club. We can strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being as long as they aren’t gay or lesbian, Muslim or immigrants without papers. We can go right out of here today, never giving another thought to what will happen here in a few minutes, when a tiny infant will be washed in holy water and ordained a priest, a king, a co-regent with Christ.
Because all that we are, and all that we hope to be, is found in the water of the baptismal font: fighters for justice, clothed in the righteousness of the man in the fine seamless garment, seeking Jesus in everyone who comes our way.
Today is not just the First Sunday after the Epiphany, it is also the day we honor the memory and service of the great English dissenter, George Fox. Fox founded the Society of Friends, which we know as the Quakers, in the midst of the great English civil war. Fox watched as Anglicans murdered Puritans and Puritans hanged Catholics and the enormity of it left him in despair. But like John in the River Jordan, George Fox listened to Jesus. And in Jesus’ words, he heard God’s voice within and about him, assuring him that the light of Christ burned in every human heart, and that the Gospel would set free an entire world, including a Church lost in its own religious smugness. He was imprisoned by Cromwell as a suspected monarchist and by Charles II as a suspected radical, but his faithful search for and service to Christ in all persons finally resulted in the Act of Toleration, when the Church of England relented from persecuting Christians who believed a little differently. He reformed Anglicanism though he wasn’t even an Anglican, because you couldn’t look at George Fox without seeing Jesus. Bishops, kings, and baldheaded radicals finally understood what Jesus meant, because one man, listening to Jesus, showed them how.
When little Joe Graves gets washed in the blood of the Lamb this morning, you can understand too. You can listen to Jesus. Then, and only then can you can leave here, washed like Joe, washed like Cornelius, washed like blessed George, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—He Who is Lord of all. Amen.