Rev. Kristin Philipson, Baptism of Jesus
I want you to picture yourself out walking along a trail – perhaps you’re out in Algonquin park, walking through sugar maple trees, or maybe your path takes your through the middle of a Vancouver Island rainforest, the ground all ferns and the sky almost blocked out by thick-trunked cedars. Now picture a rapidly bubbling river, wide across and raging and it’s cutting right through your path. There is no way around it – and you cannot turn back – and the only way through, as far as you can tell, are some slippery-looking rocks that poke through the careening water at random intervals, just far enough apart to raise the question: can you actually navigate this?
Perhaps you’d try to find some tools to help yourself across; a stick, maybe, or your own ingenuity – perhaps you’d try to engineer some kind of bridge? And yet, it is the proposition of our faith that words can also help us as we attempt to navigate the tumultuous. In the face of an expanse of water, for example, when our path is suddenly intersected, and we do not know exactly how we will get to the other side, our faith would proclaim the power of words to help. If you can believe it, in those moments when we are standing at the edge, wondering exactly how to proceed, wondering if it is even possible to make it through what lies ahead of us, our faith gives us ink on paper; these pretty words: “I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.” As we stand, surveying all that we have to navigate – how deep and how wide and how turbulent – our faith would hand us a crumpled and worn little piece of paper on which it has scrawled a few words of inspiration, and asks us to believe them.
The Jordan river is many things: sometimes deeply blue and sometimes mud-coloured; sometimes fast moving and full and other times little more than a trickle – but one thing it is definitely not is close to Nazareth, if one is on foot. It would have taken Jesus a minimum of three full days of walking to get to the Jordan River from his hometown and likely almost a week to walk to “Al Maghtas,” the Arabic phrase for “baptism” and the name of the traditional site of his own immersion, which means that his trek to the Jordan River was completely intentional: there is no way he could have stumbled upon it if he was just out for a walk in his neighbourhood. And so, I have to wonder: what compelled him to make the trek? When the American writer, Cheryl Strayed, undertook her 1000-mile trek from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon and all the way to Washington state along what is known as the Pacific Crest Trail she was propelled by a burning personal question: How exactly do I navigate this? On one level the story she wrote was about navigating the vast expanse in front of her, the miles and miles of trail, but that expanse was also a symbol of her grief, another kind of unknown and forbidding territory that she was forced to navigate after the unexpected death of her mother. “I had to find my way out of the woods,” she writes in her memoir, “Wild.”
There is no indication in any of the gospels as to why Jesus decided to travel so far from his hometown in order to be baptized, but I wonder if he wasn’t likewise propelled by some burning personal question. The Jordan river wasn’t just any old river in the consciousness of the people of Israel; it was the site of testimony to the truth and the power of words – it is the setting for all kinds of stories about God’s healing and God’s presence. Jesus would have heard the stories – listened to the same words – again and again as he was growing up. “Get ready to cross the Jordan River,” God says to as the people of Israel are finally about to enter the Promised Land; “I will be with you; I will never leave you or forsake you,” God says to them (Joshua 1:2,5). “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed,” the prophet, Elijah, advises Naaman, the great commander of the Aramean army who comes to him seeking healing for his leprosy. “So [Naaman] went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times…and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy,” or so the story goes (2 Ki 5:14).
People had always told Jesus that God’s Spirit was strong in him; he was the boy who sought refuge in the Temple when he got lost and he was the baby who moved the old people to say, “I can now die in peace,” God, for “my eves have seen your salvation” (Lk 2:30-31) – of course, growing up, Jesus would have heard all those stories too, and so I wonder if a deep and personal question weighed on him, nagged at him, pestered him: Do all these stories – do all these words – have any actual substance? Can I actually believe them? “When you pass through these waters, I will be with you,” Jesus read in the Book of Isaiah and he knew his history, he knew those words were written to the people of Israel when they’d been exiled in Babylon. “But what about now,” Jesus wants to know. “Are these just pretty words or can I believe them? Can I bet my life on them? As I navigate these waters will you be with me, God?” he wonders. And he wasn’t the only one; whole crowds had gathered at the edge of the Jordan River, all “filled with expectation, and all…questioning in their hearts” (Lk 3:15): Can we really believe, God, that you are with us, when we pass through these waters, as we navigate this river? Or are all the pretty words of our faith just ink on paper, and nothing more?
We were trying to guess last week how many people make the deliberate journey to this sanctuary over the course of a year. We never arrived at an exact number, but when you factor in weekly services, hundreds at funerals, hundreds more at Christmas and Easter the number must reach into the thousands. The people who come into this sanctuary will often pause at the edge of the aisle and look up and around at all the stained glass just as though they were one in the crowds that had flocked to the Jordan River to stand at its threshold, all filled with expectation and all questioning in their hearts. “What can we believe? What can we hold on to? All the pretty words you’re about to read, are they just ink on paper? Or can I believe that in them is something more?”
Substance matters. Substance gives us something to hold on to; substance steadies and supports. Substance matters, because it will certainly happen to us, as we walk along life’s paths that all of a sudden we’ll round a bend to meet an unforeseen circumstance, of which we had no warning, and from which there is no turning back – a river, of sorts – a wide expanse which we are terrified to navigate, or at least uncertain of our way through. It’s happened to me. All that we can see are some slippery-looking rocks that poke through the careening waters just far enough apart to make us question whether we can actually get across. These rivers that unexpectedly cut through our path have all kinds of different names – some are called grief and loss, some are called illness, some are called regret, some are called change – but all of them blindside us. Some of the rivers that cross our path might actually be thrilling to wade into, though still difficult to navigate, those rivers called opportunity and possibility and something new. I wouldn’t be surprised if each one of us who has made the journey into this sanctuary this morning has brought along some expanse that we are trying to navigate. We are looking for something to help to us get across, but it needs to have substance; we must be able to hold on to it.
It was just as Jesus stepped into the waters that the heavens were opened. He stepped in filled with expectations and questions; he stepped in with trepidation and nerves, the first rock on which he tried to balance wobbled under his weight, and all the while there was this roaring in his heart: can I believe that God is with me, that in our words there is something more? The water was cold, and the fabric of his garment stuck to his calves and his thighs, but he took a breath and walked in deeper. He felt the pressure of John’s hands on his head and he let the waters engulf him completely. “Can I believe?” he prayed. And as the air and the sun hit his face again, he kept his eyes closed for a moment and when they opened so were the heavens and above him a dove circled, soaring, and a voice filled every cavern of his body: “I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.” In that instant all those pretty words Jesus had stored up in his memory became more than words. In that instant he sees the God behind the words, the Divine that inspires them, our God, who sees and hears and who stands with us and walks alongside us – a God we can hold on to, a God who strengthens us and directs us as we navigate the rivers of life.
Well, that’s all good for Jesus, you might be thinking, but what about me and what about us? When will the heavens open here? When will all our pretty words become more than just words? The privilege of being a minister is that we get a front row seat at all of your river crossings – sometimes we’re standing right there with you as your path is suddenly intersected. So, I can tell you with some authority that it’s already happened – I’ve seen God’s word take on substance, God’s word become flesh – it’s happening right now, and it will happen again. And you’ve come to us and you’ve told us how God has been present to you. One of you wrote these words, when I asked for them: “at the most painful times in my life, when I allowed myself to really go through the pain – all the difficult feelings associated with hard, life-changing events – I came out the other side knowing that I was held and loved by the Divine throughout.” We toss out these wild phrases at church like moving from “death to life,” and “lost to found” and “broken to whole” and “oppressed to free” and we’re not talking in the abstract. We’ve witnessed it – not out there – but right here, in you. And you’ve witnessed the same in us, in me.
I didn’t think it could happen twice in one year, but it did. I thought having one miscarriage meant I’d paid my cosmic dues to the universe and that I couldn’t possibly suffer from another, but less than a year later I gave birth to a stillborn baby girl at 20 weeks gestation. I had just been walking along my path when it was suddenly intersected and I’d managed to cross that first river only to find there was another, even bigger, expanse to cross. It was the first time I’d really, truly, found myself asking if I could believe all the glorious words our faith proclaims; the first time I’d really wondered if I could safely navigate a rough passage and whether there was any God around to help me through. I was paralyzed by the silliest things. I remember bursting into tears on the phone with my sister-in-law because I needed to make dinner, and there was nothing in the fridge, but I couldn’t remember all the steps I needed to take to get to the grocery store. Do you think tonight might be a night for takeout, she said? I was given time off from my ministry here, but when Sunday rolled around, I make the trek to this sanctuary anyway. I remember I came in and sat in the back pew, filled with expectation, questioning in my heart: as I pass through this river, God, these waters, can I believe that you are with me?
You have likely forgotten but all of you who had similarly lost babies came up and shared your own stories. It was like you were saying, “see that first rock there, put your foot right there.” The whole Christian Development committee brought over meals as if to say, “steady now, get your balance.” At several points in the crossing I slipped and soaked my whole boot right up to my ankle, but then I’d get an email or a phone call or someone would seek me out at coffee hour – “I’ve been there,” you said, “here’s how to get back on your path.” And gradually, it happened, the heavens were opened; I felt that God saw, and I knew that God heard, and I witnessed God send God’s spirit in bodily form – not as a dove – but as the people of Rosedale United Church. It was through your voices that God’s voice echoed in every cavern of my body: “I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.”
It will happen as we are out walking life’s paths that we will round a bend to find the route we have been walking suddenly intersected. But God has promised to navigate the crossings with us. When we pass through the waters, God is there. God is here. God is with us. We have God’s word.