How quickly they disappear—the greens, the wreaths, the poinsettias. Gone. Another Christmas comes and goes. For some it was sad and lonely. For others it was bright, joyous, even unforgettable—and yet all too short lived. Now in one short step a new year has begun. In the congregations of the Diocese of South Carolina we step liturgically into a new season as well. Into the season after The Epiphany and with it from Jesus’ birth to his baptism; we step out of the stable of Bethlehem into the muddy waters of the Jordan. As the old spiritual puts it, “The River Jordan is muddy and cold. It chills the body but not the soul. All my trials, Lord, will soon be over.” This speaks of a crossing over. Life is filled with many crossings and changes and in the midst of them it is good to remember the great truths such as—“Jesus is the same, yesterday, today, and forever.” The cultural trappings of the Christmas season pass and in their place the waters of the Jordan flow and the Lamb of God comes to river bank for the Baptism of John.
This is important for us because the crossings and changes of life are like the poor – they are always with us. Some years ago, Edgar Jackson in his book The Psychology of Preaching reported on a questionnaire given to some 4,000 churchgoers noting what they wanted from their pastor’s sermons. Only one-fourth were concerned with traditional religious problems, one-fourth concerned with family problems, but the other half were concerned with intensely personal matters—the futility of life, insecurity in personal relationships, loneliness, marital problems, control of sexual desires, the effects of alcohol, false ideas of religion and morals, feelings of inferiority, the problems of illness and suffering, and feelings of guilt and frustration. This of course raises the question of whether God cares. Does He get involved with such messy things of life? And do our congregations engage them?
Sometimes it’s not easy to get involved. Take for instance the tragic story of 7-year-old Martin Turgeon who on June 5, 1978 slipped from a wharf and fell into the Prairie River near Calgary. A dozen people did nothing but watch him struggle and then slip under the water and drowned. Why? It seems a short distance upstream-untreated raw sewage was belching from a pipe into the river. One witness commented, “We weren’t about to get into the river, the water was too dirty.” A policeman who came on the scene later was reported as saying, “It makes you wonder how human people really are. The boy probably could have been saved.” No, as Dr. David Seamands observes it isn’t always easy, much less convenient to get involved. Yet, liturgically speaking, when the One born in Bethlehem in a matter of days steps from the stable to the Jordan a great truth is proclaimed for this baptism of John’s was a baptism of repentance for individual sinfulness. So why did a supposedly sinless Jesus step into the Jordan? As the former pope, Benedict XVI, writes, “Jesus loaded the burdens of all mankind’s guilt upon his shoulders; he bore it down into the depths of the Jordan. He inaugurated his public activity by stepping into the place of sinners.” (Jesus of Nazareth: volume I) Well put. The raw sewage of human guilt, shame and sin did not keep him from saying Yes to God’s will nor keep him from his yoke of obedience to the Father even though this would lead him to the cross.
The river of this baptism waters the Tree of Shame rebuking our tendency to make Christ someone who loves us… approaches us…delights in us only when our lives are together—when we seem full of faith and on top of our game—rather than the One who also enters our lives when our faith is dim, our devotional life haphazard, our homes in disarray, our marriages filled with more arguments than kisses, our sexual desires raging, our alcohol consumption awry, our perfectionisms defeating us, and our guilt and shame like concrete slabs on a drowning man’s feet. Too often we are like the staff nurse at the San Antonio Medical Center. She got into her car at the end of her shift and failing to fasten her seat belt drove from the parking garage and was immediately hit by a large delivery truck which knocked her out of her car. Though the hospital at which she worked was within eyesight, in her embarrassment she insisted the paramedics take her to another hospital’s emergency room. Ridiculous? Well consider this: the Christian leader, Fred Smith, once asked a group of active Christians what they would do if they suddenly were overtaken by an embarrassing sin on Saturday night, “Would they go to church the following Sunday?” “No!” answered most of them. “They’d be too embarrassed.” [I forget where I read this] No wonder the unbelieving world so often looks at the church as a museum for saints rather than a hospital for sinners. One wonders how we can possibly convince the unchurched struggler to join us on Sunday morning if we ourselves would shy away because of our sins, failures and problems.
Perhaps we all need to step again with the Church’s liturgy from the Stable to the Jordan–to the place of Jesus’ Baptism–where he identifies with us in the troubles and messes of our lives so that we may be identified with him in his righteousness. As the Apostle Paul proclaimed, “Christ was innocent of sin, and yet for our sake God made him one with the sinfulness of men so that in Christ we who repent might be one with the righteousness of God.” The greens, wreaths and poinsettias may have faded, the lights of the “Shopmas season” come down, the carols stopped for another year, but the muddy waters of the Jordan just keep on flowing, life’s crossings and changes continue, and the needs of the human heart remain pretty much the same from generation to generation–which is why the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. He, having shared the muddy waters of life’s Jordan with us, tied up the strong man (who holds us captive with so many conflicting powers) and came up from the waters with the heavens opened before him and the voice echoing the Father’s approval therein previewing not only his cross but his Easter Resurrection. And upon him then the Spirit descended. Why? So that those of us who enter the water after him may have this same hope of the Resurrection before us and the same Holy Spirit descend on us now so the universal mission of the Church may be fulfilled and we become his witnesses in our Jerusalems, Judeas, Samarias and even to ends of the earth.