Dec 29 2010

Bathed in God’s Grace

Read Matthew 3:13-17. Then imagine yourself in the
waters of the Jordan with Jesus at your side.

It was time for a bath. That’s what the prophet John was telling us. We were due for a bath not quite like any other. “He’s coming”, the Baptist said. “He’s coming soon. The One we’ve all been waiting for! Are you ready? It’s time to turn your life around, repent, wash off all that uncleanness. Do it now, or you’ll be up this river and there’ll be no paddle for you”.

It’s amazing, isn’t it, how when people get scared, that’s when we get religion! There were mobs of people at the river. Folks I hadn’t seen at worship in years. But I’ll tell you what, the folks in the pews with me, they were there, too! I had even picked Tuesday morning to go, because that’s when my people always go to the diner for breakfast, and I didn’t want them seeing me “having to repent”! Imagine our collective surprise.

It wouldn’t be fair to assume that it was just fear that was bringing us all there. John was an edgy character; he reminded me of what I had always pictured Jeremiah to look like. I was used to having clergy tell us to repent; but there was something more authentic about John. People even thought that maybe he was the Messiah, because of the authority he commanded. You could see that he lived what he was talking about. And underneath all our layers of covering, we’re looking for authenticity. We want something real. Something honest. Deep down, we want something that makes our lives different, even with our weddedness to routine.

Well, we were wading into the river water, and while John baptized the people in front of me I scrubbed furiously. Rubbing off the sin isn’t easy!

The Baptist beheld my raw skin and gave me a rueful look, then he thrust me under the water and shook me vigorously. When I finally came up I was gasping and coughing and sputtering. He pointed his finger, looked me in the eye and said, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance!” That’s the prophet’s way of saying, “Remember your baptism, and be thankful!”

Then Jesus was there. I didn’t realize it at first; neither did anyone but John. Jesus was just standing in the line with everybody else. The only thing that distinguished him at all was that when he spoke he had a Galilean accent. In Judea, someone with a Galilean accent often gets looked at like a hillbilly who wandered into a private party. But in the Jordan we were pretty much equal.

In retrospect, it was amazing. He waded into the river with the rest of us, among us, really. When it was his time, John argued with him, but Jesus insisted. He presented himself to be thrust into those same waters, muddy as they were with the grime of all our sins. He, too, came up gasping and sputtering. John didn’t tell him to bear fruits worthy of repentance, but Jesus got a talking to, nonetheless. Still standing in the water, Jesus looked upward. And it was as though the very heavens were opening. But not to take Jesus up. Instead, it was like the powerful love of God was coming down upon Jesus, the way a dove would descend from the sky, and resting on Jesus. And I could have sworn I heard a voice saying, “You’re my Son. I love you! I’m pleased with you.”

It all startled me. I was over near the shoreline, still scrubbing, worried that the bath might not “take”. But baptism is different than I thought; it is even different than John the Baptist thought. It is God’s grace that enables repentance, not the other way around. The grace of God lays us bare more than any need for a bath, but it’s a good thing. It lays bare our fragile beauty and God’s ever-creative promise. It is from God’s love that we come, to God’s love that we go, and within God’s love that we live. Immersion in such love doesn’t require a pre-scrub!

It wasn’t until much later, when I experienced Jesus calling me to be his disciple, that it dawned on me what it had meant to have him with me as we emerged together from those baptismal waters. Just as Jesus of Nazareth was being named “Son”, “Beloved”, and “God’s Pleasure”, I was being given the names “Child of God” and “Eternally Loved”, with the promise that my life in communion with God and with my brothers and sisters in God’s family was truly cause for Divine Pleasure!

I was being immersed in so much more than the chilly waters of the Jordan.

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