Into the Muddy Waters

+ A sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord (Year C) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on January 9, 2022 +

Text: Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22


It just so happens that five years ago today, I was fortunate enough to visit the traditional site of Jesus’ Baptism.
It was my senior year of seminary, and I was on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
I remember that day so clearly—when I stood on the banks of the Jordan River, I looked around and took in what surrounded me.
There were throngs of people shuffling off tour busses and waiting their turn to get to the water.
There were beautiful churches from different denominations welcoming worshipers to remember Christ’s baptism.
There were merchants selling all sorts of snacks and souvenirs, like this bottle I bought at a wild markup to hold a bit of the water from the river.
And, since the river is also the border between Israel and Jordan, I remember the soldiers armed with automatic weapons who stood guard on both banks looming over it all.
As I made my way down to the river access, I distinctly remember how muddy the water was.
But even so, pilgrims from around the world were flocking to touch, wade in, even fully immerse themselves in the waters of the Jordan.
It was loud, it was chaotic, it was crowded.

So, in some ways, perhaps it was not all that different than it would have looked when John the Baptist was doing his work two millennia ago.
Sure, there were no tour busses or magnificent churches back then, but the energy may have been similar.
The crowds streaming down from Jerusalem and the surrounding regions to hear this fiery preaching and be baptized.
The merchants selling their wares to scratch out a living.
The soldiers from King Herod and Pontius Pilate who were probably keeping an eye on what this John was doing, trying to see whether he was a threat.
The mass of people that gathered were coming from all walks of life: rich and poor, young and old, tax collectors and soldiers and laborers.
And there among that throng of people clamoring to get in the river, we find Jesus.
Jesus listening to John’s prophetic word.
Jesus wading into the muddy water.
Jesus waiting his turn before he too is baptized by John.

Now, we may wonder why Jesus of all people needed to be baptized—especially with John’s baptism of repentance—and I doubt we will ever find a suitable answer in this life.
But today, rather than focusing on why Jesus was baptized, my mind is caught on the crowd Jesus was baptized with.
Why had they come?
What had they heard about this John?
What were they bringing with them?
What pains did they experience living under imperial oppression?
What fears did they have for what the future may hold?
What hopes did they harbor as they looked for a better tomorrow?
Perhaps they gathered at the Jordan seeking good news and a new start.
Perhaps they flocked to those muddy waters to be washed clean.
Perhaps they came to be closer to God.

Whatever has brought them, there they are.
A crowd of ordinary people waiting at the water’s edge with all the brokenness and beauty of what it means to be human.
And there among them, we find Jesus—God with us.
God as one of us.
Closer than they could have imagined.
Standing with them in the muckiness of life.
The incarnation of good news and new beginnings.
An embodiment of the promise we hear from the Prophet Isaiah that God is with the people.

It’s a promise made long ago to the ancestors of many of those standing on the Jordan’s edge, to a people living in exile under the oppression of another foreign power.
To a people who feel cut off from all that made them who they were—their land, their community, their history, their God.
A people who did not know what tomorrow may bring and were probably too afraid to ask because they couldn’t see the possibility of a bright future ahead of them.
It’s to this people that the Prophet Isaiah declares a word of hope, a message that God has called them and claimed them.
That God will bring them out of exile and into a new future.

Now, God does not promise that nothing bad will happen.
God doesn’t promise magical protection or a life free from pain.
But God promises that whatever happens, whether fires or rough waters, perilous journeys or an uncertain future, pains or despair or whatever it may be, the people need not fear, because God is with them, God loves them, and God will lead them home.

So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that it is there, standing in solidarity with his people on the banks of the Jordan, that Jesus’ true identity is revealed.
It is there that he takes his first steps into public ministry, wading into the same mucky water that is bubbling with promise and possibility.
It is there that the heavens are opened and the Holy Spirit descends and the voice of God proclaims, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Because that’s exactly what our God has promised to do.
To be with us in our hopes and our fears and our pains.
To bring us into God’s beloved community.
To inextricably bind Godself with all humanity.
Ours is not a God who watches from a distance nor a God who will magically fix everything, ours is a God whose fullness is found standing with us in all of our brokenness to lead us into the fullness of life God intends for all people.
Ours is a God who comes among us, as one of us, to assure us that we are claimed, that we are loved, and that we are never alone.

In these days I know all too well how easy it is to wonder where our God is.
As case counts skyrocket.
As we battle illness or failing bodies.
As our siblings sleep on the streets.
As we experience brokenness in our society, in our families, in our inner selves.
We may wonder where our God is as we ourselves look into an uncertain future, hesitant to even wonder what tomorrow might bring.
But just as he stood among the people at the Jordan so long ago, we trust that we can experience Christ’s presence among us now.
Here with us as we wait in line for a COVID test.
Here with us in the hospital waiting room and here with us as we heal.
Here with us as we work to provide shelter and with those who have none.
Here with us to mend divisions, to bind up brokenness, and to bring all people into the fullness of God’s loving embrace.
Here with us to proclaim, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine,” not because of anything we have done to earn God’s presence or assurance any more than it was earned by the people living in exile or the people listening to John the Baptist, but because that’s who God is.
A God who stands with us forever so we can experience the fullness of God.

On this day when we celebrate the baptism of our Lord Jesus, we also remember our own baptisms.
We give thanks for that moment in our lives God spoke to each one of us declaring, “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.”
When the heavens were torn open and the Holy Spirit descended upon us, equipping us to bear God into the world even as we seek its renewal.
But to embrace our baptism is also to embrace the core of what Christ’s baptism tells us about our God—that we have been intrinsically bound to all humanity.
That all people are connected, interdependent, united as one.
And just as Jesus stands in solidarity with us through our baptisms, we are called to stand in solidarity with one another.
And not just with those of us gathered together in this congregation, but with all our siblings.
All of God’s beloved children who are carrying the pains and fears of this life even as they dare to hope that the fullness of God’s promises might be for them too.
Baptism calls us to wade into the murky waters of what it means to be human and unite our efforts with all the baptized to bring about the fullness of God’s beloved community.

That is why, in our baptismal waters, we make certain vows, or they are made on our behalf.
Vows to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.
Vows to support and pray for one another in our life in Christ as we do this work together.
It’s a covenant we made with God and with each other in those waters that claimed us that we would use our lives to make God’s presence among us known through life and actions.
To step into the muddy waters, to wade into connection with each other, to be Christ’s healing presence in a broken world so all people can experience the fullness of God.
Today we will renew that covenant, not out of obligation, not because we will try to earn God’s love, but because we have experienced Christ among us, how even in the murkiest most painful parts of our lives, we can be assured of God’s healing love—and we want to share that love with everyone we meet.

Jesus stood on the water’s edge all those years ago, willing to immerse himself in the fullness of what it means to be human—the pains, the fears, the brokenness—so we can experience the fullness of hope of his presence among us.
So we might listen to the voice that calls out to each of us in our baptismal waters that claims us as God’s own.
That even the muddiest waters and the most perilous tomorrow, we can hear God’s words again and be assured of who we are and whose we are:
God’s chosen.
God’s children.
God’s own.

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