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The River’s Edge

Thomas J Parlette

“The River’s Edge”

Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22

1/10/16

 

The story is told about a wise old master who was growing old and infirm. His students begged him not to die. And the master said, “If I did not go, how would you ever see?”

The students were confused, and they asked, “What is it we fail to see when you are with us?”

But the master would not say.

When the moment of his death was near, they students asked again, “What is it we will see when you are gone?”

And with a twinkle in his eye, the master said, “All I did was sit on the riverbank handing out river water. After I’m gone, I trust you will notice the river.”(1)

This morning, we can’t help but notice the river. Today we come to the river’s edge to witness the baptism of Jesus. At first, the people come to the river to see John. A lot of people believed he might be the one – he might be the Messiah. But John was quick to point out “I’m not the one – there is one coming after me. I’m just handing out the water. But the one who is coming, he is the river, the source of life.”

This story of Jesus’ baptism is one that all four Gospel writers tell – but they all tell it a little differently. Matthew and Mark pretty much agree with each other. Jesus arrives at the river’s edge to be baptized by John. When he comes up out of the water, a dove descends and a voice says “This is my Son…” in Matthew; and “You are my Son…” in Mark. John’s way of telling the story is, of course, entirely different from the other Gospels. John doesn’t even allude to Jesus getting in the water at all and there is no voice from heaven – he has John the Baptist point at Jesus and identify him as the Lamb of God.

Luke is much closer to Mark and Matthew’s version, but he has his own unique way of telling the story. Luke has Jesus come to the river’s edge with a whole group of people. Jesus lines up with everyone else to be baptized. For some reason, I guess I’ve always had the picture in my mind of Jesus coming by himself to be baptized, and there’s this dramatic one on one moment with John in the river Jordan. But Luke puts Jesus in a crowd of people to get baptized like everybody else.

After the baptism, there is no voice from heaven as Jesus comes out of the water. That comes just a bit later. Jesus is on shore, praying, when the dove descends and the voice announces “You are my Son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

Luke’s way of telling the story of Jesus’ baptism highlights a couple of things for us. First, it reminds us of Jesus’ humility. In Luke, there is no grand entrance, there is no spotlight following Jesus to the river’s edge – he lines up with everybody else, just one of the crowd. He comes with humility, in obedience to God’s will.

St. Francis of Assisi had that same attitude of humility and obedience. In a story known as the Legend of Perugia, there is avery revealing example of Francis’s humble attitude. Hidden in a description of Francis’s practice of traveling and preaching in churches is the wonderful sentence, “he brought along a broom to clean the churches.”(2) A wonderful example of humility, he brought a broom to clean the churches where he preached.

Author F.B. Meyer uses another analogy to talk about humility. He says – “I used to think that God’s gifts were on shelves one above the other; and that the taller we grew in Christian character, the easier we could reach them. I now find that God’s gifts are on shelves one beneath the other. It’s not a question of growing taller, but of stooping lower. We have to do down, before we can go up.”(3)

In our advent study this year, we took a video tour of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, built on the spot where tradition holds that Jesus was born. It is one of the oldest Christian churches in the world. It has a very unique entrance. The door is only about 5 feet tall. You have to literally bow your head to enter the church. It’s said that is so to keep knights and other people from riding into the church on their horses. In order to come before God, you have to get off your high horse, so to speak, bow your head and humble yourself.

Humility as Jesus demonstrates, is an act of courageous obedience to the will of God. Jesus wasn’t baptized in order to be cleansed from sin, but to show humble obedience to God. Jesus was baptized as an example for us, to demonstrate who he was and to whom he belonged.

Along with his humility, we also see Jesus’ divinity in Luke’s baptism story. This is one of the few occasions that all three persons of the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – share the stage. Jesus the Son is obviously front and center, the one being baptized. Then the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove and the voice of God announces “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” In Jesus we see the character of God up close and personal.

In this story of Jesus’ baptism, we come to understand our own identity. Here at the river’s edge, we too hear God call us “beloved”. Here we learn that we are children of God. Here we learn that God is pleased with us and only wants the best for us. In baptism we are reminded that we belong to God.

And that identity, that knowledge of who we are and whose we are – it makes a claim on us. It makes a demand on us. We are called to live in humble obedience to the will of God. We are called to live differently, to approach life differently than the rest of the world.

Pastors Eddie Fox and George Morris once visited Bau Island, a small subset of the Fiji Islands. While there, the chief of Bau Island showed them a small Christian Church that housed a large stone with a small, bowl-shaped cleft in the top. According to the chief, this stone held a significant place in the ancient history of the people of the island. In ancient times, this stone was used to crush the heads of captives. It was a prominent weapon, a symbol of the violent culture of the island.

But once the message of Jesus reached the people of Bau Island, this rock was employed in a new way. It became a baptismal font, and the cleft that was once filled with blood was now filled with water for baptizing the heads of small children as they were brought into the family of God.

The people of Bau Island wisely concluded that, once they were baptized, their way of life needed to reflect that baptism. So it is with us. Our lives should reflect our baptism.(4)

In our baptism we are given our identity. We are now children of God. We are a part of the body of Christ. Our words and our actions should reflect that truth. Just as Christ humbled himself in obedience to the will of God, so we humble ourselves to live in obedience to God’s will that in all things people may see our good works and give thanks to God.

This is why each year during Epiphany we journey back to the rivers edge to re-live Christ’s baptism. We see here Christ’s humility and his divinity. And we are reminded of we are and whose we are. We are his body as work in the world today, reminding the world that it is loved. We are the children of God, and that is how we are called to live.

May it be so – for you and for me. Amen.

 

1.    Homiletics, Vol. 28, No. 1, p.22.

2.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXII, No. 1, p.13.

3.    Ibid… p.13.

4.    Ibid… p15-16.