LOOKING BEYOND THE JORDAN
Re. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church
January 13, 2019
Texts: Genesis 1:1-27; Luke 3:1-22
Below this sanctuary in the dirt-floored basement, there’s an old spigot. The water doesn’t flow anymore. It’s been shut off, but it was the source of the water of the old nineteenth-century baptismal pool used by this church. Having a spigot instead of having to haul water up from the old stream bed now dry was considered a real improvement. Before that, of course, that’s where Baptists were baptized––in the streams and in the rivers that once flowed through Middletown.
Baptismal fonts and pools are not new, of course, ex-isting as early as the third century, built around the site sup-posed to be that of the baptism in the Gospel. No one knows for sure where this event occurred, of course, but by Constan-tine’s time, there were pools around a site mentioned as five Roman miles north of the Dead Sea where the Wadi Kharrar flows into the Jordan. The pilgrim Theodosius was the first to mention a church at the Jordan River, which had been built at the end of the 5th century by the Emperor Anastasius to honor John the Baptist. Built on arcades and square in shape, the church had a marble column with an iron cross marking the spot where the people then thought that Jesus had been bap-tized. Several other church writers and pilgrims in the 5th through 7th centuries mentioned churches in the lower Jordan River–Bethany region marking Jesus’ baptism and another nearby chapel marking the spot where Jesus' clothes were kept while he was being baptized.
The Jordan also marked an international border from 1948 to 1967 dotted with thousands of land mines; after the 1994 peace treaty between Israel the area was finally cleared of mines and archaeologists were able to excavate Wadi Kharrar. Using some pre-1948 studies and the ancient pilgrim accounts as their guide, archaeologists quickly uncovered an astounding number of ancient sites, more than 24 at the last count. These include: five baptismal pools (shallow pools lined with plaster) from the Roman and Byzantine periods; a Byzan-tine monastery; 11 Byzantine churches (many with mosaics and Greek inscriptions); caves of monks and hermits; and lodgings for pilgrims. These findings have led most scholars to conclude that this is the biblical Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan, where John baptized Jesus.
With the influx of twenty-first-century pilgrims wanting to be baptized where Jesus was baptized, Israel opened the Qsar el Yahud site in 2011 on the occupied West Bank of the Jordan. Aggravated by Israel’s attempt to claim the site, worth about 300,000 pilgrims a year, Jordan called in archaeologists who disputed the claim of the Israeli site. UNESCO named Al Maghtas as the place and named it a World Heritage Site based on the archaeological evidence. Now the battle is over and pilgrims flock to Jordan instead of Israel. You can’t make this stuff up.
When you look around at these places called holy and see all the excavated sites, you can’t help but wonder: What was it like back then? Really like? Maybe a little like the West Bank today, living under a foreign occupation with this group and that, each vying for control, killing supposed enemies. What was it that happened that morning? What was it that Jesus experienced as he came out of the water having been baptized by John? The images are as old as the naked Jesus in the water in 6th century in Ravenna and as modern as the flashing colors of today.
The Gospel tells us that the Spirit of God came into him at that moment and that he emerged out of the water a man possessed by that very same Spirit. And when he left the Jordan he was a new man, a different man, for having been filled with the Spirit of God, Jesus was ready now to be God’s face in the world.
And as we progress through Luke’s Gospel we will see a Jesus who although fearful and uncertain from time to time will develop into the man who takes on the authorities of his day, religious and civil, the man who speaks the truth to power, who makes faith part of the public square, not in a narrow sense but expansively, offering God’s message of forgiveness and reconciliation to all.
For those of you who have not experienced full immer-sion in the Baptist tradition, the one thing I can tell you is that it can be terrifying. Maybe it wasn’t for others but it was for me. I was twelve and I hadn’t really realized the depth of the baptismal pool that existed in Central Baptist Church. Most of the problem was that because I did not know how to swim, the only thing I thought I had to do was to hold my breath underwater so I would not drown.
Then there were all the adults at the steps on the other end of the pool. Were they there to save us in case we started to drown? And I wasn’t so sure that old Rev. LeGates could pull me out of the water. As I was dunked, I began to struggle because I could feel the water coming up my nose even as I held my breath.
After a bunch of us were baptized, the old preacher went on to tell us that now we were truly saved. I remember wondering what that meant. But as he went on to tell us what we needed to do now that we were full Christians, I looked around at the congregation seeing all their smiling faces. They didn’t smile, of course, when two years later I said we could not deny Negroes––that was the term used in the 1950s––membership in our state Southern Baptist Convention. All precious in his sight didn’t mean equal to them.
Those early Christians baptized in the first three centuries realized that being baptized created certain respons-ibilities for them as I felt it did for me. They, of course, could suffer severe consequences as did the Baptists in England forcing them to flee to a new world. Looking beyond their symbolic Jordan, the early Christians fed the poor and cared for the homeless; our spiritual ancestors here in the New World stood steadfastly for religious freedom.
The Jordan is a symbol not only of new life but also of division as there is a struggle for water in a parched land. Ori-ginating in the Mount Hermon mountain ranges, the Jordan flows almost 139 miles before it discharges into the Dead Sea. The flow into Lake Tiberias, north of the Dead Sea, is largely in Jordanian territory, but as the Jordan flows further south. It is largely controlled by Israel which has diverted much of its water to feed its citrus industry.
As we look beyond our own Jordans, whether we were dunked or sprinkled, as Christians, we simply cannot take assurance that being in a church is the measure of our salva-tion, for lack of a better word. The church is not just a building confined by its four walls but an instrument for reaching out to the world. The church is a living organism just s the Jordan is a flowing river. Living beyond the Jordan means practicing our faith in a way that reflects the life of Jesus.
And how is it that we live a life Jesus called us to live after we have passed through our Jordans? The text tells us that the spirit of God descended on Jesus. From that point on Jesus was filled with God’s spirit, a spirit that enabled him to begin his ministry of healing and preaching.
What does it mean to be filled with the Spirit of God? For as we learn later Jesus is so filled and is led into the wilder-ness by the Spirit, a text we will address later in the year. We have all known people who were filled with what we would call the spirit. The spirit is not just a loud thunderous thing but can be a quiet quality in a life that enables a person to live out what Jesus called us to do.
When I think of people filled with the spirit, I think of the quiet spirit that lived in Alice Rounds and Renee Reid as well as the spirit that inhabited the lives of people like Martin Luther King or Eleanor Roosevelt. Being filled with the spirit doesn’t mean that we are without failings, but that we respond to the call.
Jesus himself and John who baptized him certainly had their failings, times at which they felt they just weren’t getting anywhere at all with their message to the people. We only have the text to work with but we will learn that when Jesus returns to Nazareth that he’s rejected. John, of course, earned the undying hatred of Herodias for criticizing her marriage to Herod. He ended up on the block.
Being filled with the spirit means looking beyond the Jordan into the rest of our lives as a church and a community. We have a tremendous opportunity here in Middletown and in Monmouth County. Looking beyond the Jordan meant appro-val by the Church Council to write the Governor and the ap-propriate state legislators about the systemic problems of homelessness, explaining that the current system of shifting people from church to church is not a solution, not even a short term one. Copies of the letter are available for you all.
Looking beyond the Jordan means we do not abandon our immediate tasks but make plans for long term ones. It means looking into the future, a future that we have the power to help determine. Fortunately, we are not living in a time when despots ruled. We do have the power to help shape the future of our world so we can enable the Kingdom of God Jesus preached.
Our baptism was not only the outward sign of a cove-nant we have made with God but it is a symbol of new life, which means a new approach to life. We are called to live full of the same Spirit as had Jesus. It is a spirit of hope. It is a spirit of expectation. It is a spirit of action, ready to speak God’s word to all.
Let us pray. Eternal God, fill us with your Spirit so that we may live beyond Jordan as did the One we call Lord. Amen.