Down by the Riverside

Matthew 3:13-17

It had been a long bus ride. We were near the end of our day of pilgrimage. The bus pulled off the road and tried to go down a dirt road. We asked, “where we going?”

“The Jordan” the tour guide replied. She continued, “Oh, I could take you to the tourist trap… nowhere near where Jesus would have been. But this place is a little out of the way.” Our pilgrimage coordinator wanted to end the day with a remembrance of Baptismal vows.

Soon the coach stopped and started backing up. Tour tour guided added that it was too difficult to get to the “local place” she wanted to take us. We got back on the road and soon turned off the road again, stopping in a park. There were trees, dirt, and a deep, fast-running river nearby, so I assumed it was a park. But I didn’t see park benches or picnic tables.

What I did see was the floating pontoon bridges that tanks use to cross rivers where bridges have been blown up. The guide said they were left over from a prior conflict, stationed nearby, hidden from the trees, in case they were ever needed again.IMG_0837

And so it was there, among the trees, evidence of war, and a fast-moving river, too deep and too dangerous to wade into, that we had a service of remembrance of vows.

We even had to hold someones hand as they leaned over the edge of the riverbank to dip an empty, used water bottle as our vessel.

I didn’t think too much of that service of remembrance that day. To be honest I would have rather on the day been at the tourist trap. And it was because I was angry about the floating bridges for trucks and tanks. But now I’m glad we were there. Life is not a tourist attract.

Life is messy. Life has abandoned parts. Life has turbulent parts. And all of that is in the middle of God’s beautiful creation.

One of my favorite things to do in a life of ministry is to baptize children. It is a lovely service and its full of hope. But in the way we usually perform baptisms… that sweet moment when a child becomes part of the family of God… we miss something that our Baptist sisters and brothers have retained: that in plunging into the waters and raising back up, we are dying to an old way of being and raising to a new way of seeing and being in the world.

Part of that new way of life is engaging the world. But there’s this rhetoric out there that this new life is:

  • easy street, or
  • burying our  head in the sand

Neither is true.

For the first, we are called to discipleship and a large part of that discipleship involves our finances. This is not that money comes easy or there won’t be any hardship. This past week when I, like many of you, saw our giving statements, I stopped for a second… for a brief second… and thought, “Hmm. If I tithed to my student loan, I’d be debt free in 4 years.” Sometimes radical love means putting something besides your own bottom line first.

Followers of Jesus don’t sit in a room praying, hoping for Jesus to come back. We engage in addressing the hurt and sufferings of the world. This past week when folks in this congregation called our home bound folk to make sure all was well before and during the cold spell, we were serving. When we opened the warming station for the time when the homeless folk in our neighborhood didn’t have a place to go, we provided warm drinks, shelter, games, reading, and dancing!

But what is it about our baptism and our faith that forms us to do such a thing, rather than sit in our warm homes, drinking hot chocolate, waiting on school and work to be cancelled?

Because Jesus, in beginning his ministry, chose to begin with submitting to John’s baptism. He didn’t need forgiveness of sins. He didn’t need to turn life around. But he was beginning a new journey. He chose to begin new journey at the Jordan.

Because of this, he is not going to ever ask of us something he hasn’t done. But more importantly, he began ministry among the people who felt they needed a new start and repentance, who felt not worthy. So Jesus’ ministry is not just to us its with us. He journey’s with us.

We get this in culture: the president, though his healthcare is provided by the Air Force signed up with gov as a symbol to say “I am with you.”

[Update: a friend gave me a good tip on another leader who has done something symbolically to express solidarity. Dr. Robert Bentley not taking a salary until Alabama’s unemployment rate gets to 5.2%. Thanks, Heather! Wish I had this for the sermon delivery.]

We need “I am with you moments.” My daughter loves the beach. At the same time, she’s afraid of water. And that’s okay. There’s something about the water that can be refreshing but there’s also something in the water that foreboding: tides and currents, we don’t readily see what’s swimming out there (jellyfish, anyone? Hammerhead sharks?). We are not anxious in life for no good reason, usually.

Whenever we have anxious moments, we need someone with us, someone who’s been there, someone who knows the way forward. For my child that meant me or her mother. For us in our lives, many times that’s a friend, a family member a loved one. It could even be a member of this congregation. And that helps many times.

But sometimes we need to remember that Jesus is near, too. And we need to remember that, especially when no one is around.

It’s comforting but it’s also a reminder that we’re not doing anything novel. Jesus has gone before and Jesus still travels with. He says, “I am with you.”

After all, that’s the story of Christmas, right… radical identification with something most precious… and that most precious thing is you.

So when you find yourself near the deep, fast-moving waters of life or you find yourself surrounded by reminds of conflict and maybe even war, when even find yourself alone and you think no one is around. Remember, your baptism. And be thankful. More importantly, remember Jesus’ baptism. And be thankful. You’re not alone.