Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17
Today is the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord. Our lesson from Matthew takes us to Jesus with John at Jordan River. One of my class trips when I attended St. Georges’ College in Jerusalem was to the place on the Jordan River where tradition says the baptism of Jesus took place. It was early in the course so I was still intently focused on the landscape and just how different it is from here. Part of that difference was the visible military presence throughout Israel.
On the bus ride, we passed military bunkers and lookouts at key intersections. Once we turned off the main highway, we had to cross through a military check point to reach the river. As we approached the Jordan, there were signs on the barbed wire fence that lined the road warning of the presence of land mines. We arrived at a park on the bank of the river and there were guards with combat helmets and assault rifles in and around the tourists – tourists, some of whom were wearing baptismal gowns, reading scriptures, and singing as people were being baptized.
The contrasting images were overwhelming. For me, the pictures I took of the guards in the foreground and the baptisms taking place in the background were among the most important pictures I took while in Israel. Jesus is called the Prince of Peace, and there, amidst the symbols of fear, and unrest, we were celebrating the one who brings us the strength to endure the chaos that exists today in our world. It is not unlike what the people of Israel were experiencing when Jesus came preaching peace.
The people of Israel were living under Roman oppression, and they wanted their independence. They were awaiting the coming of the Messiah, a descendant of King David, who would change their world.
It is important to recognize how Jesus did change the world. He did not do it, as the people of Israel hoped and expected. He did not pick up a sword and led them into battle. Jesus changed the world by preaching peace and compassion, by restoring sight to the blind, and by calming the fears of his disciples in stormy waters. Jesus changed the world with a love that brought peace to the souls of his disciples and enabled them to continue preaching the good news of Jesus Christ while enduring persecution.
In the midst of the chaos in our lives, the conflicts that still exist in the Middle East, and the struggles we are experiencing in our nation today – Jesus continues to offer us peace, peace in our souls, that we can experience when we have faith that God’s love will ultimate prevail. Jesus changes the world by changing people, by changing us and the way we see others.
Earthly kingdoms have come and gone, earthly leaders as well, but what Christ offers us will not die. Over two thousand years have past since Jesus was baptized and began his ministry and people around the world are celebrating his baptism today.
Matthew’s account of Jesus being baptized says of his baptism:
And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Today we not only celebrate the Spirit of God descending onto Jesus, we celebrate our own baptisms in which we were “sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.”
At the site where my class gathered to remember the baptism of our Lord, there were other groups like ours, who had also traveled from all parts of the world to do so. Like all good tourism parks, there was a souvenir shop selling baptismal gowns and bottles for us to take water from the Jordon home with us. There was also a shelter to protect us from the sun, a large deck with multiple areas for groups to gather and even steps with handrails to make getting into the water easy. On the gable of the shelter at the Jordan River is a dove. A dove is the symbol of the Holy Spirit, and it is a symbol for Peace.
So much of what I saw that day reminded me just how divided humanity is. The groups at the river were speaking many different languages and the river itself serves as a border separating Israel from Jordan. Across the river in Jordan was a church with its own covered deck and stairs leading into the river. The military was there to keep people from crossing from Jorden into Israel, and though I could not see them, I am certain there were soldiers on the other side of the river to prevent us from crossing the river into their country. Yet, in the midst of such obvious division, people were being baptized and celebrating the Prince of Peace.
Despite borders and threats of violence, people continue to seek the one who came to unite us that we might live in peace. Jesus did not bring the peace to the world – at least not a peace that ends all violence to our world. Yet, Christ does bring us peace. A peace that lives in our hearts and changes our lives. It is a peace that makes it possible for us to love our neighbors regardless of the campaign signs that may adorned their yards later this year or their position on the impeachment proceedings. It is a peace that comes from learning and knowing that we are all children of God. It is a peace that enables us to experience, and even embrace, hope.
Let us pray.