"Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this." Rev. 1:17-19.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Into Chaos with Jesus

Epiphany 1, Year A

Baptism of our Lord

Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Children, I wonder if any of you have ever avoided bath-time? Have you dawdled around in your room, perhaps? Or begged your parents, “just let me beat this one level … ?” When I was a child, I would head into the bathroom and run the water—long and loudly, at full tilt—so that my mother would hear it coursing through the pipes in the house. I would splash around in it for a minute with my hands or kick at it with my feet, in case someone was listening at the door. I would certainly remember to wet the washrag and the soap. But I often spent my whole bath-time sitting cross-legged on the bathroom floor, fully clothed, reading a book. “Why should I actually get in the water?” I reasoned. “I’m not really dirty. I don’t smell. I’ve just been sitting at my desk at school all day. What I really need is to finish this chapter in my book! And this next chapter. And this next.”  I took really long “baths.” I don’t think my mother ever caught on.

          As I thought about baptism this week, it brought up for me this childhood image of bath-time. If my soul is really not feeling all that dirty, why should I bother with a washing that involves uncomfortable vulnerability and change? How involved do I really have to be with those heavy promises that we make in our baptismal covenant? It can be discouraging to resist evil over and over again. It’s hard work to see Christ in annoying people. It can be such a slog to be truly faithful in prayer. Can’t I just pretend to be dutifully scrubbing away at my smudges, when I’m really sitting cross-legged and comfy on the floor beside the tub?

          Let’s contrast for a moment the image of a child avoiding the bath with the image of Jesus at the Jordan River. I’ve seen the Jordan, and believe me, it doesn’t look like the outskirts of the Promised Land. Now, I know that there used to be more water in it in Jesus’ day, before human industry sucked it dry. But the Jordan is a brown, muddy little river, flanked by brown, muddy banks. Imagine scraggly John the Baptizer standing waist-deep in the brown, muddy water, waving his arms and shouting about sins like some revival preacher, while his unkempt hair and long beard flap in the breeze. Imagine dozens of down-and-out folks in shabby cloaks and worried faces milling around on the brown, muddy banks. It wasn’t the wealthy elite who were hanging out at the river with the prophet John. It wasn’t the powerful politicians, or the holy Temple priests, or the educated scribes. It was the poor and the distressed, the sick, the outcasts, the political radicals, the desperate ones, loaded down by their sins.

And into this motley crowd strides Jesus, the clean and sinless Son of God. He doesn’t hold back, watching safely from behind a palm tree. He doesn’t wait for the crowd to disperse in order to get a back-slapping private session with his Cousin John. He doesn’t avoid anything. He stands among the others on the brown, muddy banks and, in turn, hikes up his robes to be washed in the brown, muddy waters. His willingness to submit to a bathing that he doesn’t need shocks John the Baptizer. It shocks the Evangelist Matthew, too, who hurries to explain Jesus’ actions to his readers. It shocks us as we sit next to the tub, pretending to be inside of it. But Jesus’ shocking presence in those muddy waters lies at the heart of what baptism is all about.

Eastern Orthodox icons give us a glimpse underneath the brown water of the Jordan. In the ancient Eastern imagery, we see Jesus submerged up to his chin in turbulent waves of water, while John and several onlookers lean in to watch from the safety of the shore. Deep within the river, under Jesus’ feet, are sea monsters—the mythological representations of chaos, the face of all of the dark, dangerous forces that threaten the very order of creation. In his baptism, Jesus not only hangs out with us sinners on the riverbank, Jesus fully enters into chaos itself. He goes under the raging waves with the all of the powerful forces that seek to unmake the world.[1] He submerges himself in all of our inner turmoil and in the bedlam of our world.

Matthew has Jesus explain to John that he needs to be baptized “in order to fulfill all righteousness.” At first, that sounded to me as if Jesus enters chaos just to fulfil some theological formula. You know, we mess up and make God mad, so Jesus has to come and get punished in our place, because somebody’s got to do it. But when I looked at the other places in the New Testament where this phrase is used, the light dawned![2] The “righteousness” or right relationship with God that Jesus fulfills—is Love. To fulfill all righteousness is to live in God’s love, to love God, and to love one another as God loves us. Jesus comes down into our chaos in order to bring God’s Love even into those depths. As he rises, wet and vulnerable, we rise with him, beloved children of a loving Father.

For us Christians, baptized in Jesus’ Name, there is really no question of sitting comfortably beside the tub, then, is there? If we stick close to Jesus, we are going to find ourselves thrust into the troublesome crowds. We are going to find ourselves, as Rowan Williams writes, with Jesus “in the neighborhood of chaos …. Where humanity is most disordered, disfigured, and needy.”[3] Staying dry and comfy, merely pretending to bathe, is a barrier to our participation in God’s new creation. We have to risk the muddy waters before we can rise as beloved sons and daughters, as brothers and sisters in Christ.

This winter, I have been agonizing over the chaos that is Aleppo. My heart has been almost unbearably heavy, ever since I saw the news photo of that young dust-covered boy who sits in shock in that ambulance, unbearably alone, cast under unceasing waves of violence. It was as if he was calling to me in his anguish, and I was too far removed to help or even to hear his voice. I wanted to hold his hand and whisper that everything was going to be OK. I wanted to feed him, and put bandages on his wounds, and hunt in the rubble for his relatives, and go after the people who hurt him. But I couldn’t do anything except to sit dry and clothed and cross-legged on the floor, turning my gaze away from the painful chaos and reading my book.

Around Christmastime, I saw a painting by Judith Mehr that is a variation of that photo. Maybe you have seen it. It shows the same little boy with the same anguished eyes. But this time, he is not alone. The three angelic figures from Rublev’s famous icon of the Trinity are ministering to him. One angel hovers softly on his right and another on his left, and behind him, another angel holds up a loving hand that beams a stream of golden light onto his head. I can almost perceive a dove in that strand of light, and I can almost hear that angel whisper firmly, “this is my son, my beloved.”

It somehow melted the stone weight in my heart to see this image, to feel God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—ministering to this boy whom I so longed to touch. Today, thinking about Jesus’ baptism, and mine, it all came together: God’s loving presence in the worst chaos our world can dish out; my deep desire to join in God’s love for the world; and the mighty act that Jesus does when he walks into that muddy Jordan water—pulling me and you in after him, giving us a new commandment to love one another, and always reaching between us when the chasms are too large for us to manage on our own.  As in the Rublev icon of the Trinity, in this picture, the seat opposite the little boy, the fourth seat in the circle of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is my seat, and your seat. We don’t sit off to the side while the love pours out like water somewhere else. But the eyes into which the pained and piercing eyes of suffering look, are ours.

[1] Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 3.

[2] Thank you to Jill Duffield, at https://pres-outlook.org/2017/01/baptism-lord-january-8-2017 who pointed me to these verses.

[3] Rowan Williams, 4.
4. Images from: