The forces of nature regularly remind us of the danger of water. In the past decade or so, we have seen major tsunamis devastate India, Indonesia, Sir Lanka, and Japan. Closer to home, we have faced two of the most damaging hurricanes in modern human history. The people of Louisiana and New England know quite well how destructive the force of water can be. Its power is unprecedented; its movements are unpredictable and chaotic. Its wrath holds no reverence for human society or lives. It creates victims and is often seen as an enemy to humankind. These past few years have reminded us of a cosmic truth: water is dangerous.
Our earliest ancestors of the faith, the ancient Hebrews, also knew how mysterious, ominous and powerful the waters can be. Again and again, they portrayed them as the ultimate source of evil. They depicted the waters as a chaotic force that was uncontrollable and unmanageable. The seas were a place of constant conflict; the place where the Great Beast, the Leviathan lived.
For this reason, the Scriptures are full of stories portraying water as an image of battle and death. For example in Psalm 69, the image of drowning in overwhelming waters is intertwined with the image of being surrounded by one’s enemies: “Deliver me from those who hate me, from the deep waters. Do not let the floodwaters engulf me.” Similarly in Isaiah 8, the prophet warns that God is about to “bring against them the mighty floodwaters of the River – the King of Assyria with all his pomp.” The waters are dangerous; they are to be avoided, when possible. For they are a source of violence, destruction and death.
Throughout the Old Testament, one of the reoccurring themes is God creating a pathway for God and God’s creation outside of these chaotic waters. Last week in adult Sunday school, Jeff briefly explained the cosmology of the ancient Israelites. We looked together at Genesis 1, where God separates the waters below from the waters above. God calls forth the sky to serve as a sort of barrier, a dome allowing for something else to exist outside of those dangerous waters. Then, God separates dry land from the waters so that life can blossom outside the chaotic, dark waters. And where does God exist in this picture of creation? We are told that the spirit of God hovers above the waters. Our Psalmist portrays a similar picture of God’s home: “The Lord sits enthroned over the Flood… The Lord dwells over the mighty waters.” The ancient Hebrews picture God as wanting nothing to do with these dangerous waters. God exists above them. God creates a space for us to exist away from them. That’s because the waters are dangerous. They are a source of death.
Given God’s disdain for the dangerous waters, it’s not surprising that we find multiple accounts of God providing a safe passage through the mighty waters. Where God’s people were able to avoid the destructiveness of the raging sea and instead reach freedom, salvation, and new life. The story of Noah is probably the most vivid example. Here God is angry at humanity – God is upset that humans failed to respect the laws of the created order. They chose violence and wickedness instead of harmony and peace. So God sends a flood, a raging force of chaos to wipe out all living creatures. Only one righteous man, Noah, his immediate family, and a few animals are spared. God favors Noah, has him build an ark, so that he can safely pass through the dangerous waters. God elects to start anew, to restore creation. But that is only possible by sacrificing almost everything, all of life from the face of the earth.
Similarly in the story of the Red Sea, the Israelites are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Their escape route from Egypt is blocked by the chaos of the sea and the Egyptian army is closing in on them. To save them, God miraculously leads them through the Sea. Yahweh parts the waters. God splits them into two so that Israel could pass on dry land to reach their desired freedom. But after freeing the Israelites, God closes the sea upon the Egyptians. God ransoms all the Egyptians so that the Israelites are safely liberated from Egyptian interference.
Interestingly, in both these stories, God creates a way where God’s people never actually have to enter into the dangerous waters. Where they do not have to get their feet wet. In both stories, God creates an alternative, a safe passage, but this passageway comes with an absurdly high cost – the lives of others. In both stories, God’s people are liberated, but this freedom is only possible because of destruction and death.
And again in Isaiah’s great psalm of salvation which we heard this morning, the same pattern emerges. Here God reminds the Israelites that God is about to redeem the Israelites, that the dark night is about to end, and liberation is soon to come. To describe this liberation, the prophet returns to a familiar image – passing through the waters: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. And when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.” Similar to the great miracle of the Red Sea, Yahweh again promises to protect God’s people from the raging waves of the sea. The Israelites should not worry; God will provide a special path that bypasses the dangerous waters, once again.
But notice how this salvation requires the same high cost. Like the previous stories, this salvation is only possible because of the sacrifice of others, through the ransom of another people: “I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush and Seba in your stead. … I will give people in exchange for you, nations in exchange for your life.” God promises to give these nations over to King Cyrus as a ransom for freeing Judah from exile in Babylon. It’s a tossing of one people into the dangerous waters so that another can experience the dry land. All throughout the Old Testament, we find stories of God’s people avoiding the dangerous waters around them. Stories where God provides a special path towards freedom, but this path necessitates, even demands violence. It’s a freedom only made possible because of the destruction and death of others.
Our Gospel passage takes place at another famous location where God miraculously halted the waters so that Israel and God could pass over on dry land – the River Jordan. If you remember the story in Joshua, the waters are stopped so that the arc of the covenant can safely cross, so that God could avoid the waters. Here is another place where God has avoided the depths. Where God refused to get God’s feet wet. God refused to submerge Godself into those dangerous waters.
And now here we have Jesus. Here we have the son of God returning to these same waters in his first public act as an adult. The location is no coincidence. And once we understand the importance of the location, we can begin to understand why Jesus had come to be baptized by John.
That is an interesting question isn’t it? Why must Jesus be baptized? It wasn’t because he had some sin which he needed to repent of. It wasn’t because Jesus needed a new start. And he wasn’t in need of forgiveness either. This is the question that John the Baptist was trying to figure out the day that Jesus came to him to be baptized. Luke leaves this detail out but the other gospels tell us that when John realizes who had arrived, that the Messiah had shown up to be baptized, John tries to deter Jesus: “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you come to me?” John tires to tell Jesus that he doesn’t need to undergo this act since he is God, the Messiah, the Savior of Israel.
Here at the Jordan river, we see Jesus facing his first temptation, the first major dilemma of his young ministerial career. Here Jesus must make the decision: will he listen to John, will he bypass the waters like God had done so many years before, right here, at the river Jordan? Will he pass through them by remaining on the dry land? Will he use his chosen status to create an alternative, a safe passage which avoids the dangerous waters? Will he listen to John and not get his feet wet? Or will he risk everything by entering into the dangerous waters, by submerging his life into the dark waters? Would he drown himself in these waters of death?
Jesus knows the consequence of bypassing the waters. Sure, it means safety for him, but it’s a safety that comes with a high cost. The death and destruction of others. Jesus knows that if he bypasses the waters, if he listens to John, he would be saying that he is more important than everyone else. That he has more value, more worth than any other individual. And believing this is the path towards sacrificing others so that you can experience the life that you long for, the life you think you deserve. Israel had already walked down this path many times before – sheltering God and themselves from the waters. But this path, Jesus knows, is one forever enmeshed with violence.
So Jesus dares to embark upon a different path. To alter the perspective for good that God is afraid of the waters. To subvert the belief that God would willingly ransom others in order to protect God and God’s people. This is why Jesus enters into those waters that day. Why Jesus allows himself to be baptized by John at the river Jordan. By taking the plunge into those waters, Jesus elects to have God drown. To banish for good any notion that God would create or even participate in a system which sacrificed others so that we can keep our ways of life going. What Jesus realizes on those banks of the river Jordan is that the only way to break free from this system of death and violence is by giving oneself up. To undergo death, in advance, so one is free to live the rest of his life as if death is already behind him.
So in the river Jordan, God drowns Godself. No more bypassing death, no more sacrificing others so that one could have the life they thought they deserved. Jesus plunges himself into the waters below, submerges himself into the dangerous waters of death, so that he could emerge from the waters as if death were already behind him. He gives his life up so that he would no longer be trapped by the principles of sacrifice, violence, and exclusion.
God is clearly proud of Jesus’ decision – to not bypass the waters. For it’s when he makes this decision that the Holy Spirit descends upon him and God speaks directly to him: “You are my Son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased.” God is pleased with Jesus’ decision to expose for humanity the foolishness of sacrifice. God is pleased that here, once and for all, humanity can see that God has absolutely no part in the wicked desire of ransoming others for our own well good. God is pleased that Jesus willingly decides to enter those dangerous waters and drown himself so that all of humanity can experience a freedom no longer structured around sacrifice and violence.
The Jewish people were right. Water is dangerous. It strips you of your life. It leads to your death. But that is the point of baptism. That’s the point of following Christ. Baptism requires and causes our death. For in baptism, we submerged our lives in the dark waters. In baptism, we agreed that we, like Jesus before us, would not bypass the waters. We committed to no longer live lives which sacrificed others so that we might get what we think we want or need. In baptism, we drowned so that we could live as if death was already behind us. No longer willing to succumb to the fear which death causes, liberated not by another’s death but by our own, so that we are free to work with God in creating a new world and a new self no longer constructed around violence, sacrifice, and death. The waters of baptism are dangerous, dangerous waters.
Baptism is a crazy act. In many ways, its similar to getting married or what I imagine it must be like to become a parent. You never have any idea of what you are getting yourself into. I’m sure Jesus had no idea how radically his life would change when he entered into those dangerous waters. When he allowed himself to die so that he could live as if death were not. As if his death had already happened, and thus be free to live on the other side. To leave it all behind, to risk everything, and embrace the cross.
Baptism is a crazy act. When those dangerous waters splashed, sprinkled, or washed over our bodies, we, like Jesus, allowed ourselves to be drowned. We abandoned ourselves and our self-centric desires, and instead committed to learning how to live as if our deaths already happened years ago. And the more we are able to do this, the more we are able to maneuver down this wild path, the freer and freer we become. We become less ensnared by the principles of sacrifice, exclusion, and our fear of death. And instead, we can participate with our God who risks everything in order to make all things new.
Let me close with Paul’s words from Romans:
“Don’t you know that you who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we were buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”