By Pierre Whalon
Imagine Jesus at the edge of the River Jordan, just as he is to descend into the water to be baptized by John. What is he thinking?
There is a place in Jordan, the country, on the river, which is thought to be the place where Jesus was baptized. There is a shrine to the event. It is also believed to be the place where the people of Israel crossed the river into the Promised Land, “with unmoistened foot,” as it were. The river had parted for the Israelites, we read in the 4th chapter of the Book of Joshua, and Joshua had placed stones in the middle, where the priests stood holding the Ark of the Covenant until all of the people had passed over.
So we think of Jesus contemplating these stones, perhaps—the history of his people Israel. In front of him is John. He liked to live in the desert, ate insects, and wore a camel skin he’d cut off some carcass. We can see his wild hair, his thatched beard, bushy eyebrows, and a few ribs sticking out. A diet of locusts is guaranteed to keep off the pounds.
St. Luke tells us that John was Jesus’ cousin. Mark, in his very economical way, only tells us the man of the desert is that “voice crying in the wilderness,” announcing that God’s Messiah is near—get ready. “All Jerusalem and Judea” have come out to hear him. Indeed, he has a lot of disciples. Jesus is somehow a part of that movement, but he is getting ready to move on, as he stands on the riverbank, amidst the crowd.
The Epistle today, Acts 19, tells us that John had disciples elsewhere: “they did not know there was a Holy Spirit, they had only had the baptism of John.” John still has disciples, the Mandaeans (or Sabaens), a community of faith in Iraq. I met their leaders when I was in that country, just before the war, in 2003. Nice people, who informed me nicely that John, not Jesus, had it right, and the Baptist is in fact the last prophet. These poor people were some 50,000 strong six years ago. They have suffered as greatly as the Christians, and there is only a remnant left of some 5,000.
Jesus is about to step into the main phase of his life. He is leaving family and home behind, including his cousin John. As he goes down under the water, he dies to that life, and as he comes up, a new one has started. The Spirit of God is upon him, and he hears God say that he is God’s Son, the Beloved, in whom God delights.
“Immediately,” Mark says (Mark is always in a hurry), “the Spirit drove him into the desert for forty days, and he was with the wild beasts, and angels tended to him.”
Immediately, Jesus comes back from the desert with his central message: “The kingdom of God is at hand—repent and believe the Good News.” The Gospel.
So we can see that these few verses sum up Jesus’ life and ministry. He is born into a family, he leaves and starts his ministry—the desert represents the three years that follow, including his passion and death — and then he returns, in that inexplicable but real event of his Resurrection. This time it is the disciples — us — who have the message to spread: we have found that Jesus is alive, God is truly present to us, among us, and his reign is breaking in — so change your life by believing. And do it immediately.
This begins for us at Baptism. St Paul in the 6th chapter of Romans tells us that in Baptism, we experience the whole of life: we die with Christ, we are buried with Christ, and we are raised with Christ. And for us, we experience also what Jesus, the pioneer of our faith, experienced: God says to you and to me, each of us: “You are my beloved daughter, my beloved son, and I delight in you.” And you and you and…
Today Jane stands, metaphorically speaking, on the bank of the Jordan. She is to be confirmed. That is, she will make for herself those vows of Baptism that her parents made on her behalf a few years ago. And as Paul did to those twelve at Ephesus, I will lay my hands upon her and we will pray the Holy Spirit come upon her, to strengthen, to confirm, what God has been doing in her life all along. God reveals today her status as a princess in the Kingdom of God, along with the rest of us who are the royal priesthood. In her, God says, is his delight, just as God delights in all the rest of us.
All of us who are baptized, because this sacrament sums up all of our life, are standing with her, contemplating what God has done in the past, and looking across at the other bank. What lies beyond? In a sense, we are always having to decide to leave the riverbank and take the plunge, everyday. As we stride yet again into that water, to risk believing, we come out again changed. Jesus has already done it all.
Yet he has also uniquely shaped and designed each of us, Jane included, for a unique work in this time and place, that proclaims, by word and example, that indeed God is present, the Kingdom is breaking in, Jesus has risen from the dead and the world is new again. Each of us is to go out with Jane to do the work we have been given to do, just as we shall pray shortly. In our homes, our neighborhoods, our communities, our church, our world—there we will find what it is God would have us do.
It all begins with baptism, which points us all to the end, when we shall perfectly share God’s life — that is, forever. Today, yet again, we must point to God among us, repent and believe. And go forth to work, confirmed in the power of the Spirit.
The Rt. Rev. Pierre Whalon was Bishop of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe from 2001-2019.