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It’s The Jordan That Matters

 

2 Kings 5:1-18;
Luke 3:3-18

I: — “Everyone should get done”, said the anxious mother to me. She meant, of course, that everyone should be baptized. Should everyone? And if perchance everyone should, why? Under what circumstances? To what end? The person whom we should consult concerning these questions is the man who had most to say about baptism, John the Dipper. “John” was his name, Yochan, “gift of God”. BAPTIZEIN was the everyday Greek verb meaning to dip or to dunk, as in “dip your paintbrush” or “dunk your doughnut.” “The baptizer, the dipper, the dunker” was the term hung on him by those who thought that John was the most ridiculous spectacle they had ever seen. Dressed in animal skins like Tarzan, living in the waterless wilderness where he hadn’t sat in a bathtub in years, possessed of a voice that ruptured eardrums, unmindful of the bee-stings acquired through gathering wild honey, John looked like a nature-boy who could have been locked up. He thundered that people needed to get right with God. A sign (but only a sign), a declaration, of their getting right with God was their plunge into the river Jordan. It was a public acknowledgement that the truth of the living God had pierced them to the heart and they wanted to drown their corrupt nature and henceforth live under God’s royal rule.

When the people did respond John didn’t smile with relief and say, “That’s more like it, that’s what I like to see.” Instead John looked at the hordes who were tripping over each other in their haste to get to the Jordan and raged, “Look at the snakes coming out! You can always tell when the underbrush catches fire; the snakes slither out in self-preservation! You people aren’t serious about God and his kingdom and his truth and his service; you don’t want to abandon yourself to him; you merely want fire insurance for the life-to-come: snakes bent on self-preservation!”

None the less, along with the superficial multitudes who weren’t sincere there were also those who were in earnest. John’s message had seared them: they did long for God and his kingdom, his truth and his service. They knew that John was preparing men and women for radical, rigorous discipleship. They knew that just around the corner was Jesus, John’s cousin, and Jesus would draw into his company the disciples whom John had prepared.

We shouldn’t belittle John’s work. The Jordan represented something serious. To be baptized in the Jordan meant that John’s convictions were your convictions. You were stating publicly that you and John were of one mind about the kingdom of God and the urgency of entering it and serving it.

What were John’s convictions? (i) His first conviction: false securities are useless. When John preached many people scoffed. They took refuge in their parentage or their piety or their privilege.

First, their parentage: “We don’t need to repent. We have Abraham as our father”, they threw back in John’s face. “Why talk about Abraham’s blood-line?”, John replied, “What alone counts is Abraham’s faith.” Did you know that my great-great-grandmother was a missionary in China? So what! It won’t do anything for me and I shouldn’t put any stock in it.

Next they tried to hide behind their piety: “We are extra-careful about religious observances”. (This is piety talking.) But what is the virtue in outward conformity to a pious code if inwardly there is lacking that whole-souled, single-minded self-abandonment to the living God?

Lastly they sought refuge in privilege (parentage, piety and privilege): “We belong to Israel. We don’t belong to the pagan nations who wouldn’t know God from a gopher. We belong to a religious tradition over a thousand years old. And not only is our tradition old, it embodies the truth of God”. “Substituting a tradition for intimate acquaintance with God himself”, countered John, “is like reading a handbook on lovemaking and assuming you are therefore married.”

The false securities of parentage, piety and privilege are useless. We must own for ourselves the forgiveness that God has fashioned for us, or remain unpardoned. We must exercise the faith that God has given us and by which we are bound to him, or remain forever estranged from him. Moment by moment we must resolve to obey the One who insists that obedience is freedom, or else languish in bondage to our sin. John’s first conviction: false securities are useless.

(ii) John’s second conviction: the sincerity of our profession is indicated by the consistency of our discipleship. When tax-collectors told John that they wanted to be immersed in the Jordan as a public sign of their seriousness John said, “If you are as serious as you say you are then you will stop cheating the people from whom you are collecting taxes.” When soldiers asked for baptism — “If you really mean it then you will stop molesting civilians and stop extorting protection money from them”. When the multitudes streamed to the Jordan John explained, “Before you get wet you must understand that to take the plunge is to pledge yourself and everything you own to needy people.”

Then, only then, John welcomed all who responded to his preaching and baptized them, exuberantly, in the Jordan.

II: — Yet there is more to the Jordan. Jesus was baptized there too. Unlike the people who responded to John, however, Jesus wasn’t publicly declaring a change in life-style. He had no need to change anything. When Jesus stood in the Jordan he was endorsing everything that cousin John was about; but he was also doing more. He was inaugurating his own ministry. Thereafter all whom Christ called into his company and were baptized as he had been were owning their ministry. In other words, for Jesus and his followers too, baptism is ordination to ministry.

To be sure different Christians have different ministries. Your ministry and mine differ in several respects. Yet underlying the many differences there forever remains a commonality that we must own together. The commonality arises, of course, in that the ministry of every Christian is generated from the ministry of Jesus Christ. He is the “great high priest”, in the words of the book of Hebrews. You and I in turn are that “royal priesthood” of which Peter speaks. His ministry is intercession in behalf of a tormented world. In Israel the ministry of the priest is intercession. Since we are a royal priesthood generated by the great high priest himself, our ministry too can only be a ministry of intercession in behalf of a tormented world.

One Monday not so long ago the telephone rang once more. The caller was a minister-friend. His wife was having an affair with a colleague at work. As you’d expect, the more intense the affair became, the more icily she treated her husband and the more distant from him she rendered herself. When my minister-friend phoned he had just returned from tests at Princess Margaret Hospital. He had been treated for cancer some time ago, had undergone surgery, and then appeared to be “out of the woods.” The day he phoned me was the day that the most recent tests indicated there was a new growth on another organ. Naturally he concluded it was malignant. He stumbled home from the hospital and told his wife. She stared at him with unblinking iciness, said nothing, and walked away. I can’t imagine a silence any more cruel, just as I can’t imagine isolation more isolated.

The intercession of Jesus Christ is a major motif in the New Testament. The apostles know that our Lord has fused himself to all humankind in solidarity with us. One with us all, he lifts up before his Father every last sinning, suffering human being. The ministry of the Christian is intercession too. Which is to say, our ministry consists of fusing ourselves to those whose lives intersect ours, in order that they might know their sin can’t deprive them of our compassion, know they are never alone, know their pain isn’t unnoticed, know themselves cherished.

No sooner was I finished with my long telephone call when the phone rang again. This time it was a paranoid fellow, one of the many deranged who look to me and of whom I am fond. This fellow suffers terribly. After all, it’s dreadful to live in constant fear of assassination. In the course of our chit-chat he told me he had to get up to the toilet several times during the night. Now since he is a middle-aged male you don’t have to be a medical genius to know what his problem is. I told him I would make sure a urologist saw him. “Urologist!”, he raved at me, “What good’s a urologist when someone is poisoning my orange juice?”

This past July Maureen and I visited our friend Louise in Montreal. She is schizophrenic. She isn’t deranged like the fellow whose orange juice is forever being poisoned; she’s closer to normal mental functioning than that. Still, she’s ill, and she suffers. One fine summer day two months ago she piloted us to the eastern townships, 90 minutes’ drive from Montreal, to Lake Memphramagog. (I was delighted to visit the lake for many reasons, two of which were the beautiful scenery and the fact I’d read so often about the lake in the writing of Mordecai Richler.) Louise has been a dear friend for 17 years, ever since we met in 1982 in La Pocatiere.

To be sure, it’s often inconvenient and often wearing to keep company with mentally ill people. At the same time, it’s often instructive. Ill people tend to lack the social niceties, the insincerity that passes for diplomacy. They don’t have the social duplicity that sane people can no longer recognize as duplicity. They’ve forgotten the social conventions that keep you and me (I’m assuming now that you and I are sane) insisting publicly that the emperor is magnificently attired when everyone knows he has no clothes and only very young children and very ill adults blurt out the truth, and blurt out the truth just because they lack the social skill of how to be false. In this regard we must always remember G.K. Chesterton. Mentally ill people, said Chesterton, haven’t lost their reason; they’ve lost everything except their reason.

Then what does intercession mean for all such? That we pray for them? Of course we shall. Praying for them is also the easiest — and the cheapest — expression of intercession. Then what other expression does our intercession for them take? What do we do for people who can’t defend themselves? What do we do for people who suffer extraordinarily? If you can’t imagine what “intercession” might entail, think of “intervention.”

Baptism in the Jordan is a public declaration that we have been called into the service of our Lord whose intercession in behalf of all sufferers is relentless.

III: — Yet the Jordan means even more. It means not only that we are going to minister, but also that we shall allow ourselves to be ministered unto; and allow ourselves to be ministered unto even if this entails our being humbled — or perhaps humiliated. The Jordan is the river into which Naaman must plunge himself if he’s to be healed. Naaman is the five-star general of the Syrian army that has overrun Israel. He’s also afflicted with leprosy, and he finds his affliction humiliating. An Israelite girl, a prisoner of war, is his wife’s attendant. The Israelite girl tells Mrs. Naaman that Elisha, the Israelite prophet, can cure her husband. Naaman is humiliated again. He, the commander-in-chief of a victorious army, has to appear cap-in-hand and submit himself to a fellow from the conquered people? But leprosy is no trifling matter; Naaman swallows his pride and appears before Elisha. Soon he’s not merely humiliated, he’s disgusted: Elisha has told him that he must bathe seven times in the Jordan. The Jordan then was as filthy as Toronto’s Don river is today. Seven times in that fetid pollution? Surely seven times into the Jordan would leave a man with afflictions worse than leprosy! Vehemently Naaman objects, “Why can’t I bathe in the clear, clean waters of my native Damascus? Why can’t Elisha simply call on the name of his God and wave his hand?” But Elisha is adamant: “Seven times into the Jordan, General Naaman, or leprosy for life.” Naaman added it all up. If it had to be the Jordan, then the Jordan it would be.

My first summer placement as a student minister was a frontier town in northern British Columbia that had recently been inundated with construction workers. On my last Sunday in town before returning to Toronto for seminary I preached on faith. I thought it was a good sermon. After the service a man who had attended worship throughout the summer approached me. He was an alcoholic who had been contentedly sober for several years. He looked me in the eye with a look that was all-searching and all-knowing and said quietly, “Victor, faith is serenity.” From his look I knew that he thought he had detected non-serenity in me. He thought I was prone to agitation, prone to vehemence, prone to flare-ups, prone to roller-coaster mood-alterations, prone to knotting my shirt on short notice! I looked him back, trying to say through my look, “Mister, you’ve got me wrong.” It didn’t work. He smiled again and said, “Victor, faith is serenity.” And then I bristled. After all, I was a theology student and I had forgotten more doctrine than he would ever know; and besides, by vocation I was his spiritual superior, wasn’t I? What’s more, he was so weak (“weak” is how I thought of it in those days, to my shame) that he’d never be able to take a drink again without going haywire. And he was correcting me? And then I recalled the word of Elisha: “Either the Jordan, or your affliction for life.”

It has happened to me a dozen times since then, and will continue to happen, since I am not yet fully healed.

I want to come back to the question I left with you at the beginning of the sermon. Should everyone be “done”? Should everyone be baptized? Anyone be baptized if the water in which we are baptized is the Jordan. For the Jordan means

(i) we are abandoning ourselves to a discipleship so far-reaching as to be unmistakable and undeniable,

(ii) we are accepting ordination to a ministry of intercession in behalf of suffering people,

(iii) we are submitting to a correction and a restoration that entails humility, even humiliation, but without which we shall never be healed of our affliction.

Parents have brought their children for baptism today. This means the parents are promising to do everything they can to have their children one day own “the Jordan” for themselves.

You and I are witnesses to all of this; but not witnesses only. Even less are we idle bystanders. You and I are those who were baptized ourselves, whether as infants, adolescents or mature adults. Then the question we must ask ourselves is this: the water in which we were baptized, was it the Jordan? After all, it’s the Jordan, and only the Jordan, that matters.

Victor Shepherd
September 1999