Today at home, and at church I think, I’m going to be celebrating Fake Epiphany. It’s not actually fake, it’s just that the feast fell in the middle of the week, and rather than stopping everything and thinking about it on the day, we’ve moved it to Sunday (today). In this way, we actually do get to talk about the visit of the kings and don’t have to go into the muddy terrain of the Baptism of Jesus, which is, of course, a momentous occasion in its own right, but gets rather tiresome when you have to talk about it every year. Especially as most of the songs in the Epiphany section of the hymnal (or at least all the nice ones) are still going on about the star and the gifts. Every lectionary I’ve ever endured seems, frankly, obsessed with John the Baptist—Sunday after Sunday after Sunday.
I know, of course, that the lectionary organizers are not just trying to suit themselves. They are not particularly disposed to love Baptism more than Expensive Presents. The problem is the scriptures themselves, which make so much of John, and so much of Jesus going down into the water.
This all jangled around in my head as I kept going back to the internet all week. Wandering around Twitter (where I, like everyone else, seem to be bleeding followers) feels like going out into a howling wilderness looking for news, for that one short paragraph that will announce that everything is going to be ok. There must be a voice in the wilderness crying, as the song says. If I just scroll down a bit more I will hear it. Unhappily for all of us, Social Media isn’t that kind of desert highway. God’s particular messenger isn’t there delivering God’s true and life-giving words, making our paths straight and the rough places smooth. On the contrary, though everyone imagines him or herself to be speaking for God, no one is.
Jesus going along with the crowds of people to be baptized by his cousin John seems—especially after the exiting escape from Herod—anti-climactic, the very disappointing start to what should have been a promising career. Add in his quiet thirty-year sojourn in a very small, exceedingly unimpressive town and one feels that the commencement of his call should be much more exciting than joining up with the crowd being dunked in the river. Shouldn’t there be more gold? More angels? What happened to that bright star?
In every way, it seems, God arranges the cosmos in the opposite way that I would—which is to go into the very far corners of my own darkness, to understand every nuance and facet and possibility of being human.
In some disagreeable moment of personal reflection, I noticed something about myself as well as all other people. I want a great deal of nuance and sparkle to be accorded to my side of any issue or debate, but when I’m talking about the other side, I mostly feel comfortable speaking in broad, sweeping generalizations. And God must be the same as me. Yet here he sweeps all of humanity up into one group, one kind. He ignores, obtusely one feels, all the diverse categories of people. For him, it doesn’t matter what your politics are, or who you voted for, or how angry you are, or how grieved, or if you can see the problems in an institution or remain completely blind to them. He cares not if you are anti-racist or racist, if you are Methodist or Presbyterian, if you are on the right side of something or the wrong side, if you have gone over to Parler or are still trying to make a go of it on Twitter. You could be Donald Trump or even Joe Biden for all he cares.
Though indeed, in a more embarrassing and intrusive way he does care. For the roiling, angry, divided, binary-thinking mess of humanity, he descended down into the murky depths of the Jordan River, let his cousin lay him back in the warm, tepid, turgid water—descending down, lying still and submissive, prefiguring the true and awful moment of the grave—and then came back up dripping wet to hear the acclamation and acceptance of his Father. The crowd stood by as the Dove descended and the voice thundered, and then wandered back into their own lives, ignorant of and blind to what had just happened.
In all the cries for a reckoning—and everyone right now seems to want one—it is curious that God’s own account of our condition includes this strange moment. What could it mean? Why would Jesus, who knew no sin, have to be baptized along with all those sinners?
I mean, we know why. We say it all the time. In every way, in every particularity, Jesus entered into the mire with humanity, he came down into the pit that we had dug for ourselves and drug us out into the light by way of the cross. Whereas when you lie back in the water, dying to yourself and your sin and rising again in his name, he lay back and came up out of the water dragging along with him the bitterness of all your transgressions. He picked them up. From thenceforward he bore them, though yet he did not sin.
I think we might find some strange comfort here, if we can get over the insult of being lumped all together by a God who, as Peter discovered to his complete astonishment, “shows no partiality.” The burden of being right, of knowing who to believe, of what to do, of what to say is too great for any of us to bear, though we are always prepared to bear it without complaint. Left to ourselves, we would not be the Wisemen, seeing the star and coming with lovely and useful gifts. No, stop, and consider. Left to ourselves we are all literally Herod, both individually and corporately. We are the people who so despised Jesus when he was growing up that when he came to heal and preach, we reviled him. We are the people who screamed out for his blood in that hot crowd, raising our fists and choosing Barabbas instead.
But in his great mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, Jesus deliberately took our place, lay back in the water, hung there on the cross, stood up from the grave, and now sits by the Father, listening to each and every anxiety, every need, every problem. Stagger, then, to church. Put down your righteousness and your anger and fall headlong into the hands of Jesus. For, said the Psalmist considering this wondrous gift, “Steadfast love will be built up forever; in the heavens you will establish your faithfulness.”