I had the pleasure of being present for the offering of this reflection on Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan at Edgebrook Community Church (UCC) on January 12, 2020.
– Alan Hommerding
by Rev. Tim Wolfe
(Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17)
Have you noticed how epiphanies are being commercialized these days? There are books and seminars and TED Talkers piling up on YouTube. Kanye has commoditized Sunday worship and turned it into a goldmine. Oprah’s on her World Vision 2020 arena tour. (If you want to catch her next Saturday in Raleigh, North Carolina, be prepared to spend $90 for nosebleed seats; if you want to sit on the main floor, it will set you back about $500.) Entire travel agencies have caught the vision and now they specialize in Eat-Pray-Love tours.
Over the holidays I caught up with an old friend who just came back from a posh shamanistic retreat that included some serious hallucinogenic use. “You should do it,” Lizzie said. “It’s incredible!” When I couldn’t conceal my horror she said, “Oh, this isn’t street drugs like LSD. Everything is holistic and plant-based. It will change your life!”
Which brought to mind my friend Taylor who spent most of last summer at a plant-based yoga retreat in the Colorado Rockies…and Ellie, who spent a fortnight living in silence with 50 strangers near a volcano in Maui…and Moira who took a six-month leave from her job to travel around India and “soak up all the spirituality.” They all come back talking about epiphanies that changed their lives.
As someone who’s ostensibly in the life-changing profession, I’m neither doubtful nor disparaging of these experiences. But you’ve got to wonder what’s driving this epiphany craze.
The great poet John Milton regarded epiphanies as “those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.”
Real, authentic epiphanies recalibrate our sensibilities. They reorder our thinking. Right now they’re in high demand, often marketed, packaged, and sold at high prices because we live in a moment when people crave clarity and truthfulness and profound experience. If they can’t find these essentials in their newsfeeds or their government, on their jobs, in their homes and communities, at the very least, maybe they can get some of their own inner turmoil sorted out. That’s what epiphanies are meant to do.
A similar desire for clarity and truth may be what brings Jesus to the Jordan, because he lives in a crazy world where both are in short supply: foreign interests have seized control of the region and assert their power through proxy dictators; Herod Antipas, the reigning king of Judea, is a conniving narcissist who has amalgamated his power by divorcing his first wife to marry his brother’s ex-wife. Like his father, Herod the Great, he’s an egomaniacal real estate developer who loves to build tall monuments to himself and professes faithfulness to Judaism, but clearly has not embraced any of its principles.
Meanwhile, the well-being of Palestinian Jews swings in the balance of Roman imperialism and fomenting revolution. Abusive taxation has impoverished the people. Political and religious fault lines set off tremors that destabilize every aspect of life. Confusion and bitterness abound and hope is at best a flicker in the hearts of a very few.
This is the world Jesus grows up in. This is all he’s known for the first three decades of his life. And frankly when we look at his story in contrast to his cousin, John the Baptist, Jesus comes off as late bloomer. What has he been doing for 30 years? The Gospels don’t say. Yet by the time he gets to the Jordan, John has already made a big name for himself, drawing multitudes to the riverbanks to hear him preach.
That’s not how John the Baptizer’s story was supposed to go. According to tradition, John should be following in his father’s footsteps as a Temple priest. Yet his disgust with Herod’s marital mess and how Temple authorities toady to Roman power compels John to go another route. He becomes a self-styled guru, the outsized leader of an alternative spiritual movement whose teachings, politics, and practices raise a lot of eyebrows. (And we should remember that in their day, John and Jesus led alternative spiritual movements.) John is presiding over a nonconformist counter-tradition epitomized in its most bizarre and distinctive practice: baptism.
What’s so crazy about that? John is baptizing Jews! They don’t need baptism. Their claim is based on their birthright. Only converts to Judaism get baptized. Yet John is baptizing his own people…reinitiating them…restoring their understanding of who they are and why they are…re-recruiting them to stand up and be counted for righteousness…bringing them into a radically new way of being.
In effect, John is out in the wilderness along this little muddy river triggering epiphanies.
Each year, as the lectionary invites us to contemplate Jesus’s baptism, it’s very easy to get swept up in the cinematics of the event, much like we do in our retellings of the Christmas narrative. There’s the quiet approach to the riverbank, the testy moment when John and Jesus argue about who should be baptizing whom, the voice from heaven, the dove, the haziness in the texts about who actually hears and sees what’s happening, and Jesus comes out of the river and suddenly he knows who he is…We watch it unfold, paying half mind because we’ve heard this story so many times. Seldom do we ask, “What is this experience like for Jesus?”
It’s an interesting question, because we don’t know what prompts Jesus to be baptized. Is he merely curious about what his cousin’s up to? Is he looking to join a subversive religious movement? Does he even suspect that letting John take him down into the water will result with him coming back to shore certain of who he is, why he’s here, and what his calling will be?
Who can say? We can say this: baptism equals epiphany for Jesus. Before this, he’s not made the slightest dent on the world. But after this pass through the water, nothing will ever be the same. In those few moments, everything opens up. The narrow stream we call the Jordan River grows as wide as all of creation and as deep as the greatest possibilities God can endow to anyone.
Something happens in that water. Something happens to us when we recall our own baptisms—and here I’m using “baptism” in its most figurative sense. Not just the Christian rite of water and washing, but the other baptisms we go through, other transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world…the glint of wonder in a child’s eye…uproarious laughter that clears the air all around us…that moment when what seemed impenetrable suddenly opens up and we understand…unexpected epiphanies that plunge us into deep and wide rivers of transformation…life-changing moments when we too are claimed, when we recognize that God loves us and our Maker is happy with us.
We matter. We fit. We belong. That is the epiphany for us today. It’s what brings to life the prophet’s assurance that the gentle Christ we follow is our friend. “A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench,” Isaiah tells us. New things are streaming forth. Amazing things can happen.
So, I don’t know if I’ll ever make it to the outposts of Costa Rica or the summits of Colorado and Hawaii or the teeming streets of New Delhi. But I’ve been to the river many times and I’ve been baptized again and again in amazing and wonderful moments that taught me what my life was all about. I’ve traveled through thin places to experience the wideness and depth of God’s unfathomable love. You have too.
Given how crazy the world is these days, I think we all would be wise to return to that river whenever we’re looking for clarity and truth and reassurance. Because I’ve been sensing we could all use a little epiphany these days, we all could benefit from one of those moments when we step into the river one way and come out of it with an entirely different picture of who we are and what our lives can be.
The writer Debie Thomas* says: “We practice Epiphany. The challenge is always before us…Regardless how jaded you feel, cling to the possibility of surprise. Epiphany is deep water—you can’t stand on the shore and dip your toes in. You must take a breath and plunge.”
Al Green sang it this way: “Take me to the river. Drop me in the water. Wash me down…”
Reimagine your baptism as a recurring event. Let the river call you when you need some transcendent clarity and awe-stung truth. Take the plunge. Get dropped in the water. Come out knowing who you are and whose you are.
Tim Wolfe is the founding pastor of Gather, a new Christian community on Chicago’s West Side that is committed to reaching and reclaiming people who’ve lost faith due to religious exclusion and disillusionment.
*Thin Place, Deep Water. [online] Journeywithjesus.net. Available at: https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/1232-this-place-deep-water-2
Illustration: “Baptism in the Jordan” by John Pirtle, from “Praying the Rosary Together” (giamusic.com). Used with permission.