The Jordan River is muddy.
I don’t think I would drink that water, and I tell you that I would not lower a baby down into it.
There’s a divider down the center of the river, in the place where I visited, on pilgrimage, at about this time last year. It’s one of those ropes with the little floaty things on it, like the ones that get used to divide the lanes in swimming pools so that people can swim laps without crashing into each other.
Except our guide pointed out to our group that the rope in the middle of that river was not about designated swimming areas in the Jordan. It is an international border. In a conversation that I would have with him a few minutes later, he showed me the Jordanian soldier who stood guard under a shelter on the other side of the river, with a machine gun slung over his shoulder. And then he nodded his head at that soldier’s Israeli counterpart, who stood on the hillside just behind us, also holding the requisite automatic weapon.
There’s a church on the Jordanian side of the river, pretty close to the water. It has a bell tower with bells that chime on the hour. And there are doves living up in that bell tower – no doubt well-fed doves, the cynical side of me supposed – there to further heighten the spiritual experience of so many pilgrims coming to that space to remember the baptism of Jesus.
My own experience on that day was like much of what happened throughout our group’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land last year. Our schedule was regularly shifting, based on delays or availability or traffic or security. We had hurried to make it to this baptismal site before it closed at the end of the day, quickly proceeded through a short liturgy that included a reading of scripture – the baptism of Christ, which had happened right there, or someplace near there, but scholars at least agree that it happened. We prayed for the renewal of our own baptismal promises. And then we divvied up into two groups, to be anointed with holy oil by one of the two bishops helping to lead us.
There were groups of people wearing white robes over their swimsuits as they went down into the Jordan to be baptized. I remember loudspeakers and tightly timed aspects, and still those soldiers with their machine guns, and an overall aspect of: “hurry up, have your spiritual experience, stick your feet into the Jordan if you’d like, buy your souvenir, and then let’s get back onto the bus for the next stop because it’s time to go.”
Somewhere in there, though, one of those well-fed doves flew out over the water.
And suddenly it wasn’t all that difficult for me to imagine John the Baptist (who might well have used a loudspeaker himself if he had had one on offer) together with his cousin Jesus, the person John had known since before the two of them were born, stepping down in among the reeds and the mud of the Jordan River. Maybe there. Maybe someplace nearby.
Of the four accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry, Mark’s gospel is the earliest. It’s also the most concise and urgent. I read somewhere in recent days that Mark uses the word “immediately” 47 times…which feels like kind of a lot. There’s no story here about Mary and Joseph and a donkey and a dream, no talk of angels or shepherds and wise men coming to find this new baby – nothing is even mentioned of the Baby Jesus. The beginning of this good news begins with the words of one prophet, Isaiah, and leads us to another prophet, John, whose arrival is the start of our gospel passage today.
Mark tells us about the people from everywhere leaving their homes and their villages, leaving Jerusalem, in order to go out to the wilderness to be baptized by John. This is a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, which is a different thing than Jewish people would have known. And people came from all over, hearing that call to repent, which means to turn away; hearing that need to be cleansed from their sins by this unlikeliest of characters: John, with his camel’s hair and his leather belt and his locusts and his wild honey.
This guy out in the wilderness is the one that people are leaving their safety in Jerusalem, leaving their familiarity in their cities and their towns, to go out and meet in the wilderness?
Jesus joins them there. Mark’s gospel leaves out John’s protest – “I should be baptized by you!” – but it tells us this part: “As he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens split open and the Spirit descending like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ ”
The Greek word for the heavens being split open will be the same word this gospel uses for the tearing of the curtain at Jesus’ death. Nothing will separate God’s love from the Beloved in this moment: not the heavens, not anything. And why is he there, even? Why is Jesus going through a rite that is for repentance and the forgiveness of sins – he, who has nothing to turn away from, no sins that need to be forgiven?
Because he would be with us. Because nothing will separate us from him.
And so, God uses ordinary things to convey extraordinary grace. Muddy water and unusual clothes and strange food; urgency, and oil, and some unlikely characters. And a bird and the sky and a voice that I’m not sure which people actually heard – but somebody did, or else we wouldn’t know about it today.
Was there jostling and a concern about who spent how much time in which place? Did someone say “immediately” out loud, with an edge to their voice? Were people keeping track of which of the baptized had the most stature (and did they want to stand in a particular part of that water)? Did the humanity of it all catch up to what was happening? I have to believe that it did.
And still, I’m telling you: I watched a dove fly out over those waters.
C.S. Lewis once told a group of people that, “for Christians, ‘spirit’ is not lighter than matter, but heavier. Spirit is the real substance of God acting in creation and redemption and…reconciliation.
(But) Spirit is always tied to material – real water, real bread, inexpensive wine, beautiful baptismal dresses …Spirit fills us in church and then drives us from church (as it will drive Jesus from the Jordan to the wilderness). There, outside the walls, we wrestle with the beasts, and pray for ministering angels…angels heavier than air.”
God uses the substance of the things we know, in order to convey the heavier reality that is more – more than we can ask, or even imagine: “You are my beloved. With you I am well-pleased.”
The great reality of our faith is that God would be with us. The truth of our faith is that nothing will separate us from God’s love – not the heavens above, not a piece of cloth in the Temple.
Jesus will go on from the shores of the Jordan River, driven immediately out into the wilderness, Mark’s gospel tells us. There, he will be tempted for forty days by the devil, and there will be wild animals. And – thank God – the angels will minister to him.
Only after that does Jesus begin to live his call in ministry. From there, he will bid disciples to join him. He will teach and preach and heal people. He will cast out demons. He will give God thanks for five loaves and two fishes, and will use those to feed a whole bunch of people who are sitting down on a large bit of grass. He will call Lazarus out from the grave, and he will tell those who are with his friend to unbind him, and let him go. He will use his own hands to turn over the tables of the money changers in the Temple.
Over and over again, God will use ordinary things to convey extraordinary grace, teaching us, over and over again that we are the beloved, that God will tear through the heavens in order to be with us. God will use ordinary things to show us that we are called to the ministry of sharing the gifts we have – generously, lavishly, with a world that starves for good news.
And so let us go, now, to the font of our salvation.
 Elton Brown. “Pastoral Perspective: Mark 1:4-11” Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1. Knoxville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010. 236-238.