Journey to the Jordan: Early Jewish Baptism
A sermon for University Congregational Church, Wichita, Kansas
Sunday, March 12, 2017
Psalm 26:6-8 NRSV
6 I wash my hands in innocence, and go around your altar, O Lord, 7 singing aloud a song of thanksgiving, and telling all your wondrous deeds. 8 O Lord, I love the house in which you dwell, and the place where your glory abides.
Ezekiel 36:24-30 NRSV
24 I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
Matthew 3:11New Revised Standard Version NRSV
11 “I baptize you with[a] water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with[b] the Holy Spirit and fire.
Did you make any special preparations to come to church this morning? Did you bathe and shave and primp just a bit? Did you carefully choose what outfit you would wear so that you would look just right? Not only for the friends and family who might see you this morning, but did you give mind to how you might look to God? Did you fuss over your hair and your make-up and polish your shoes until you felt worthy to go to church?
Well, if you didn’t, don’t worry—we’re not particularly judgmental on issues of fashion here at University Congregational. But I hope you did take a moment this morning to put your heart and your mind into a proper alignment so you might be able to worship. Sometimes that moment doesn’t come for us until we’re well into worship, but for those who can take the time to prepare for worship, they find that instead of trying to get to that place where everyone else is trying to get to, they have just a bit of an easier time attaining that. Preparing yourself for worship sounds mighty high-faluting doesn’t it? But even taking just a few moments to calm your mind, turn off your cell phone and disconnect from the rest of your world can actually make your time in this room a little more meaningful. You might even be able to engage with the “thin places” of worship just a bit easier.
It seems that this type of ritual purification, if you will—and I mean purifying your mind of outside distractions—has proven to be useful for worship for as long as humans have been trying to encounter the divine. From the Greeks and Romans to the proto-Muslims and the Jews all the way up to our current practice of baptism, water has played and continues to play an important part in our preparation for communion with the divine. The Roman Catholic Church has a special ritual whereby the priest can transform an ordinary vial of water into “holy water”. Blessed with special properties. Even modern Sikhs use “holy water” that has been blessed by their clergy for special rituals and purifications in that religion. Water, as I’ve said, by its very nature as the universal life fluid, is intrinsically sacred. I don’t believe water needs any additional blessing to render it special. It’s already special enough, isn’t it?
The ancients Greeks had ritual bathing before you could enter the temple to worship Athena. It was thought that you carried the impurities of the world, dirt, dust and decay, with you into the temple and that would degrade the gods. Dirt, dust and decay signify change and change means death. Ritual bathing in this instance relied greatly on the supervision of a priest. Priests have always been needed to ensure that the rituals of a religion are performed to specification and failure to do so could bring great shame upon the individual, the community and the temple. We’re talking about a period of human history where if you failed to remain within the community, your life could very well be forfeit. It was almost impossible to maintain and sustain your life outside of your community. So, then, when it was time to worship, you did as everyone else did and cleansed yourself for entry into the temple and finally worship.
The Romans continued with this practice and added their own flair to it—they enjoyed the process of ritual bathing so much that the custom developed in addition to ritual practices—that is, you would go to the baths at other times, not just to prepare for entry into the temple. You might schedule a meeting a one of the public baths and conduct your business while slaves tended to your comfort. You might meet a group of friends at the local baths instead of a tavern because the hot water was soothing after your difficult day of bartering for goods at the market. On a Saturday afternoon you might take the entire family to the baths, segregated mind you, so that the whole clan was refreshed and clean for that dinner you had planned on Saturday night. Bathing moved out of the realm of just ritual purification for worship and into a more social event for the Romans.
Even today, devout Muslims must perform ritual cleansing before any of their prayer times. This can be as simple as washing your hands and face or as elaborate as full body immersion into a pool. What is important in the ritual cleansing is that you are not only cleaning the body of the impurities of the outside world, but you are beginning to focus your mind for the upcoming engagement with the divine. You’re preparing your body to enter into the presence of God and preparing your mind to engage, hopefully, with that God. In the faith of Islam, where vast numbers of adherents reside in areas where water is in short supply, there are special exceptions that can be observed if there is not enough water to use for ritual bathing. Clean sand can be employed instead of water using the ritual bathing practice and saying the ritual words.
So when did this idea of ritual bathing become the particular practice we call baptism? The ancient Jews performed a special kind of ritual cleansing that they deemed a type of ablution—and they had two main types they performed—full body immersion and simply washing the hands and/or feet. Each type of ritual practice had different significance depending on when and where the ritual was being performed. It’s important to remember too, that Judaism was not some monolithic institution. There were all sorts of flavors of Judaism throughout the centuries and in the time leading up to the Jesus event, this was even more so. There were sects that maintained very rigorous rules about rituals and worship and there were congregations that took more open and grace-filled approaches to these very human activities. I imagine it was these more doctrinally oriented congregations with the more developed documents were the ones that the early Christ followers latched onto, because they had such clear and easy to follow and understand rules. Black and white. No ambiguity. Of course let’s go with the easy way!.
Anyway, back to this idea of many different flavors of Judaism. Just as we will find in Christianity, there really are many different Christianities, rather than one overarching Christianity. Many different flavors of what it means to follow the way of the Christ. And so it was with Judaism. We tend to think of one, monolithic religion of the Jews and that everyone adhered to that and worshipped the same and the even have their own type of pope. But that’s just not true. There we many, many different strands of Judaism each having differing interpretations of Hebrew Bible scriptures, differences of opinions on how they should all worship and even differing ideas on what it meant to be a Jew. In fact, there is a very good argument to be made that what we practice today as Christianity is but the end result of what one strand of Christ-Following Jews began way back in the first century. It’s been added to and detracted from and it has morphed and evolved through the centuries, but it began as a new way to be a Jew. I’m going to trouble the waters even more when I tell you that our idea of The Ancient Gentile is pretty incorrect as well. There were just as many different types of Gentiles as Jews, there were pagans, Sun worshippers, Baal worshippers, Zoroastrians, Buddhists-, etc. One way to think of this is to imagine Jews and everybody else—like last week’s sermon. The Jewish people were creating an identity for themselves that made them different from everybody else—and they called that everybody else Ta Ethne—The others who are not us.
So there was this baptism ritual that was already being practiced when onto the scene comes an itinerant Jewish preacher with some crazy ideas. Nope—not Jesus. Before we get to him we have to deal with another rabble-rousing Jewish Preacher named John the Baptist. Now John the Baptizer was out doing something that was very upsetting to the priests. John was baptizing people for the sake of being baptized—and he was preparing them for the cokming end of the world—which would be signified by the arrival of a Jewish Messiah who would deliver the Jewish people once and for all. The people HAD to be ready for this event, which John the Baptist thought was literally coming in a few days. So he was preparing anyone he could and dipping them in water and cleansing them for the end of days. That is, he was dunking them in water and declaring them clean of their sins before God so that once the messiah came they could be in God’s presence with a clean heart and soul And that was pretty much it. He wasn’t preparing the people for entry into the temple for their ritual sacrifices. He was preparing people to meet God. In Matthew’s Gospel, which was written by Jews and for Jews, we get a fuller account of this story:
3 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”[a] 3 This [John] is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” *Like how we did a bit of proof texting there to ensure that our scripture really is true?
4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
[Some “other” Jews whom John dislikes show up—the Sadducees and Pharisees—and he has some choice words for them:
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Ouch—he told the Pharisees didn’t he? I’ll baptize you for repentance, but, man, this guy that’s on his way is going to baptize you with fire! You need to change your ways.
I want to go one a bit with this version of this story:
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved,[d] with whom I am well pleased.”
There’s a pivotal moment for us for our Christology discussions, isn’t it? Christology begin the study of Jesus as God. Many scholars point to this exact moment as when Jesus stopped being a human being and began being a God. Now, for those of you who believe that Jesus was God in the manger—that’s fine, I’m just pointing out that when we talk about the divinity of Christ this is one of those important, watershed moments—because it happens in all 3 synoptic Gospels, Mark, Matthew and Luke—it happens in John as well, but with an important distinction—instead of it being a narrative of the gospel writing saying “And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved,[d] with whom I am well pleased.” No, the writers of the Gospel of John needed less drama and more assurances that this really happened. John’s Gospel tells us: “And John [the Baptist] bore witness, “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. 1.33 I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 1.34 And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
The synoptic gospels read as a story—a dove alighted on Jesus and a voice from heaven declared—but the community of early Christ-Followers who were forming around the writings of a another man name John, they need more legalistic proof: John the Baptist bore witness—and then we have a first person account coming from the witness, from John the Baptist. This is what I saw after I baptized this man. It’s an important distinction if we want to understand how the Gospels came to be and what audiences they were intended for.
So what do we have: Water as a substance that is integral to all life on this planet—so it is possessed of some powerful God-stuff automatically. And then we have an ancient practice of cleansing oneself before entering a holy place or communing with the divine. We do this for a number of reasons but usually to show obedience and to not track in the rest of the world—the decay and dust and muck, because those things represent death and we don’t want to carry them into the place where we celebrate life. The temple. And then we have this practice morphing into a more ritualized process with rules and practices for how one is to bath before entering the temple. And then finally, we have a rabble-rouser named John the Baptist who is baptizing people not for all of the law-based reasons, but in fact is subverting the law—because he’s not a priest and he doesn’t have the authority to perform baptisms—John is subverting the law and baptizing folks so they will be prepared to meet God. And Jesus happens along one day while this radical, law-breaker is performing unofficial and unsanctioned baptisms and he himself—Jesus himself thinks that maybe John is on to something and asks John to baptize him. And when we have Jesus joining into the act of resistance against the legalism of the priests of the temple—this is when God is most pleased—so please in fact that God uses the heavenly broadcasting system to announce his pleasure. “This is my beloved son who makes me so happy” Look at what he did. To me, this is what is meant by baptism with fire. God witnesses us doing some remarkable act f kindness and selflessness and fills our hearts with the fire of God’s spirit.
It seems to me that God approves of acts of resistance. In this story we have a God who cares less that the cleansing took place before entering into some temple or performing a ritual sacrifice, but we hear great pleasure from a God who just witnessed his son subverting the authorities and being cleansed by a renegade Jew. I think sometimes God is less concerned with our adherence to orthodoxy and doctrine and more concerned about right now and how we are interacting with those in our midst. Are we doing the right thing at the right time? Are we present, on the banks of the Jordan, ready to provide what is needed when that need is presented to us? Or would we rather say—this isn’t the time or place. It’s not appropriate for me to help you. There are social service agencies set up. I can’t wash away your sins. That’s a job for a priest or a clergy person. I can’t clean you off and make you feel right to be in God’s presence.
But maybe, I could brush off the dust from your coat, and show you the way to the restroom, and while you’re getting cleaned up I’m going to fix this tear in your shirt. I know you don’t want me to, but it’s an easy fix. And I notice that your shoes have holes in them. I have forty pairs of shoes in my closet that I don’t were—when you’re out of the shower, we’re going to find you a pair that fits. And once you’re refreshed and clean and feeling a little more human I’m going to go with you to the Lord’s Diner and we’re going to have dinner together tonight. Don’t worry about my plans, I’ll change my plans. I want to go to dinner with you tonight at the Lord’s Diner. And after that, we’ll find a place for you to spend the night. And first thing in the morning I’m getting you over to the NexStep alliance and we’re going to start working on getting you your GED and look at some help-wanted ads.
I know you think you are broken. I know you think that you are damaged. I know you think the rest of the world has forgotten about you. But I was in your place once—and look at me now. I once had no home and someone took me in—I once had no job and worked hard to find one—I once had to scramble for food and someone help me out–I was broken, probably still am, but that okay. There are cracks and holes and tears in everything in this imperfect world. That’s how the light gets in.