Sermon Archives

Sunday, January 8, 2017
Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord (Year A)
The Reverend Areeta Bridgemohan, Curate
Muddy Waters

Most merciful God, send your Spirit upon us that we may see reality as it is. Give us the courage to persevere in creating a world that reflects your image. Amen.

In my prayer space at home I have an icon of the baptism of Jesus. The water is blue and clear. The dove is part of a ray of sun beaming down on Jesus. The scribes and Pharisees that John had just scolded are nowhere to be seen. In fact, there is no crowd. On the riverbank to Jesus’ right there are five attendants waiting to help him get dried and on the riverbank to his left stands John the Baptist. The backdrop to the scene is set in gold.

This is a beautiful image to contemplate in my morning meditation.

But as I began to study and reflect on this passage, the scene took on a rather different shape.

Mark’s gospel was the first of the gospels to be written, and scholars generally agree that Matthew and Luke adapted Mark’s gospel; included other sources and editing it to respond to the issues facing their communities. In Mark’s gospel, the heavens are torn apart and after the Spirit descended like a dove it immediately drove him out into the wilderness. An aggressive and tumultuous force breaks into Jesus’ world, a force almost beyond his control.

In contrast, Matthew describes the heavens opening up and the Spirit of God descending like a dove, gently landing on Jesus. Matthew softens the scene to dignify it, perhaps to evoke imagery of a royal crowning.  

Apparently doves are one of the most common bird species, found almost everywhere on Earth. They are part of a family of birds, which includes pigeons, known as columbidae. They have adapted to most habitats – inhabiting savannas, grasslands, deserts, temperate woodlands and forests, mangrove forests and even the barren sands and gravels of atolls.[1]  This explains why even in a text written in the Middle East, almost 2,000 years ago, the authors describe the Spirit using a bird that remains recognizable to us today.

The word dove is from a Germanic word that refers to the bird’s diving flight. Anna Carter Florence, a preaching scholar, talks about this text with her 11-year old son. She describes the part about Spirit of God descending like a dove, making graceful wing motions with her hands. Her son interrupted her and said “Wait a minute, Mom, that’s not how doves fly. Doves swoop. They’re fast. When they want to catch something, they don’t flutter down lightly. They zoom like a hawk: bam!” [2]

Traveling to the Holy Land and actually visiting the sites of great importance to our faith has also altered the way I imagine these scenes.

Al-Maghtas, which is Arabic for baptism or immersion, is a UNESCO World Heritage site in Jordan on the east bank of the Jordan River, considered to be the location of the Baptism of Jesus and the ministry of John the Baptist. Today, one of the riverbanks at that site belongs to Israel and the land on the other side of the riverbank belongs to Jordan.

My seminary group went from Israel’s side. The site is still in the desert, like in Jesus’ time, although they have built a nice little wooden deck with stairs for pilgrims and tourists, with a gift shop selling bathing suits and white gowns for baptisms. The water is muddy brown and the river is quite narrow. It would take only a few minutes to swim across from Israel to Jordan.

As we walked from where the bus parked to the wooden deck, I noticed barbed wire fences on either side of us with warning signs indicating that there are land mines beyond the fences. A legacy of the 1967 Six-Day War, when both banks of the Jordan became part of the frontline in the Arab-Israeli war. During that time the area was militarised and littered with land mines.[3]

So here we have it: the son of a tradesman from a small town in Israel, going into the desert to be baptised in the muddy Jordan River by a wild character who liberally dishes out unsavoury truths about their contemporary society, dive bombed by a dove.

This is the occasion that God chooses to announce to the motley crowd gathered there – the curious, the desperate, members of the religious establishment and the elite, the poor, city dwellers and rural folk – that Jesus is God’s beloved in whom God is well-pleased.

Against John’s protests about his unworthiness to baptise him, Jesus waded into the waters in solidarity with the rest of us who wander in the wilderness of the world; seeking forgiveness, wholeness, healing and meaning. When Jesus enters the water, He commits Himself to being part of that earthly journey that all humans are on. He publicly commits himself to his identity and mission, to be the One that John and all the prophets before him foretold would come to deliver God’s people.

Pico Iyer, a travel writer, spent more than 30 years traveling in and around Tibetan communities and part of this time traveling with the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. His book, “The Open Road,” weaves together conversations he had with the Dalai Lama and members of his inner circle.

One of the central aims of Buddhism is to train people to see reality as it really is, and not what we knowingly and unknowingly project onto it. Pico Iyer describes a panel conversation which included the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who although leaders from two different faith traditions, converged in this approach to reality. At that talk, Archbishop Tutu said: “I am not an optimist. Optimism relies on appearances and very quickly turns into pessimism when the appearances change. I see myself as a realist.”[4]

This 14th Dalai Lama, has in a very short time, become one of the most visible people on earth. And as a consequence also highly commercialized. But he has a very spacious take on it. He says, if it helps people to use his smiling face as a screen saver, or if it does some good to broadcast his speeches on the dancefloors of London nightclubs, then let them use him or anything else that is ‘beneficial’. Beyond a point, he can’t control the ideas people have of him or the hopes they bring to him. Pico Iyer reflects: “people of this kind pose something of a riddle for us: how much will we respond to their essence, the changeless core of what they are saying, and how much will we merely read them through the keyhole of our own priorities?”[5]

In submitting to being baptised by John, in committing to his identity as a beloved child of God and to his mission here on earth, Jesus opens himself up to his love for the world and for God. And in our baptisms, we also make a commitment to do the same. We make a commitment not to try to fit God or each other into the keyhole of our own priorities. We make a commitment to see reality as it is, and commit ourselves to work to change it to make it look the way God intended: a world where there is justice and peace among all people, and the dignity of every human being is respected. We make a commitment to see ourselves as part of a larger body, to see ourselves as part of something larger than ourselves, a body so large that we are able to see and serve Christ in all persons.  

Today we are going to welcome Charlotte and Huntley into the family of God; that community that we committed ourselves to when we were baptised and confirmed. What we promise Charlotte, Huntley and their families, is that they will never be walking alone. We promise to hold up the light of Christ in their lives by being a community that strives to embody love, joy, hope and peace. Even as we journey in the midst of barbed wire, land mines and muddy water in the desert, we will remind you that God can still swoop down and find you because you are beloved children of God. We will remind you that God can always find a way in, waiting to immerse us all with grace that relentlessly offers the possibility of new life and transformation.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Columbidae

[2] file:///C:/Users/Areeta/Desktop/Christ%20Church%20Grosse%20Pointe/Sermons/Year%20A/PreachingYearA.pdf

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al-Maghtas

[4] The Open Road, p. 64.

[5] The Open Road, p. 69.