Advent 3 – Year B
December 17, 2017
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Streams from the mountains in the border regions between Lebanon, Syria and Israel come together in northern Israel to form the Jordan River. From there, the Jordan flows south about 45 miles to the Sea of Galilee. From the southern end of the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan then continues its southerly flow for another 75 miles or so, until it spills into the Dead Sea.
For the first few miles south of the Sea of Galilee, it is still Israel on both banks of the river. Then, after a very short distance, the east bank of the Jordan River is the Kingdom of Jordan, and it remains so for the rest of the distance to the Dead Sea. For most of that distance, the river forms the border between the Kingdom of Jordan on the east, and, on the west, the land that was conquered by Israel during the 1967 War and occupied by Israel ever since, known as the West Bank and now also referred to as the Palestinian Territory.
After Israel took over the West Bank in the 1967 War, Israel made the two or three-mile strip of land along its side of the Jordan River a fortified buffer zone controlled by the Israeli military. Now, it so happens that the place most historians believe is where John the Baptist did his baptizing is near the southern end of this fortified strip. For decades after the 1967 War, pilgrims wishing to go there had no access, as the area was a hostile border.
To accommodate the pilgrims wishing to be baptized in the Jordan River, a place just south of the Sea of Galilee, along that short strip where it is still Israel on both sides, was designated as a place to commemorate baptisms like Christ’s. And since that was the only practical choice available, many pilgrims went there. And still go there to this day. A half million each year. But pretty much everyone knew that, although this was indeed the Jordan River, it was nowhere near the place where scholars believe John the Baptist carried out his ministry and baptized Jesus. And, so, many pilgrims continued to seek access to a site closer to where historians believe Jesus was baptized.
The Kingdom of Jordan and the State of Israel signed a formal peace treaty in 1994. In 2002, a baptismal site near what is believed to be the actual historical site was opened on the Jordanian side. Israel in due course began allowing limited, controlled, visits to a corresponding site in its side of the river on religious holidays, and then finally in 2011, Israel agreed to make this site accessible year-round. Israel was not willing to demilitarize the whole border area, and it remains fortified to this day. Instead, they cleared a narrow pathway of landmines, wide enough for a small highway to traverse the military zone, so that tour busses and pilgrims could access the site.
On either side of the access highway, there is a tall fence, and when you get to the parking lot for the tourist area, there are signs warning you not to go beyond the fence, because there still may be land mines there.
At this point, the Jordan River is surprisingly narrow, about 20 to 25 feet. That is mostly because, from the point where the river flows out of the Sea of Galilee, the Kingdom of Jordan and the State of Israel divert over 95% of the water from the river for agricultural and domestic use. It is therefore narrow enough at this southern point that one could, theoretically, easily cross the river unaided, except that I’m pretty sure that that the heavily armed Israeli soldiers guarding the site would not let you do that.
Across the river, on the Jordanian side, there is a small amphitheater adjacent to the landing designated for baptisms on that side, and churches of many denominations have sprung up like mushrooms all around the site. The prevailing, but not undisputed, view, incidentally, is that John operated on the Jordanian side. But the site on the Israeli occupied side is still just a stone’s throw away, and many scores of thousands of pilgrims come there to be baptized or re-baptized each year. There is a viewing structure with rows of seats overlooking the baptismal area.
The conduct of baptisms is more regulated than you might expect. Yes, you can go into the waters of the Jordan River to be baptized at the designated spot, but only if you are wearing a white baptismal gown that you purchase or rent at the site. And you need to arrange for a baptizer. John, of course, is no longer there, and there is no permanent on-site baptizer on staff to assist you.
Now, I can understand the value of going to biblical sites in the Holy Land. As many of you know, Betsy and I recently went on a group Holy Land Tour, and I can attest that reading the Sermon on the Mount aloud while sitting at the place where Jesus is believed to have delivered it, or walking the Via Dolorosa, the path Jesus walked from the site of his sentencing to the place of his crucifixion, makes the stories come alive in a whole new way. And I’m glad we went to the southern baptismal site along the Jordan River. While there, we read scriptural accounts about Jesus’ baptism, and prayerfully reflected on the story while gazing at the river. I get why one might want to go there. But I have a harder time understanding the baptism part.
First, it’s kind of yucky. As I mentioned earlier, most of the water coming out of the Sea of Galilee is diverted away for agricultural and domestic use. South of where the water is diverted away, untreated sewage and agricultural runoff make their way into the river. At the baptismal site, there are well-placed signs in large easy to read letters warning visitors not to drink the water. Although I understand that some improvements have been made since then, when the waters near this part of the Jordan River were tested in 2013, the fecal coliform content was 2,300 per 100 milliliters. That is about twelve times – twelve times – the level at which the State of New Jersey will close beaches to the public. Maybe it would be worth braving that if there were a really good reason for it. I don’t see one.
Although I have no actual statistics on this, I have to believe that most of the people entering the water there were already baptized once before. But baptism is not meant to be a recurring event. It is meant to be a once and done. As we will in just a few minutes say as part of our creed, we “acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” There is no need for a second one.
Now, I assume that some of the people getting baptized there are indeed getting baptized the for first time. In our denomination, we practice infant baptism. Acknowledging that such baptisms are not expressions of the free choice of the children being baptized, we also have the latter sacrament of confirmation, when the children have become old enough to confirm, as a matter of their own free will, their commitment to the promises that were made on their behalf at their baptism. But in other denominations, there is no infant baptism. For them, baptism is always an act of will on the part of the baptized, and is therefore deferred until the person is old enough to make an informed choose to do it. And, of course, there are people who become Christians, for the first time, as adults. For those who, for whatever reason, are being baptized for the first time as adults, I can acknowledge the attraction of having that baptism happen near where Jesus himself was baptized. I can see that attraction. But still, since the reason for being baptized is to become a member of Christ’s Body, the Church, would it not be more fitting to have it done in the presence of the community of people with whom we worship, rather than as a personal indulgence in some far-off place?
Finally, the idea of going to the Jordan River to be baptized or re-baptized is something that I doubt John himself would support if he were here today. Although John’s words in today’s Gospel reading probably seemed cryptic to the religious authorities who were questioning him, he was in fact a model of clarity on several matters. He was clear about who he was not, that he was not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the prophet. And he was very clear that it wasn’t about him, it was about the one coming after him, the thong of whose sandal John was not even worthy to untie. And he was clear that, therefore, the water isn’t what’s important.
In the sacrament of baptism, the water is merely a symbol, an outward and visible sign. The important part is not the water, but the inward and spiritual grace of new life in the Holy Spirit. And that Holy Spirit is no less present here or anywhere else than in the waters of the Jordan River or on its banks.
So, if John were here, I don’t think he’d be encouraging us to go get re-baptized. I think he’d want us instead to follow his example, by not focusing attention on ourselves, but instead going forth into the world as ones sent by God to testify to the light, to Jesus, the light of the world.
This does not have to mean overt evangelism. We can testify to the light by the way we live our lives and treat our neighbors.
Today’s Old Testament reading from Isaiah points to how that can happen. The passage reflects the eager anticipation of the people of Israel to return from exile to Jerusalem, and to flourish there as a people of whom “all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.”
So, too, can we become a people like that, a people who others will see as blessed. A people who testify to the light, to the blessings our God has to offer, in the way we live our lives each day. We can do that by, as Paul exhorts us in today’s Epistle, rejoicing always and giving thanks in all circumstances. Who, seeing us do that, would not regard it as testimony to the light. And, we can testify to the light simply by living out our baptismal covenants to “proclaim by [our] example the Good News of God in Christ, … seek[ing] and serv[ing] Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves.” If we can do that, then we do what John urged us. We “make straight the way of the Lord,” by making it easier for God to come into the hearts and lives of those with whom we lovingly interact. And we can do that because, by baptism, we gain new life in the Holy Spirit and become members of the Body of Christ, the Christ through whom Isaiah’s vision has been fulfilled. No second baptism required.