Pastor Annabelle P. Markey
Year C – Baptism of Our Lord
Matthew 3:13-17
Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA – January 12, 2020

I don’t quite remember why I went out to the wilderness that day. Mostly I think it was curiosity. I’d heard about this wild man who wore camel hair and a leather belt, living only on locusts and honey. Apparently, he was preaching out in the desert around the Jordan River and was quite entertaining. At least, that’s what my friends from the village told me. So one day, I went with some of them to see this man for myself.

We got there and this John fellow was shouting up a storm! I’ve never seen such a feisty person! He was yelling at the religious leaders, “‘you brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’”

To be honest, it was all a bit much for me. I mean, who did he think he was?! But he was urging people not to take for granted that we were children of God. People started to ask him how they could really please God – a life that would bear good fruit. His answers shocked me! I mean, none of what he said was really different from what I’d heard the teachers of the Torah speak about. He talked about turning toward God again – sharing with those in need, treating people with dignity and respect, and finding contentment in what we have. His words made sense to me and his passion was inspiring.

He continued speaking and waded into the Jordan. People came forward, and as they did, he washed them in the waters, proclaiming it a sign of their repentance. A sign of their new start with God and of God’s forgiveness for them. I remembered my parents and grandparents telling me that even after our people were sent into exile because our hearts were far from God, God was faithful and loving, calling us to turn and be saved.

I, too, wanted to start again with God. To remember all that God had done for me and our people. To honor the covenant God had made with my ancestors. To live following God and bearing good fruit in the world. Slowly, I made my way down the embankment and into the waters. My friends stared at me, but I didn’t care. When I reached John, I held my breath as he plunged me under water. I was scared when I was under the water. I wasn’t in control and it felt like I was under much longer than the others had been. Just when I started to panic, thinking I might die, he raised me up and I gulped in the sweet, fresh air. I felt thankful. I felt truly alive. I was forgiven.  I was free. I was beginning again.

As I shivered on the bank, I wondered. Was this preacher John the one we’d been waiting for? The one anointed by God to lead our people like King David in the times of our forefathers? If so, what would happen with the Romans? He didn’t seem to be like the kind of person they would tolerate at all. After all, he was already preaching against King Herod and his new wife. This man didn’t seem afraid of anything! His truth would certainly get him into trouble.

As if reading my mind, John spoke: “‘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.’” He spoke with such authority and conviction, but he wasn’t the One? Who was this man who would come “with the Holy Spirit and fire?”

As I was thinking about all of this, a man slowly approached John. Whereas everyone else looked somewhat anxious or excited as they headed into the water, this man looked calm and resolute, like he was fulfilling his purpose. I watched John’s face as he drew near. John looked surprised when he saw him, but continued baptizing until only this man remained. When the stranger approached John, John hesitated. He seemed so certain before, now he was acting humble, unsure if he should baptize him. I could hear this man say that it was right – that it was God’s will. So John washed him in the waters of the river as he had so many before. But this man didn’t make his way immediately to shore as the others had. Instead he emerged from the waters and John gasped.

I later found out that John had looked up and it seemed like the heavens were opening. He couldn’t explain it and he still didn’t know if he was seeing things, but he truly believed he saw the Spirit of God land on the stranger like a dove. If that wasn’t strange enough, I heard a voice from above: “‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” I couldn’t breathe. What was this?

As I heard that mysterious, powerful voice, the words we’d sung in synagogue so many times echoed in my mind: “The voice of the LORD is upon the waters; … The voice of the LORD is a powerful voice; the voice of the LORD is a voice of splendor.” My heart skipped a beat. Could this man be the One we’ve been waiting for? The One John spoke about? Was this what the prophet meant when he said, “‘Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.’” That voice from the heavens spoke about this mysterious man, but it was speaking to my heart. Could he be the One to bring justice to my people? To change my weeping to laughter? To bring hope in our despair?

Hearing those words from the heavens, expectation and faith swelled within me. Glowing embers reminding me that I was a beloved child of the Most High. That voice told me about his identity, but it told me about mine, too. I was so caught up in my thoughts, I didn’t see that my friends were already gone. I hurried back, but I didn’t feel alone. I was connected with those who stood on the banks, who were washed in the waters, who sought God and found that God sought them, who desired to follow more deeply, and who experienced a new start. In the opening of the heavens I understood that God loved me – no, loved us – we are all children of God.

I didn’t see the mysterious man leave that day. My mind was racing too much. I heard later that he was a teacher. That his words were even more powerful than John’s. He, too, spent time in the wilderness, led by God’s Spirit. I heard that after a few years, he was killed, but he was raised to new life. I don’t doubt it. Seeing him and hearing those words, changed something in me. My daily life stayed pretty much the same after that day at the Jordan. The Romans still occupied my homeland and overtaxed us. I saw friends and family suffer illnesses. Death was still a part of life. But hearing that voice and thinking about that young man overcoming death… I wasn’t so afraid anymore. God was with us. With me. Some days as I go about my work, fetching water, preparing food, cleaning, and making clothes, I wonder if that “Holy Spirit and fire” are within me. Somehow I know they are and it gives me new energy to live, love, and serve those around me, honoring the God who has given me so much.

The wilderness was always so frightening – a place of terrible danger, loneliness, confusion, and uncertainty. But it was in that desert place I found new life. I am still unraveling what it means to keep beginning again and to live God’s forgiveness every day. What it means to live with God’s Holy Spirit, with wind and fire burning within me, sparking me to bear good fruit. I may never know why I went out into the wilderness, but I am so grateful I did. Amen.