Rev. Drew Stockstill
Words of Faith: Baptism
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
John was in the wilderness. So are we. The wilderness John was in was the Judean countryside, down by the river Jordan. Our wilderness is less picturesque. It includes a pandemic that has taken hundreds of thousands of lives, countless jobs, wrecked social and economic havoc, and further polarized the nation. Our wilderness is the greatest political turmoil our nation has seen our lifetime. Our wilderness includes an election many believe to have been unfair at best and fraudulent at worse to the extent that thousands of people, following the instigation of the President of the United States, incited an insurrection, violently attacking the United States Capitol, attempting to stop the work of congress to certify the next President of the United States, and in the process vandalized the Capitol in the most disgusting way, breaking into offices, stealing, and leading to the deaths of five people and the injury of dozens of law enforcement.
The sight of the racist, traitorous confederate flag in the capitol rotunda, the center of our democracy, where civil servants have laid in state, has never before been seen in history, and is an affront to all who have sacrificed for this nation.
Racial and political disparities were on full display in how poorly prepared law enforcement was for these rioters and insurrectionists in comparison to protests this summer. This is our wilderness. John’s wilderness, with its fresh river and wild honey, sounds like a balm to heal the wounds of our own wilderness, with its ugly racism, violence, and deep, deep division. But we should remember, John’s wilderness was also located within an empire with its own corruption and oppression and violence.
The question I often ask myself in these pivotal moments is where do we go from here? I asked it when four years ago we heard tell of an American carnage and wondered what it meant and women took to the streets because they had a feeling they knew where this was going.
I wondered, "Where do we go from here," after the fighting over supreme court nominations, and impeachment, and the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.
I wondered, "Where do we go from here," during peaceful protests and destructive riots across the country.
I wondered, "Where do we go from here," when the children of immigrants where separated from their parents and held, still to this day, by the hundreds.
I wondered, "Where do we go from here," and more and more rage answered that we go further and further apart.
We wondered together, in the midst of the pandemic, "Where do we go from here," "How will we emerge," and we still haven’t. And then this week I saw members of congress with bags on their heads fleeing to safety. I saw a congresswoman hiding on the ground as rioters broke down the doors, and she was praying out loud with great passion, “O Lord, protect your men and women;” praying like she thought they were going to die, and some people did. And I wondered, "Where do we go from here?"
The answer is wilderness. We went to the wilderness and that’s where we remain.
When the Hebrews fled captivity in Egypt and found themselves in the wilderness, rather than trust God and Moses they made idols and worshiped them. I think we see lots of idolatry in our own wilderness: the worship of political party, the worship of the economy, the worship of industry, and technology, and violence. All these things folk turn to for comfort and protection in the wilderness, rather than trusting God and depending on each other – trusting each other. We’ve found ourselves in the wilderness and our idols have proven insufficient in keeping us safe, showing us the way, or comforting us. In fact, our idols are the problem. They have served only to divide us, hurt us, and stoke fear. So where do we go from here?
I don’t know. I really don’t know where we go from here. But I know this: it was in the wilderness that John the baptizer appeared proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And that, beloved, is exactly what we need in this wilderness: Repentance! Repentance from this sin of violence, the sin of corruption and deceit. We need repentance from the hatred that has infected our communities and our discourse. We need repentance from our intoxication with nationalism and nativism and tribalism and media and celebrity. We need repentance from racism and classism. We need repentance from cynicism that says there’s no hope, that says, “I can’t work with people like that;” repentance from grouchiness and irritability and fragility and rage in our hearts that leads us to be so quickly offended. We need repentance from hardheartedness and from burying our heads in the sand. We need repentance from the idea that some politician is going to make this better when the reality is that God alone is our salvation and our strength and that Jesus Christ showed us that it is we, the people, the body of Christ, we as a community together, trusting and loving each other again, who make it out of this wilderness. It is in the wilderness that Christ appears and leads the way to salvation.
I do hope that many of our brother and sisters in faith are awaking to the reality that the president is no anointed savior. And we should know that the future president will not be the one to lead us on the path out of this wilderness. But there is a voice crying out in this wilderness: repent, repent, repent.
So, we must. For through repentance of our sin, our humble admittance of our failures, our shared humanity, our falling short, this spiritual vulnerability of repentance, turning from the ways that have led us all here together, will lead us home. John appeared in the wilderness and his message was the good news, that we do not need to go on like this. Change is possible, forgiveness is possible, and that is a message of hope. It was such good news, that Mark says, “all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him.” Can you believe that? All the people. If you’re a Democrat, then it’s not just the Republicans who need to repent. And if you’re a Republican, then it’s not just the Democrats that need to repent. All the people of the city of Jerusalem went for we all need repentance and we all need grace.
All people are invited to come together and admit our failures, to confess our sins, to change direction and receive grace – our sins are forgiven. We don’t have to carry around the shame of our faults and neither do we get to keep reminding our aggravating neighbor with whom we disagree about everything of all their faults, but we all are forgiven.
Where do we go from here as a people? Let’s go down to the river. Let’s repent. Let’s wash away all this muck, let’s let the waters heal all this sickness. Let’s wash away all that is keeping us from living with open hearts to God and loving hearts to our neighbors.
I don’t know where exactly we go from here, what the specific path toward healing and reconciliation is, but I know it involves repentance, truth, and passing through the waters of baptism where we are reminded that we have all been made children of God -- all the people -- and we have all been forgiven because we all need forgiving, because we are all only human. And it is out of these waters we hear that sweet, sweet sound, that I want to remind you of today, those words Jesus heard in his own baptism, when the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit like a dove floated down from heaven and filled him up with love, “You, you, you, are my child, beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
We hear it for ourselves, and here’s the real kicker, we hear it for our enemy too, and we’ve got to figure out the way out of this wilderness together.