When I was a little girl growing up in Virginia, I went to the Baptist church with my mother, the church her mother and grandmother and great-grandmother had belonged to, going back to the founding of the church. My father went a block further to the Methodist Church, where his family history went back even longer. The biggest difference between the two, as far as I could see, was this. The Methodists stood with their babies by a bowl of water that sat atop a wooden column; they called it a Christening, a word I thought for a long time was a synonym for sprinkling. But we Baptists did something that seemed more serious and mysterious. In the middle of the platform that held some chairs and a pulpit there was a circle coming out from the wall with a marble rim and a wooden top over it. Even when I was very little, I knew that under that polished wood, there was a pool of water.
I remember sitting in the pews of that church watching people I knew get baptized, peering up as best I could. With our minister, Mr. Kersey, each one would come through maroon velvet curtains that hid a doorway. The wooden top had been removed. You could hear the sound of the water moving as they descended the stairs together. I mostly saw teenagers baptized, but also some grownups, including a young man who sang in the choir and was much taller than the minister. I couldn’t understand how all that worked. How deep *was* that water? Mr. Kersey laid him back in that water and brought him up again like it was nothing. Except that it was clearly very much something.
We lived away from my home town for about six years, in what was the Presbyterian period of my life, and so I only saw baptisms if they happened to occur while we were visiting. One Sunday, a girl younger than I was came through the curtains. She looked tiny up there with Mr. Kersey. She was only 8 years old, but my grandmother said she was “spiritually mature.”
When the little girl came up from the water, she beamed, like a person with a holy light shining from the inside.
John the Baptist laid people back in the waters of the River Jordan and brought them up again. We read his story every Advent because he is an important part of this season of preparation. He comes to prepare the world for Jesus, to bring a word of hope and peace in a world of unspeakable violence and cruelty. Yes, that was their world, too. The Roman occupation of Jerusalem created a climate of fear, manipulation and betrayal. Revolutionary groups within the people of Israel targeted the leaders who had sold out to the occupying forces. It was hard to keep track of allegiances; and there was always some new person claiming to be the Messiah.
John made no such claim. He came to prepare the way for another, for the true Messiah.
I wonder who were the first people to notice John baptizing in the River Jordan? We don’t know their stories. We don’t know if they just happened to be going by, or if they heard a report he was living there, a wild-haired man dressed in skins, known for eating locusts, a hermit preaching repentance. It’s a word that means turning away from your sins and turning toward God. John baptized people in the river as a symbol and sign of that repentance.
The ritual use of water for cleansing body and spirit wasn’t new. It came from John’s Jewish heritage. But instead of being a ritual people would undergo for certain reasons and from time to time, it became a once-and-for-all marker of membership in God’s family.
In those first days and weeks beside the Jordan River, however, no one thought about joining something new. There was no church. Jesus hasn’t even appeared yet in the story! There is no birth account in Mark’s gospel, no imagining of the circumstances of Jesus’ infancy or what happened to his mother. We simply start with John, baptizing, which continues to leave me wondering, what did the people who came out to the river want?
How did they understand what he was doing?
He claimed a kinship with the messenger described in Isaiah:
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:3-5, NRSV)
As much as we want things to be better in the world, the literal imposition of this prophecy might upset those of us who like our hillside views. We don’t so much want things turned upside down and inside out as we want things set right. The people who came to John wanted the Romans to go home and simply leave them in peace. They wanted relief from the turmoil of revolving monarchs and corrupt priests at the Temple. Most importantly, they wanted some assurance that God still cared about them.
As we read the story of John’s ministry in the wilderness each year, we are preparing, too. Advent has echoes of pregnancy and its phases. In the first trimester, most women keep quiet and wait to share the news, just as we worshiped in a sanctuary last week adorned with only minimal indications of what is to come. Now as we look around the sanctuary on this second Sunday of Advent, there is no question that Christmas is coming.
Last night some of us gathered to have dinner and decorate the church with banners, ornaments, candles and a crèche. We searched for all the needed pieces, made decisions about which versions of certain things to use and repaired broken but beloved figures. I heard stories about how things have been done before, and also heard some places where there might be wiggle room to do things differently. It’s all part of our preparation to welcome Jesus as we celebrate his birth.
It’s also a time to consider what needs setting right in the world now. Each year we repeat familiar rituals and examine our life as a community waiting on God’s arrival. Each year we begin the cycle again, considering the ways we need to revive our individual relationships with God.
I was baptized when I was 13. Here are the things I remember vividly from that day. I had been shown the way to the room behind the curtains and the door, where I prepared by putting on a white robe. I knew by now that the pool only had water when it was to be used that day. Exhilarated but a little frightened, I walked down the steps the water rising up around me. I peered up and over to see the church filled with people I had known all my life. The moment came. I answered the questions, and Mr. Kersey dipped me back into the water. There was almost-silence and near-stillness, my senses muted like a babe in the womb. I had a feeling of deep peace followed immediately by a moment of total panic, and then the rush of the water as the minister pulled me up again.
It happened faster than I can describe it. I can’t tell you if it looked like I was beaming, but I felt that way.
At the River Jordan, John baptized a few people, who told a few people, who told a lot of people about that feeling. More and more people came, to experience something their friends and neighbors told them about – a sense that there can be a fresh start, that the mistakes of the past can be left behind, that old wrongs done and injuries received need not cling to us, and that God is the one with the power to make those things happen.
The waters of baptism gave people a renewed relationship in reconciliation with God and prepared their hearts to meet the one who was coming, Emmanuel, God-with-us. John came to prepare the way for the ultimate evidence of God’s care, the appearance of God’s own self in the person of Jesus. In this season of Advent, we await his birth once again.
“Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
In the name of the Creator, the Christ and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
(A sermon for Advent 2B, using Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8)