Before Jesus begins his ministry, people from all over Judea go out to the wilderness to John the Baptist. There they hear John’s message to “repent,” to turn toward a new direction, and receive a baptism for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 3: 1- 6, Mark 1: 2 -6, Luke 3: 1-6, John 1: 19-23). John is pictured as a wild man wearing camel’s hair, eating locusts and honey, announcing to all who come that “there is one coming who is much greater than me.” As scripture focuses on John’s role of being a herald of Jesus, it is easy to overlook that a multitude of people left the city and went away from the temple in order to have a spiritual experience with this wild man that they could no longer get through their religion.
They wanted something new–something to shake up their traditional ways. Perhaps their experience of the temple had become too much like their experience of the world around them. That some of the religious elite were in partnership with the Roman government to keep the peace is made clear from the battles Jesus would soon fight.
And, yet, the river Jordan is not a pictured as a place of a political rally, but rather as a place of transformation: a place of personal new beginnings, and a place where Jesus comes before he calls his disciples.
Transformation is at the very heart of Christianity. Two ways scripture leads to it are through the ideas of repentance (to turn around) and forgiveness of sin (release from the past). It is the releasing of what has kept us apart from God that allows God to move us in a new direction. The multitude came to the river Jordan. There they heard John the Baptist affirm their intuition—it is good to turn around and try a new way. Enter the water, be cleansed of all that holds you to your past, that you may be free to go with God.
Let’s be clear that transformation is as crucial for those who have tried to live pious lives as it is for those who are doing the things their mothers would cry out against. For all of us there are times when our lives have become too close to what the world expects and, in those times, we lose touch with God.
As a result, the life that once was ours seeps away. Often, our religion, whatever it is, urges us to do the same old things that have become polluted by community expectations. We go to church because “good wholesome people” go to church and it is good for our children. Even spiritual practices meant to help us hear God’s voice can become too familiar, or a way to brag about our spiritual prowess, rather than allowing God the opening to take us on a new journey.
When our way of being which fed our strength and mission has run its course–and it will–to find a new way requires transformation. Just as it is not easy for the caterpillar to turn into a butterfly, so it is not easy for us to choose to enter into the effort of change.
It takes God to move us. God-given insight comes in innumerable ways. After all, God is the Creator, and thus there is no limit to God’s creativity in engaging us. It could be with a change in employment–or a word from a stranger. It could be an opportunity that has come your way–or a remembered dream. The call to take a new path on your journey with God happens more than once in a lifetime.
There were two doctors, one the head of family medicine at UCI, and the other the head of geriatrics in the Presbyterian hospital in New York, who spoke on the radio of the need to continue to keep the brain flexible as we grow older…stay engaged, try new things. When I was in school they warned us our generation needed to be flexible because the work world would change as we grew older. Expect to have more than one career, the experts told us. Even the secular world understands: our ability to walk a new path keeps us alive.
Still, if you are anything like me, when you feel vulnerable (and the need to change yourself makes you feel vulnerable, indeed), your first reaction is to go back to the strengths you’ve developed over the years whether or not they are of God.
It often takes a “God movement” to lead us beyond insight into action–to help us let go, turn around, and walk a new path with our God.
The ministry of Jesus begins with a God movement. Multitudes came to the river Jordan because there they received a baptism which sanctified, made holy, their need to let go of the familiar and to try a new way. Jesus began his ministry in the same water. The baptism in the river Jordan empowered people to turn and follow God’s voice into the wilderness and beyond.
Perhaps today you would like to join in with this God movement of transformation. Knowing we all need to splash in the river Jordan every now and then, to prepare for what God wants to do with us next, use your imagination and washing time to prepare not just to meet the day, but to find a new mission with God. Perhaps you can use your day off to find one of the many flowing rivers in the nearby mountains and touch the cold water to your forehead as a sign of your desire to turn around. Or use the pastor you know or the church to which you belong to take a moment to confess what it is you want to let go, hear the words of forgiveness, and turn a new direction. However you enter the waters, understand that you don’t go in alone, but in your action you join with the multitudes of the centuries who come to transform their ways,
You go with Jesus.