There are two stories in the Bible of waters being made to stand in a heap so that the people of Israel can cross over on dry land. The first is the best known, from the book of Exodus (chapter 14), when the people flee from slavery in Egypt and Moses raises his staff so that the waters part and they can cross over to safety. Pharaoh, pursuing with his chariots, does not fare so well, gets bogged down in the mud and when the waters close over again, he and his army drown. It’s a story of liberation and the beginning of a long journey in the wilderness, for 40 years, during which they receive the Ten Commandments and moan a lot. I have a cartoon on the wall of Moses looking at the complaining people with the waters stacked up and saying in exasperation “What you do mean it’s a bit muddy!” Some people are never satisfied.
The second story is less well known, but later when they enter the Promised Land they do so by crossing the River Jordan (Joshua 3). Here the Ark of the Covenant, containing the stone tablets bearing the Ten Commandments, causes the water-flow to stop so that it forms a wall enabling them to cross on dry ground. This time there is no pursuing army, rather they have become a people, shaped and formed as a body, and they are entering the place that will become their land and the focus of their national identity. This second crossing is where the promise is fulfilled and they begin to become a nation, to settle and live out what it means to be a chosen people.
It is no mere coincidence that John the Baptist chose the River Jordan to baptize and for Jesus to be baptized in. This is a place of rich nuance and reference. This is where the call was fulfilled and so John sets up his pop-up baptism there to make the point that a new identity, a new way of living out being chosen people, has come. In our Gospel reading he points to this as arriving in Jesus, whom he describes as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29-42). The response to this is that his disciples start to follow Jesus instead, because John the Baptist is not the end destination, merely the warm-up act; the real deal is now here. And so we have the call to follow him.
The rich imagery comes thick and fast here. The Spirit descending like a dove takes us back to the story of Noah. It was the dove returning with the olive branch in its beak that showed dry land was near. The waters of the flood had subsided and there was a new future ahead of them. The promise had been fulfilled and salvation was at hand. So the dove, which has become the symbol of peace, is peace brought through promises fulfilled. There is purpose and hope; there is a future worth believing in. As we stand on the threshold of Donald Trump’s presidency, that is probably something worth remembering.
These images of liberation, promise, peace and salvation are rich and foundational. They lie at the heart of the Christian call to live as disciples of Jesus Christ. We do this because it is worth believing in. It is the way of peace and justice, a drive to work for liberation from oppression, it announces salvation from the doom of pointlessness, that our purpose is found in God. That is the root of baptism, we baptize because we know that our life comes from and finds its meaning in God. It is fulfilled when we live in harmony with that and when we want to know how to do that we have the teachings of Jesus to show the way. That is why the first name for Christians, before they were known as Christians, was people of The Way. And we know that routeless and directionless living is empty and tends to come off the rails.
And so our first reading, with its wonderful image of being known before we were born, named by God in our mother’s womb (Isaiah 49:1-7). The prophet is despondent because it looks like he has laboured in vain. He has spent his strength for nothing, for a mere breath – one of the meanings of that word vanity. He is challenged to think beyond the local to the bigger picture. Being a faithful servant of the purposes of God means shining a light of hope and praise, justice, liberation and promise. This is the call, because the God who liberates, establishes and settles. We cross the Red Sea and the Jordan. The time in the wilderness ends and there is a fulfillment to the promise to be made a holy people.
Well, we know that the fortunes of the Israelite people rose and fell; their living of the justice has a mixed history to say the least. And we can ask what the point is. The purpose of life is not confined to the here and now, to eternal legacies in stone and projects that last for ever. It rests in the breathing of the purposes of God, the living in harmony and each new generation needs to learn it and shape it, to live it. We need to be renewed in it each day and be shaped by its hope and call.
Some places help us connect with the story of faith more than others. It can be, as with the Jordan, the place of a significant event that was pivotal in shaping the identity and direction. It can be a place where the presence of God feels particularly close, and many find churches do this for them. I watch lots of people walking past the Cathedral and I can tell by how they look and act that they are connecting with something foundational as they do so. People walk past this church in the same way and it standing in the heart of the city centre is a reminder and a focus. But buildings are just stone, it is the story and the association, the living witness that needs to connect for the call to become liberation and peace.
So today we are taken back in our readings to the place where the promise was fulfilled, when the new promise was brought into the open, when the call was issued and the following began. All of us need to be renewed with that and shaped as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Liberation from all that oppresses, the call to live in justice and peace, and the promises fulfilled announcing salvation and the purposes of God. The two crossings of two pieces of water stand for foundational moments in the Biblical story, and the call to become followers of Jesus Christ which we affirm anew today.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 15th January 2017