If you go and click on the internet for pictures of the Jordan River, you will find a calm, tranquil, almost pond-like creek wading through shrubs and greenery on each side. About 30 feet across, maybe. And you will find at the spot where it’s believed that Jesus was baptized, you’ll see a large fancy staircase, and people will walk down the staircase and calmly ease into the clam, 5-foot-deep water, and renew their baptism again. It’s very beautiful.
But it ain’t the way it was at the time of the Gospel.
Years in the 20th century of damming and irrigating off of the river have transformed it. Let’s look at how it was in the time of the Gospel. The Jordan River connects the Sea of Galilea in the north with the Dead Sea in the south. The land under the river is a constant, steep decline, in almost a perfectly straight line from one sea to the other. Not only that, but the entire length of the river between these two seas is located in a steep valley, called the Jordan Valley. That means that when it rains, it all goes to the river. In fact, the Jordan River was one of the fastest moving, most dangerous rivers in the ancient world. It was especially vulnerable to flash floods, where the river would expand to almost 1 mile wide in some spots. Not the gentle bathing spot it is now.
Now, imagine you’re coming from Jerusalem to come and be baptized. You’ve hear of John the Baptist, but now coming from Jerusalem, you get to the edge of the valley and look down. There in the distance down below is a large crowd of people, something going on. You begin to descend through the dangerous pathways to reach the base of the river. It is a dangerous path down, as there are wild animals that live in the walls of the valley. But finally you get to the bottom, and you realize that, because of flash flooding and whatnot, it is a steep drop to reach the edge of the river. The river is raging, and there standing at the shore, with one foot in the water and one out, ready to accompany people into this crazy river, is John the Baptist. He will be the one to help you take off your sandals, and escort you into this dangerous, powerful river, the one who will hold your life in his hands as you will become completely vulnerable and held underwater in his hands. And you’re hoping that he will raise you up and accompany you back to the shore.
You’ve never thought of doing something so crazy and dangerous in your life.
And you are terrified.
But you do it. You do this crazy thing, and so do hundreds of other people. Because there’s something different about this.
It’s that Jesus is doing it.
God is with you.
That changes everything.
Yesterday I was with one of the sisters here on our way to a village to share the Gospel with the local people. I was driving with one hand, and drinking water out of a cup in my other hand. My friend warned me, tongue in cheek, “You know, you can’t drink and drive.” I said, “I can. I had years of experience.” So that began a long story telling time of some of the types of things I used to do in life, and now God uses them all in His service. At some point later on, she said, “I can’t imagine you doing all those things.” People in the Church don’t know how I was before. The reason:
Now, I’m with God.
And that changes everything.
On the last day of His life, Jesus is going to take on a death sentence and take up a cross, one he doesn’t deserve. He’s going to carry it up a mountain, and He’s going to be crucified, humiliated and killed, on that cross at the main gate of the capital city of Judea. And when He’s lifted up on that cross, He’s going to finally be right next to another man, a convicted criminal, on another cross. And in that moment when that man looks to his side and sees Jesus, it’s going to become different for him. His torture chamber, His living hell is going to be changed into paradise.
Because Jesus is being crucified too.
God is with him.
That changes everything.
Jesus becoming a rejected baby in a cave, being baptized, taking up the cross, doing those things He doesn’t have to do, means His mission is to be with us in everything we are doing. Not just when we’re good, and life goes our way. No, in your work stress, in your family dysfunction, in your health problems, in your personal humiliations, when you wish you didn’t do what you did, when you make things hard for others and yourself, in your bad habits you keep secret, in your denial states, in all your pain and darkness in life, Jesus is there. That’s what His baptism is about.
God is with us.
That changes everything.
“When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you, I give men in return for you, peoples in exchange for your life. Fear not, for I am with you.” (Is 43:1-5)