There is no space where God is not
Liz Stuart, 12 January 2020
Acts 10: 34–43; Matthew 3: 13–17
In 1999 I took 34 undergraduate students to the Holy Land with my then colleague, Stephen. One day we were making our way in the coach to the River Jordan when one of our quietest students, Lee (I still remember his name), declared that once we arrived at the Jordan he wanted to be baptised. Everyone got very excited at this prospect.
The tour guide rang ahead to book a slot and the appropriate robes. The students chose a hymn to sing. The question remained: who would do the baptising? Lee wanted me to do it but I was not ordained, and neither at that point was Stephen (although we both were to be in the future). Stephen and I discussed it. As good theologians we knew that a lay person may only baptise in an emergency. In the end we decided (God forgive us) that the fact that Lee had been brought up in a non-sacramental Christian denomination might just constitute an emergency.
The water of the River Jordan was absolutely freezing and within a couple of minutes I had lost all sensation below the waist, but before I went numb I became conscious that something was nibbling on my feet. The water was filthy. In fact, so rank was it that when it came to the moment of baptism Lee suddenly became resistant to the immersion and had to be ‘helped’ under by two strapping students with the aid of elbows on his throat.
I have no idea whether the water of the Jordan has always been that dirty, but the gospel tells us that ‘the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him (that is, John the Baptist), and all the region along the Jordan’ went out to be baptised, confessing their sins (Matthew 3: 5–6). So, by the time that Jesus came to be baptised himself, that river was symbolically flowing with the sins of humanity. Indeed, you could say that the river had become the worst of humanity, teeming with everything that separates us from God. And it is into this that Jesus asked John to plunge him.
People sometimes wonder why Jesus was baptised when he was sinless. John also wondered. One answer to that is that this is the moment when Jesus symbolically and mystically absorbs the worst of humanity, humanity at its most distant from God. And when he emerges, soaked with the sin of humanity, Matthew tell us that the Spirit of God descends and a voice from heaven declares, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’.
Incarnation is not a moment – it is a process; it begins at the beginning of everything, progresses through Jesus’ conception and birth, and now this is the moment when God in Jesus takes on humanity, dripping with every conceivable sin, at its furthermost from himself.
The Spirit of God hovering over the waters suggests a new creation; a new type of humanity at one with God yet soaked with our sin is born. And it is this humanity that Jesus will take with him in his second baptism, the baptism of death. He will go where all humans must go, where separation from God leads, swallowed up into the bowels of death. But into this space understood to be the place of the absence of God, he takes God, and death cannot cope with this paradox. It explodes, propelling him and the humanity he has absorbed into life – new life at one with God.
Today we are invited to enter the mind-shattering mystery that you and I have in some very real and mystical fashion been plunged into the River Jordan. Most of us have been caught up in the conscious embrace of this mystery through being baptised (often at the behest of our parents) and then confirmed, and that consciousness enriches and determines our lives. But God shows no partiality; all of wretched humanity was left in that river and Jesus absorbed it all. Everything that separates us from God – the things we are conscious of, the things we are conscious of but can barely face about ourselves, the sins we share with society and humanity as a whole which we are scarcely conscious of – were washed into that river and became absorbed into the humanity of Christ, who took our humanity at our worst through the terrible absence of God and drove it through the power of death into a new life in which there is no space where God is not, not even death.
Our sense of separation from God is now but our own illusion … we turn our faces from the divine horizon and become fixated with our own mess and muddle.
Our sense of separation from God is now but our own illusion. Our illusions make us behave as if we are separated from God; we turn our faces from the divine horizon and become fixated with our own mess and muddle. Those of us who are baptised and confirmed have no excuse for living in this illusion of separation from God. We should live fearless lives of love which testify to the defeat of the power of sin and death, but tragically we do not.
As the Sufi mystic Rumi put it, most of the time we float like dead fish on the ocean of God when we should be leaping in its life. Sin has no power over us; as the pope said on Friday, we are free from the power of the gods of money, consumerism, pleasure, success and self – the gods that keep us floating in the surface rather than leaping in the depths. In 2020 let’s all of us resolve to leap in the clear spring waters of God’s love.