Matthew 3: 13-17
13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Let us pray. Lord, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.
It is Baptism of the Lord Sunday, a feast day in many denominations that immediately follows Epiphany. It is the day we focus on Jesus slopping into the waters of the Jordan ready for a holy cleansing. Eventually those cool waters will close over Jesus’ head, and he’ll rise again, out of the water, to see the heavens opened and dove descending and Spirit alighting and God beloving, but according to Matthew, not before John the Baptist suggests that Jesus is doing it wrong. Baptism is only for sinners, sorry Jesus. Only Matthew captures that detail.
In this slight correction from John the Baptist to Jesus, I hear this comforting word: take comfort, ye perfectionists and holy-controllers of every time and place, all ye who serve God mostly in an advisory capacity, all ye proofreaders of piety and ye devout with white-out, all ye who prefer a God who sticks to the bulletin and a Spirit who avoids surprises as much as you do, this water of grace is for you.
There is a lot of meaning in this text – a lot of ways to go. But, sparkling in the water I see this beautiful phrase Jesus offers to John that allows him to go with the flow. Jesus says simply, “Let it be so now.” “Let it be so now.” In this tender moment, Jesus is not scolding John or overpowering John. But he is inviting John into a new way of being. He gets to touch what is holy, tend it, baptize it, and behold it, but he does not get to control this holiness before him, or limit it, or force it to remain the way it was in the past, or correct it as if that would correct the future, any more than he could control the water rolling past his ankles.
“Let it be so now.” It sounds like the voice of God at creation who says to the dark watery chaos in Genesis “let there be light.” And it reminds me of the voice of Mary in Advent who says to the angel Gabriel with a beautiful but frightening invitation, “let it be with me according to your will.” And sure, the voice of John Lennon too. Letting be in this sense is not trying to be the sun of certainty ourselves, trying to have all the answers, trying to know in advance how things will go. But neither is it going limp on the shores of life as if our energy and action and our gifts don’t matter. Letting be is this middle place in the river where we actively participate with what God is doing even as we acknowledge that we don’t set the agenda. Letting be is humility that stays engaged and vertical in the river we don’t control.
Let it be so now. It comes from a very cool Greek word, aphes. Aphes is used about 15 times in the New Testament in stories I wouldn’t have guessed. It means to actively release. It’s the same word Jesus uses when he tells people to leave their offerings at the temple and go and be reconciled to that relationship that has been spoiled by conflict. Same word Jesus uses on the Sermon on the Mount when he says, “if someone wants to sue you and take your shirt let them have your cloak as well.” Same word in the Lord’s prayer that means forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Same word Jesus uses in reference to letting that log of judgment fall out of your own eye before obsessing over the speck in someone else’s. Same word the devil uses, finally releasing Jesus from all the trials in the wilderness. Same word when the fever departs a woman who is desperately ill and the very same word Jesus uses on the cross when he says “father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Let it be so now means actively releasing something that belongs to God.
Let it be so now. It was a deeply personal mantra for me over Christmas this year. As Christmas approached, I heard people say, “this is the first normal Christmas since 2019. Glad to get things back to normal. It will be refreshing to do what we always do.” But our family had changed over the pandemic. In particular, my mom had died and my father had gotten remarried and the family house where Christmas had been for 40 years had been sold and we no longer had a dog. And, what’s more, I am serving here with you all and my children are a few years older and my Dad’s wife and her young adult children and their new house are lovely. It is a big river of change. And, honestly, at first I sought to iron out those complexities and changes as I do most complexities and changes… with a plan. If we stick with the plan, I thought, we can find our way back to normal. Back up the river somewhere. And then, my sister’s flight got messed up by Southwest Airlines. Her husband was sick. Other people had other plans, the nerve. And suddenly, I felt like John the Baptist, out in the water, saying to Jesus, per my email, this is not the way it is supposed to go. But over and over again, I remembered this phrase… let it be so now. Let it be so now. And it changed me. I started to see my life as more baptismal river than concrete sidewalk. There was water there that could hold tears of grief and also fill water glasses on new tables as well. Maybe it was an epiphany, the gift of seeing God wet-faced right there with me in the river of change, the ink on my plans blurring and soaking through and somehow by God’s grace always expanding toward something kind and loving, grace descending and alighting toward something more healing than what I could have planned myself, Christ splashing on all of us the only identity that matters, “you are loved.”
I read that when Martin Luther would slip into one of his darker places, which apparently happened a lot, he would comfort himself by saying, “Martin, be calm, you are baptized.”
It is not just a sentimental internal thing to draw near to the waters. Baptism theology fueled the Civil Rights Movement as leaders sought to remove racial barriers on drinking fountains and it fuels us now as we consider the health of our rivers and oceans. This water is not ours. It belongs to God who tells every person “you are loved.”
As a metaphor-loving person, I have been imagining the church standing there in the river with Jesus. Church universal or church this very one. The pandemic has changed us. There are people whose absence makes us ache and there are new people here who are indescribably lovely. We are a little older and a little younger. We have this new shape and all these new wires and cameras and new identities and new tables. And yet, a wet-faced savior continues to call us to welcome, continues to send justice rolling down like the mighty waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, continues to require our participation and engagement, continues to descend in music and alight in the voices of children and roll down our walls, literally, splashing on us the only identity we need, “loved.” Jesus says to us, let it be so now.
Rachel Held Evans wrote in her beautiful book Searching for Sunday, “Two thousand years later, John’s call remains a wilderness call, a cry from the margins. Because we religious types are really good at building walls and retreating to temples. We’re good at making mountains out of our ideologies, obstructions out of our theologies, and hills out of our screwed-up notions of who’s in and who’s out, who’s worth and who’s unworthy. We’re good at getting in the way. Perhaps we’re afraid that if we move, God might use people and methods we don’t approve, that rules will be broken and theologies questioned. Perhaps we’re afraid that if we get out of the way, this grace thing might get out of hand. Well, guess what? It already has. Grace got out of hand the moment the God of the universe hung on a Roman cross and with outstretched hands looked out upon those who had hung him there and declared, “Father, forgive them, for they know not that they do.” Grace has been out of hand for two thousand years now. We best get used to it. And so the call persists: repent, reorient, prepare the way of the Lord. Make clear the path. God is tumbling through the world like white water on rock. There’s nothing left but to surrender.”
So for us today:
Let it be so now, whether your life feels like white-water rapids or still waters.
Let it be so now, hands on but hands open.
Let it be so now, a church old and always new, reformed and always reforming, standing on promises and sparkling with new color.
Let it be so now, forgiveness, freedom, fever breaking, mindful of all the things we actively release to God because they weren’t ours to control anyway.
Let it be so now, a future completely drenched in the love of God.