And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
This, too, is the Epiphany: God proclaiming Jesus his own beloved. On one level, those words are not about us at all, but about how much God loves Jesus. And yet from earliest childhood, you may have wished for words like those said over your life. You may still yearn to read your life into this moment. And that’s okay because, while these words are for Jesus, his baptism in the River Jordan tells us these words are for us, too.
They mark what the prayer book calls the restoration of human dignity. Our dignity. The life of Jesus grants us dignity, enough to stand up in our sins and ask for help. His love forgives, heals, reconciles.
I grew up in a family fond of blame. It was a useful gift. A strategy for playing it safe. You know the drill, don’t you? By way of blame, you don’t have to risk much at all. Or ever ask for help. You can hold up what went wrong yesterday and take no responsibility for today. You can even lift up the mistakes of other people and avoid the risk of making your own. It’s cool that way.
Why, by way of blame, you can see the world from the shoreline and avoid the transformational currents of your own life.
Wisdom, though, tells you blame is the least helpful, the least creative, response you can have to anything. It cycles like a road I used to travel called the Circle, a road that went round the whole outer perimeter of Dothan, Alabama. Thing is, you could ride that road all day and go absolutely nowhere at all.
Blame is like that: you can ride it out for a lifetime and go absolutely nowhere. And sometimes you can think it gives you exactly what you wanted: it fools you into believing the people you blame are so ashamed they, too, go nowhere at all. They do, though. Blame makes it hard to see things as they really are.
And trust me, Jesus knows and loves you, and doesn’t want you to waste your days blaming other people. By way of his holy example today, Jesus wants you to risk your self in the rivers of life. He always lands on the side of a living moving rippling current called life. Not the frozen waters of blame or shame.
Today he enters the River Jordan, a river where broken people come to find the hope of starting over. He enters that river as if he, too, means to be one of those awful hurt people. His descent into that river marks the Feast of the Epiphany in the Gospel according to Mark: a moment when God reveals what he’s up to in the life of his Son.
For one thing, this story tells us God in Christ is not keeping score, is not withholding his love from us because of what we’ve done or left undone. Or withholding his love from anybody else either.
Jesus enters a river where people come in search of a way to live their broken lives. Not quit them. He enters those waters as if he loves every one of us as much as God loves him, as if he believes his holy sacrificial example might one day become ours.
You wonder what keeps us from that. You wonder what lands us in hell so often.
According to the poet Dante, the heart of hell is made of ice, not fire. Its inhabitants are frozen, unable to move, completely separated from “the source of light and life and warmth.”
Last Wednesday a freezing rain turned to snow. I came to the office in the morning, and four hours later when lunchtime arrived, I stepped outside to find my car transformed by the weather. The side mirrors wore icicles. You couldn’t see through the windows. The whole car was covered in ice. If I could’ve found a way to lift that ice in one piece from off of my car, I’d have had an ice car to set down right alongside my real car.
It might have been pretty, like one of those fancy ice molds you see on TV. But it wouldn’t have been a real car. In the same way, a blaming life is not real life because blame freezes the heart and chills the soul. Blame ices life. It delivers the frozen shell of a former life because it’s flat out stuck in time that no longer is.
The temptation is to think you can wear it like armor: a blame suit protecting you from risking your self with anyone ever again.
You know what I mean.
A blame suit, though, is no better than an ice car. It’s wearing what somebody did to you a long time ago or last year or just yesterday. It’s how you suit your self up in what somebody did that made you decide you’d never get over it, never move through it, never live again.
If you’ve ever done that, you know a blame suit isn’t easy to move around in. It holds you captive in some cold hell outside of here and now, outside of really living at all. And as we all know from recent harsh weather, a hard freeze makes you want to stay home. Trouble is blame can offer a kind of pseudo warmth at home, like your very own personal grudge fire. And that’s okay for a while, but that’s not the transformational invitation.
The people who enter the River Jordan come confessing their own sins, not holding on to somebody else’s. Baptismal life is living your life in the risen life of Jesus Christ. We only baptize somebody once in our tradition, no dunking for repeat offenders, and that’s because baptism is a way of life. A covenant we make with God for a lifetime.
And by it, we live. And move. And have our being— our being — in Jesus Christ.