The voice of the Lord is upon the waters, the God of glory thunders.
According to the Psalmist, the God of Glory thunders. And since those words precede our reading of the Gospel today, it’s tempting to hear something of that same rumble in the words God speaks at the Baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan. Thunder, though, aint exactly what you want to hear when you’re in the water, is it?
Thunder clears the pool.
We hear those words from the Twenty-ninth Psalm every first Sunday after the Epiphany, a day when we always remember the Baptism of Jesus. Those words are meant to make us all tremble, if only a little, as we remember that strange day when a sinless man – Jesus – descended into the sins of many, as if repenting them all.
Today it’s Luke’s turn to tell that story. And Luke has his own unique way of telling it.
Matthew and Mark have it Jesus entered the River Jordan all alone, coming wet from the water, the heavens immediately opening, the Spirit alighting on him like a dove, with a voice from heaven saying, “This is my beloved son and with him I’m well pleased.”
Luke gives us pretty much the same words and the same holy dove but in his telling, Jesus isn’t the only one getting baptized that day. Apparently, while John the Baptist was waiting on the arrival of Jesus, he was busy doing what he did: baptizing whole crowds of people.
You get the feeling Jesus may have had to stand in line for his turn in the river, and that when he finally did enter the water, there were others already there kicking up the mud, whole hoards of broken people coming alongside him in the murky water.
“When all the people were baptized,” Luke writes, “and [wait for it] when Jesus had also been baptized and was praying,” then, and only then, did the voice of God name Jesus his Beloved Son.
In Luke, it’s prayer that immediately ushers in that thunderous benediction. You don’t get that in Matthew or Mark. They don’t give us Jesus praying by – or in – the river that day. Turns out Jesus prays more often in the Gospel according to Luke than in any other gospel.
Prayer is a river practice. It asks you to stand alongside and sometimes within the currents and the tides of life. Like fishing, it’s a slow practice, full of longing and learning to be patient.
You wonder, though, just who Jesus was praying for exactly. Himself? Was he saying a prayer of thanksgiving for the gift of God’s blessing? Or was he discerning what to do next in his own life?
Tradition has it his baptism marked the beginning of his public ministry. So maybe that’s what he was praying for: a what-next sort of prayer.
Luke, though, gives us another possibility. It’s there in the shattered lives of all those people wading in the river in the hope of coming clean: the possibility that Jesus came out of the river to pray for all of them, and not just for them but with them, as if by way of the river he’d become one of them, as if he’d been baptized into us.
Theologians say his baptism in the Jordan was different than ours, more about washing away sin than dying to live again, and the question this raised from the earliest days of the Church was why in the world would Jesus need a baptism of repentance? How could a man who’d done nothing wrong repent of anything?
It’s Luke who gives us something close to an answer by crowding the river with other people that day. In some mysterious way, Jesus in baptism enters our longing for love so big all is forgiven.
Martin Smith puts it this way: “at that moment [Jesus threw away] his innocent individuality [and took on] the identity of struggling men and women reaching out [altogether] for the lifeline of forgiveness.” In that muddy river, according to Smith, Jesus chose, to plunge into our condition and make it his own so that “nothing about [us is now or ever would be] foreign to him.”
He would know you, and know you in and through your own longing for forgiveness: in your deepest prayers.
To imagine Jesus descending into the depths of our lives seems a good way for us to begin our own prayers. So often when we set out to pray we think we have to get it right or say it right. So often we think we’re asking God to lift us from the tide and set us on dry ground and send us home.
But what if the deeper invitation in prayer is to begin by asking God to come into the depths of our lives: there to know and sanctify our joys and our sorrows, there to hear all our questions, there to hang with us in our grief and loneliness?
And about that last word, I think we need to be mindful that loneliness is a terrible wound in our world today, an epidemic that challenges the baptismal hope that all may be one in Christ.
This weekend, I was leaving a local hospital when I ran into a man on the elevator heading to the parking garage like me. He was heading home, and we were walking in the same direction, and out of nowhere he said, “I’m going to get the car to pick up my wife and bring her home. She’s been in the hospital for two weeks. Man, I was having fun!”
And then repenting his individuality, he added, “I’ll miss my party but I’m glad she’s coming home.”
It’s hard to live in communion, hard to lean into its human complexity. But it’s much harder to live without it.
In our gospel today, it may not look like much of a party – or even much of a homecoming. But if you look close, you might find the start of something really good: there’s a crowd in those long-ago ancient waters.
By Luke’s telling, everybody was there. And that’s because Luke hoped everybody would be. Today we imagine and experience the world differently. We don’t imagine everybody coming to those waters. But what you can’t see in Luke’s telling is who else might be there – outside those waters, outside his way of telling the story – who else might be there feeling alone. And who’s there in the water worrying about those who aren’t and doing their best to keep their head up.
Who needs company? Who need support? Who needs the friendship of Christ or the fellowship of the Church? Those are baptismal questions and they begin with each of us. So ask yourself, Who needs your friendship?
That’s the start of a river prayer, a living prayer.
Baptism is a corporate act, a communal formation. By way of it, we are in the waters with Christ, and we come out of them with Christ to move toward those who need a friend.