Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And 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. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’
Well Pleased- Matthew 3:13-17
This week, a preacher friend of mine shared a tidbit she had heard in an interview between journalist Krista Tippett and acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton. He travels the world searching for quiet spaces and recording the sounds there. He talks about an epiphany he had at the beginning of his career. As one who had always been drawn to sounds, he realized that he had been thinking of listening primarily as a task where one listens for something in particular in an environment and tries to tune everything else out in order to pay attention. This is what we do in crowded rooms or busy cities when we are trying to listen to one person speak. He realized that there is another kind of listening, a deeper kind of listening. When you listen deeply, you try to take in all the sounds that are present, not just the ones you are searching for. For the rest of his career, his own work would be deeply shaped by his attempts to pay attention to all the sounds around him... water crashing through creek beds, bugs humming on flowers, the scratching his clothes made when he moved, the wind as it ruffles through grass. This kind of listening has helped him understand himself not simply as a human set apart from it, but as a creature deeply connected to it as he tries to hear all the sounds, not simply the ones he was expecting.
In the spirit of Mr. Hempton's work, let's imagine what it might have sounded like to stand along the riverside as Jesus was going to be baptized. First, I imagine that you hear the crunch of the gravel and sand grating against the bottom of your shoes as you walk. Maybe the leather in your sands creaks a little as you make your way forward. You hear the breath of the people walking alongside you... you hear your own breath. You hear the wind through the trees and scrubby weeds that become increasingly dense as you get closer to the water. The dragonflies and mosquitoes buzz, drawn to the water and to the delicious people near the water. The plants along the trail swish along your legs, rustling the fibers of your clothes. It's migration season, so you hear the calls of the cranes making their way north. Toads croak and plop into the safety of the water. And you hear a human voice booming through the woods. It is insistent.
The man talking, John, is probably talking loud enough that you can hear him from far away. There are many people present, listening, and making all the noises that crowds of people make. When is the last time you've been out in the woods with a whole bunch of people? I once spent an evening in the woods with about a hundred other people, all of us watching lightning bugs. Even though we were quiet and it was pitch black outside, you still knew people were everywhere. You could hear them. Their clothes swished. They sniffled their noses. The hiss of their whispers carried through the night. Their harrumphs did, too, when they stepped in a hole and tried to catch themselves. They stepped twigs and occasionally each other. I imagine the riverside around John sounded something like that.
John yells out loudly, for all to hear. You hear the rattled scuffle of the birds flying off, startled by his yelling. He speaks of God's promises and of the need for repentance... that is, the need to reorient one's life to the path that God was calling them towards. He speaks to regular people and respected leaders, alike, though he saves a particular level of intensity for community leaders who forgot their responsibilities to the people they served. He was not at all interested in propping up leaders who participated in rituals acts but did not to serve their neighbors. He told them that to their faces. For those who performed righteousness in public but didn't practice faith in their private actions, his words crackled through the air: "Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." As John speaks, you can practically hear the ax whistle through the air. You can hear the pops of the flames. You can see the leaders begin to sweat.
As you wait your turn to be baptized, hearing the splashes of the repentant reaffirming their commitment to God's path, another man crunches his way to the water. John seems to know him. Surprisingly, John, who will stare down any Pharisee, comes up short with this man. Maybe you hear him suck in a breath while he decides what to do. As the river splashes and leaves scratch across the bark of their trees, you wait to hear what John will say. John finally speaks: "You should be the one baptizing me. Why on earth would you think I could do this for you?" The man who has come forward... you don't know who he is but you can hear him slide across the sand to get closer to John, says, "You can and should do this. I'm ready. I need you to do this with me." The bees drone and the fish flip out of the water, but you don't know what's going on. So, you listen.
The thing is, because you have never seen this man before this very moment, you don't know that something important is happening. This very moment that you are listening to is the moment when he finally gets the chance to say yes. His dad, Joseph, said yes once when an angel showed up and asked him to care for a child conceived in a situation that was scandalous at best, impossible at worst. Joseph said yes again, when there was another call from the divine directing him to steal away to Egypt in order to protect his holy/ human child because that child had a future that needed tending. You don't know that that child has grown into this man, and it is his turn to say yes on his own behalf. In the midst of the whoops of the crains, the croaks of the frogs, and the buzz of the mosquitos, you hear him say yes and ask John to say yes, too. He needs John to help him start the path of repentance and return towards God. John, who holds leaders accountable and welcomes regular folks to begin again with God, was more than capable of sending this one holy/human man on his way.
You hear John let out the breath he probably didn't realize he was holding and see him nod his head in affirmation, consenting to be a part of this journey with this man. You hear the water from the other baptisms trickle off his elbows as John raises his hands to take hold of the other man's shoulders and turn him sideways. You hear the man, Jesus, take a breath as he is gently laid back into the river. You hear that sound water makes when it envelopes something substantial. You hear water falling of his head and a gasp as John raises him back above the water. Then, you see something like a bird, and you hear something you did not expect.
You know that interview that I told you about with Gordon Hempton? My colleague who brought it to my attention did so because of one particular part of the interview. In talking about listening, Hempton spoke of the kinds of sounds that our ears can hear. He noted that many people believe that our ears evolved primarily to pick up other human voices. However, when you examine our hearing and the bandwidth of the sounds that we are most sensitive to, it turns out that most of the sounds that human voices make are actually a little lower than what we hear at our peak hearing sensitivity. It turns out that the sounds that can hear the best are sounds that are actually just a little higher than the sounds most of our human neighbors make. So, if human sounds aren't consistently in the range of our peak hearing, what kinds of sounds are? It turns out that bird songs are. Of all the sounds that we can hear the mostly strongly, it is the songs birds sing that most consistently fall in the range that we can hear best. It also turns out the basic elements that make an environment hospitable to birds are the same ones that make it hospitable to humans. Birds can tell us that the place whether the place where we are is a place where we can live. We, humans, have evolved to mostly clearly hear voices in our environments that draw us towards life.
If you had been standing there, watching Jesus' baptism, quite suddenly, you would have heard the sound of new life. Something that seems like a bird, the story tells us that it is the Holy Spirit, brings with it a call to life and mission. You would have heard a voice sharing love and confidence in the man who is standing, dripping, before you. You would have heard, maybe in the exact frequency for you to best hear, that this man is beloved and pleasing to God. You would have heard an affirmation that his acceptance of his mission and his willingness to participate in baptism have cleared the way for him to begin. He would have heard these things, too. And, so he would begin to work, first with God and John, and soon, with you, building God's reign here on earth. You would hear him splash his way out of the water. You would hear him crunch his way deeper into the wilderness. And, you would hear the voice of John, inviting the next person into the water of repentance and recommitment. The last question then becomes, when you hear call towards new life, will you say yes, too.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources while writing this sermon:
Warren Carter: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preakching.aspx?commentary_id=3137
Interview with Gordon Hempton: http://www.onbeing.org/program/gordon-hempton-silence-and-the-presence-of-everything/4557
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4790
Karyn Wiseman: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1884
Eric Barreto: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=839
Jim Kast- Keat: http://www.onscripture.com/baptism-and-hope-new-year
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.