Last May I traveled to what is, by far, the most desolate and inhospitable place I’ve ever encountered. Twenty minutes east of Jerusalem, it is among the lowest and driest places on earth. It is the area spoken of throughout the Holy Scripture as merely “the Wilderness.”
The climate and topography of Israel are varied. In Galilee, the land is fertile, the climate is mild, and in the mountains there is annual snowfall. In Jerusalem, further south, annual rainfall is actually roughly equivalent to that of London. But just a few miles east of Jerusalem, in the Wilderness, moisture evaporates, vegetation disappears, and life becomes tenuous. The Wilderness is a true desert.
The Judean Wilderness serves as the Bible’s badlands. It is there that those sinful and irredeemable cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were located. It is there to which young David fled for his life from the angry King Saul. It is there, on the old Jericho Road, where the man in Jesus’ parable was set upon by bandits and was saved from the ditch by the Good Samaritan. In the sacred story, if someone is seeking to hide, or escape, or do himself harm, the Wilderness is the setting. Everything about the Wilderness is bleak. And it is in this setting that John the Baptist decides to preach and baptize.
I began my ordained career as a church planter, and I can tell you that it’s all about location, location, location. In order to have the best chance of having one’s message heard and of building a congregation, one needs to find an attractive and easily accessible place, near a major thoroughfare, and in a high-growth area. John the Baptist seems willfully to have ignored each of these principles. To get to the stretch of the Jordan River at which John preached and baptized in the first century, one had to leave the well-beaten path and risk scorching heat, desperate thirst, and ever-present bandits. And yet, Matthew tells us just before today’s reading that “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan.”
John was attracting a crowd of people, and it wasn’t the refreshments at coffee hour that was drawing them. What, then, was it? To understand, we first must grasp the role of the River Jordan in the mythic understanding of Israel. The Jordan, though a narrow stream then as now, appears on ancient maps as huge, wide as the Mississippi and deep as the Congo. Rather than a thin crack in the earth, it appears as a chasm. The ancient mapmakers weren’t simple or dumb. They knew that their representations didn’t correspond to geography. But that wasn’t the point. The Jordan wasn’t just a river; it was the river. It was the boundary the Jews’ ancestors had first crossed into God’s land of promise. Moving through its waters symbolized the end of one world and the beginning of another. And so the Jordan has continued to be in our religious imagination. In the spirituals of nineteenth century African-American slaves, crossing the Jordan symbolizes escape to freedom. In Christian hymns—like “Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah”—it refers to the passage from our earthly to our heavenly lives. The Jordan is a crack between worlds.
John is preaching that baptism in the waters of the Jordan can, for those present, do what the river crossing did for the ancient Hebrews. It can be a new beginning, freedom, a different life. It can spell the end of whatever world one wants to shed and the start of a new world, in which the cracks in one’s old life are washed clean and away.
And so you see, those who travel from the safety of town through the wild danger of the wilderness are not on a pleasant Sunday outing. They aren’t headed to a garden party on a grass-lined bank, and they haven’t come for casual conversation. The wilderness through which they walk symbolizes the wilderness in their lives. They are not solid, well put together people. They are people whose lives have cracked at the seams. They are broken, and they are willing to do anything—even confront the desert, both geographically and existentially—for the chance to have their cracks and fissures fixed and made whole.
And Jesus is among them. Theologians, commentators, and even the Evangelists don’t really know what to make of that. Jesus’ life surely isn’t cracked at the seams, is it? Well, we would say that Jesus is without sin, but we also say that Jesus is fully human, and humanity includes the cracks and fissures. To be human is, often, to be aimless, or confused, or anxious, or even regretful, and it is thoroughly orthodox to allow that Jesus, like so many others, walked through the Wilderness in hope that the Jordan could allow him, too, to leave an old life behind, to cross its existential threshold into something new.
But notice: With Jesus, it doesn’t work quite like expected. When Jesus is baptized, the sky above the river cracks in mirror image. And through that new fracture, Jesus encounters God. For the first of only two times in the Gospels, God speaks directly, and without requirement or condition God says of the young man in the river, who has come with doubts and anxieties known only to himself, “This is my priceless son. I am deeply pleased with him.”[i]
By cracking open the heavens, the divine response to Jesus’ yearning to be renewed, to be whole, is not a decrease in the cracks and fissures, but an increase. I think this is crucial. I think it is the very wisdom the dove of God imparts to Jesus. Let me explain with a more contemporary story.
Several years ago, the sculptor Paige Bradley found herself at a standstill. Her style wasn’t en vogue with critics. Galleries declined to show her work. In frustration one day, Paige says, “I took a perfectly good wax sculpture—a piece I had sculpted with precision over several months—an image of a woman meditating in the lotus position, and just dropped it on the floor. I destroyed what I had made. It shattered into so many pieces. [I thought] ‘What have I done?’”[ii]
But as she stared at the broken sculpture, Paige saw a truth that was hidden in the whole. She picked up the pieces and reassembled them, but she didn’t try to mend the fractures or fill the cracks. Instead, she placed a lantern within the sculpture and turned it on. The result is stunning. Blazing light shines through every fissure. One critic describes the woman as “fractured [but] bleeding with light.”[iii] Paige Bradley’s career took off because she began to see the light through brokenness rather than seeking perfection. The sculpture, entitled “Expansion,” is now known worldwide and shows in London, California, and New York.
The great lyricist Leonard Cohen, who died last year, said, “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”[iv] It’s also how the light gets out.
That is the truth God conveys to Jesus at his own baptism. Not by doing away with whatever fractures Jesus carries, but by saying, without condition, cracks and all, that Jesus is priceless and pleasing does God give Jesus strength and direction. It is only after this experience of complete acceptance that Jesus is able to match wits with the devil, preach grace, heal others, and find the courage to undergo the Passion.
More than anything else, that truth is what distinguishes Jesus’ ministry from, for instance, that of the Pharisees. They require perfection; he knows perfection is impossible. They expect to see a veneer of spit and polish; he can see that deep inside we’re a mess. They want every crack sealed; he knows that it’s only through the cracks, and not solid armor, that we experience light. And Jesus came to know this truth on his own baptismal day, when he entered the waters of the Jordan, when the very heavens cracked open above, and when he was told by the Creator of all things that he is priceless.
We’ve entered Epiphany. It is the season of surprises, gifts from unexpected places, transfigurations on mountaintops, and most importantly of God’s spirit entering through the fractures in our lives. Our New Year’s resolutions are always about getting a bit closer to perfect. What if, instead, we made an Epiphany resolution, to be open to the ways God will meet us as we are, to the ways God may redeem rather than fix us, allowing even our fissures to stream with light?
We don’t know what burdens all comers carried to John at the Jordan all those centuries ago. We don’t know their particular regrets, or failures, or anxieties. But we each know our own, and we understand what it feels like for the soul to be trekking through the wilderness and parched in the desert. We, too, want to cross a boundary that will allow us to be renewed. The epiphany is that we can, that the God of grace wants us to. But God will not “fix” us. The epiphany is that even while we are fractured and imperfect, we are priceless, and that there is no crack God cannot infuse with light.
[i] This translation is Frederick Dale Bruner’s in his commentary, The Christbook, Matthew 1-12, pg. 111.