When I began to work on this week’s sermon, I quickly found out a couple of things:
- I have never preached on this set of readings before! And,
- I know very little about the Baptism of Jesus—as little as anyone else!
In our Bible study this week we talked at some length about the Gospel reading from Matthew (and also from the shorter versions from Luke and Mark)--about Jesus’ baptism, but we did not come up with a lot of information to share about what all has been written as facts about this event.
Did you know that there is a place that is “officially” believed to be where Jesus was baptized? Neither did I, until I read about it. (You know me and my quest for history.) One Bible scholar states that, “The Gospel of John (3:23) refers to Enon near Salim as one place where John the Baptist baptized people, "because there was much water there". Separately, John 1:28 says that John the Baptist was baptizing in "Bethany beyond the Jordan". This is not the village Bethany just east of Jerusalem, but is generally considered to be the town Bethany, also called Bethabara, in Perea on the Eastern bank of the Jordan near Jericho. [On our trip to Israel in 2008, we did stop for a while when our tour bus broke down at Jericho, which is on the West Bank of the Jordan, across from this place,
This place, called Al-Maghtas (baptism, or immersion in Arabic) was found following UNESCO-sponsored excavations in the later 1990s. Al-Maghtas was visited by Pope John Paul II in March 2000, and he said: "In my mind I see Jesus coming to the waters of the river Jordan not far from here to be baptized by John the Baptist".”
There is actually a website called The Baptism Site, which talks about this baptism site, with a history of activities over the 2000 years of people studying and deciding that this place must be the one. “The Baptism Site was a major Pilgrim Station from the days of John the Baptist. Even after he died, many of his students stayed in the area, which was the birthplace of Christianity. Churches were built near the site, monks lived in caves, and pilgrims visited the site. This tradition continued until around the 14th Century. With the power of the Crusaders vanquished, and Byzantine weakening, the site was neglected and the area returned under the control of local tribes. East of the Jordan was no longer a safe place to go, and with no guarantee of safety, pilgrimage to the site became less and less frequent, and then virtually stopped.
A scholar from Jerusalem discovered something called the Madaba Map [in Madaba, present day Jordan], in 1897. This map was a 6th century Mosaic depicting a map of the Middle East in the 6th Century. The discovery and subsequent analysis of the map led to a renewed interest about the exact location of the Baptism Site. Pilgrims started to return to the area east of the River Jordan hoping to find clues to the location of the site. But World War I, the fall of the Ottoman Empire, World War II, and then the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict with wars in 1948, 1967 and 1973 made the Baptism Site a no-go area for most of the 20thcentury.
The Baptism Site was a militarized zone, full of mines, when Jordan and Israel signed their peace treaty in 1994. The treaty allowed for the de-mining of the area. Soon after, an archaeological team was given access to the site, and following information gained from the local Bedouin tribes, many more archeological remains started being discovered: Pottery, mosaics, caves, and marble. Most of these were on a small hill known by the locals as ‘Elijah’s Hill’. When further digging was conducted here, the remains of three large pools of Roman period were found. A vast water system was found, and then the remains of a large 5th century monastery built by a monk called Rhotorius. On one site near the river Jordan, mosaic remains were found; then marble remains; then more remains. In total, the remains of five different churches, built at separate times, were found.”
So, let’s just say that for 2000 years this account of Jesus being baptized and people trying to find out where it actually happened has been very important!
In our Bible study we did discuss why Jesus’ baptism happened and what it means to us as Christians. I found the writing this week by our Stewardship Canon Lance Ousley to cover pretty well what we discussed: “Jesus' baptism in the Jordan by John proclaims the beginning of his public ministry and marks his solidarity with us and us with him through our baptisms. Others had been baptized before by John there in the wilderness, but Jesus' baptism changed this rite forever. Jesus' baptism now is the archetype of baptisms and just as his is a proclamation of his public ministry, so it is of our public ministry, too. Likewise, at our baptism God proclaims us as God's beloved children, with whom God is well pleased.”
Canon Lance also observed: “We do a pretty good job of teaching and preaching about our belovedness and being God's children. And most of us Episcopalians do a good job of teaching God's pleasure with us in our churches. Where we fall short in our baptismal theology teaching and preaching is in the idea that baptism is the beginning of our public ministry. And therefore, we so often fail to seek to explore and empower the baptized in a public ministry fitting with their gifts in our congregations.” That said, we did discuss spiritual gifts at some lengths in our Bible study, too, so we must be on the right track.
Someone asked, “Did Jesus ever baptize anyone?” From what I could find, no one could say for sure they had any specific place in the Bible that confirmed this. What seemed to happen was that Jesus set up his disciples so they could do things like baptizing and healing and such, and he spent his time preaching and teaching and healing. (One thought was that if Jesus had baptized anyone, that it would have been easy to say that his baptism meant more than one by his disciples—which would have been very divisive and distracting from his ministry.) We saw an example of this later when people argued about whose followers were more important—those of Paul, Peter, or Apollos. Also, we talked about whether baptism or the Holy Spirit comes first—who knows!. In Acts, the Pentecost event where all of the people in Jerusalem were speaking in their own language after the Holy Spirit came upon them, but all understood each other, occurred before they all converted to following Jesus and were baptized. We talked about whether baptism, or even a public statement of faith, is needed to go to Heaven or not. What about a small child in a remote place in the world who never hears about God and Jesus and dies due to starvation—are they kept from heaven by God? We even talked about whether one needs to be baptized to take Communion, official church doctrine vs. what Jesus would want us to do to support others who desire it.
I confess that baptism and all its parts is a difficult topic to think about, kind of like talking about the Trinity. Maybe the best I can say is that what we will be doing next after this talk is probably a good way to handle it—reaffirming our baptismal vows and also saying our creed of faith often in our worship. It does for us at least two things—reminds us of our beliefs, and also what we should be doing as part of our faith. Words do matter, and actions based on them go a long way to show what we truly believe.