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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Whether you’re a real estate agent, landlord, savvy entrepreneur or a devoted HGTV viewer, you’ve heard the most popular real estate quote of all time, “Location, location, location.” An Englishman Harold Samuel coined this phrase in 1944 when he founded one of the United Kingdom’s largest property companies, Land Securities. Of course, others have offered memorable phrases on real estate as well. Mark Twain once quipped. “Buy land, they’re not making it anymore.” Humorist Will Rogers said, “Find out where the people are going and buy the land before they get there.” Real estate investor and philanthropist Louis Glickman added, “The best investment on earth is earth.” Still nothing compares to the simplicity of “Location, location, location.”
The story of Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan, however, reminds us that a location’s accessibility, desirability and visibility are not everything. Our souls are hungering and longing for something more. Regretfully we give in too easily.
Biblical scholars, evangelists, pastors and tour guides across the Holy Land, often prefer the adage of “Location, Location, Location,” but that notion doesn’t work when it comes to the site of Jesus’ baptism. It should be the third most sacred place after Bethlehem and Jerusalem, as the place where God was first revealed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There are ruins of Byzantine churches dating back to the 4th century at the site still standing. There is even a 10 year-old Lutheran church there at Bethany Beyond the Jordan. Unfortunately, for Minneapolitans, it’s on the St. Paul side of the river. It is in the neighboring country, the royal kingdom of Jordan. It is also located in the recently demilitarized no-man’s land between the two countries, and the international border runs down the center of the river. It’s no wonder that Christian tourists making their pilgrimage to Israel often choose to find a safer, more accessible location to draw water from the river- myself included.
John the Baptist, however, was not drawn to the slick accessibility, desirability and visibility of Location, Location, Location. He roamed the wilderness in one of the world’s most stark and terrible deserts- a limestone wasteland of twisted and splintered rock called The Devastation. Shimmering mirages of heat rose from the crags and ridges. John was not a city dweller, and like every prophet and sage who had gone before him, he was a resident of solitude who had both the time and occasion to listen to the word of God. John trusted if God was to appear or speak to him, it would be in the desert.
John was considered as unconventional then as he would be in the world today, and yet, he was very successful just the same. We read in scripture that all of the citizens of Jerusalem, and all the residents of Judea went out to hear him. John the Baptist was true to his message of a vigorous, disciplined, pure faith in God. It should be an example for clergy today. Many pastors today can preach a good sermon, while their own life style denies its truth. They harbor a sizeable bank account while preaching of heavenly treasure. They dwell in a comfortable home while extolling virtues of poverty. John would have none of that.
You see, while style and taste evolve and change, substance does not. John’s message was effective because he told people in the heart of hearts what they knew was true, and he offered them what deep in their souls they had been longing to hear. No message is so effective as when one speaks it from one’s own conscience. And that message is irresistible when it is spoken by one who through example and lifestyle has the right to speak.
John was also effective because he was humble, and self- deprecating and he always pointed to something and someone beyond himself. He told the crowds that he was baptizing them with water, but someone greater was coming after him who would baptize them in the Holy Spirit. In a land covered in dust and sweat, he humbled himself and confessed that he was not worthy to untie the thongs of that beloved one who was to come. John’s entire purpose and mission was to point to the one greater and stronger than himself.
And then one day, Jesus entered that great empty landscape. He came to that remote, dried up river bed of the Jordan River, together with scores of others to be baptized by John. Yes, Jesus came along with the crowds yearning for a new beginning. It was peculiar. Baptism offered the possibility of a fresh start. But the baptism which John offered was a baptism of repentance, meant for those who were sorry for their transgressions and who were seeking a new way of life through the forgiveness of sins. What did Jesus have to do with such a baptism? Wasn’t Jesus the sinless one? What could he be searching for in his sojourn to John’s home in the wilderness?
My friends, I believe that the story of Jesus’ journey to that remote and harsh place in the wilderness to be baptized offers us three insights into the heart of Jesus and his desire for each one of us. For he believes that you and I can make a difference in the lives of those who are wondering in the desert places of life.
First of all, for Jesus, his baptism in the wilderness was a moment of self-identification. Baptism in the River Jordan was a selfless act. Jesus did not need to repent from sin; there was no sin to be forgiven. But here was a movement of humanity back to God, and Jesus desired to identify himself with that movement. You might say that Jesus was exercising solidarity with the very men and women he came to save. It is that same invitation that is offered to each one of us in baptism. We may not be poor, needy or disenfranchised, but we can learn to identify ourselves with the world’s forgotten and misbegotten. We can learn to forget about our lives being driven by location, location, location, and choose instead to live by a deeper identity.
Second, for Jesus, his baptism in the wilderness also meant approval- not by the crowds, but by his Father. As Jesus was leaving his quiet Galilean home and preparing to enter into ministry to the world, he was waiting for a word of approval. According to scripture, it was only Jesus himself who saw the heavens opened and it was Jesus alone who heard the voice of God, “You are my only Son, in you I am well pleased.” That is an important commentary for each one of us in our baptismal covenant. You will seldom receive public affirmation and approval for your work. Like Jesus, you will need to rely instead on the Father’s approval of your faith whispered gently in your ear. It is the approval which is found in the promises of baptism. “Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the Cross of Christ forever.”
And finally, for Jesus, his baptism in the wilderness was the equipping of the Holy Spirit. It is only in St. Luke’s gospel that we hear, that when Jesus was praying after he had been baptized, that the holy Spirit came upon him. The symbolism of his prayer and the dove could not be more clear. The power of the Holy Spirit does not come upon you at unimportant moments. It comes when you are earnestly calling upon God in prayer, when you are reading scriptures and doing the work of God’s kingdom. The dove is the symbol of gentleness. Jesus would accomplish his ministry through gentle perseverance and love. That is how God works in our lives as well. Equipped with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, we journey together and do the work of God’s kingdom with gentle perseverance and love.
My friends, there will always be a more desirable, accessible, and visible way to live life that are determined by the world’s sense of location, location, location. But God desires more from you. It’s why in the waters of baptism he calls you his beloved son and daughter in whom he is well pleased. So do not worry about your wilderness moments when you feel lost in the no-man’s land of life. That is exactly where God needs you- perhaps for your sake, or perhaps for the sake of someone you love or care for. It is also where you can expect to meet God. And when you do, may it be in the grandeur and wonder of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. What an epiphany that would be. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.