“Shall We Gather At the River?”
Advent II, Year A, RCL. Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19 , Romans 15:4-13 Matthew 3:1-12.
What was truly shocking, the view that took their breath away, were the sheer numbers.
It looked like hundreds, maybe thousands, of people clustered all along the rocky riverbank, waiting for their turn to go into that unsavory water. They looked hungry for it, these people, who had come not only from the city, from Jerusalem, but from the four corners of Judea. Their faces spoke of need, of a desire for cleanliness, of a wanting of washing in this water that seemed so unlikely to clean anyone.
And then there was the man himself. He had first been spotted wandering around the wilderness, crying out “Repent!” Word had gotten out about his message, one that resonated with people. What did this mean, “The kingdom of heaven is coming near?” Was he saying that the Messiah was coming? He certainly didn’t look like a herald of a king. He was wearing animal hides, strapped around him with a thong of leather. His skin was as leathery and brown as the thong, bespeaking a man who lived rough, in the outdoors. His hair and beard were matted into dreadlocks. He smelled bad. There were rumors that he just ate whatever he could grab, insects, wild honey, weeds, whatever was available to one living in the wild. Would they be rendered unclean by moving closer to him?
It was a risk, but perhaps worth it. His words were compelling. They had to find out what this was all about, this washing in the river. The people who were coming out of the river now were almost glowing. Hard to imagine anyone coming out of that silty water looking refreshed, but there it was. They looked clean. How could it be?
And yet this seemed contrary to the Law, whether you believed the rules of the Pharisees or the rules of the Sadducees. No, no stepping into the water for them.
Ah, but the temptation was there. The curiosity, what this might feel like, besides just being wet and muddy. And they were there, right at the edge, with the water lapping at their toes. It would only take a step…
But then he spotted them. This brown and wild-eyed man who played a prophet, or was a prophet. Who knew?
And he was ripping into these men, these Pharisees and Sadducees, calling them vipers, calling them pompous, evil fools, calling them barren and useless. What was this? A life spent in dedication to the law, and this is how they were treated, and by this madman?
But what was he saying now? Something about another who was to come, one even more powerful than he? Oh, there’s a thought, someone even more crazy than this one. This new one sounded like he might be violent. Winnowing forks…fire…
Advocating overthrow of the law? Of the government? Such talk was dangerous.
No, they wouldn’t stand there and be insulted by this madman. They would step back from the river’s edge, step back from whatever strange thing was happening here. This was too dangerous.
The old hymn we sang this morning tells it all: Shall we gather at the river, where bright angel feet have trod? Shall we respond to that invitation to come to the water and be washed clean?
So much of our story as the people of God is about water. The water of baptism, the water of the Flood, the water out of the side of the crucified Jesus. This story, too, is about water, but it is also about that brief moment before we touch the water. We are at a decision-making point. Do we step in? Do we step back? We can only guess at what might happen if we do step in, and that’s a frightening proposition. It reminds me of the game my children and I used to play at the little beach near our house.
It was a cove, a lovely little protected beach. The waves were gentle, just right for three children and their overworked mom. We’d run down to the water’s edge, where the water turned the sand from shifting softness to cool hardness. As the leading edge of the little waves would run up the beach, we’d run backward, then as the wave ebbed, we’d run forward, teasing our toes with the bubbly water. Eventually, of course, we’d get our feet wet, and then our ankles, and then our legs, until we were wet all over, and laughing madly as we swam in the cove. Our fear of the cold water washed away as we moved from the edge deeper and deeper. It didn’t seem so cold any more.
Our Pharisees and Sadducees couldn’t bring themselves to get over their fear. They stepped back from the water’s edge; they didn’t even test the waters. And with that decision, they lost their great chance.
But can you imagine what it might have been like if they had not been afraid, if they had taken that risk? Let’s put ourselves back in the scene again, gathered at the river. Let’s go back there again:
What is truly shocking, the view that takes our breath away, are the sheer numbers. It looks like hundreds, maybe thousands, of people clustered all along the rocky riverbank, waiting for their turn to go into that unsavory water. They look hungry for it. Their faces speak of need, of a desire for cleanliness, and we too have that hunger. We know something is missing from our lives. Our curiosity has drawn us to this place.
And now we see the man himself. He had first been spotted wandering around the wilderness, crying out “Repent!” Word had gotten out about his message, one that resonated with people. It resonated with us, even as we struggled to grasp its meaning. So we came here, hoping to learn more. What does this mean, “The kingdom of heaven is coming near?” Is he saying that the Messiah was coming? We have been waiting so very long, and things are getting worse, not better. Could it be? Could the Messiah be coming, heralded by this dirty crazy man? If we step closer to him, will we be rendered unclean? Somehow, it no longer matters.
It is a risk, but perhaps worth it. His words are compelling. We have to find out what this is all about, this washing in the river. The people coming out of the river now are almost glowing. Hard to imagine anyone coming out of that silty water looking refreshed, but there it is. They look clean. We long for that glow, that inner cleanliness. It has been so long since we have felt the Law was clean, that we were clean.
And yet this is frightening. It seems contrary to the Law. What if this is all fakery? What if we step in and nothing happens? We’d look like fools. No, no stepping into the water for us.
Ah, but the temptation is there. The curiosity, what this might feel like, besides just being wet and muddy. And we are right there, right at the edge, with the water lapping at our toes. It would only take a step…
But then he spots us. This brown and wild-eyed man, this erstwhile prophet.
And he rips into us, calling us vipers, calling us pompous, evil fools, calling us barren and useless. What is this? A life spent in dedication to the law, and this is how we are treated? The realization washes over us. We are convicted by his words.
And now he speaks of another who is to come, one even more powerful than he, using words that frighten us. Is this Messiah a God of violence? Winnowing forks…fire…
Advocating overthrow of the law? Of the government? Such talk is dangerous.
But despite this dangerous talk, we cannot bring ourselves to step back from the river’s edge, step back from whatever strange and wondrous thing is happening here. Yes, this is dangerous, but there is something irresistible, a pull toward the water. We know that whatever happens, it will be good. We will be transformed. We must step off the riverbank, into the water, into a new way of being.
And you? Is it too dangerous for you? Can you feel the pull? Will you gather with me at the river? Are you willing to take my hand, and step into the murky water, and be washed clean, in preparation for the One who is to come?