In his work entitled, “Phaedrus” philosopher Plato writes, “Things are not always what they seem; the first appearance deceives many; the intelligence of a few perceives what has been carefully hidden.”
Keep that in mind as I share this story with you—a story that could be a real story, but maybe isn’t. Nonetheless, its point is made all the same.
A couple went into a restaurant and bought chicken dinners for a picnic they were going to have. The counter worker took their order, filled it, handed off a bag, and off they went.
After driving to their picnic site, the couple sat down to enjoy their lunch when they discovered they didn’t have a bag of food, but a bag of money—over $1800. Instead of their chicken the restaurant worker inadvertently gave the couple the restaurant’s deposit that was set to be taken to the bank that afternoon.
The couple put the money back in the bag, got back in their car and drove back to the restaurant, and walked in. The manager was understandably frantic when the man got his attention and said, “We came by to get a couple of chicken dinners and wound up with all this money—we want to return it and get our chicken please.”
The manager was thrilled beyond words, but still wanted to express his appreciation, saying, “Thank you so much. Please let me call the newspaper. I want to tell them of your honesty in doing the right thing and get your picture and story put in the newspaper. You’re the most honest people I’ve ever met!” But the man quickly rebuffed the manager’s plan, saying, “No, no, you can’t do that.” And leaning in closer to the manger, the man whispered, “You see, the woman I’m with is not my wife.”
“Things are not always what they seem; the first appearance deceives many” say Plato, and he is still right all these millennia later. We see something before us, and we deduce something as good, when it might not be, and conversely we deduce something as bad, when it might not be.
Plato, in his wisdom reminds us next that “the intelligence of a few perceives what has been carefully hidden”, meaning it takes more than a simple look, even more than a desired perception, to see truth.
Today in our text we see an event take place that is certainly good. But there is still a carefully hidden truth within this story. And it’s a truth many followers of Christ would rather leave hidden.
At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus marks his life and ministry with the sacrament of baptism. He traveled all the way out into the Judean wilderness, to see his cousin John, the quintessential rugged individualist. In the manner of other ancient Israelite prophets, John lived a solitary life amid sand and snakes but preached a message so compelling people were willing to go to great lengths to find him at the Jordan River, where he offered a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
First-century Jews were used to, and familiar with, ceremonial washings, but the only one that involved immersion was for those converting to Judaism. But John called everyone, even ethnic Jews, to be baptized or “marked” as being in need of forgiveness and salvation—of human sin being washed away and replaced with a real mark of repentance and confession.
John’s baptism was a great equalizer, declaring that rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, righteous, unrighteous or self-righteous, must turn toward God, be washed clean through baptism, and thus be “marked” with forgiveness and salvation. John’s implication is that without such marking, things can get dangerous. But what John doesn’t communicate, neither explicitly nor implicitly, is that even when baptized, there lurks still, a hidden truth—even being marked by baptism, there are still many dangers of baptism.
There is a paradox when it comes to baptism.
You wouldn’t wash dishes in dirty water. Yet John calls his disciples to be “washed,” marked, and cleansed in the waters of the Jordan River.
You see, the problem is, if Jesus were to come to the Jordan River today for his baptism, he’d first need a Hazmat suit.
That once mighty river— the river Joshua and the Israelites miraculously crossed with God’s help, the river that shielded David and Elijah from their enemies, and the river where John the Baptist proclaimed the coming of God’s Messiah— is now little more than a stinking, bacteria-infested, polluted trickling creek.
But, at the site where many believe Jesus was baptized, down near the Dead Sea, Christian pilgrims still plunge themselves into the brown, murky water, doing so despite the fact it’s so replete with bacteria and raw sewage the Israeli government has banned people from entering the water. (You can still enter from the Jordanian side, although the Jordan government strongly advises against it.)
Environmentalist Gidon Bromberg of “Friends of the Earth Middle East” explains the danger of just stepping into the dirty water, let alone plunging in it, saying, “If you drink the water, you’re likely to get diarrhea or stomach problems. And that’s if you’re lucky. It could be a lot worse.”
Which is to say, these baptismal waters are dangerous.
The followers of Jesus are called to come to where Jesus is, and we must know Jesus is standing in brown, murky, dirty, dangerous water.
When we walk with Jesus, we start in the muddy waters of the Jordan that today are polluted, as if to say, “Don’t expect room service, and a mint on the pillow. Don’t expect afternoon lattes. This is not going to be easy.”
When we walk with Jesus, we start in these dangerous waters, but the danger follows us even after we emerge. We even end up at the cross Jesus himself will invite us to embrace.
But that’s long forgotten isn’t it?
Anymore, our baptism isn’t seen as being wrought with dangers—baptism is seen as a contract on easy street, complete with signing bonus and entitlements—not dangerous sacrifice.
After all, when we are baptized we are washed of our sins and given full assurance of life everlasting. But what we have to remember is that baptism models and reflects being laid down in death and then being raised to newness of life.
When we’re baptized, we take on that same mark of Jesus, and his baptism is the prototype for us who follow him.
So important questions to ask are…
Do our baptized lives reflect the baptized life of Jesus?
Do our lives reflect the life of one who has been baptized in the muddy, dirty waters of baptism?
Do our lives reflect the life of the one who has called us to follow him from these dirty waters into a dangerous world where we are to share a message and way of life that leads to the cross…and beyond?
Baptism is a sign that we pledge allegiance to a different kingdom—the kingdom of God. And that allegiance manifests itself through praise and worship, but is also worked out in our service to others.
Baptism marks us, sets us apart, as different from the world’s idea of power, call and commission.
There’s a fun story I remember from my seminary Church History professor who told us when the great reformer Martin Luther was tempted by this world, when he felt himself being pulled into the ways of this world, when he would forget it wasn’t all about him, but rather was about God, he would put his hands on his head to remind himself he was baptized—that he was different, that he could resist temptation because of his connection with Christ.
The story always gave me a vivid imagine—awkward for sure, but appropriate somehow.
Our baptism into Christ calls us to be a different. It calls us to be peculiar and passionate people who are sent out to follow Jesus in changing the world.
There’s no room for pretending—telling the world our Christian title, but then showing them something un-Christian.
Our baptism, like Jesus’, is a commission and a call to go into the dangers of a hurting world and offer the love, compassion, hope, forgiveness, and promise of new life just as Jesus did.
There are, as we know, many Christian who profess, and even show themselves to be Christians. They go to church, carry a bible; quote snippets of scripture; invoke God as their higher power; profess Jesus as Savior, and so forth. They are exceptional at getting others to say, “You’re the most “Christian” Christian I’ve ever met!”
Except the reality is they are having a picnic with other gods—greed, power, self-righteousness, hate, racism, and so forth.
What we say matters, for sure.
How we act, live, and love matters more.
Living as baptized followers of Christ is something we can’t fake.
No amount of religiosity can hide who we really are.
We can’t hide this because as Jesus waded into the muddy water, he set the example for us—as he went out from those waters, he set the example for us. If the Son of God is willing to get dirty changing the world—if he is willing to love and forgive and welcome all no matter who they are— we who follow him will need to do the same. Because when we don’t we reveal what has been carefully hidden.
Baptism is a commissioning—not to a life of all we expect, not to a life of having it our way, and especially not to a life that seeks to be seen by others as something it’s really not.
Rather baptism is a commissioning to a dangerous vocation, but when we live it out, a vocation that can change the world.
Whether our tasks are easily doable or imminently dangerous, the baptized are called to follow Jesus out of the water, and into the world.
So may we wade into the murky dangerous waters, again and again, and may we go forth from them again and again, ready to reveal the Christ we proclaim to follow.
To do anything else deceives many. Amen.