Interstate driving bores me. Get off any exit and you could be anywhere in the country. When I see a sign that says there’s a river coming up, it makes my heart beat a little faster. I love to look at the river as I cross the bridge. What really irritates is when there’s no view of the river or what I see is a dried up creek bed. “You call this a river?” I shout to no one in particular as I speed down the interstate.
The movie, “A River Runs Through It” is one of my favorite movies with that cutting line: “A Methodist is just a Baptist who learned how to read.”
Remember the baptismal scene in “O Brother Where Art Thou”?
As our lovable convicts make their way through the woods, they come up on a white-robed congregation winding through the cypress trees to a muddy river, singing:
As I went down in the river to pray Studying about that good old way And who shall wear the starry crown Good Lord, show me the way
O sisters let’s go down Let’s go down, come on down O sisters let’s go down Down in the river to pray.
Delmar rushes into the water for baptism. As he comes out of the water he shouts: “Well that’s it boys. I’ve been redeemed. The preacher says all my sins is warshed away, including that Piggly Wiggly I knocked over in Yazoo.
Ulysses Everett McGill: I thought you said you was innocent of those charges?
Delmar O’Donnell: Well I was lyin’. And the preacher says that that sin’s been warshed away too. Neither God nor man’s got nothin’ on me now. C’mon in boys, the water is fine.
One river matters more than all other rivers in the Bible and that’s the Jordan. The Jordan was the river Israel crossed to enter the Promised Land. Joshua placed 12 stones in the Jordan to remind Israel that God had brought them across the Jordan to freedom. Elijah crossed the Jordan just before he was taken up into the sky. Jesus was baptized in the Jordan. The Jordan is our river.
The Jordan River doesn’t look like much. It’s not even a decent bayou. No decent crawfish would raise her babies in this mud hole. But knowing God as we do, we should have seen it coming. God doesn’t need a river to be much to endow it with saving, liberating, redeeming power. Knowing ourselves as we do, it’s no accident that we turn up our noses at what is not big and deep and wide and powerful and rich and famous and beautiful. The Jordan would not be ranked in the Top 25.
Don’t be surprised at this normal, usual, every day evaluation of the Jordan. It has always been this way with humans who don’t understand that God’s ways are not our ways. I’m not sure we ever have gotten this straight in our minds and hearts. We are always putting down what is small and weak and insignificant. We have made a world filled with people who are insecure, suffer from inferiority complexes, and are filled with fear. Why? Because we have judged people as being unworthy. There’s one habit of the church that I would like to erase from our memory, and that is the habit of judgmentalism. I want to be finished with judging a human by the color of the skin. I am ashamed of every time the churches have used the name of God to exclude people and condemn people. I am ashamed of the church for fighting so hard not to ordain women, for digging in her heels and trying so long to deny dignity to gays, for defending racism, classism, and a host of other demonic isms. We need to be rid of these miserable attitudes. Don’t ever make fun of anything in all of God’s creation.
One of our common ancestors, a general in the Syrian army, a guy named Namaan, didn’t think much of the Jordan. When you are a general, you can get a high opinion of yourself. You can think you know more about history than you know. You can think you have more power than you have. The president’s press secretary recently suggested that no one should disagree with General Kelly because he’s a four-star general. Look, he could be a 50-star general, but it is not American to suggest that we have to kowtow to someone on the basis of rank. We finished that notion off at Yorktown, October 19, 1781. So don’t be telling me that we have to bend the knee to kings or generals. We are free. We are free human beings.
Remember the story? The preacher told Naaman, a man afflicted with leprosy, to go wash in the Jordan. “Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!* 12Are not Abana* and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean? He turned and went away in a rage.” Sometimes people expect preachers to be magicians.
That would have ended the story if not for the intervention of General Naaman’s sensible staff members. Sometimes the only thing that stands between a leader and his emotions is a sensible staff with sensible advice. They calmed Naaman down and convinced him to go wash in the Jordan. “So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.”
For Naaman the Jordan was now the river of cleansing, the river of liberation from the debilitating disease of leprosy. If you knew that you could wash in the river and be finished with every negative thing that keeps you all nervous, fretful, upset, and angry, would you do it? Would you go wash in the Jordan?
Well, the Jordan is ubiquitous. It’s wherever people need a good immersion. There’s a Jordan for you and a Jordan for you and a Jordan for me. St. Gregory of Nyssa: “For indeed the river of grace flows everywhere. It spreads over the whole earth and flows into Paradise.”
Let me say it to you straight out: God expects us to cross our Jordan. We can’t stay on the banks of our Jordan. We have to cross over to the other side.
It is the Jordan that meets us when people are oppressed. We can stand on the banks and say that we don’t have racism in our country. We can stand on the banks and claim that we don’t need to take care of the poor, but God means for us to cross. On the other side of the Jordan there’s freedom and liberation. Prior to the Civil War, the Ohio River was the Jordan for escaped slaves. I lived in Ohio long enough to know that Ohioans think Ohio is the Promised Land. When we cross over, in the power of the Holy Spirit, God will put in our hands victory over all the powers and principalities that are oppressing others.
When we cross the Jordan, we can give up fear. That’s what holds most of us back from crossing. We are afraid. Whatever holds us back in fear – that’s our Jordan. Christians are afraid of so much in our nation and this fear is driving them to stand on the banks of the Jordan. I watched a mediocre movie, The Green Lantern, but the theme was powerful. There was a force that had embraced fear and the power of fear and this force had grown more and more powerful and now threatened the peace of the universe. The Green Lantern, the most unexpected of super heroes, because he was a human, beat the power of fear with courage. It is a moral tale then of the most importance. Scared people want to go back to a simpler time, an innocent time, a mythical time that has never existed. I am convinced that fear is the primary message of the powers and principalities in America. The drums are beating, the fires are burning, the politicians are howling – in America it’s Halloween every day. Forget Advent and Easter – in America it is Halloween and the scary guys are ranting and raving 24/7. God is calling us to cross the Jordan. Pass the word: We are crossing over today. The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? We are crossing over today. “I will lift up my eyes to the hills!” We are crossing over today. The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? We are crossing over today. Nothing can separate us from the love of God through Christ Jesus our Lord. We are crossing over today. We have a Jordan to cross so be of full strength, full of faith. Don’t be afraid to make that sacrificial pledge to support God’s work. Don’t be afraid to make that commitment to serve God’s church. Don’ be afraid.
But the Jordan also stands for the final crossing. We all have to face it sooner or later. As the Jordan was there in our baptism, so it will be at our final crossing from death to life. Jesus takes us by the hand and we cross over to the other side.
One day we will see the band of angels and Jesus coming for us and with them the communion of saints. They are coming for us and their faces are bright-lit with smiles and they are singing. You may think I am being overly emotional or simplistic, but I am telling you that crossing the Jordan is what God’s people do â€“ again and again and again and then we are at home with the Lord. I’ll take that faith and sleep well every night over the cold, rational, dead cynicism of this world.