When something gets this strange at the edges, it’s a good sign that we stand at the threshold of change. Thresholds, like Advent, are strange, standing before one, but not crossed, something that has not happened yet. Thresholds have guardians. The guardian at the threshold always demands something before he or she lets us pass. Gatekeepers are as enigmatic as the gates they guard: the sphinx with her riddle, the ferryman to whom we pay the coin, the final exam that must be passed before the student can move on, the costs of a wedding. On the journey of life, we pass many such thresholds and face a great variety of guardians. John is the threshold to the Christ. We can’t get to Jesus without first understanding him. We can’t get to the Christ without paying John’s price.
Looked at from the perspective of our own age’s great idea, which is evolution, going down into the waters represents biological regression. It represents the waters from which all life on earth emerged. John stands there, contrary to all our notions of progress and the march up the evolutionary scale. “Come back!” he seems to cry. “You’ve taken the wrong shortcuts! Too far, too fast. Come back.”
From the more recent perspective of John’s own history, his standing at the Jordan represented a return to the moment when the desert journey was over and the Promised Land lay in view, but was yet untouched by cruel wars and kings and bad ideas of power. Each, in different ways, invites us to become pristine again. John is the baptizer, the washer away of disordered desires, the one who says, “You can begin again. You can get it right.”
Just about everything that is written and preached about baptism emphasizes this quality of return. In baptism, say the wise ones, we experience a second birth. In baptism, we die to what we were so that we might be changed in a way that we can hardly even imagine. In baptism, says our Prayer Book, we “share in Christ’s death.” I wonder how closely any of us pay attention to this when a sweet baby and her happy family is brought into church.
I want to be comfortable. I want sweet babies and God sends me a wild Baptist. So I build walls around myself and call them “progress.” I cut myself off from nature and call it “civilization.” But none of that deters John. Despite all my best efforts, John appears and says, “Come back.”