The story of Theophany shows us the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and it shows us what the whole trajectory of Jesus’ ministry will be. God became man and he entered into every part of creation, even the inaccessible and remote parts.
The ancient Israelites were not seafaring people. To them, water represented the strange and unpredictable part of nature that they needed to water their crops and their animals. But the ocean and the rivers represented chaos and confusion to them. The oceans were this vast expanse that ships went out into, never to return. The psalms we read during the Royal Hours of Theophany spoke of the fear of Israel. They said things like, “my enemies attack me.” They ask God to, “lift up your hand against pride, against the evil things that the enemy has done in the holy place.”
We do not have the same relationship with the ocean. But we do have uncertainty in life. We don’t know if we will have our jobs next year. We don’t know how we will pay our bills. We don’t know how to be better parents, or how to find happiness. We also live in a chaotic and unpredictable and cruel world. When God himself comes and is baptized in this water, it is a statement about how God fills all things.
The hymns and psalms of Theophany tell us that, “the waters were afraid” when Christ descended into the Jordan. The chaotic soup of misery is terrified of Christ. The question is if we want God everywhere. Do I want God to be with me at all times? As sinners we are ambivalent to God’s presence because we are ashamed. We fear that God is a tyrant who will strike us down in a rage. We want the good things that God gives us, but we fear that he is easily offended. And so hardships become the context in which we resent God’s presence. You were there, God, but you did not do what I wanted! When our lives are like the ship on the storm-tossed sea we think God has abandoned us.
The truth is that God is always with us. But that will always be bad news until we understand that God is not a tyrant. Unless we accept a different picture of who God is, we will always see Him either as a volatile judge or a stingy and begrudging caretaker. Jesus shows us who God is in his baptism. He turns cruel fallen nature into blessing.
Does that mean that Jesus has given us a guarantee that if we follow him we will never have hardships? Will he make cruel nature, uncertainty, sadness and sighing disappear? At the end of time he will, but not right now. Holy people suffer and die.
How does he Jesus defeat chaotic and cruel nature, bodily sicknesses, disappointments, broken relationships, uncertainty? How does he change our perception of God?
He dies this by changing our perception of who we can be. He shows us a way to be truly human, and in doing so he shows us the glory of God. Jesus changes our perception of hardships, and gives us a new way of reacting to them. He changes our perception of who our enemy is! Who is our enemy? Sin. When we read the psalms about the enemy attacking, right after that we read the psalm that says, “against thee only have I sinned.” We read in the hymnography of Theophany a prayer that God will, “deliver us from every gloomy and harmful transgression.” My own sin is my only real enemy, since God is more mighty than all other enemies.
It is through obedience to his father, through humility and through love that Jesus conquers the fearful and chaotic nature. He conquers our fear of nature by being fearless. He conquers our mindless reactivity to hardships by being mindful in the midst of hardships. He conquers our fear and weakness by being steadfast and faithful. He conquers our sins by his death on the cross. One day he will also make all suffering to cease, but in the mean time he has given us a path of existence that is not enslaved to the cruelty of nature.
Jesus is determined to love us and to transform us into people who love God and love one another. And by giving us the example of his ministry, starting with his birth and going through the road to the cross, and by ascending to heaven, he shows us a way to wander. This is how to be truly alive. This is how to walk in the midst of the Jordan. By pouring out his Holy Spirit on us, he gives us the ability to walk together with him.
Jesus makes hardships and uncertainty the context for loving and serving others. Disappointments and grief become a context in which to praise God defiantly, and give to others out of our poverty. Trauma and fear and guilt are the context in which to worship God, and encourage our neighbor. They are not the context of defeat but the context of victory for the person who, like Jesus, obeys the Father and single-mindedly wishes to love his neighbor.
The Troparion of Theophany says, “When Thou O Lord was baptized in the Jordan the worship of the Trinity was made manifest …” It is easy how the reality of the Trinity is made manifest. The Father speaks, the Spirit descends like a dove, and the Son is being baptized and recognized by the Father and the Spirit. One, two, three. But so far we have only described the existence of Trinity, not the worship of the Trinity.
The worship of the Trinity is how Jesus offers his life as a sacrifice to the Father. The worship of the Trinity happens when you and I take up our cross and follow Christ. The voice of the Father says, “listen to him.” But in this episode Jesus is hardly saying anything. What shall we listen to? His obedience. His humility. His example. Listen to how the worship of the Trinity is made manifest in the self-denial of Christ as he begins the ministry which will take him to the cross, to the grave, and then give unto all of us a resurrection.