A River Runs Through It

Sermon preached for Baptism of the Lord at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.

Joshua 3:14-4:9

So when the people broke camp to cross the Jordan, the priests carrying the ark of the covenant went ahead of them. Now the Jordan is at flood stage all during harvest. Yet as soon as the priests who carried the ark reached the Jordan and their feet touched the water’s edge, the water from upstream stopped flowing. It piled up in a heap a great distance away, at a town called Adam in the vicinity of Zarethan, while the water flowing down to the Sea of the Arabah (that is, the Dead Sea) was completely cut off. So the people crossed over opposite Jericho. The priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord stopped in the middle of the Jordan and stood on dry ground, while all Israel passed by until the whole nation had completed the crossing on dry ground.

When the whole nation had finished crossing the Jordan,the Lord said to Joshua, “Choose twelve men from among the people, one from each tribe, and tell them to take up twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan, from right where the priests are standing, and carry them over with you and put them down at the place where you stay tonight.”

So Joshua called together the twelve men he had appointed from the Israelites, one from each tribe, and said to them, “Go over before the ark of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordan. Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.”

So the Israelites did as Joshua commanded them. They took twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, as the Lord had told Joshua; and they carried them over with them to their camp, where they put them down. Joshua set up the twelve stones that had been[a] in the middle of the Jordan at the spot where the priests who carried the ark of the covenant had stood. And they are there to this day.

Mark 1:9-13

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

***

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.

That’s the line that gave its name to a 1976 novella by Norman Maclean, and later, a 1992 movie featuring a young Brad Pitt. A River Runs Through It. 

I haven’t seen the movie; I think I skimmed the book in a lit class at some point. But the title sticks with me, and each year on Baptism of the Lord the words echo. A river runs through it. 

The novella, delightfully, has a Presbyterian bent. Maclean’s father was a Presbyterian minister, and teaches his sons about the beauty of religion and of fly-fishing. The narrative inevitably returns to a river in Montana, even as years pass and characters grow and change. Life gets harsh; grace amazes; relationships are lost and found and lost again, and a river runs through it all. 

A literary critic named Pete Dexter called A River Runs Through It “the truest story [he had] ever read.”[1] Clinically speaking, that isn’t true. The novella is autobiographical, but loosely so. It is not a bald historical account of Maclean’s life. There are facts missing, facts changed. It’s literature, elided and arranged so that what Maclean most wants to shine, shines. 

“Life every now and then becomes literature—,” Maclean writes in the novel, “not for long, of course, but long enough to be what we best remember, and often enough so that what we eventually come to mean by life are those moments when life, instead of going sideways, backwards, forward, or nowhere at all, lines out straight, tense and inevitable, with a complication, climax, and, given some luck, a purgation, as if life had been made and not happened.”[2]

What we remember from life are the stories. The stories we can grab hold of and tell and tell and retell until the truth we find in them is something deeper and bigger than the mere historical facts. 

The book of Joshua is old. The bit we read today is from the oldest part of it, stories that likely circulated for generations around campfires before they were ever inscribed in ink. Today scholars agree that it is a fairly poor history textbook—the archaeology just does not bear out the claims that the Book of Joshua makes. But that does not mean there is not truth in it. 

Truth like how, when there is a river, God is always right there to help God’s people cross it. 

We often recall how God empowered Moses to part the Red Sea so that the Hebrew slaves could escape into the desert. But we don’t tell the second story as often; how, when those Hebrew slaves finally made it to the promised land, God damned up the flooded River Jordan to let them cross. 

Joshua, though—their leader—he doesn’t want his people to forget, the way they so often seem to forget how God has cared for them in the wilderness. So Joshua does something peculiar. While the priests are still standing, with the ark of the covenant on their shoulders, in the middle of the River Jordan, he sends twelve men, one from each tribe, to get a stone from the dry riverbed, and set it up at their campsite. 

“Each of you,” he says, “is to take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites,to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.”

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. 

Centuries later, the Hebrew people are back at the same river, the river Jordan. John the Baptizer had likely set up camp quite a bit upstream from Jericho, closer to the Sea of Galilee, but still—the same river. The river God once stopped flowing so that the people could cross safely to the other side. 

This time, the river is flowing freely, and John is dunking people in its waters, asking them to repent of their sin and embrace new ways of living. And when Jesus gets in line, John baptizes him, and all heaven breaks loose. 

The skies are torn open, and the spirit descends on Jesus like a dove, and a voice declares: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

It is the kind of moment where time stands still. A moment you don’t forget.

Let’s take a look at the image of the baptism of the Lord from the St. John’s Bible. I love this illumination; the way the colors seem to explode off the page, uncontainable. Remember, though, that gold is the color of God in this bible, so the figure in front is not Jesus. It’s John the Baptist standing there, looking back over his shoulder, as if remembering. Jesus stands in the middle of the river, a golden silhouette in a golden aura. The beasts of the wilderness, spiderlike things with glowing red eyes, hover over his left shoulder to tempt him; the angels soar above to minister to him. Several scenes are compressed into one here, in just the way our memories can bring several moments to mind at once. 

John stands in contrast to the blue and gold of the scene, walking away in a dark brown shadow. I wonder, even, if he might be walking towards his execution, which takes place just a few verses later. Perhaps this whole image is what he remembers in that moment. He might now be on Herod’s execution block, but he was there at the river, the day the heavens were opened and the spirit flooded Jesus with power and grace. It’s the kind of memory I can imagine John holding onto—the river and the dove and the sunlight. 

All things merge into one, and a river runs through it. 

I told you all two weeks ago that I wanted to spend a few weeks on the St. John’s Bible because it refocuses my attention on the scripture I too often take for granted. I have staked my life on this book, because I believe it to be truth. But that is not the same thing as believing that every word is factual history. 

There are four versions of Jesus’ baptism, one in each gospel. There are variations in each one, some reconcilable—and some not. It is impossible that all four are factual. But all four are true—in that they point to the truth that Jesus’ ministry was divinely appointed and imbued, that he was God’s son, that he was God’s beloved, come down to show us that love up close. 

The gospel writers each worked from memory—possibly their own, but much more likely that of others in their community. And memory is a faulty thing, because the human brain shapes facts into stories, and each us has a slightly different way of telling stories. The Bible has the fingerprints of several authors before it ever gets to our hands—and I find that to be part of the miracle. The Bible is not a solo, but a symphony—a symphony of human voices singing their stories about God’s faithfulness, as they remember it.

I will admit this is sometimes frustrating. Facts would be so much simpler to deal with. But the Bible is art—whether illuminated by a team of painters or not—the Bible is art. And I think we can engage with it so much more deeply and honestly when we treat it that way.

Joshua told his people to set up twelve stones by the river Jordan, to remind their children that God had seen them safely across the river. But I imagine that when a child did ask, their father might tell them about the river, and about the time God dropped manna from the sky like snow; their mother might add in how Moses brought two stone tablets down from Mt. Sinai and said the words came straight from God; their grandmother might recall how she followed a column of fire through the desert night. Stories layered upon stories, to tell the truth of a God who calls us beloved. 

Frequently, on baptism of the Lord, a preacher exhorts her congregation to remember their baptisms. And, then, as Presbyterians, we have to confess that most of us can’t remember our baptisms, because we were only babies. We can remember our parents’ stories, maybe; we might have a photograph from the day. But the fact is I don’t really need you to remember the weather on your baptismal day, or whether your uncle was there, or if there was cake; what I need you to remember is deeper than the facts. I need you to remember the truth: that you were claimed by a God who has loved you from before you could first draw breath, and that we as a church will celebrate that love God has for you with every breath we have. 

The truths, you see, can be more important than the facts; and if human memory is shaky, then that, perhaps, is why this book is so long; so that in between the faults and the errors and the misremembered facts, the truth can be shown over and over and over again: we are God’s beloved, and in us God is well pleased. 

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it,” Norman Maclean wrote, that son of a Presbyterian minister. “The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”[3]

A river runs through it. Memories and facts and truths; trust and faith and doubt; stories and rituals and art. The river of God runs through it all, and rumbles out the same truth; from the beginning of the world, the author of all life is writing love. 

Amen.


[1] Dexter, Pete. “The Old Man and the River”. Esquire. June 1981.

[2] Maclean, Norman. A River Runs Through It, and Other Stories. 1976.

[3] ibid

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