Following another disaster of too much water in Texas, I offer a sermon I gave in early 2005, pondering how the baptism of Jesus, his willingness to enter the waters with us, applies to scenes of water and natural disaster. The assigned biblical texts for the day are often quoted — anything in quotation marks comes from one of the Scripture readings.
The news over the last couple weeks has largely left me speechless. I have exchanged very few words with anyone, even God, about the horrors emerging from Asian coasts. No words are adequate, and yet there comes a time when to maintain silence seems all the more cowardly or cold.
Processing Jesus’ baptism this week, I concluded that the submission of his body to the physicality of immersion in water ought to be able to speak somehow to these present tragedies.
The Psalm for the day praises a big and powerful God, a God who “causes the oaks to whirl and strips the forest bare.” The Psalmist is compelled to follow with an exclamation of “Glory!,” and we wonder if that can be right. It is beyond us how the pictures we have seen ought to elicit praises of “Glory!”
That the God who anoints one to bring justice and to “deal gently with smoldering wicks” also “breaks the cedars of Lebanon” and the reefs of Asian coasts, “flashes forth flames of fire” and propels towering waves of water is more than we can figure out. This is no easily manipulated idol or predictable god, but “the LORD who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it.” And we find this bigness frightening, wishing that God would be more tame than “enthroned over the flood.” It doesn’t seem fair that “the voice of the Lord [remains] over the waters,” while we are left spinning in the waters themselves. Why do you get to stay up there while we are left down here? We want God to know what it’s like and do something about it.
Then we come to our Gospel text and Jesus enters the waters. Granted, the waters of the Jordan that day were calmer than the waters of the Indian Ocean that fateful Sunday two weeks ago.
But Jesus knew what kind of baptism awaited him. He knew he faced a different sort of vengeful wave — one that sought to drown out the Word and extinguish the light that had come into the darkness.
And this time we have an opposing wish. Like John, we do not understand why he must enter the waters to fulfill all righteousness. And like the disciples in Mark, we are perplexed and upset that Jesus, instead of granting spots on his right and his left in glory, says, “with the baptism with which I am baptized you will be baptized,” and explains that “among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.
But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant... For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” This time we wish he would have stayed on top of the wave triumphantly, confronting it with power and squashing it, rather than come close and allow himself to be overtaken by it, calling us to follow.
We are upset and discontent either way: we resent a God that watches from above as we are tossed about down here, and we want to pull God down and make God face it with us. But we are no happier when God becomes one of us only to suffer the same fate we fear ourselves.
‘Go back up there and reclaim your power — get us out of here somehow!’ we say, and push Jesus toward a seat in glory rather than a dunking in the Jordan or a cross on a hillside.
Thankfully, God in God’s wisdom transcends our wavering opinions about what God should do and where God should be. The good news today is that Jesus entered the waters AND that the heavens were opened, the Spirit descended, and a voice spoke.
If the object of our faith and hope only goes as far as solidarity in suffering — entering the waters — then we’re still stuck in them: still stuck in them with a God who is stuck in them.
But God the Father who claims the Son is still “over the mighty waters,” and the Father sees and affirms the Son not only when he stands again on the shore. God is pleased and present even in the Son’s immersion because God can see beyond it. The Lord said in Isaiah, “new things I declare; before they spring into being I announce them to you.” When John was questioning why Jesus must enter the waters God was preparing to raise him up and send the Spirit on him.
The message spread, says Peter in our Acts passage, how Jesus “went about doing good and healing.” And then the wave stretched out with all the more determination, bent on drowning out the Word, extinguishing the light, submerging the Son. And it did.
It overtook him and killed him. You see, God is not unable to sympathize with a wave that rips a son from your side.
But neither does God remain a victim of the wave, with nothing more to offer than to share our contingent and tragic fate, for God remains over the mighty waters.
“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree,” Peter continues, “but God raised him on the third day.”
And not only did God raise him, God “allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses.”
God allows us to see, lets us know that immersion is not the end. We get glimpses and share with each other as witnesses that God does not leave the violent wave with the last word.
The One who breaks the cedars of Lebanon allows a tree to claim the life of his Son, knowing that new life awaits, that resurrection and redemption come out of destruction and devastation. And we still don’t understand, but we believe. We must.
Baptized into the death of One who faced the wave, we believe that his victory too is somehow ours.
Already marked with water and raised to walk in newness of life we await the complete redemption of our bodies and of the earth. Even so, God remains over the mighty waters.