We were recently traveling, on the way to Arkansas, and we saw a new hotel that had gone up. I notice such things, partly because we occasionally stop somewhere along that stretch. It was a decent-enough looking hotel, and it had a cool feature: there was an indoor water park. I knew that only because there were tubes coming out of the building and going back in – giant chutes that were obviously part of a big waterslide.
I can remember when waterslides were a new and cool thing, at least in my part of the world. I still like waterslides. There is an excitement and thrill to going down this long slide and then – whoosh – hitting the water.
Water can fun and thrilling. It is cool and refreshing. But try telling that to somebody whose home was washed away along the New Jersey coast. Try telling that to someone whose whole neighborhood was underwater in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Water can be delightful, but it can also be destructive and overwhelming. It can be deadly. We’ve had trying experiences with water right here in Ames, with flooding and damaged homes and businesses a couple of years ago, and again several years before that.
Our text from Isaiah speaks of those times when we go through the waters – and it’s not talking about waterslides.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;Through the waters. Through the fire.
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
Sometimes is it literal. Wildfire out west. Hurricanes along the coasts. Flooding in the Midwest. A house fir leaves one’s home in smoldering ruins.
More often, it is metaphorical. When do we go through the waters? When do we go through the fire?
There are as many answers as there are people. Losing a job. Losing a loved one. Facing a health crisis. Facing a scary future. Watching a loved one mess up their life. Watching yourself mess up your life. Addiction to alcohol or drugs or gambling or work or any number of things. Relationships falling apart. Dreams that seem to be slipping away.
Fire and flood represent all that can consume not only life and limb, but hope as well.
Isaiah’s words written to a bruised, bloodied and beleaguered people. They are in exile in Babylon. Their homes, their city, their nation was in ruins. But God still loves them and still offers comfort and hope and the promise of redemption.
Both flood and fire figure heavily into Israel’s story. It was through the water of the Red Sea that Moses brought their ancestors up out of Egypt. God’s presence was made known through the burning bush and a pillar of fire. It was through the waters of the Jordan that the Israelites eventually entered the Promised Land. There is the story of Meshach, Shadrack and Abednego surviving the fiery furnace.
As I read this passage, my thoughts turned to water and fire, and the question is, “Why doesn’t God keep us from the fire? Why doesn’t God keep us from the waters?” You’ll notice that God does not say, “I won’t let the waters reach you. I will put out the fire so that you won’t have to face it.”
No, it says that when you pass through the waters, I will be with you. When you face the fire, it will not consume you. Whether we will have to face the waters or the fire isn’t even a question.
God does not shield us or protect us from life. But God is always there, with us, alongside us, going before us. “When you are in over your head, I’ll be there. When you are in rough waters, you won’t go down. When you're between a rock and a hard place, there will be a way out. Do not be afraid, I am with you. “
Now, these are words of great comfort to us. Isaiah speaks of God as the one who goes through the fire with us, through the water with us so that we will not be overwhelmed. That is comforting and encouraging. But it is also a challenge.
It is a comfort because living life in general, and trying to live faithfully according to the ways of Jesus in particular, can be anything but easy. It is good to be reminded that we are not alone, that God is with us in the midst of it all.
But this is also comes to us as challenge because it means we should not shy away from the paths that can lead through fire and water. We belong to God, who has named and claimed us. We stand with God, who has redeemed us. And with God alongside us, we can persevere even through fire and water and confront those situations that seem so rife with difficulty.
The Gospel reading for this morning in some ways parallels the reading from Isaiah. It is the story of Jesus’ own baptism.
Now, Luke reports the story a bit differently from Mark and Matthew. Luke was familiar with Mark – it was the first gospel written. And Mark reports it all very simply, like John and Jesus are the only two people in the world. Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan – not by Jordan in the John, but by John in the Jordan – and there is a voice proclaiming, “This is my beloved son.” It is to the point, and it is dramatic and powerful.
Matthew adds the detail that Jesus comes and asks John to baptize him. John says, “I’m not worthy to untie your sandals,” but Jesus says, “No, this is the right thing to do,” and John baptizes him.
Luke is different. In Luke, John the Baptist makes those comments to a crowd of people – he just says, “somebody is coming whose sandals I’m not even worthy to untie.” Then it goes on to make a parenthetical statement about John getting thrown in prison for some pointed comments John made about Herod.
And then we read, “Now, when everybody was getting baptized, Jesus was also baptized.” The spotlight isn’t really on Jesus. He is just one of the crowd. “All of these people were baptized and Jesus was too.”
It doesn’t sound right. It sounds like Jesus is in line with everybody else. To hear Luke tell it, John the Baptist doesn’t even know how to do lines right. Jesus should have been in the Express line. You know how you go to the airport and there is a super long line, but the mega-frequent flyers just waltz right to the counter in their own line? Jesus should not have had to just wait in line with all kinds of humanity, he should have gone right to the front of the line.
But no, to hear Luke tell it, there is just one big line. And there is Jesus. Right with everybody else. The poor, the outcast, the rich, the powerful, the hurting, the prideful, the desperate, the comfortable. Right with everybody else – the fashionable, the destitute, the complainers, the pious, the irreverent. Right with everybody else. And right there with you and me.
God is with us. And the words that Jesus hears are words God says to each of us: you are my beloved child. I am pleased with you. I am proud of you. I love you and you are mine.
Here is what is amazing about all of this. God is well pleased – but Jesus has not done anything yet. He hasn’t! He has not yet started his work. God’s love and approval is right there at the very outset. It is not earned, it is simply given.
Imagine how the world might be different if we all lived with that sure and certain reality that we are loved by God. What if, at every step of our journey, we heard those words – I love you and you are mine, I am well pleased.
We all have a first memory - that first moment that we can remember as a child. That first memory may be one of delight or joy, or it may evoke sadness or anger or bewilderment or who knows what. Imagine that in the midst of that situation, that earliest memory, the first words spoken to you are these: “With you I am well pleased.”
Imagine, or remember, your first day of school - that first moment when you entered a new world of structure and learning. Imagine hearing from your teacher, as the first words out of his or her mouth: “You are a great kid. School is going to be so much fun.”
Imagine going to Brownies or Cub Scouts or some after school program for the first time, and hearing those words from the leader: “You are a fantastic scout.”
Imagine the first day at high school - maybe you are new to the area and are sitting in a room of strangers. The teacher walks in and announces to each and every student waiting in anticipation: “I can see that you are an excellent student. This is going to be a really great class and a really great year.”
Imagine you have just arrived to try out for the team, or audition for the choir or band, and the first word from the coach or the director, before you have even tried out is, “I am so glad you are going to be on our team. We need a great point guard like you. Or, I am so glad you are going to be in our choir. I was just praying for somebody like you to anchor our soprano section.”
Imagine the first day of your first job, you are excited but nervous, feeling anxiety, and before you even punch the time clock the boss’ first words to you are, “We are so lucky to have such a talented person on our team.”
Imagine meeting your future in-laws for the first time. You are feeling unsure about the whole thing, you are frankly worried about how this is going to go, and their first words to you are, “We are so thrilled to have you in the family.”
Imagine that in every situation in life, the consistent message we receive is that we are loved and accepted, even before we do anything. It isn’t earned; it is pure grace.
God’s message for us – for all of us – before we even do anything - is, “I love you and you are mine.” Before we are anything else, we belong to God.
David Lose, a professor at Luther Seminary in Minneapolis, wrote:
In an era when so many of the traditional elements of identity-construction have been diminished – we change jobs and careers with frequency, many of us have multiple residences growing up rather than living in a single community, fewer families remain intact – there is a craving to figure out just who we are. In response to this craving and need, baptism reminds us that we discover who we are in relation to whose we are, God’s beloved children. We belong to God’s family, and baptism is a tangible sign of that.To know that we are God’s beloved children can change everything. To know that God calls us by name and that God is with us even through the fire, even through the waters, can make all the difference.
As a church, we have been on a journey of envisioning and discernment for the future. And it can all feel a bit daunting. We are not the biggest or richest or coolest or hippest or most happening church out there. We don’t live in a society that is just beating down the doors of churches. We are not situated just smack in the middle of a neighborhood full of churchgoers. We have some ideas of where we would like to go, of perhaps where God may be leading us, but we’re not really sure. There are plenty of challenges that we could enumerate if we wanted to.
But you know, this morning I’m thinking that none of that really matters. Because God says to us, you are my beloved children. With you I am well pleased. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; they will not overwhelm you. When you walk through fire, the flame will not consume you.
Living with that faith and confidence in the love and care and providence of God, we don’t have to be afraid for the future. We can face the water and the fire that will inevitably come.
As individuals, as families, as a church, God is with us as we face whatever challenges the future may hold. God says to us: Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. I am with you. I love you and you are mine. Amen.