Through Water and Fire

January 10, 2016:

Preached by The Rev. L. Wm. Countryman from the pulpit at Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany.

Year C:  Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

 

 

Water:  it’s never been quite so much on my mind as it has lately. Even though I don’t like gray days, I rejoice to see rain falling here; and even though I’m not interested in skiing, I rejoice to hear of snow in the Sierra. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in that.

Water is essential to life—something I’m reminded of even in the science news. Astronomers have been talking about it a lot over the last year because nobody has quite managed to explain why Earth has so much of it or where it came from. But, then again, they’ve turned up signs that there’s still liquid water on Mars, which pumps up people’s curiosity about life there.

Here at home, of course, all of us in California have been feeling the pinch of drought this past year. And, in that, we have a lot of company the world over. The drought in Australia, the African Sahel, and the Near East is much graver at this point than ours. Some people suggest that it’s a contributing factor in the political and religious conflicts in Africa and the Near East. It’s certainly causing some conflicts in California politics just now.

But the drought has made us particularly grateful for the recent rains. I’ve been totaling up the water in the rain gauge, breathing a sigh of relief with every additional tenth of an inch. At moments like these, it becomes difficult to think of water as just a given, something we don’t have to think about.

 

Rain in dry times gives a boost to everyone’s spirits. Even the most confirmed non-believer can be excused for feeling some sense of thankfulness—to the creation at large if not to the Creator. For those of us who know our lives to be touched by God in a great variety of ways, water reveals itself as something holy. I’ve often sensed the presence of God in a particular way where we find water in the desert, in the occasional pool fed by an aquifer, in a spring-fed creek, or in a great river like the Virgin at Zion Canyon. There, you get unmistakable evidence of the life-giving power of water.

But there’s another side to water, of course. Even as we welcome this year’s rains, we’re being warned about the danger of flooding. I haven’t heard of any significant instances of it yet, but we know it’s possible—probable, in fact, if we get too much rain in too short a time.

So this element that’s basic to our life can also threaten it at times. I think again of water in the desert, where storms far upstream can unleash terrible flash floods without much warning.

 

Our Psalmist today must have seen storms like that. Where else would such vivid description of their power come from?

3 The voice of God is upon the waters;

the God of glory thunders; *

God is upon the mighty waters.

4 The voice of God is a powerful voice; *

the voice of God is a voice of splendor.

5 The voice of God breaks the cedar trees; *

God breaks the cedars of Lebanon.

7 The voice of God splits the flames of fire;

the voice of God shakes the wilderness;

(trans. from the St. Helena Psalter)

We live in a world both generous and dangerous. And the Psalmist tells us that the God who made this world is both generous and dangerous.

We know this, of course, though at times we try to forget it. And then, in one way or another we get brought up against the fragility of human life and we learn all over again that God is not a sort of gauzy character out of a fairy tale with a wand, scattering fairy dust and making everything right. No, God is someone much bigger, much more loving—and also much tougher than that.

 

But if our Psalmist warns us of the danger, Isaiah, in our first reading this morning, reminds us of the love and care exercised on us by this mighty God:

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;

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. (43:2, NRSV)

God promises to pass through the storm—the floodwaters and the lightning—with us

Hmmm—passing through water. That’s exactly what John the Baptist offered people in his ministry, isn’t it? He gave them a chance to be immersed in this life-giving and life-threatening element. People walked into the water with him in the hope that they would emerge with a new confidence in God. In the sacrament of water, they faced up to both the wonder and the danger of life. And they found it gave them strength. Embracing the fear and the hope together gave them a new sense of God’s power and God’s goodness at work in their lives.

Lots of people were showing up for that:  people who felt insecure in their world, uncertain of their God, unsatisfied with their lives, burdened by their failures and inadequacies, hoping for a new beginning and prepared to put some effort and energy into it. It was a mass movement and, unlike some recent popular movements we could name—political, social, religious—it seems to have had a thoroughly beneficent effect. People began to live more honestly, more generously—began to take care of one another and recreate genuine human community among themselves.

 

And then Jesus shows up to be baptized. John, you may recall, was Jesus’ cousin. And I always wonder about that. Sometimes close relatives work together well, and other times we have trouble taking each other seriously. In this case, John took some persuading, but finally agreed to baptize Jesus.

“And,” you might say, “so what?” Isn’t that just what John did, what John’s ministry was about? Yes. But there’s more. The real “so what” becomes evident only in the moment of vision that follows, when the voice from heaven says, “You are my Son, the Beloved.”

In this moment, God’s promise in Isaiah becomes realized quite literally:

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;

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.

The flood, the lightning—it isn’t just we who pass through the waters of life and death. God passes through them alongside us. God takes the risk, God dares to experience this creation the same way we do.

“God sits enthroned over the flood,” we said in our Psalm. Yes. And God also wades through it alongside us. And recognizing this grants us the power to live lives of hope and energy even in a world that encompasses so much danger as well as so much blessing.


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