Grace Presbyterian Church
February 22, 2015, Lent 1B
1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15
Through the Waters
How often do we think about water?
Maybe when we’re thirsty. Maybe, though I suspect many of us have other liquids that come to mind first. But I suspect for most of us water is just…there.
Every now and then it makes headlines, when too much of it falls from the sky or crashes destructively on shore. Or sometimes it makes headlines because of how we abuse it; only this week at least five different accidents – four in North Dakota, one in West Virginia – caused either oil or the waste products from oil drilling and refining – to be spilled into sensitive wetlands or into rivers that supply drinking water to nearby towns and cities. The West Virginia accident was along the same waterway system affected by a massive chemical spill that rendered water undrinkable in a number of that state’s cities for months.
Suffice to say we’re not always very good stewards of what is a basic human need.
I doubt we’re the first civilization to be cavalier about water, though I question just how toxic the abuse of water in previous generations was by comparison. Maybe the shocking part is that we know better and do it anyway. At any rate, the human relationship with water is ambivalent at best, destructive at worst. And I have not even gotten into how we commodify water, the way it gets bottled and sold at three bucks a pop in some locations.
I wonder how many of the folks who wrote down the books that are found in the Bible would view our seeming disregard of water. When you spend time with scripture, water turns up in key, if not always noticed, roles in many of our well-known Bible stories. Even the story of creation features God separating the waters above the earth from the waters below the earth – giving us a story to account for such things as springs, or rain. Then the waters are separated from the dry land. The story of Moses’s birth and adoption plays out against a backdrop of the execution of Hebrew boy children, in which Moses’s life was saved by hiding him in the water grasses to be found and taken in by a Pharaoh’s daughter – Moses was delivered through the waters.
Of course the big water story in the Old Testament is the Noah story, in which the world is overrun with water, and only Noah and his family survive. Water was the source of trouble and danger in this case, and Noah – as Moses would be in the later story – had to be prepared to survive the tumult of the waters that flooded the earth, with forty days and forty nights of rain. The author of our epistle reading today explicitly ties that story to the practice of baptism, saying that Noah’s being “saved through water” presaged our being “saved through water” in baptism.
It’s a funny phrase to use, when you think about it; in the case of Noah, the water itself was the threat, while we really don’t think of that font and pitcher of water down here as particularly hazardous. Maybe in those traditions that practice baptism by immersion the metaphor is a little clearer; when one goes down into the water for those few moments, unable to breathe or see, maybe that instant carries something of that threat.
But no, we’re not going to dunk Kailin today. Still, the epistle and gospel both point to something that she and her parents, and all of us as well, will want to remember. These are not magic waters. They don’t turn into a superpower, some kind of magical shield that keeps all trouble or pain away from you.
It’s a terrible thing to think as young as she is, but Kailin will know sorrow in her lifetime. I hope and pray it’s not soon, but someday, something will happen that will break her heart. She may know scorn, or mistreatment by her friends, or some other kind of disappointment that will cause her grief. With the life ahead of her will come disappointment, inevitably, and passing through these waters will not prevent any of it.
In 1 Peter we see that the group of believers receiving this letter is evidently going through some sort of difficulty. It is never made explicitly clear whether the community of Christ-followers is actually being persecuted for their beliefs, or undergoing some lesser sort of difficulty over them, or simply suffering some kind of setback unrelated to their faith. Whatever it was, the community was struggling with how these things could be happening to them, demonstrating if nothing else that the question “why do bad things happen to good people?” is an old one indeed.
The gospel presents a different story, but one that also shows us something important about baptism. Jesus comes down to the Jordan to be baptized by John, and upon coming out of the water he sees a sight both wonderful and terrible; “the heavens torn apart and the spirit descending like a dove on him.” Other gospel writers who include this story are much milder, simply saying things like “the heavens were opened to him” (Matt. 3:16) , but Mark (as you might have noticed by now) is all about the drama and even conflict. This baptism wasn’t “cute”; it was the beginning of something unusual, something that made sure this wasn’t going to be an ordinary life.
And the first thing that Jesus does afterwards, after this baptism and this wild and uncontrollable tearing open of the heavens, was … to go off into the wilderness. Not voluntarily, mind you; he was “driven” into the wilderness, by the Spirit no less.
So there Jesus is, out in the wilderness for forty days, undergoing temptation directly from Satan himself, and with wild beasts present as well. Unlike other gospels, Mark doesn’t get into specifics about the temptations Satan put before Jesus – no turning stones into bread, no throwing himself off a high cliff for the angels to catch him. We are only told that he was “tempted by Satan,” that “he was with the wild beasts,” and that “angels waited on him.” We are left to imagine what those temptations were, or what wild beasts might have been about.
It might be hard to imagine what particular temptations Jesus might have faced, but it’s not hard for each of us to imagine, or perhaps to recall, the kind of temptations and struggles we might have faced or might face in our own lives.
Kailin will face her own temptations, and unlike Jesus is likely to give in to them. It’s entirely possible that some time this week or this month or this year, she just might dump her food on the floor instead of eating it, even though she is being baptized today. As she grows up the struggles and temptations will become more complex and maybe more challenging.
Baptism will prevent none of those things.
What baptism does, among many other things, is remind us that before we pass through these ordinary waters, Christ has already passed through the waters. Christ has gone before us, facing temptations like we face, facing the struggles and frustrations and scorn of the world, facing nothing less than death itself, and through Christ’s unkillable love we are already preserved through the waters, saved through whatever temptations and failings and darkness may yet come. We are reminded, as Jesus says in verse 15, that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is come near.”
I don’t know how often baptisms occur on the first Sunday of Lent, but in this case it might well be very appropriate that we do so. For, as Kailin is baptized into the one holy and universal church today, we are also reminded of our own baptism. We are reminded that we do not cross through these turbulent and dangerous waters alone. We are not baptized alone, left to fend for ourselves in the wilderness. We are baptized into the body of Christ. We are baptized into one another, you might say; we become that fellowship that pulls together in time of trouble, the body that suffers when one member suffers and rejoices when one member rejoices. We pick each other up when we fall, and we know that the members of the body will pick us up when we fall. Baptism reminds us that Christ’s life and death and life again have made us his own, and that our redemption is not thwarted or ruined when we fail. To borrow words from A Brief Statement of Faith (as found in the Presbyterian Book of Confessions), baptism reminds us that “In life and in death we belong to God.”
And indeed Kailin belongs to God, not because we’re going to splash some water on her in a few moments, but because God has loved and claimed her from the very first. And God will love her and claim her until she is full of days and goes on to meet her Lord face to face. In life and in death, Kailin belongs to God.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (PH ’90): “This Is My Father’s World” (293); “Lord Jesus, Think On Me” (301); “Child of Blessing, Child of Promise” (498)