Union Presbyterian Seminary
July 9, 2016, Communities of Learning Face-to-Face Worship
Genesis 7:11-12, 17-20; Psalm 69; Mark 1:4-12
High and Dangerous Waters
Have you ever been caught in an undertow? Out in the ocean, finding yourself suddenly a lot farther from the beach than you expected? I know some of you are beach people, so maybe you know what I'm talking about. An undertow or a rip current is a pretty frightening thing for an eight-year-old, which is how old I was when I had my first experience of one. Fortunately I was with an older sibling and a cousin who knew enough to paddle our little float sideways until we escaped the rip current and get back to dry land.
As much as water is a frequent metaphor in the church, I wonder if at times we lose some of the power of that metaphor in the way we use it. We’re all Psalm 23 and the Lord our shepherd leading us by the still waters. It’s a pretty image, one that has been reproduced in countless examples of artistic kitsch with Anglo Jesus cuddling an adorable baby lamb or something similar (paintings that will never get into the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts). On the other hand, though, the psalmist who gave us the psalm we just sang looked at waters just a bit differently, in 69:1-2:
Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.
That psalmist is hardly the only biblical writer who saw the waters as source of wildness and peril. The tale of Job features none other than God boasting of the untamed torrents of water, fathomless deeps, and the fantastic Leviathan that sported in the deeps beyond human comprehension. The story of Jonah also evokes the terrors of the sea, as Jonah is beset by storm, gulped up by a great fish, and finally spat up on the shore.
These are high and dangerous waters.
Perhaps the most dramatic such story of water and its terrors is the account of the great flood in Genesis. The outlines of the story itself I would imagine you know well enough; but let the description of the rising waters sink in. “The fountains of the great deep burst forth…the windows of the heavens were opened…” Waters so great and so deep that the mountains were covered – and not just covered, but overtopped and submerged. It is a terrifying picture. These are high and dangerous waters.
It’s not hard to imagine that later descendents of those Hebrew peoples had such stories in their heads as they made their way down to the Jordan to be baptized by this crazy wilderness preacher John, called the Baptizer. The Jordan was neither small nor still. Maybe it was just enough to convey the sense of danger that tradition had ascribed to waters in various ways in Hebrew scripture.
John himself was also a pretty good picture of wildness and danger. Mark, who is not normally given to great detail, slows down his account long enough to give us the “runway description” of John’s wardrobe and diet. Just imagine the fashion show: And the Baptizer is commanding the path down into the river today in an inverted camel-hair ensemble that just oozes unpredictability and danger, with a striking leather accessory around his waist…amazing how John keeps in fighting trim with his patented honey-and-locust diet… . In short, there’s no reason to think anybody saw this passage, this event, this baptism as normal or “safe” or “tame.” Even in the Jordan, these are high and dangerous waters.
Jesus is among these crowds, to be baptized by the eccentric wilderness prophet with the eccentric wardrobe and diet. At this point in Mark’s story, Jesus is just this guy, you know? Oh, except for Mark calling him “the Son of God” back in verse one of this chapter. He himself only shows up from Nazareth in verse 9, and like all of the other pilgrims to John’s baptism spot, he steps into the water and is baptized.
Then things get crazy, at least for Jesus. The heavens “torn apart” – don’t miss that! No mere “opening” or parting like those other wimpy gospels. “Torn apart”! The Spirit shrieking down like a dove, the voice from heaven … the waters of the Jordan turn out to be high and dangerous waters indeed. Oh, and then there’s a wilderness ahead, too.
Y’all are not doing a safe thing. You are starting an experience that, despite our best efforts to give you a sneak peek, will challenge you in ways you’ve can’t imagine. Your faith will be bounced around and challenged and bruised and even broken in some places. You will wonder what you are doing here, and why, why, why you put yourself through this. You will question your calling, your ability, and even your sanity.
And it won’t stop when you graduate and move into your vocation. You’ll be heading into a place where you won’t be able to leave town without wondering if the parishioner who has been battling cancer longer than you’ve even been in the church will succumb to it before you get home. You will go into a calling where you will see poverty you couldn’t imagine existing in the most impoverished places on the planet, and it will be in your own town. You may see literal high waters ravage your community, as one of my classmates has in West Virginia of late. You will see hatred and bigotry and cruelty to turn your stomach, and love and grace and mercy and joy beyond your imagination.
This font may not look like it, but it contains high and dangerous waters indeed. You have no idea where the currents will take you, what the skies will tear open and show you, what wilderness you’ll be driven into.
And Jesus calls you to dive in.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal)
#164 Down Galilee’s Slow Roadways
#602 Holy Lamb of God
#478 Save Me, O God, I Sink In Floods
#482 Baptized in Water