Deeper Than Water

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image by Media Mates Oy, courtesy gettyimages.com … Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

In the third chapter of Luke’s gospel, John the Baptizer defines his ministry role in relation to Jesus. John has experienced great success in ministry. Large crowds have come down from Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside to see the fiery prophet proclaim God’s coming judgment and the need for repentance. John has the kind of message and demeanor that give people hope for liberation from the Romans and those who aid their oppressive regime. Expectations are running high that John might be the promised Messiah. Just as speculation reaches its peak, John steps aside and points in another direction: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

The people are looking for someone mighty in terms of the standards applied by their culture, perhaps a learned rabbi or charismatic warrior. Those powerful expectations provide the background against which we can see the gracefulness of John’s ministry. He counters the anticipation of the adoring crowds, saying, in effect, “God is revealed in Jesus, not in me.” He steps aside, and directs our attention to a place not so obvious, toward a newcomer in whom the wisdom of God resides. In effect, John says “I can lead you through the baptismal waters of initiation into a life of faith. But, when it comes to the great challenges of life, it’s the One who commands the Holy Spirit who will help you face the blowing winds, and move through the dangerous and deep waters.

On this Baptism of the Lord Sunday, the schedule of lectionary readings pairs the passage from Luke’s gospel with a text from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah uses the image of deep waters to describe the dangers that threaten God’s people in the sixth century B.C.E., a time of exile and uncertainty about the future. With bold, poetic prophecy, Isaiah proclaims that God’s people may journey through exile without fear of annihilation. Contrary to appearances, the Lord walks with his people and cares for them. Deeper than water and deeper than fear is the hand of the one who upholds us.

“Deeper than water and deeper than fear is the hand of the Lord who upholds us.” That’s good news for people in town where 10.5 inches of rain fell during one long weekend not so long ago. That’s good news in a region where many are struggling to dry out, salvage their belongings after flooding unexpected during this season of the year. I don’t know about you, but I lay awake during some of those endlessly rainy nights hoping my two sump pumps would keep running, counting the seconds between cycles, about every seventy-five seconds at the peak of the downpour. On Friday, Lois Noto and I met with three members of a Presbyterian Disaster Assistance team who are in our area assessing damage and considering a response. As we conversed, I thought about those facing water crises, and I remembered. I’ve lived through some water-related disasters, including a five-month tear-out and rebuild, and have some sympathy for the deep water and deep fear that flood victims are facing.

As I think back on that time in 2002 and 2003, I remember the people who helped me. Carol VanGeison and State Farm helped me with the initial response and insurance negotiations. Jim Seubert from Pride Restoration helped with the clean-up. Others encouraged us, which I often needed after spending two hours at the end of every day tearing out another piece of wall or cleaning up cement dust. I never could have done it alone. How could any of us ever recover from such things without the support of others, and the steadying hand of God who is strong when we are not?

When we look around for the strong hand of God, we realize that our Messiah Jesus no longer appears to us in a unique human form. Churches like ours operate with what might be called an “incarnational” theology that understands God through Christ to be embodied in the Church. Our mission statement proclaims that our church is “Christ for the world today.”

Today we participate in the annual ritual of ordaining and installing church officers to lead our church.

Just as I was thinking about this occasion, I read some wonderful words written by my friend Shelly White Wood, whom I was privileged to mentor through part of her seminary internship.

Preaching for officer installation this past Sunday, Shelly said: Vocation is bigger than job or occupation or career. Vocation refers to the centering commitment and vision that shapes what our lives are really about ….

So this morning we will ask ordination questions to our church officers and many of you are ordained elders or deacons …. You have taken these vows not to serve for three years on a committee and do the work of the church. Not to wrestle with the budget, the building, the pastoral care, the daily work of the church – Although someone of you are called to that particular work right now. But the ordination vows don’t ask you what you will do. The ordination vows ask you who you will be. These vows don’t end with your three year term they are questions that ask if this is how you are willing to live.

Will you fulfill your vows not just by fulfilling a function for a year or three, but by being the person of graceful character and compassionate service that God desires you to be? [1]

About the same time Martin Luther and John Calvin were reforming the Church in Germany and Switzerland, a Carmelite nun was ministering in Spain whom we know as Teresa of Avila. There are some words attributed to her that seem a most fitting charge for our new officers, and for all who desire to live out their baptism in service to Christ. Teresa wrote:

Christ has no body now but yours.

No hands, no feet on earth but yours.

Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world.

Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.

Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.

Yours are the eyes, you are his body.

Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

May He bless us all with ministry that is faithful and fruitful in serving those who are moving through dangerous waters. For deeper than water and deeper than fear is the hand of the Lord who upholds us.

[1] Shelly White Wood, ORDINATION: Sermon on John 1:1-18, 4 January 2016, https://creatingsacredcommunities.wordpress.com/2016/01/04/ordination-sermon-on-john-11-18/ accessed on 6 January 2016.

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~ by JohnH1962 on January 10, 2016.