Passing through the waters

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Broad St. United Methodist Church

January 13, 2013

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.

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.

For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.

I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.

Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you,

I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.

Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, ‘Give them up’, and to the south, ‘Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth— everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.’”

GOSPEL LESSON Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, "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 fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

On September 8, 2011, the torrential rains of Tropical storm Lee turned the normally gentle Susquehanna River into a raging deluge that overflowed its banks and caused massive flooding in and around Binghamton and other parts of our area of central NY. Particularly hard hit were the villages of Owego and Sidney.

In the days following the flooding, people from all over rushed in to help. Many UM churches from the area sent teams out to start the overwhelming job of cleaning up. We had a team of about 12 people go to Sidney, where they spent the day mucking out basements, helping people sort through personal belongings, and providing comfort and a willingness to listen and be present with people who were in a state of shock.

In those hectic days, our conference provided pastors and churches with resources – prayers, scripture readings, devotional materials – to help congregations prepare spiritually for their response. One of these resources was a passage from today’s reading from the book of Isaiah: [And God said,] “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.”

The third verse from today’s opening hymn was another frequently-cited resource: “When through the deep waters I call thee to go, the rivers of woe shall not thee overflow; for I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless, and sanctify to thee they deepest distress.”

During this early period of recovery, there were no words, really, that would suffice in the face of such extreme loss. Sometimes, the only responses people could offer were hugs and tears and just being present with those who were so deeply hurt.

But these words from scripture and the hymn served as reminders of God’s presence and provided the strength and hope that allowed people to carry on, and make it through each day as, bit by tiny bit, a sense of normalcy returned to their lives.

The prophet Isaiah wrote those words 2,500 years ago to the people of Israel who were suffering through their own tragic event. Their problem wasn’t horrible flooding; it was something even worse: the people of Israel were living as exiles. The Babylonians had invaded and destroyed the city of Jerusalem. They demolished the temple where the Israelites worshiped and forced the people of Jerusalem to march across hundreds of miles of wilderness to the city of Babylon, where they were lived as captives.

These people had lost everything, not to raging waters, but to foreign invaders. The people were living in a distant, foreign land, and had no place to call their own, no place to call home. Because they had lost their temple – the place where they believed God lived among them – they were terrified that they lost their identity. Taken away from God’s presence, they feared they were no longer God’s people. Psalm 137 poignantly depicts the grief that the exiles felt:

“By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of your land!’ But How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

The people of Jerusalem had believed that because God was present in their temple, they would be protected from such unthinkable tragedies as having their city destroyed and being forced into exile.

But the prophet Isaiah understood things differently. Isaiah, speaking on behalf of God, tells the people, “When you pass through the waters, God will be with you.” And “when you walk through fire, you shall not be burned.” When. Not “if”. When.

Sometimes we miss that one little word, and we hear Isaiah saying that, as people of God, we will be able to avoid deep waters, raging rivers, and fiery trials altogether. But that isn’t what Isaiah meant at all, and it’s not what the people needed to hear. The promise of God that Isaiah proclaims is not wholesale avoidance of difficulties, but an abiding divine presence in them. Bad things will happen, but God will be present.

Those of you who use Gmail know that at the top of your inbox page, there is a series of quotes that change each day. One quote that pops up frequently is from a famous television preacher. The quote is “Tough times never last, but tough people do.”

Now, that quote sounds upbeat and optimistic, but I have trouble with it. First, I know of too many people whose lives seem like one long, tough stretch of bad things. Sometimes it’s one bad thing after the next. Sometimes it’s one overarching bad thing that goes on and on for decades and that affects everything else in a person’s life. But the fact is that sometimes tough times really do last.

But the Christian faith teaches us that whether tough times come and stay for years or whether they last a short time, it’s not our toughness that makes the difference.

Now this is hard for some people to understand, because our society values those who are able to be tough and resilient, those who work at being their own persons.

But nowhere in the Bible does it say that in tough times, we’re thrown back onto our own resources, our own power, our own toughness. The Bible doesn’t tell us that it’s our own optimism or our own strength of character that will see us through. When the waters start rising, when the rivers start churning around us, it’s the abiding presence of God that reassures us. We may not know why God permits such tough times and trials, but they come. And when they do, our own toughness is not going to make any real difference. It’s the tough and fierce love and care of God that makes the difference.

As people of God, we are not our own people. We belong to God, who tells us, “I have called you by name and you are mine.” Our identity is rooted in this simple premise: we belong to God.

This morning’s gospel lesson describes Jesus’ baptism. This moment marked the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. As soon as he was baptized, he began preaching the good news of God’s coming kingdom to anyone who would listen.

For some 2,000 years now, the Church has baptized people following the example of Jesus, although there are some variations in how different congregations celebrate baptism. Some churches baptize only children, some baptize only adults. Some use a few drops of water, some use a large baptistery where people can be completely submersed. I once participated in a baptism in the beautiful Delaware River.

But it’s not the method of baptism that matters as much as the meaning of baptism. Whether we’re baptized or not, we belong to God. But when we choose to be baptized, we are choosing to recognize publicly that we belong to God. It’s not that God claims us at the moment we’re baptized – God has already claimed us long before the celebration of baptism, whether we know it or not. But in baptism, we acknowledge that we are God’s beloved children. In baptism, we recognize and claim our identity as God’s own.

If you have been baptized, I hope you will continue to recognize and proclaim with your life that you are God’s own. If you haven’t been baptized, I hope that you will feel free to come and talk to me about it.

But whether you’re baptized or not, remember this: God has called you by name, and you belong to God. And nothing – not raging floods, not torrential rains, not temporary difficulties, not unrelenting tough times – nothing can take that away from you. Amen.

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