Passing through the Waters
I have worked with youth for several years in various roles: as a 7th grade English teacher, confirmation teacher, leader of small groups, retreat leader, mission trip leader, and now as a pastor of youth. I learn each and every time I spend with youth what a blessing it is to be young and to have your whole life in front of you. What a blessing it is to live life without decades of regret, lost loves, wrecked relationships, lost jobs, missed opportunities, failed dreams. Without years of life experience to draw upon, it is difficult for youth to answer “life application” questions in a Bible study, for example. It is a tough job to dig deeper with youth because of their limited life experience. But every once in awhile a young person will say something that pierces straight to the truth with such precision and insight that I am taken aback, and I revel in encouraging that student in his or her youthful wisdom. Last Sunday during confirmation class we went around the table, drawing one card each from two decks of cards, one with divine attributes and one with human attributes. And then we did our best to describe how the two attributes relate to each other. The point of the exercise was to discover how Jesus incarnates both divinity and humanity. One confirmand drew from the “God” deck, “be all-knowing,” and from the “human” deck, “feel pain.” The confirmand thought for a second and then said, “Well, if God is all-knowing then God must feel pain because pain is something we know. It is something to be known. Therefore, God must know pain.” Wow. In all of my years of reading volumes and volumes of theology, I don’t recall ever hearing God’s omniscience applied so purely to the problem of pain and suffering.
The relative innocence of young age is a blessing. However, youth are commonly filled with anxiety about the present. I’m not doing well enough in school. She is spreading rumors about me. My teachers don’t understand me. My parents are too strict and I have no freedom. I don’t like the way I look. Why can’t I have such-and-such stuff like him? Why can’t I be like her? They are filled with anxiety about the future. What am I going to do after high school? Where will I go? What will happen to my friendships? What kind of job will I get? Will I meet the right person to share my life with? How will I pay off all of my student loans?
And then youthful innocence and blissful ignorance about many things in life ultimately give way through age to responsibility, competition, employment, taxation, paying bills, raising children of our own, growing old, suffering illness. It seems no matter what stage of life we’re in, we may feel like our day-to-day struggles never cease and we seek respite from the drudgery and burdens of life by living for the weekend, the next vacation, that upcoming wedding, a job promotion, a change in career, a new relationship. Or maybe we look for a quick fix to re-adjust our attitude about our routine lives that we feel stuck in through the purchase of a new television, a new car, a new house, even a second house. Or, as is our cultural custom with the new year, we resolve to improve ourselves by exercising, eating right, losing weight, quitting smoking or drinking, or to do or not do any number of things to improve ourselves. A 1998 University of Washington study found that about 75% of people making new year’s resolutions fail on their first attempt and that by the end of January more than one third of “resolvers” will give up completely. The odds are stacked against self-improvement.
Do we get the strength we need to live life from working toward the next stage of life? Acquiring the next thing to add to our possessions? Do we get our strength by trying to relive our past youth? Do we yearn for that simpler age before all the years of responsibility and cycles of tears and triumphs? Young people, do you get your strength by constantly working for the future? By preparing for seemingly endless tests that will shape your future? What of the present moment? Is the present merely a series of fleeting experiences overpowered by past regrets and worries of the future? Do we spend too much present energy regretting the past or worrying about the future?
“But now,” says God to us through the prophet Isaiah, we stop in this sanctuary and present our past regrets and worries of the future to be baptized in the waters of God’s grace. But now, today, in the midst of everything we are doing, we come here to celebrate and worship in the Spirit of the Baptism of the Lord. Today is a day to remember our baptism by remembering the baptism of Jesus. Jesus himself submitted to the waters, the rivers, and the fires of life. Baptism is a paradox. It is both a recognition of death, of drowning in the waters, and it is a recognition of life, of the birth process, of creation, of the exodus of the Israelites. In today’s Old Testament passage, Isaiah alludes to both the separated waters of creation and the parted waters of the Red Sea in the exodus that delivered the Israelites from slavery but also destroyed Pharaoh’s army. We have seen in recent years several watery disasters wipe out tens of thousands of people in tsunamis and hurricanes and floods. Water can be incredibly destructive. And yet, water is the most elemental supporter of life, in a very real sense, water is life. About 70% of your body is water and more than 70% of the earth’s surface is covered by water.
“But now thus says the LORD …” But now … God—the God who created us, who formed us—speaks to us now, always in the “now:” “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”
The prophet Isaiah begins his pronouncement of restoration to the people of Israel by proclaiming, “But now thus says the LORD …” But now I must remind you that I created you and formed you. 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. I am all-knowing and, therefore, I know your pain.
The prophet’s words are echoed in the Gospel of Luke’s account of John the Baptist, “I baptize you with water,” John said, “but one who is more powerful than I is coming. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” When Jesus is baptized, “a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’.” God called Jesus by name, “Son, the Beloved.” By believing in Jesus, God also calls us beloved. The writer of 1 John declared, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. Beloved, we are God’s children now.”
In our Methodist tradition we teach that baptism is a sign of God’s prevenient grace, grace simply being God’s unmerited love and acceptance. What “prevenient” means is that “we cannot move toward God unless God has first moved toward us. God seeks us out, pursues us, calls us to come into the loving relationship that we were created to enjoy.” John Wesley asked, “The question is not, what you was made in baptism; (do not evade;) but, What are you now? Is the Spirit of adoption now in your heart? To your own heart let the appeal be made. I ask not, whether you was born of water and of the Spirit; but are you now the temple of the Holy Ghost which dwelleth in you?” Baptism by water may be a once in a lifetime event, but baptism in the Spirit is an ongoing and daily process that seeks regeneration from brokenness into the newness of life in God’s grace.
Today, let us remember that God’s divine grace is unmerited. Our need for divine grace is deep because so much in life we have to work, it seems, to get what we need. To maintain our love-based relationships we work hard to commit, to give and to get, to negotiate, to compromise, to fill the other, to fill ourselves, and, well, on and on it goes. Love itself may be “unconditional,” but “loving” another in a relationship is very demanding. To support ourselves and our families we have to work jobs to earn money to pay bills. To climb the next rung on the corporate ladder or achieve the next accolade in sports or other competition we have to strive harder to earn the next award, to get to the next level. Sometimes life seems like little more than one long series of striving for the next stage of life to finally get here. Life is so much water under the bridge. Or is life more than water “under the bridge?”
George Eliot wrote in her 19th century novel Adam Bede: “Deep unspeakable suffering may well be called a baptism, a reeneration, the initiation into a new state.” Today, let us remember the “new state” of ourselves is our baptism into God’s grace and that before, in the midst of, and after all our regrets and worries and daily routines that God is at work in us, today, this very moment, reminding us that the newness of life we have in Jesus Christ our Savior is all we need.
Jesus is speaking to us now, perhaps even in the words of Simon and Garfunkel, “I’m sailing right behind. I will ease your mind.” Amen.