We begin with ‘water’ and with the words of an ancient Hebrew poet.
The poet would have composed in his head and then dictated the lines to a copyist. The copyist would have written the lines out with a stylus on a papyrus scroll. The scroll would have been made from the stalk of a papyrus plant. The papyrus stalk would have had it’s rind removed and the inner fibers sliced lengthwise into long strips. These strips would have been placed side by side in two layers, each layer at a right angle to the other. The two layers would have been wetted and pounded together. The joined layers would have made a long sheet that, when it was dried, could be rolled up as a scroll. The scroll would have been divided into columns by the copyist and filled with the poet’s composition. Here are the words scratched down:
Ascribe to the LORD, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
Ascribe to the LORD the glory of his name;
worship the LORD in holy splendor.
‘Ascribe’—the poet means ‘name God this way’ or ‘say these things about the divine’. He then encourages us to worship the LORD as one who is magnificently different. Sometimes, when a morning is bright and the snow is new it’s as though we can see these words, ‘glory’ and ‘splendor.’ They cling to the trees and lie heavy and thick on the grass.
The poet, speaking to the copyist who waited with stylus in-hand, continued:
The voice of the LORD is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters.
The voice of the LORD is powerful;
the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.
The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars;
the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
When a scroll became worn and fragile a copyist would have made a new version. And on down through history–to us.
In 1613 Samuel de Champlain came up the Ottawa River. Not far from here he was shown a great water fall. The Anishinaabe referred to the falls as Akikodjiwan. Champlain thought of it as a caldron, or a boiling pot. Many of us know it as Chaudière Falls. For thousands of years before our own time anyone who stood at this spot on the river would have gotten a sense of the psalmist’s mind:
The God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters. . . .
The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars;
the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
What do we do with a God who thunders and who break cedars? How do we speak of the divine power evoked by ‘mighty waters’? This is tricky. When we talk about this it’s tempting to envision God as a person, as an old grouchy man, as a legalist, as a capricious monarch who delights in piddly little laws designed to catch people. Or, or it’s tempting to envision God as a judge who gets sick pleasure from dispensing twisted punishments. It’s tempting because water thunders. It’s tempting because we’ve heard voices thunder before, and most of them don’t enunciate justice. Most of them speak of selfishness and vengeance.
It’s tempting because the Bible does speak of God’s wrath. In Isaiah 63:6 we read this: “I trampled down peoples in my anger, I crushed them in my wrath, and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth.” God may not be an old crotchety cloud-dwelling judge but God surely does more than hand out hugs.
The God of glory thunders.
If you want to think positively about this aspect of Scripture’s witness to God you might start by thinking along with Fleming Rutledge. Rev. Rutledge was one of the first women ordained by the Episcopal Church. She tells us, “The wrath of God is not an emotion that flares up from time to time, as though God has temper tantrums. It is a way of describing his absolute enmity against all wrong and his coming to set matters right”. Rutledge says that the next time we are outraged by some form of injustice we should pause, as a sort of thought experiment, to think about our view of God. Why is it that we are so willing to have our blood boil at injustice but go to great lengths to ignore the biblical depiction of a God who will ‘establish justice’, who will ‘bring out the prisoners from the dungeon’, who will be a ‘light to the nations’? Those phrases come from Isaiah’s depiction of what God will accomplish through the servant in chapter 42.
The God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters.
The God who thunders is a God who brings about justice. This might frustrate our current sensibilities, but there is no being for justice without being for judgment. The judgment we need is that of One whose sense of justice is not warped by selfishness. Ours is so-warped.
The LORD sits enthroned over the flood;
the LORD sits enthroned as king forever.
The poet and copyist point us once again to water. I do not know what the ancient people of these lands thought as they tossed tobacco into the boiling cataclysm of Akikodjiwan. The ancient biblical writers believed waters that thundered and swirled like this depict God’s justice. It is our political hope and it is the hope for our own little lives, both of which are pulled along by currents beyond our control (the lesson of 2016).
There are, though, other important references to water in the scriptures. I’m thinking of the story in Matthew about Jesus’ baptism. Baptism isn’t thundering water. Baptism is slow. It’s slowly getting into the water, being washed. Baptism is saying ‘yes’ to the death of an old self and ‘yes’ to a new one. Baptism isn’t standoffish or informative or thundering or massive or groupy. Baptism is quiet and sensual and personal. If we don’t attend to these waters we misinterpret what the scriptures have to say about the God who thunders.
In Matthew 3 Jesus walk up to the banks of the Jordan River and presents himself to John the Baptizer. What is he doing—this Jesus?
Jesus had a divine commission to show God’s saving presence. We read that in the early chapters of Matthew. Jesus was born in flesh like any other person, but Jesus was uniquely a character of the Scriptures. We see that in the visit of the wise men. These traveling natural philosophers understood Jesus to be the one to which the ancient texts pointed. John the Baptizer saw something unique too. He said that Jesus would “baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” In Jesus, The Baptizer saw God doing the “new things” predicted by old Isaiah.
He had rendered God’s promise like this: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations” (Is. 42:1). The biblical scholar N.T. Wright says that this passage was probably an important part of how Jesus understood himself. He thought himself to be that servant and he thought himself to somehow represent Israel’s destiny.
None of us are messiahs—just in case you were wondering—but many of us have had to step into new roles, maybe a new leadership position. Some of you might be on the precipice of that now. And when that happens we wonder if we can really do it. We worry that others will know that we feel like a fake. But we step into the current.
Jesus steps in. He asks John to baptize him. John was welcoming people into repentance. His baptism symbolized a washing away of the old and a recasting in the new. Think of Noah and family passing through the waters. Think of the Israelites escaping slavering through the sea. Now Jesus requests John’s baptism. He steps into the messianic role. He identifies himself with all those who need to repent, and he accepts the call of God for the first time in Matthew’s gospel—publicly.
As Jesus comes up out of the water, Matthew tells us the heavens open and the Spirit of God descends like a dove. The scene by the Jordan River virtually vibrates with Isaiah’s words: “I have put my spirit upon him.” The voice of God rings out: “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
The water and then the word.
Not long ago someone gave me a used book. It wasn’t a particularly old book but it came from a little store that sold antiques. Initially I was happy: the title has been on my list for a while. But then, as I thumbed through the introduction, I found it had been marked up. Things were underlined and comments were written in the margins.
When I was a student I appreciated this sort of thing because it gave me one other person’s perspective on what was important. A lucky student can find a used copy of a textbook that someone else highlighted during the exact class he or she is about to take. This is gold!
However, the marks in this novel’s introduction were not at all precious. The guy’s comments were misogynistic and arrogant. He reduced the book’s whole world to three syllogisms. In fact, the book’s previous owner seemed downright creepy (my kids might call him a ‘budoogyface’). I say ‘he’ because there is a name inside the cover. Maybe I’ll google it. Maybe I won’t. Until then every time I pick the book up I will feel a troubling association with a way of being that makes my blood boil.
I wonder if you’ve ever had an experience like that. Maybe you moved into a dorm room and later heard about some troubling thing that happened there last semester. Or maybe you went camping and after you set up your tent somebody told you about some crime committed at that exact site. Or maybe just after you signed for a house you learned . . . . I think you know what I mean. There’s something about being associated with things that violate our sense of propriety that upsets us. We try to avoid these sorts of associations.
I share this to help us get a feel—a feel—for what God is up to in Jesus. We thought about God’s judgment and justice a few moments ago. We thought about God’s thundering. But here’s what we have to feel if we’re going to really get inside the Christian faith. The faith isn’t about rules or about trying harder. It’s about the fact that God doesn’t just pronounce judgment or call for justice from some high and lofty place. Rather, in Jesus God associates with the very ones who make the divine blood boil.
If we’re ever going to understand the Bible’s horrific images of judgment we have to understand the fact that in Jesus God self-identifies with the convicted. God doesn’t just thunder and roar and pronounce a new set of sanctions—the very Son of God is baptized in solidarity with those who suffer (us) and with those who cause suffering (us). In his baptism Jesus, the blameless One, volunteers to stand in for a faithless many (us).
The cool waters of baptism envelope him and the thunderous power of a God who would die for shalom sweeps down. It sweeps through ancient Judea and through history and now the outer reaches of the swirl of grace pull at our ankles. The water of grace and then the words of vindication: “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” And we too are beloved, for we are in Jesus. He does what we would not. This is the thunder.