[Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22]
If you go to any good museum there are usually places where you can get a sense of what something historical felt like: maybe you can feel the weight of a Viking sword or maybe touch the sort of cloth worn by the Romans. The Bible suggests that are similar touchpoints for the Christian life. There are at least four natural phenomena that allow us to feel life with God.
One is the sun’s light: think of how Zechariah refers to Jesus’ birth as the sun’s light at dawn. The light of the sun is something we can see and feel. Then there is the growth of a seed. Think of Jesus’ parables. Jesus tells us that his new economy is like a small seed, with barely perceptible weight, that grows into something big.
Then there is fire. Think of the “refiner’s fire.” Some of the purest gold in the world is refined here in Ottawa. Life with God, the Bible tells us, is an ongoing refining. It may not always be pleasurable, but it can be a continual process of becoming more truly who we are. And then, finally, there is water. Think of the words of Amos, the prophet who says that justice and righteousness should flow over everything like a river.
If you have encountered any of these today—sunlight, a seed, fire, or water—you have touched (or seen or smelled) the way of God with creation. You have encountered a touchpoint for God’s way of being with you.
Fire and water show up in both of our readings. Isaiah tells us that God’s people needn’t fear because they have been rescued. Here’s the line: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”
Not long ago the Mennonite writer and editor, Valerie Weaver-Zercher wrote about the experience of having someone introduce her as “my editor.” It’s similar, she says, to introducing a writer she works with as “my author.” It is a surprising expression of kinship, even intimacy, this “my editor,” “my author.” We probably have a similar experience when someone refers to us as “my teacher,” or “my student,” or “my colleague,” or “my mentor.” It is a strange intimacy. So we must not pass too quickly over Isaiah’s transmission of God’s intimate expression: “I have called you by name, you are mine.” We must pause and let it sink in. . . “I have called you by name, you are mine.” A strange and wonderful intimacy indeed.
Then Isaiah launches into two of the touchpoints I mentioned earlier. God says, “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.”
Think of that: when you pass through the waters and through the fire—you shall be neither overwhelmed nor consumed. Anyone feel like you are walking through fire? Anyone feel like the waters just might overwhelm you? The point is that it’s in these times that we meet God.
Think about Luke. There we heard—as we have on-and-off for weeks now—from John of the Wilderness (I have officially renamed him). John said, “I will 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.”
If we follow the story, skipping the paragraph about Herod’s marital shenanigans, we then see Jesus wading into the water of the Jordan River. I’m told that the Jordan River now runs at less than 10% of its ancient rate of flow. It is drawn on heavily for irrigation. There are places where it would be difficult to baptize anyone in the modern Jorden. Some scientists say it may be impossible before long; the river may simply cease to flow. That’s the picture today. However, in the ancient world the Jordan would have been a place to see and to feel water’s power.
Our bodies are mostly water. Most of the earth is covered with water. Water forms deep canyons. It can cut through rocks: think of the receding lip of Niagara Falls. Waterways were the first transportation arteries in this country and many cities are placed as they are because of water. Many national boundaries follow preexisting water borders. If we don’t have enough rain, we can’t grow crops to feed ourselves. If we have too much rain, we can’t grow crops to feed ourselves. For a long time rivers carried away cities’ sewage. Now much of our recreation depends on water. Our lives are virtual sponges: “water is life,” is the phrase protests have used so often. And it’s true.
And so it makes sense that we would feel life with God through water. It makes sense that one of our most significant signposts of faith—baptism—would involve water too. And it makes sense that Jesus, God’s incarnate presence, would join us in the water.
Jesus was baptized as an act of solidarity with us. This is radical divine solidarity. This is salvation in miniature. Through Jesus, God becomes one of us. God identifies with our problems, identifies with our mistakes, identifies with our propensity to get in the way of shalom and wholeness.
Remember what Isaiah has told us. When you walk through the fire, it will not consume you. And “when you pass through the waters, I will be with you.”
Jesus goes into the water so that God might be with us. A great river can be both threatening and sustaining. Like the refining fire, the river can put our very existence at risk. The challenges of our lives can be the flame that threatens to consume us, and they can be the water that just about drowns us. And yet, through God’s transcendent power, it is in the flow that God’s grace comes.
Because God goes there too.
Psalm 29 compares God’s grace to a flood. It soaks in deep. It disrupts, which is to say it reforms. It cuts new channels. There is no need to say that God intends the violence and confusion that threatens us, to say that this is where we meet God.
An ancient Chinese sage named Laozi, who may well have written around the same time as Isaiah, points out that water simultaneously demonstrates both humility and effectiveness. Laozi points out that water benefits all living things, but does so by occupying the low places that other things dislike. A flood may feel like rising water, but water always seeks the low places. It is humble. And it’s through this constant humility that water gains its significance as a force for change. Doesn’t God’s grace work this way too? It is constant, humble, meeting us in the low points. It is a force for change.
The major forces of the economy that envelopes us work differently. They push us to be as direct and as efficient as possible. They encourage us to maximize value in the short term. This is what one of the leading theologians of our time, a woman named Kathryn Tanner, has said in the prestigious Gifford Lectures. The economy that envelops us makes us feel guilty if there is any corner of our lives that hasn’t reached its full productive potential.
We get the sense that we must push ourselves to the breaking point. And this guilt gets reflected back on our own histories. We wonder, “What if?” We wonder about what great productive value we might have realized if we had done things differently: “What if I hadn’t taken those years to volunteer when I was in my twenties?” “What if I hadn’t chosen to be home with my young children?” “What if I would have stuck it out as a manager even though it was killing me?” “What if I had trained in something else?” Our economy foists guilt upon us for not being maximally productive at any point in our lives.
One of the results is that we have a terrible time enduring suffering or even small setbacks—because it makes us less productive. For us the low places, the slow places, the “unproductive” places of life are to be abandoned as soon as possible. This is the frantic, panicky person created by our economic ecosystem.
Yet this stands in opposition to the waters of God’s grace. In Jesus’ baptism we see God expressing solidarity with us—where?—in our weakness. We connect with God as we go through the water. In the challenging, seemingly unproductive waters, we feel God’s humble, life-changing glory.
God’s grace is in the water. It seeks us at low-points, ensuring that we will not be overwhelmed, ensuring that we will be made more truly who we are—God’s very own.