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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

"Come Hell or High Water"
Date: 01/09/2005
Feast: Baptism of the Lord
Church: LHPC
Bible text: Matt. 3:13-17
Theme: Baptism

Water. And Baptism. There’s been no shortage of stories about water on TV. Another scripture. Psalm 69. I kept thinking about these verses while I was watching the news about the tsunami.

Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.

Yes, there has been other news on TV for the past week, but nothing could overshadow the tidal wave catastrophe in the Indian Ocean. Effecting an area as large as the continental United States, erasing towns, making human life simply disappear. One report showed a comparison. It said it was as if every man, woman and child in the city of Chattanooga – roughly 155,000 souls – were suddenly gone. Add to this the disproportionate number of children swept away by the waves, not strong enough to hold on, not old enough to swim – and this disaster of biblical proportions becomes even more hellish.

By the church calendar, today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday. Both of the scriptures (Old and New Testament), being preached here and in churches in the Indonesian area (in whatever conditions they might be gathering), is about water. But instead of water that kills, it’s about water that saves. Jesus himself wants this saving water to come up to his neck, over his head – to sweep over him. Which confuses John the Baptizer. “No, Lord, I need to be baptized by you, and yet you come to me?” It’s as if Jesus has it upside-down.

Which may be the point. Jesus has a habit of turning things upside-down. He says to John, “(I know what you’re saying, but) it is proper for us in this way, to fulfill all righteousness.” The Psalmist tells us – and Jesus tells us again – all righteousness comes from God. All saving comes from God. All life comes from God. And not the other way around.

“Save me, O God.” Those words may be your only prayer if you’re clinging to a treetop while the waters rise around you. “Save me, O God.” Those words were Jesus’ prayer as he bowed his head and let the earthly waters wash over him. “Save me, O God.” Those words are our prayer, too. They’re THE prayer of our baptism. Our baptizing prayer is that God will turn things upside-down for us, in a good way. That God’s righteousness, God’s saving, God’s life – might take even the things that threaten to kill us, and turn them around. “O God, turn US around,” is what we pray when the earthly waters come up to our necks, and we know for sure the only one who can get us out of our mess is God.


They say that rumors and speculation are running rampant throughout Sri Lanka. People catch wind of things they’d never believe in normal circumstances, and accept them as gospel truth, because bad news is the only thing that seems believable right now. Experts in communication will tell you that in the absence of real information, negative thoughts take over. Fear loves to fill an empty space. And judging from the news footage, there are a lot of empty spaces in Sri Lanka now.

What we see on TV on such a massive scale touches our hearts because on a personal scale, we understand. The difference between a person who seems to float over trouble and a person who sinks beneath trouble is pretty small. Where you’re standing when trouble hits, and what kind of ground you’re standing on makes all the difference. Were you lucky enough to have a moment of warning? Could you see your problems out of the corner of your eye? Maybe. But not even the best planner can plan for everything and anything.

A couple of Christmases ago, I was given a book that I keep in my office, just in case. It’s The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook. Do any of you have one, too? It has chapters like, “How to Escape from Quicksand,” “How to Fend off a Shark,” and, “How to Survive If Your Parachute Fails to Open.”

For your information, should your parachute ever fail to open (as you’re on your way to worship one Sunday), “As soon as you realize that your chute is bad, signal to a jumping companion whose chute has not yet opened, that you are having a malfunction. Wave your arms and point to your chute. When your companion gets to you, hook arms. When your friend (your new best friend) opens his chute, there will be no way either of you will be able to hold onto one another… because the G-forces will triple or quadruple your body weight. To prepare for this problem, hook your arms into his chest strap. The chute opening shock will be severe, probably enough to dislocate or break your arms. Your friend must now hold onto you with one arm… while steering the canopy to avoid hitting the ground too fast. You must also avoid power lines and other obstructions at all costs.”

Never having been in this situation, myself, I have no reason to doubt the truth of these instructions. I feel certain that IF your parachute didn’t open, and IF you were skydiving with a friend, and IF your friend hadn’t deployed his chute, and IF he could get to you, and IF he avoided power lines and other obstructions AND hitting the ground too fast… you’d be back at the sports bar that evening, laughing hysterically, in your new body cast.

The Bible is as close as we can come to a worst-case scenario survival handbook for the soul. Unfortunately, it’s nowhere near as step-by-step detailed. And even if it were so detailed, we’d never remember, or never follow, all the instructions, anyway. That sin thing. We tend to think we know as much as (or more) than God, so we start writing our own little instruction manuals on the fly (or on the fall).

Scripture takes a different tack. Sometimes it tells us how to get out of our problems, or how to avoid them in the first place, and we’d all do well to pay attention when it does. But most of the time, Scripture takes another approach.

God knows that we’ll each face our own worst-case scenarios. God knows that we can’t prepare (or won’t prepare) for everything. God knows that in the absence of good news (also known as, “gospel”), bad news, rumors, speculation and fear will fill our hearts because that’s the way human hearts are made. So instead of pushing back the waves of darkness, God baptizes with them.

The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.
May the Lord give strength to his people!
May the Lord bless his people with peace!

We see this is the way all righteousness is fulfilled. And it has nothing to do with our righteousness, or our luck in standing in the right place at the right time. God’s righteousness, God’s saving, God’s life wash over us, even when everything else crashes down. We usually have to wait until everything else has crashed down before we see this. That’s the way human hearts (and hard human heads) are made.


So Jesus enters into this world – our world – with all its catastrophes and all its beauty, too. Jesus enters into this world and tells John, “No, you baptize me.” And Jesus arises from the waters with eyes and spirit that see God descending like a dove, and saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

You may have been baptized a long time ago. You may not have been baptized in a church at all. You may have been baptized by fire, in your own way, and that’s what brings you here today. Your righteousness, your salvation, your life – depends NOT on the kind of baptism. Because the promise of God is that whether they’re waters of life or waters of death, you’re going to rise above them. The earthly waters may take everything else from you, but they can’t take God’s word. They can’t touch God’s promises. You are God’s beloved child, too. And come hell or high water, that won’t change.