The following is from a sermon preached on 9/23/14 at Monmouth Presbytery. The text is Exodus 14:19-31:
I’ve lived at the Jersey Shore for nine years, but this past summer was the first time I bought beach tags. To be honest — and I realize this is heresy in Monmouth Presbytery — I don’t really like the ocean. There. I said it. But since I bought the badge, I went in the water a few times. A crab pinched me in the foot and I felt sticky when I got out. It was “meh.” It’s not just being in the ocean that bothers me, being on it is not so good either. I get dreadfully sea sick and I don’t like being out of sight of land. And what dangers lurk below? For me, the ocean is scary…too big, too vast – I can’t get my head around it. Last weekend, as I sat high and dry on the beach for some late summer sun, I gazed out over the ocean and I could literally see and the great movement of the water in the current, immense and unremitting. It spoke to me something of God. Vast and restless...a little intimidating. It reminded me that I’m a little frightened of God sometimes, too.
Water is a fearsome force. Have you ever stood under a waterfall and let it pummel you? At best, it’s a rough massage. At worst it can knock you down and hold you under. We’ve all seen unforgettable images of a tsunami’s destructive power — carrying away everything in its path. Of course I’m avoiding the obvious…who better than those of us who live at the shore know the destructive force of water? I have neighbors in Little Egg Harbor and Tuckerton who have permanently marked the high watermark of Sandy on their house. It bears witness to the power of water. It tells a story that has defined their lives for these last two years. Water has become part of their identity, in ways they wish it hadn’t.
As destructive as water can be, we know it is also life-giving. There is nothing like a cool drink of water on a hot day. The psalmist writes of a deer who stands by a spring that has gone dry…longing for a drink. We need water…thirst is experienced as the most urgent physical need we know, except maybe for maybe a breath of air. We can’t live without water, it is essential to life. In fact, water is what astronomers search for in distant solar systems – it is the stuff of life. And it is a paradox. Water gives and water takes. It ebbs and flows. It refreshes but it also drowns. We are water. And God is in the water.
The predominant image of water in the Old Testament is that of threat: a source of chaos; a place where sea monsters and unknown terrors dwell. In Genesis Chapter 7 all life on earth is destroyed by a great flood, except for Noah, his family and the animals with them. Water is a foreboding menace, inducing dread, uncertainty and insecurity. God alone has power over the water.
So as grand and amazing as the story of the crossing of the Red Sea from Exodus 14 is to our modern ears, was even more so for the ancient people of Israel. Because God not only leads them to safety, away from Pharaoh’s army, but God does it by leading them through the watery chaos.
I can’t hear this story without thinking of Cecille B. DeMille’s epic film the Ten Commandments. Like it or not, this is the image emblazoned on our generation’s minds. To his credit, DeMille does his best to be faithful to the text. It might have happened that way…but just as likely it might not have. The truth is we don’t really know. We weren’t there, and I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that even the people who were there might not have known quite what happened.
Scripture tells us it happened at night…they crossed the Red Sea in darkness. There was wind, and water and mud. There was a lot of movement, and when dawn broke, they found themselves on the other side, with Egyptian chariots in the water and dead soldiers on the shore. What happened? Who knows? But something so unusual and so amazing that the story itself becomes a watermark — part of their identity and how they define themselves as the people of God. It’s a story they’ve told every generation since; a story that we still tell today. It’s mystery and miracle. The Jewish scholar, Martin Buber, defines a “miracle” as an event that produces “an abiding astonishment.” He writes:
“The great turning-points in religious history are based on the fact that again and ever again an individual and a group attached to it wonder and keep on wondering; at a natural phenomenon, at a historical event, or at both together; always at something which intervenes fatefully in the life of an individual and a group. They sense and experience it as a wonder.”
This was Israel’s defining moment, as God’s chosen people, that they lived to see in the early morning that they were safe from the threat of both Pharoah’s army and the chaos of the water. An abiding astonishment.
Water is also a frequent image in the New Testament, but it is the life-giving qualities of water that are emphasized in our Christian story. Jesus’ first miracle is to turn water to wine…gracious, abundant overflowing wine of the finest quality. He uses the life-giving qualities of water as a way of speaking about himself as the divine source of life. To the Samaritan woman at the well, he says, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water."
The Gospel of John tells the story of Jesus’ baptism in its own unique way, trying to convey eternal truths using finite language. And so when John the Baptist tries to explain what he’s doing and why he’s here, and to whom he’s pointing, he speaks mysteriously of timeless matters. “'After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.' He speaks in paradoxes, because what he speaks of is inexplicable using normal conventions. He talks of water and of spirit: “The one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.'” As if in water and spirit we can find answers. He speaks of the ancient and uniquely Christian sacrament of baptism, which somehow combines these elements of water and spirit, to affect those touched by it – and in that act that somehow God is revealed.
In Greek, the word for sacrament is “mysterion” – in its original form the word conveys something very different than the Latin word that has replaced it, and which by now has its own, very different connotations. But early on, rites such as the Eucharist and baptism were called “mysteries.” Benjamin Dueholm rightly points out in a recent article in the Christian Century, that the rite of Baptism is older than the Trinitarian formula and the doctrine of original sin. He says that the practice of ancient rites are less likely to change than the stories that explain them, the words that accompany them, or the meanings we glean from them. So we have been baptizing with water and spirit for a long, long time...longer and with deeper meaning than our language is able to convey.
Have we lost the abiding astonishment of our baptism? Do we experience as wonder? I’m afraid that by putting water in the font, as we have, we’ve tamed it almost beyond recognition. The font is a mini-oasis of peace and serenity. It would not take a lot of imagination to add a few moss-covered rocks and a shade tree or two to complete the tranquil scene. The glassy surface and diminutive size of the font belies the complexity of the element it holds. But what if we had some HarryPotter-esque ability as with Dumbledore’s Pensive, to peer deeply into the font, and see beneath its tranquil surface? We would see there all the trouble and turmoil and tumult...the chaos in the water that is sometimes our Christian life.
It is a mystery is that our passage through the waters of baptism is never complete. It is not a once and done proposition, as we’ve come to see it. True to the paradoxical quality of the eschatological hope we live in — the great mystery of the already/not-yet Kingdom of God, we pass through these waters whenever we experience the trouble and turmoil and tumult of living in Christ.
I was with some colleagues recently and our conversation turned to the enormous changes we’re currently experiencing in the church. It is a tumultuous time. My friends have been in the ministry longer than I have, and they reflected that while every generation claims the changes they’re living through are coming faster and more furiously than ever before, it really is true about what we’re experiencing right now. Never before in our collective memory has there been such upset and change at so fast a pace. Interestingly, such change is often referred to as a “Sea-change.” A term originated by Shakespeare to convey quite literally, a change wrought by the sea. Today, it has come to mean profound transformation. We’re living in the midst of a Sea Change.
There is value in remembering the miracle by the Red Sea. That by God’s hand, God led the people he calls his own out of slavery and through the chaos of life onto a safe and dry shore. But the move from slavery to freedom was not easy. Freedom means insecurity, it means stepping out into the midst of chaos in hope that there is something better, on the other side. Bondage is never so tempting as when faced with dangers before and behind.
In this grand and mighty act, God saved a people from bondage. Not a person, not even a group of individuals, it was a people, an entity in its own right, who came out from Egypt. By this act, God taught them that their fate was tied to God and to each other.
What is it that we are bound to? What keeps us enslaved? Are we bound by old ways of thinking? By our past biases and prejudices? And what is that we are afraid of? What is the watery chaos that threatens our lives, should we step out? That we might have to change our ways? That we might have to interact with some who are “other” to us? As they stood on that precipice with Pharoah’s army behind them and Red Sea before them, Moses said: "Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the LORD will accomplish for you today…"
We are not so unlike the Israelites; chained by that which enslaves us, fearful of the water that surrounds us. But if we are enslaved and challenged by the things that make us different, then we are unified by that which we have in common. And it’s this that we’re to strive for; finding our common purpose in God…striving for the vision that God casts before us.
Our baptism leaves a watermark on us. It bears witness to our identity as the people of God. In the waters of baptism, God claims us as his own. We are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. Our baptism unites us in a unique way. It unites us with each other, with every other Christian and with Jesus Christ himself, and it reminds us that out of the watery chaos, God will deliver us too.
Come to the font and peer deeply beneath its tranquil surface. See the power of the water and all that it contains. Remember the things that enslave you, face the fears that threaten you, and claim the promises of God.