I don’t know how many of you are former evangelicals, but I spent most of my later adolescence as a hand clapping, power point watching, profoundly guilt-ridden modern American conservative evangelical. It was good times.
Though now I prefer Anglican chant, complicated motets and authentic gospel music, at the time I loved praise music. My favorite praise song was based on our passage from Isaiah today.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.
The wind and the waves shall not over come you.
Do not fear, for I will be with you.
and so on and so forth.
For a nerve-wracked college student trying to figure out what to do with her life, the comforting idea of God’s omnipresence in difficult times was very reassuring. In fact, I still love an image of a God who is with us, even in our most difficult experiences.
In the passage from Isaiah today, God is responding to the people of Judah who have been complaining that God has abandoned them because Jerusalem has been destroyed. He reassures them that, despite appearances, He is, in fact, with them. And no matter what deep waters or hot fires might try to consume them, God will not leave them.
How poignant then, in our Gospel passage today, to see Jesus joining the throng as they are baptized by John the Baptist. While in many ways, this scene of Jesus’ baptism is familiar to us, there is one key difference between Luke’s account of the baptism and the account of other Gospel writers.
While the authors of the Gospel of Mark, Matthew and John remember Jesus’ baptism as an individual event, independent from the baptisms of the crowds that gathered to hear John the Baptist, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is one of many who are baptized.
But why did Jesus even need to be baptized? The baptism that John the Baptist performed was a baptism for the remission of sins. Why in the world would God need to repent of sins?
Imagine with me the setting: John has set up shop on the banks of a river and hundreds of people of every shape and size are crowded around, waiting eagerly to be baptized. They enter the water one by one or perhaps as a crowd. As they are each baptized and washed clean, the water around them gets less clean. The dirt that collected on each person’s feet as they made the long trek to the wilderness, drifts into the water. The sweat from the heat, joins the dirt. The sin that has built up over a life time of being human, pollutes the water.
Jesus enters into this murky water, embodying Isaiah’s words. God is not only figuratively with us when we’re in deep water. In this case, Jesus actually stands shoulder to shoulder with every sinner who wants to be washed clean. Jesus does not shy away from the messy, literally dirty parts of these people. Jesus bathes in them and seeks baptism himself.
Instead of washing himself from sins, in that dark water, maybe Jesus was taking on our sins. Perhaps he was embodying what he would go on to do his whole life-living as a God completely committed to being human, in all of humanity’s strength and weakness.
We all know that when we experience our baptisms, we become one with Christ. We change our identity. We become “marked as Christ’s own forever”. Perhaps when Jesus was baptized by John in the wilderness, he became marked as our own forever.
And this is what God blesses. For just as in all the other Gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism, a dove from heaven descends, alights upon Jesus and the onlookers hear the words, “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.”
At this moment of utter humility-the moment when Jesus enters a body of water to be baptized for the remission of sins, this moment when Jesus is incredibly vulnerable and human-this is when God chooses to make a public declaration of Jesus’ identity as God’s Son.
Frederick Buechner, the great Presbyterian novelist and autobiographical author knows this aspect of God’s closeness to us well. The deep waters he waded through were his father’s suicide when he was a child and his daughter’s anorexia when he was an adult. At the height of her illness, she became so sick she was hospitalized. Though Buechner was terrified, He writes,
“I have never felt God’s presence more strongly than when my wife and I visited that distant hospital where our daughter was. Walking down the corridor to the room that had her name taped to the door, I felt that presence surrounding me like air-God in his very stillness, holding his breath, loving her, loving us all, the only way he can without destroying us. One night we went to compline in an Episcopal Cathedral, and in the coolness and near emptiness of that great vaulted place, in the remoteness of the choir’s voices chanting plainsong, in the grayness of the stone, I felt it again-the passionate restraint and hush of God.”
Buechner sensed Jesus standing shoulder to shoulder with him. Buechner knew God was in the deep water with him and would not abandon him.
So, it turns out that the words to that praise song I sang as an adolescent are as true now as they were a decade ago. God will be with us when we pass through deep water. God will be with us when we walk through fire. Our God really is Emmanuel-God with us. Thanks be to God.