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Swimming Through the Danger Zone

Baptism of Jesus
January 13, 2019


After Christmas my family spent some time at the beach in Florida.  It’s the same Atlantic Ocean that we swim in every summer in Delaware when we do our family trip to Bethany Beach, but it looked and felt surprisingly different.  Warmer, which was a nice surprise for January. But also much less predictable.
At Bethany, I’m used to one wave coming at a time.  Sometimes the wave is big and scary, and sometimes it’s small and harmless.  But either way, it usually breaks in about the same place and so I know how to prepare myself for it.  My normal beach practice is to swim out past the breaking point and just float around relaxed, bobbing over the waves before they turn strong and unpredictable.  Of course, there is always a danger zone I have to go through to get to that relaxed place -- a few yards where being swooped by a wave is possible -- but once I get through the danger point, I know I’ll be okay.
But in Florida, at least while we were there, it was completely different.  There were all kinds of waves breaking all over the place all the time. I couldn’t predict where the danger of being swooped was, and there was no assurance that any amount of swimming would get me past the waves to a calm place.  It all felt like danger zone.  Now, I’m a firm believer that some fear of the ocean is a good thing, but this uncertainty made me more uncomfortable than I would have expected. I felt vulnerable - for myself and for my kids - and found myself feeling a little paralyzed.
And it occured to me as I came to this realization about my preferred beach-swimming habits that maybe this was actually a metaphor for my preferred life-living habits as well.  I would rather know in advance what lies ahead. I’d rather be able to predict how big and forceful the next wave in life is going to be and have a solid idea about when and where it is going to hit.  And ideally, I’d prefer to endure risk and pain for just a defined amount of time only as necessary to swim out past it to an assurance of safety and security.
Maybe most of us would prefer those things.  I can’t imagine I’m alone in that. But unless we are very young or very lucky, I think we have all experienced that life often doesn’t work that way.  No matter how well-intentioned or well-organized we are, that danger zone is always a real and present possibility. Big waves of life hit us unexpectedly and we don’t know how long they’ll last or whether they’ll swoop us under.
In our Old Testament reading, the prophet Isaiah addresses folks who have been completely swooped by waves of life they had not seen coming.  The people of Israel have been conquered by the Babylonians and thrown into exile far from all they know and hold dear. And they can’t seem to swim their way out of the danger zone.  They are on the precipice of extinction. They feel abandoned by God and fearful for their future. Their faith is threadbare.
And in the midst this desperate and impossible situation, hear God’s promise to them: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you. … You are precious in my sight and honored, and I love you. … Do not fear, for I am with you.”  These are words of comfort and hope - a reminder to the exiles that their identity as God’s people is greater than their sins and defeat. A reminder that God’s presence with them isn’t dependant upon smooth waters.
And our Gospel reading holds a remarkably similar promise from God, this one spoken to Jesus.  Jesus has been baptized with a crowd of people -- he has been dunked right alongside people who have, like all of us, been damaged and disappointed and worn out by the world.  And then comes this voice from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” But rather than getting to bask in this beautiful promise, Jesus is led almost immediately into the desert wilderness of temptation and testing.  And into years of ministry where he is doubted and undermined by friend and foe alike. Jesus, like us, wrestles with uncertainty and fear. He, struggles to be at peace with the path that lies ahead. He is rejected and deserted. He suffers and dies.  But these words of God are always there, echoing through his very being, sustaining and strengthening him with every new wave that pummels him.
The Israelites weren’t exempt from suffering even though they were God’s chosen people.  
Jesus wasn’t exempt from suffering by being God’s only begotten Son, or by his baptism with those beautiful words from the heavens.  
And we aren’t exempt either, by our faith or by our baptisms.
The unfortunate truth is that God’s faithful people are just as likely to be battered by waves crashing around them as anyone else.  We don’t get a promise that bad things won’t happen. We don’t get any certainty about what lies ahead. We aren’t assured a happily ever after.  And yet here we are. In this moment. Now is the moment we have, and all of life is somehow contained in it -- no matter what comes next. And so our challenge is not to avoid the waves, thinking that we can somehow steer clear of hardship.  The challenge isn’t even to endure as we wait for them to pass.  Instead, the challenge is to participate in this moment, learn how to live fully and authentically into this moment.
Which brings us, I think, to this baptismal font.  The water in here may look calm and harmless, but don’t be fooled.  This is the water that moved over the deep at creation. This is the water that flooded the earth before making all things new.  This is the water Moses led slaves through into freedom. This is the water of Jesus’ baptism and it is the water of our baptisms.  And it may not look it, but this is deep water — we can't just dip our toes (or our foreheads) in. We have to take a deep breath and plunge in.  
Because the life that we are called into through this water is no calm and harmless identity. We are to be the light of God shining in a world that is too full of darkness.  To be voices of truth ringing out in a world that is too full of confusion. To be comforters reaching out in a world too full of pain.
And we can live into our identities in any given moment precisely because this is the water that shows just how far God will go be with us.  This is the water through which we are claimed as God’s beloved sons and daughters. And this is the water through which we know ourselves to be people that never swim alone.  Amen.

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