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Above the Flood

  • January 13, 2019
  • 08:00 AM

Sermon for 13 January 2019 (Baptism of our Lord Year C)

Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts:             Isaiah 43.1-7; Psalm 29; Luke 3.15-17,21-22

Title:               Above the Flood

“The Lord shall give strength to his people; the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace” (Psalm 29.11).

My good friends: do you want to receive this strength from God? Do you want to experience this blessing of peace?

Today the Church invites us to remember the Baptism of our Lord Jesus before he began his public ministry. In solidarity with his people, he came to the River Jordan and received baptism at the hands of John, his cousin.

The voice of God was heard over the waters, the Holy Spirit came like a dove, and the Son was clearly identified. This is what the Church calls Theophany – the clear manifestation of God in a way that people can see and perceive.

But I want us to go back and spend a few minutes taking a deeper look at our Psalm.  The twenty-ninth Psalm: every single year on this day that we remember the Baptism of Jesus, it is appointed to be prayed in the congregation.

But why is that? Let’s take a look. This Psalm speaks of the mighty and powerful voice of God speaking over the waters, just as the voice of God spoke over the waters of the River Jordan at the Lord’s baptism.

In the Bible, the waters always signify chaos. Their God is praised as the One who reigns over the waters and brings order and peace. “The LORD sits enthroned above the flood” (Ps. 29.10).

This is all well and good, but there is also a lot of other chaos and destruction that comes from the presence of this God!

Lightning and thunder.

Powerful storms that shatter trees and strip forests bare.

Earthquakes that cause the mountains to move and shake.

Flames of fire that split apart in the wilderness.

Floods and mighty waters.

This is scary stuff. And it causes all in the Temple, all those in God’s presence, to worship and cry out, “Glory!”

But there is even more to this Psalm when we begin to dig a little deeper.

Did you notice all of the geography in this psalm? Lebanon, Mount Hermon, Kadesh. All of those are places in the north – in the lands known today as Lebanon and Syria.

What seems likely then is that this psalm was adapted from an old prayer for rain made to a pagan storm god up in the north. It was taken and adapted to celebrate the awesome power of THEIR God, the God of Israel, over the forces of nature.

Because just like all the peoples around them, and all the peoples of ancient times, the Israelites also prayed for rain, and prayed for God to protect them from natural disasters.

Now, I wonder, do people still pray for these things today? Do we still ask God to protect us from natural disasters? From those things that insurance companies like to call an “act of God”?

Just think of the long list of amazing natural disasters that we have witnessed in recent years. Just a few years ago it was Superstorm Sandy. Recently we had hurricanes Maria and Irma. This year it was hurricanes Florence and Michael.

We had horrific, terrifying fires in California, and also in other lands like Greece.

Earthquakes recently took lives in Mexico City, and caused devastating tsunamis in Indonesia.

Volcanoes killed over two hundred in Guatemala and caused damage in Hawaii.

What are we to think about all these things?

Like all of our ancestors in every culture and land, I believe that people today do still pray to be protected and delivered from natural disasters like these – just as humans have always done.

But can we actually expect that to happen? Can we expect God to stop earthquakes and volcanoes, hurricanes, fires and floods?

Absolutely not. My friends, God will never stop these things. And do you know why? Because they are essential to life on earth!

We are just beginning to understand how the movement of the plates of the earth’s crust – along with all of the volcanic eruptions and earthquakes that come along with this – how these things have been THE essential engine that has circulated the nutrients essential to the development of life on this planet.

Fires and floods have produced some of the most fertile soils which we now rely upon for food production.

Storms and hurricanes are essential for creating balance in the atmosphere, mixing together different air masses and spreading moisture over large areas of land.

All of these are essential to life on planet earth. WE personally may not like them or enjoy them. We may find them to be inconvenient and destructive. We may pray and ask God to stop them. But they are necessary for life, and THAT means that they are necessary in the plan and dream of God.

Now, what is the promise that we hear at the very end of the twenty-ninth psalm?

“The Lord shall give strength to his people; the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace” (Psalm 29.11).

What is this strength and peace that God gives to us? And how does that promise relate to the rest of the psalm as a prayer for God to control the forces of chaos in nature?

There is an old story from the Sufi tradition that helps with this. If you do not know, the Sufis are a branch of Islam that emphasizes the mystical experience of God, and Sufis have functioned within Islam much like monasteries have within the Church.

Well, a story is told that one time a man came to the community of a respected Sufi teacher, one much like a guru or like a desert abba, and this man wanted to join that community. He wanted to be part of their shared experience of God. But first, before he could make that commitment, he had one question. So he asked and said, “Teacher, before I join your community, I need to know: do you believe in miracles?”

The Teacher thought about this for a moment and then replied, “Why, yes, absolutely. We believe in miracles. However…some people think it is a miracle when God does the will of humans. WE think it is a miracle when humans do the will of God!”

What is the peace and strength that we receive from God?

Does this come when God changes our personal circumstances to match up with what we want, with what we ask for?

Or does it come when God changes our perspective? When we change how we see the world, so that what WE want becomes consistent and in alignment with what GOD wants?

And this brings us back to baptism. Baptism is an act of humility. We bring ourselves and our households, our children, to be and to do what GOD wants, not what we want.

The great Bernard of Clairvaux taught that humility is the one and only vantage point from which we can take in the largest possible view of reality. It is the way that our perspective on life is changed.

Humility is not hunting around for the shortcoming of others, not trying to find out who is to blame. Humility is never accusing others and pointing out their faults.

Rather it is always – in every situation – recognizing that we are here NOW to do God’s will.

THAT was the position of John. Has there ever been a person as humble as John? He was not afraid of making the tough ask, not afraid of whose feelings might get hurt. HIS task was to point everyone back to God – away from all of the other short-term easy fixes that so easily distract people from the REAL work of life. John’s work was to change their perspective.

And so my friends I ask you again: do you want to receive strength from God? Do you want to experience the blessing of God’s peace?

Of course, there is nothing wrong with asking for what is on our hearts. But God is always free to answer as God wills. And God will do what God wants to do.

There are times when the Holy Spirit will move and change things in surprising, amazing and miraculous ways. But the primary thing that the Holy Spirit wants to move and change is US!

Is God going to change the world on the basis of our prayers, for what we want? And is it our goal to bend God and the world and life to our will, to what we ask for, what we think we need?

OR, having been baptized into the death and the life of Jesus, has our perspective been changed? Is it now our goal to bend ourselves to the will of God, to doing and accepting and loving what it is that God desires?

Yes, here is the truth. Strength and peace come to us when we give up our compulsive need to change the world to fit into our desires and plans, and instead learn to embrace this life – and this world – as the precious gift of God that it is.

When we are ready to do that willingly, freely, with joy and trust and abandon, THEN the promise in the psalm comes true.  THEN we find ourselves wrapped in amazing strength and peace which can never ever be taken from us.

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