Underwater

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

Isaiah 40:1-2

The prophet Isaiah spoke to a people who had, for centuries, failed to listen to God, a people who had turned from God, a people who had continued to listen to voices that did not belong to God. In doing all of this, in passively rejecting God, they had hardened themselves to the very voice of God. They genuinely began to believe the lies and deceit they had surrendered to, and in the process they had sold their passions to the false promises of political and religious agendas – agendas that were hostile to God’s creation and the humans God had created.  Compassion and mercy were eagerly traded for promises of economic gain, national security, personal homogenous comfort, and a reality that was never real at all but instead a selfish fantasy. 

Now, however, God was telling the prophet that the people had suffered enough – enough to realize their horrible turns and the damage of of their choices. Now, the fullness of time had arrived, the people were ready to receive hope, ready to search for truth, ready to do the actual the work of comfort, willing to make the sacrifice needed for redemption.

If you really think about it you cannot help but come to the conclusion that it is an outrageous pattern, it is an absurd plan this plan of God. God, the one rejected by the people, in the end, is God, the one who makes the ultimate sacrifice for the people.

Actually it is not really that odd, it should probably be one of the most understandable things of God. After all it is what a parent does, we as humans have the natural tendency, in this one area, to act with the same automatic sacrifice as the creator.  It is our gut instinct to chase after the wayward child, to make every sacrifice possible in order to ransom back the rebellious beloved, we shed tears, we empty our bank account, we beg, we borrow, we do and do until we can do no more.  Our critics, the ‘experts’ on the outside say ‘do no more’, ‘you’ve done enough’, ‘you are just enabling them’, ‘walk away’, ‘wash your hands and live your life.’  But a response of walking away is impossible to fully do, it is a response that is doomed to failure because it is not a natural response to our very real struggles with the mercy and compassion of the breath that God breathed into us at creation. A breath that we have long disregarded but still often we find ourself longing – longing for the freshness of that air, that sense of relief as we breath it in after holding it in while we find ourself under water. 

It makes sense that the one area we naturally act like God is the one area we personally can identify with the compassionate response of God. God has shown mercy, kindness, and love towards us, it is natural with God, it is automatic.  Even though we struggle receiving it, it is our natural response as well.

God looks at his own creation, and those he created, with the same passion we look at our created.  To walk away, to wash his hands, is no more natural to God than it is to us.  God lives with limitations just as we do, God is still restricted by the choice he gave to humans. Eventually, everything we do is restricted by the choice of the one we seek to rescue.

Isaiah explains this to a people who are finally ready to hear, who are finally ready to receive, 

‘Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint, he does not grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.’

Isaiah 40:28-31

It is then, when time is ready, when time is complete, when time is full, when we are ready to see and to hear and to receive, it is in that moment that God acts.  God defeats the Babylonians and sends the exiled home, God opens the heavens, he tears them apart, so that, at this perfect time, he can send a messenger to tell us,  ‘Look, there it is! There is the Hope that you are now ready to see! Look!! Grab ahold of it! It has been there all along but now the time is here! Now your eyes and your ears are open and ready to receive.’

God opens up the heavens, he lets us see the evil around us that we have somehow not seen, he startles us awake, he shakes us to the core – 

‘look you have not seen this before – let me wash away the very things that are causing your blindness, let me wipe your eyes clean, here step into and even under this water so I can lift you up clean!’

God opens the gates of Jerusalem, he permits the Persians to defeat the Babylonians, he lets the evil shatter the windows of our sacred buildings – all to wake us up, to pull us out of our complacency, to turn us back to him.  And then the messenger says, 

‘It is time, time to admit that your eyes have been closed, it is time to see truth and to turn back to God.’

‘A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’

Isaiah 40:3

In the wilderness, why does it have to be in the wilderness? Why? The wilderness is messy and it takes time to get there….you can’t sit down, you can hear very well, there is no coffee, and some of the people that do to ‘wilderness’ things are not the people we need to be rubbing elbows with! 

And why does it have to be a ‘messenger’? Messengers like Isaiah, Jeremiah, John the Baptizer, and their ilk, their clothes are repulsive and their smell is even worse, their diet is ridiculous, and their message is intrusive and unfair. Really, for this we leave our buildings, for this we walk out of our city?

And yet, people went. They went out to the wilderness, they went out to the messenger, they went into the water, they went under.  It was filthy water before they ever stepped into it, and, after all the crowds descended into it – the water was a true health hazard.  Every possible filth from every possible filthy human being had been washed into the water, it was now just waiting to stick to the next victim.

Into this, Jesus stepped.  He didn’t just dip a toe, but he fully immersed himself, he was all in – feet, hands, face, hair, nothing was left dry, no part of his body was spared the disgusting impact of humanness and the human condition. 

And then, oh, and then, what happened revealed everything. It was a game changer, it was radical and it was revolutionary. The water liberally covered his body, it creeped onto every inch of his flesh.

And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, you are the Beloved;’ and God sighed just before saying, ‘with you I am well pleased.”

Mark 1:10-11

‘The heavens torn apart!’ God had broken through, God was set loose. Now, at the edges, there was God, now in the filth of humanity, God was there, now with us, God is here. God was no longer confined in a building, or by an institution, or a political party, or by a government,  God is here, God is there, God is present!

God was loosed.  Loosed. It was the first greek word we learned in seminary greek. loo’-o.  To deliver, to unbind, to free, to dissolve, to release.  It is a verb, is is an extreme action word, it is a ‘do’ or ‘doing’ word, it takes a deliberate effort, it takes action, it is not magical or automatic, it is not without expense or sacrifice, it comes with a steep cost. It takes something being torn apart, it takes a radical work that is beyond our human ability.  It takes stepping down into, and under, the filthy water of humanity and taking on that very filth.

And, here is the thing, when Jesus came out of the murky, filthy water,  the water was clean.  It surely still looked a mess, but now all the filth that had been floating around had now clung to Jesus. So now, those who stepped into the water after were stepping into water that could truly cleanse on all levels.  

To those of Jewish heritage, baptism held a very real, and needed purpose, to cleanse.  It was truly to clean off all that was unclean.  It was an early attempt to arrive at a level of hygienic safety removing all the contaminants that should inflict and harm. Now, this water, post Jesus, was truly able to serve in that fashion but now on a higher level. Now this water was able to remove away the contaminants of the soul.  Jesus took all of the filth on himself as he arose out of the water and would carry this filth with him to the cross.

This is why Priscilla and Aquila asked an enthusiastic believer named Apollos ‘which water were you baptized in?’ It is what Paul asked the believers ‘were you baptized in John’s water or in Jesus’ water?’ See the water made a difference – not the literal water, that water was much too shallow to hold all the filth it could not fully do the work of ultimate cleansing. It was just a water that got you ready for the true cleansing water, the water that would refine your focus so you can see. That water was much more than a physical element, it was forever.  ‘Was it the water where you left everything that would keep you from seeing Jesus, or was it the water that had been cleansed by Jesus?  It was important to differentiate – it was essential for Paul, Priscilla, Aquila, Apollos and for us to identify the water.

And we cannot miss the voice, may we never miss the voice, may we too come up out of the water and hear that voice.  A heavenly voice that has torn through and been loosed in our life. A voice that we can only hear when we go under and allow the cleansing water to wash away the gunk from our eyes and our ears, loosing us up see the presence and to hear the voice of God.  It is not a one time literal baptism but a continuous eternal Jesus water to which we can hear the ‘well pleased’ words of the Father, in which we can see the ‘step out’ guidance of the Spirit, to which we can recognize the ‘it is done’ promise from the Son. We are talking about the waters that have been created, cleansed, and offered to us by God. The waters which have ransomed and redeemed us, a work that we were, and are, unable to do for ourself.  Waters that have revealed the patience, love, mercy, compassion, hope, joy, and presence of God.

A little over a year ago I stood elbow to elbow with people who had come to understand that knowing their waters could mean life or death.  Folks that had been kidnapped and held ransomed just for the tint of their skin, their bodily features that identified their nationality, they were tortured, and threatened until they could identify someone who could ransom and redeem them, someone who had the right water.  Then, after they were loosed, after they were ransomed, they carried a ‘water identifier’. An often ten digit alphanumeric code that would say ‘they have been in the waters of deliverance, they are already freed’ to the next kidnappers who attempted to steal them away.

So we ask ourselves, which waters have I stepped into? What are the waters that I am permitting to pour over me? What are the waters that I am dependent on for my rescue? Out of which baptismal waters did I rise from?

We have just readily said goodbye to a year in which we have been confronted with the fact that there are things we, as humans, cannot change, things we can not control, things that are not only beyond our power but beyond the power of our institutions and the scope of our traditions.  We have faced the truth that we are not immune to everything, that we are not able to outrun the curse of our ancestors, that our status, wealth, power, and geography do not hold the arrogant place that we have thought was unshakeable.  We have been forced to see that we stand alongside all of humanity, not just those with whom we share a common belief, heritage, color, gender, philosophy, education, citizenship, or any other label. We do not have a baptismal privilege because the waters of our baptism were, or are, superior to the waters of others’ baptisms. We can now see the futility of waters of religious celebrities, of political parties, of worthy agendas and lofty philosophical aspirations.   Those waters are filthy, they only contain more filth that will stick to us.  Or, are our waters the waters that have been cleansed by and through the ultimate sacrifice? Are they waters that cleanse on the highest level, are they waters that give us back our sight, waters out which we can arise and hear. What waters were you baptized in?

We now stand at the start of a new year, just a couple of weeks in and we have already seen that, while there are things we cannot control, there are still things we can do, things we can search and seek, places we can stand, people for who we can stand, and things for which we can stand.   It is a year in which we, once again, have been invited to step down into, and under, the waters that will wash the gunk off our eyes and out of our ears, to let us see and hear what Jesus saw, what Jesus heard as he stepped out of the waters over 2000 years ago.

Waters that move us to authentic and genuine actions.  Actions that are out of that breath of God that leads us to act out of and with mercy and compassion.

This past Wednesday we all sat in shock as the sacred institutions of our democracy were breeched and defiled.  We saw many who had chosen to step down into the waters that only piled on hatred and filth, waters that could not cleanse, waters unable to give life, instead they were waters that multiplied the hate and chaos they were designed to multiply. For many, they came out dirtier and more hopeless than before.  There were those, those who didn’t really ever step into the waters but still, they felt the midst of the water as they stood near.  To those, those who did not leave with additional hatred but instead sensed that breath of God, for those they had to find that Comfort that God provided.

U.S. House Representative Andy Kim from New Jersey felt that need for the comfort.  In between the votes in the chamber after congress resumed the electoral process, Representative Kim had to get out into the building and view the destruction of what had taken place earlier.  It only took a few moments for his eyes to fill with tears while he surveyed the damage, he sought out a trash bag.  Soon, Kim was on his knees filling the large trash bag with cigarette butts and other refuse discarded by those who had unpatriotically trashed the sacred building.  For over an hour and a half Kim picked up these pieces of debris that powerfully said so much.  “I was cleaning up the Capitol because it was the right thing to do. That building deserves to be treated with respect, and it was desecrated,”,’ he replied when he was asked about it later.  Truth was, it was the only natural thing he could think to do as he sought God’s comfort in such a discomforting time.

As we stand at the start of this new year, this new opportunity, as yourself, into what waters are you being baptized?

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

Isaiah 40:1-2

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