Sunday, January 13, 2019

How Firm a Foundation: When, Not If



One side of baptism that I think we like best is the idea of cleansing and refreshment. We can all relate to a nice bath, of course. But there are many other images that come to mind. A dip in a cool pool on a hot day. Or how about children jumping through a lawn sprinkler in the summer? You can picture the spray oscillating in the sunshine creating its own rainbow, and kids sailing with abandon through the water droplets suspended momentarily in the air, even as they create their own rainbow. Or speaking of summer vacation and refreshing water, how about getting a drink from the garden hose when we were kids? We might not do that now, but there’s no denying that there was something especially refreshing about that during our childhood.

When we think of all these things, we can’t help but see the positive aspects of holy baptism. It is intended to be cleansing and life-giving. But if I’m able to talk about one side of baptism, there must be another side, too. And if the one side is positive, then—to balance things out—the other side must have something negative about it.

And indeed it does, because the other side of baptism deals not with the life-giving properties of water, but with its deadly aspects. Just as we read in the scriptures about joyfully drawing water from the well of salvation, and refreshing rain that enables crops to grow, we also read there of the waters of destruction. [1] In Genesis, when the rain falls for forty days and forty nights, it destroys the earth. In Exodus, the waters of the Red Sea mean certain death without deliverance that comes from God. One of my favorite psalms talks about the river whose streams make glad the City of God, but not until after we have read about the churning sea that threatens the mountain. [2]

And so in the Bible, water is a symbol of death as well as life. And though we want to concentrate on the pleasant, cleansing, refreshing, life-giving side of baptism, the Bible actually says more about the other side. Yes, Paul wrote that, “just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life”—but not until after he’d reminded us “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death—therefore we have been buried with him by baptism.” [3]

Why does religion always have to be such a downer? Why can’t we just think positive thoughts, ignore the bad, and make it all go away? Well, there are churches that seem to teach that very thing. I suppose it all started with Norman Vincent Peale and his power of positive thinking. Today we’ve got something called the “word of faith” movement—often called “name-it-claim-it” theology. It’s all about finding promises in the Bible and claiming those promises for ourselves. If we have enough faith, those promises will be fulfilled. And if bad things happen, well, then that must mean we don’t have enough faith.

And it certainly is encouraging to read the promises of the Bible. But simply taking them out of context and saying they’re meant for me personally would be to do a grave injustice to the struggles that many individuals and peoples in the Bible underwent before hearing those promises themselves. And to imagine that God’s people are only intended to experience pleasure, and never undergo difficulties is no better for me than eating nothing but dessert. To deny the existence of trials leaves me horribly unprepared when I am faced with defeat, or illness, or the death of a loved one, or any number of other difficulties I might face in life.

And the truth is that it’s not a matter of if they come, but when they come. And that’s where today’s reading from the Hebrew scriptures comes in. “I will redeem you because you’re precious to me, because you’re honored and loved,” God says. “So don’t fear, because I’ll gather you and your people from the corners of the earth so that you may be safe.” [4]

What a beautiful promise! Why not claim it for my own?

Yes! Why not?

There is no reason that I cannot; no reason you cannot. Except I just took those beautiful words out of context. The words that precede them are no less beautiful. But they make it clear that God’s help doesn’t just come to the healthy and the happy and the safe. If we want to claim all those things for ourselves, then we need to acknowledge this promise as well: “When you pass through the waters,” God says, “I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” [2]

Once again, notice that God says when, not if. For no life is free of misfortune. Notice that Isaiah 43 doesn’t promise us a bridge over troubled waters. Nor does it promise us a boat to skim safely on the surface. As a venerable old preacher put it:
There’s no bridge. We’ll have to go through the waters, and feel the raging of the river. But the presence of God in the flood is better than a ferry-boat. Yes, we’ll have to go through trials, but we will triumph, because the very Creator of the flood—mightier than all the waters in the world—will be with us. Though it may seem that God is distant, God will surely accompany us through difficulties and dangers. The sorrows of life may rise to an extraordinary height, but God is equal to every occasion. [5]
Which brings us back to the theme of the day: Baptism. It’s a happy thought that baptism is about cleansing and refreshing. But that’s not all baptism’s about. It’s also about facing the worst and being brought through the chaos. It seems to us that baptism is a human ritual, and, in fact, “baptism belongs to the church… Yet baptism is not the church’s act, but Christ’s act in the church.” [6]

Some of you might be able to remember your baptism. Most of you cannot. But I hope that it means something to you that, before you could have done anything to earn God’s love, you were made a part of God’s family. And before you were able to help yourself, Christ brought you through the waters. No matter what happens now, God is with you. It might not mean that you’ll never encounter difficulties, but the God who suffered in Christ on the cross will certainly be with you in your suffering; and the Spirit who gained the victory over death in the resurrection of Jesus cannot be defeated by the worst thing that you’ll ever have to face.
—©2019 Sam L. Greening, Jr.

NOTES
  1. Isaiah 12:3; James 5:7 
  2. Genesis 7:17-23; Exodus 14:21-30; Psalm 46:3-4 
  3. Romans 6:3-4
  4. Isaiah 43:2-5 
  5. Charles Spurgeon, Faith’s Checkbook: Being Precious Promises Arranged For Daily Use With Brief Experimental Comments, December 6 entry (originally published in 1888), adapted. Available on Amazon in hardcover or Kindle format.
  6. Laurence Hull Stookey, Baptism: Christ’s Act in the Church (Nashville: Abingdon, 1982), p. 16. Available on Amazon.
Books mentioned in this post: