Sunday, January 10, 2016

Getting Through the River

Isaiah 43:1-7
Baptism of the Lord
January 10, 2016
William G. Carter

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:
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;
   when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
  For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
   I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
  Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you,
   I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.
  Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you;
  I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold;
   bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth—
   everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

Here’s the line that I remember: “when you pass through the waters.”

The Susquehanna River rolls through my home town. It rambles west, before turning south and meandering through the Endless Mountains. When I was a kid, the big, quiet river seemed quiet. Then in June 1972, a bad storm came through and lingered, and the water spilled over the banks. The damage was unbelievable. Who would think a gentle river would leave that much mud?

During my college years, I took part in something called the “Great Owego to Nichols Raft Race.” Call it a “celebratory event” in early summer. All the crazies in town - and there were quite a few - would construct homemade rafts. The object was to race nine miles downstream. If you had a Hibachi with burgers on your boat, you didn’t have to be in a hurry. It was all done in good fun.

One year, a few guys from my church built a Viking war ship and enlisted me on the crew. Like the others, the ship was inspected very quickly and passed before it ever actually floated on the water. It was a hot day, the beverages were flowing, and not all the rafts stayed upright, although our Viking crew made good time, arriving at the end right before a piece of plywood fell off the side of the craft. It was a premonition. The whole event ceased a few years later due to something called liability insurance. Apparently somebody sank and one of the river pirates needed somebody to blame. It was decided the river was too dangerous, if not too expensive.

Most people can’t pass through the river. They drive over it and never get wet. Then there are times the river gets everybody wet regardless. Four years ago, the Susquehanna went wild again. Too much rain in September. Flooding closed the highways for three days. My folks lived high on a hill, but the flood upset them greatly. When I finally got through and knocked on their door, I asked if we could tour the damage. Mom said no, but Dad thought he might be up for it.  

The dirty water was still high in some spots, which prompted a number of spontaneous detours. On Front Street, closest to the river bank, we saw Victorian homes being emptied, with water-logged antiques piled high on the curb. Through the village we went, awestruck the destruction. We drove by John Spencer’s book store, a favorite landmark full of valuable old texts. Outside, a front-loader filled a dumpster with wet books. Dad said, “I’ve seen enough” and shut his eyes.  

So I wake up when Isaiah says, “The rivers will not overwhelm you.” I would like to believe it. People around here still have their stories from the Agnes flood of 1972. The 2011 flood that sopped John Spencer’s bookstore was simultaneously swamping the Presbyterian church in West Pittston. Our good friends down there just sold their damaged building right before Christmas, four years later, and they have been nesting with a Presbyterian church on higher ground.

A lot of us know what powerful waters can do. Indeed it can be overwhelming. Yet God says, “Don’t be afraid. I am with you. You’ll get through this. You are precious in my sight.”

The river is a metaphor for all the deep waters of life. The metaphor is that figure of speech that helps make emotional connections. I think of Psalm 69, which begins, “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck, and there is no place to land my feet on solid ground.” We’ve had those moments, haven’t we? The psalmist goes on to say, “There are a lot of people who are out to get me.” It leads to a request, “Lord, get me through these rough waters.”

Some hear Isaiah’s poem, and they remember how Moses and the Israelites escaped from Egypt. Just as the Egyptian army bore down on them, God split open the Red Sea. The Israelites passed through the waters, and their oppressors were washed away. “This will happen again to you,” says the prophet Isaiah. “Don’t be afraid.”

And then the faithful go down to the river to see John the Baptist announce the Messiah is coming. He says the old ways must be rinsed away, and the new person will arise from the waters of baptism. So they line up and say, “Wash me clean!” So he holds them under the water so that the old sinner in their souls is finished off, and lifts them up as if they are freshly born from the womb of God. That’s where some of our early Christian baptism practices began, with the hope of John the Baptist, but fulfilled in the coming of Jesus Christ.

At many baptisms, the ancient words of Isaiah are brought forward with deep significance: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you … because you shall be precious in my sight, and I have called you by name.”

A preacher named Tom spoke those words on the day my second daughter was baptized. It happened right over there. I was keeping a firm grip on her rambunctious big sister, while Tom took the baby into his arms. “What is the name of your child?” Margaret Rose. “Margaret Rose,” he said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit.” Then he quoted Isaiah, “Do not fear, I have called you by name.”

Little did we know that just about two months after her baptism, we almost lost Margaret Rose. One day, she stopped breathing in the crib and needed to be shaken awake. That experience shook me awake. I didn’t sleep very well, either from my fear of losing her, or from the constant presence of a monitor system that her doctor prescribed until the circuits in her brain could grow more completely.

It was the kind of moment that you have probably had too, where the faith that you speak so easily and glibly is tested in the deeper waters of turmoil. And yet the truth of the matter is, we do get through these things. The only way through is through, and God gets us through.

That little girl we were afraid of losing is now a college senior who sang here on Christmas Eve. And when I told her I was going to tell this story, she said, “Why? That was a long time ago, and I’ve gotten through it.” “Yes,” I said, “but that’s easier to say now than it was twenty years ago.” She smiled and said, “Sometimes it takes a little time to sink in, doesn’t it.” Especially if you’re a dimwitted preacher.

So Isaiah speaks this poem to a generation of displaced Jews. Their lives had been disrupted by a flood of Babylonian soldiers who had invaded their country. Everything familiar had been washed away. They doubted that the God who brought them out of Egypt hundreds of years ago even knew they existed, so their worship services were going through the motions. They questioned if they had any future to look forward to, or if the coming days would be more of the same. And God interrupts them by saying, “You’re precious.”

In fact, if the words of Isaiah’s poem sank into the depths of our soul, then you heard two words over and over again. In English, the words are “I” and “you”:

I have redeemed you - I have called you by name - I will be with you
I am with you - I have traded others for you - I will gather you home
I love you - You are mine.

See, it is one thing to know the waters are fierce and threatening. It’s another thing to know that our names are known, that we are loved, that we are precious in Somebody’s sight.

A friend told me about a minister who went to school in the south. When he was in seminary, the president of the school was a very imposing man. He was a spiritual and intellectual giant. He was not a big man physically, but his mind and his piety were powerful.  You can even sense something of what he was like when I tell you his name: Dr. James McDowell Richards. Well, the students adored Dr.  Richards. They revered Dr. Richards.  They held Dr. Richards in great esteem. But they were a little afraid of Dr. Richards too. He was not a very approachable man.

Well, this minister graduated and went out to work in the church. He was a pastor in one church, then the pastor of another, and then he took a call to become chaplain at a nursing facility. As he looked over the list of residents,  he was terrified to discover that the newest resident was the now retired and infirmed and aged Dr. James McDowell Richards.  He had been terrified of him in seminary and now he was going to have to be his chaplain and pastor.

Well, he did the best that he could.  He visited Dr. Richards. He prayed with Dr. Richards.  He read scripture with Dr. Richards. He led worship where Dr. Richards was present. He tried to be his pastor, the best he could.

One evening, he went into the dining room of the nursing facility and there was Dr. Richards having his evening meal, sitting in his wheelchair. His nurse was standing guard beside him. He walked up and had an informal conversation with him. Then suddenly, and he does not know to this day why he asked him this, he said, "Dr. Richards, I've always wanted to ask you something."  "Yes?" 

"You and your wife were the parents of sons."  "Yes." 

"Did you ever tell your sons that you loved them?" "No, I'm an old-fashioned father. I didn't need to tell them. They knew. Well, one time, I told one of them. I was in the hospital. I thought I was going to die, and he came to visit me, and I told him. But it wasn't a regular thing." 

"Well, I just wondered, Dr. Richards. You know, my father never told me that, either. You were like a father to us in seminary, and I just wondered if fathers ever did that sort of thing."

The meal was now over, and the nurse began to wheel Dr. Richards in his chair to the exit.  My friend watched him go, and saw him signal suddenly to his nurse, and say something to her. She turned the wheelchair around and brought him back over to my friend. Dr. Richards reached up and touched his cheek and said, "Brian, I love you."

 "I knew that all along," said Brian, "but to hear him say it sealed it in my soul."[1]

Let me tell you what happens in this room. This is where we hear God say, “I love you, you are precious, you are mine.” No matter what deep water we must go through, the God who loves us is with us. God will take our hand and get us through to the other side.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Thanks to Tom Long (who baptized Margaret Rose) for telling this story.

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