Today is the day in the church year when we commemorate the baptism of our Lord. You can see a visual in our stained glass window. And you are to be applauded for coming to church on this cold and snowy January day.
But in comparison with some of our other Christian brothers and sisters, you kind of have it easy. Each year on the Baptism of our Lord Sunday, thousands of Orthodox Christians in Bulgaria dive into icy lakes and rivers to recover crucifixes cast in by priests in ceremonies commemorating Jesus’ baptism. Tradition holds that the person who retrieves the crucifix will be freed from evil spirits and will be healthy throughout the New Year. And, for added insurance, the priest then sprinkles the believers with water infused with basil.
You’re in luck here in America if you want protection against evil spirits along with an herbal cleanse. The business section of the New York Times ran a piece about the growing popularity of “saging.” You sage a home or office by burning or smudging dried white sage for its vague energy clearing powers. The latest “It” Shrub, called the Sage Goddess Smudge Kit and Altar is a combination of “sage leaves, string, and good intentions”. It is available on Etsy for $147.70. Thankfully, for those of us on a budget, you can just go to Walmart and buy “New Age White Sage” for only $17.95.
New Age spirituality is an easy target, as is the corporate greed that exploits it. But my purpose here isn’t primarily to poke fun, but to recognize the universal longing we all have for wellbeing. That someone would spend 150 bucks on a dried plant also indicates the omnipresent threat to our wellbeing. We feel as though we need some sage and some smudge because we are under siege. As Martin Luther penned in “A Mighty Fortress”, one of our most popular hymns, – “and though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us.”
I recently was asked to come to a 19th century farmhouse because there were reports of creaking footsteps on the stairs when nobody was there. You can be sure that I took my clerical collar and a corresponding 19th century cross into the situation. I used the Blessing of a Home liturgy, praying that God would “banish every unclean spirit and make this home a secure habitation for those who dwell in it.” I was scared to death by watching The Exorcist as an 8th grader, so my hair was on end in that farmhouse entrance hall.
Obviously, we don’t have to get into the territory of evil spirits to feel we that we are under siege. Just living life is enough to undo most of us or to make us afraid. This is nothing new to the human condition of course. Which is why our scripture this morning from the prophet Isaiah, words that are now 2500 years old, is still incredibly comforting and timelessly relevant.
“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.”
That text is set to a hymn we sing at the 9 and the 5. We sing it with regularity and I find that each time we sing that hymn, God is addressing a new and current version of the waters, the rivers, and the fire. I need to hear again and again: Do not fear. There is a good reason that the phrase “do not fear” occurs 45 times in the bible, and 15 times in the book of Isaiah. We are fearful creatures living in a fearful world.
Fearful creatures living in a fearful world is the context into which these words were first spoken. In 587 B.C., the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and took the Israelites into exile. Isaiah speaks these words nearly 50 later, near the end of the exile. Most of the exiled people have been born in captivity in Babylonia. The people suffered greatly. “By the waters of Babylon, we laid down and wept for thee, Zion.”
You can imagine that during this period people would begin to question God. They would ask themselves if Yahweh is truly God, then why would all this bad stuff happen? Did they make a mistake by worshiping Yahweh. Perhaps Marduk, the god of the Babylonians, would secure their wellbeing.
The scripture tells us that there is nothing new under the sun. Of course you can relate to being in exile, waiting for deliverance or healing, wondering if God is real, feeling afraid. Even if most of what we are afraid of doesn’t happen, or turns out to be unfounded. There is a funny Far Side cartoon of a little boy lying on a bed. Underneath the bed are two monsters. One monster says to the other, “I’ve got it again, Larry…an eerie feeling that there is something on top of the bed!”
We may be fearful creatures but God is not a fearful God. And that is the reason He says, “do not fear” 45 times in the Bible. Note how Isaiah’s passage goes. Do not fear. Why? Because I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. For I am the Lord your God. The reason we do not fear has nothing to do with us, or our circumstance. It has everything to do with God. It’s the classic “It’s not you, it’s me.”
Note too, that we are not promised the absence of waters, rivers and fires. In fact, it is certain that we will pass through the floods and fires, not around them. It says, “when” you pass through the waters, not “if”. It is just that when you do, God will be with you and no matter what, you will be okay. Even in your death, you are given life.
There is powerful illustration of the way God is with us in the rising waters. In this example, the waters are snow, apropos for this morning! A woman named Pam Bales planned an October hike up Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, famous for it’s volatile weather. She was an experienced hiker and part of a local rescue team. She read the weather reports and packed for every contingency. She left an itinerary of her hike on her dashboard and with some friends.
As she ascended the mountain the weather took a turn for the worse. After a few hours she decided to turn back. Conditions were beginning to be life threatening: snow, sleet, 60 mph winds. But then she spotted some footprints in the snow, prints made by someone wearing only tennis shoes. No boots with crampons, like she had.
She followed the tracks, which suddenly veered off the path. She knew she had a decision to make: keep going or pursue the tracks and put her own life at risk. Of course Pam felt like she had no choice: she couldn’t leave a person in trouble on his own.
She followed the tracks and discovered an unresponsive man in shorts and tennis shoes. He was nearly dead. Basically without his help, she dressed him, warmed him and revived him. She called him John because he wouldn’t say his name. She prodded him down the mountain, arriving at the parking area many hours later. Mumbling a thank you, John got into his car and drove away. Pam wondered, “what on earth just happened?”
She got her answer a week later. A note and donation were sent to her rescue team. The note said, “I went up my favorite trail, Jewell, to end my life. Weather was to be bad. Thought no one else would be there, I was dressed to go quickly. Next thing I knew this lady was talking to me, changing my clothes, giving me food, making me warmer, and she just kept talking and calling me John and I let her.
Conditions were horrible and I said to leave me and get going, but she wouldn’t. Got me up and had me stay right behind her, still talking. I followed but I did think about running off, she couldn’t see me. But I wanted to only take my life, not anybody else and I think she would’ve tried to find me. The entire time she treated me with care, compassion, authority, confidence and the impression that I mattered. With all that has been going wrong in my life, I didn’t matter to me, but I did to Pam. She probably thought I was the stupidest hiker dressed like I was, but I was never put down in any way. Maybe I wasn’t meant to die yet, I somehow still mattered in life.”
Pam gives us a picture Jesus Christ. He comes to you in the waters, the rivers, the fires, and the blizzards. You may not matter to you, but you matter to Him. Pam risked her life for John; Jesus gave His life for you. So do not fear, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, you are mine.