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January 9: Our Submersible Savior

Genesis 6:9-22; 7:24; 8:14-19

1 Peter 3:18-22

Luke 3: 21-22


Flood stories are pretty common in the ancient world – in fact, you might even say there's a flood of them. The Ancient Near East, Africa, Asia, even here in the Americas – they all have ancient flood stories. But one of the things that makes the Bible's flood story different is that in this story, God grieves – in this story, God experiences regret.

When we meet Noah, we are told that he is a righteous man, but that all his neighbors – everyone else in the whole world – is corrupt. Every person in the whole world has a heart inclined towards violence, the world is overflowing with hatred and evil and destruction – so much so that God grieves, God regrets having made the world. And, so, God decides to get a fresh start. God calls Noah, and instructs Noah to build an ark – a boat big enough to hold him, and his family, and a few of every animal – a representative sample of the entire earth, so that God can make a fresh start of it. God waits until Noah has completed the boat, has filled it with all its chosen passengers, and then the heavens open up, and the flood begins. People in the Ancient Near East – the region where the people of Israel lived – folks believed that the sky was a dome that held back waters – that there were waters above the sky, and waters below the earth – and, so, almost as if a water balloon had been popped, almost as if God has sent forth an arrow from a bow to pop it, the sky bursts, and the springs from below the earth explode, and the skies open, and the waters rush forth. For forty days and forty nights, Noah, and his family, and the animals – these survivors, this chosen remnant – they ride it out in the ark, in this big boat – until God has wiped the slate clean, given the earth a fresh start. But, then, yet again, we see God regretting what God has done, moved to grief over what has been lost. This is a God who has a heart, a God who cares. And, so, God makes a covenant, a pledge, a promise – and, as the sign of this covenant, places a bow in the sky – not the bow of violence that popped the dome and let the waters rain down, but a bow of beauty, a rainbow – this new bow is a symbol of God's new promise, that God will never wipe out the earth like that again, that no matter how bad we get, God will never eliminate us all.

Which is Good News for Noah, because he and his family don't stay righteous for long. Almost as soon as they've set foot on dry land, they get drunk, and get naked, and lose their way, and before we know it the families of the earth have returned to hatred and recrimination and division.

Generations pass, and the world is a mess again. And, so, God needs another solution to the problem of human sin, to the mess that we are and that we create, to the hatred that we insist on multiplying. Wiping us out and starting over with one righteous family didn't work. So, what is God to do? Again, God's solution is to call a family. But, instead of saving this one family and eliminating everybody else, this time, God decides to choose this family and use them to save the whole world, to shine God's light in the world's darkness. And, so, God calls Abram and his wife Sarai, who will later be renamed as Abraham and Sarah, and promises them that, through their descendants, the whole earth shall be blessed. Abraham and Sarah struggle to respond to this calling, and they certainly aren't perfect, but they are faithful, and they keep finding their way back to the road, and they become ancestors of a people, Israel, through whom God will bless the world.

More generations pass, and Abraham and Sarah's descendants have become a nation, Israel. And this nation has been enslaved in a foreign land, Egypt. As their slave masters stack up higher and higher burdens, the people call out to God, begging, hoping, for freedom. The king of Egypt, in order to control them, has ordered that every baby boy who is born to the Israelites must be put to death. It's a genocide. But God's people resist. And one child, Moses, is hidden by his mother. And when he's too old to hide anymore, she puts him in a wicker basket and floats him down the river. As Noah and his family were saved by their ark that floated above the waters, so Moses and his people are saved by a basket floating down the river. Moses is found by an Egyptian princess, and raised among Egyptian royalty, and eventually stands up to the king, the Pharaoh, and God, through Moses, leads God’s people to freedom.

There comes a moment, along the way, when Moses and his people are escaping, that they are trapped. An Egyptian army is chasing them, and, again, God's people are face to face with water – trapped at the edge of a sea, with freedom on the other side. And, again, God saves the people through water. God, through Moses, opens a path through the sea, and the people walk through on dry land. And as the Egyptians chase them, the waters crash down, they flood back into place, and the Egyptian army is destroyed, God's people are protected.

Moses leads the people through the desert for forty years. During this time in the wilderness, they are tested and sustained by God. And God makes with them another covenant – another promise, like the one God made with Noah. But, God decides to write this one down. It is a promise that God will be faithful to God's people. It is a vision for how the people may live, how they may fulfill their calling – the calling given first to their ancestor Abraham – to shine God's light in the midst of the world's darkness. The covenant is written on stone tablets and they place it in an ark – a smaller one, what we call “the Ark of the Covenant.” As the first ark carried God's chosen remnant, the vestige of humanity that God would use to reboot the world, this second ark carries the promise, the agreement, that God will use this people, Israel, to refresh, to redeem, the world yet again.

As they exit the wilderness, and enter the land that God had promised to them, they come upon a river yet again, the Jordan river. Joshua – who has replaced Moses as the leader of the people – brings forth the ark, and walks out into the river, and as the ark approaches – as God's covenant is brought forth – the waters part, and the people walk across on dry ground, yet again. As long as God's promise, contained in the ark, is present, the waters in all their destructive power are held back, and the people are able to walk into their land with safety.

Generations pass. The people have their ups and downs – moments of faithfulness and unfaithfulness, God working through kings and priests and prophets and ordinary people – and, eventually, a child is born. A child named Jesus – a name that, in the original Hebrew, would have been Joshua, like the man who led the people into the promised land, who God used to part the waters of the Jordan. Jesus is nurtured in the waters of his mother's womb, and is born to continue, to fulfill, the promise God made to Abraham, the promise God made to Moses, the promise that Israel stored in its ark – that through their descendants, God's light would shine, the world would be saved. This child bursts forth from the waters of the womb, born to save us. This child, this Jesus, grows up, and eventually, as an adult, he comes again to the Jordan river, where a man named John is baptizing people, calling them to turn back to God. This is a turning point in the saga of God and water in salvation history. This story is different from the ones that come before it. As a friend of mine, Reverend Drew Colby, puts it, "to this point, God has always been the one who parts the waters or provides the ark or the dry land for safe passage. God has been the one who keeps the chosen ones out of the water – keeps them dry. Not Jesus. Jesus, who has the power and authority to calm storms and walk on water, here chooses not to stay dry. Instead, he enters the flood. With Jesus' baptism in the Jordan, God is doing a new thing. Jesus doesn't walk on dry land or float down the Jordan in an ark, he doesn't identify only with God's people – he gets wet. He lowers himself into the flood that flows thick with the lives of the lost. He has come not just for Israel, but for Pharoah and his armies, and Noah's neighbors, the ones who didn't make it on the ark. God promised never again to flood the earth, instead God has chosen to be immersed with the earth. To enter as God's best, and willingly dive headfirst into our worst. As Jesus exits the waters, the skies open up, not with rain, but with a dove, and the Spirit of God descends on Jesus." And a voice from heaven declares that "this is my Son, in Him I find happiness." God has entered the waters to save us from the flood.

A little later, while he is walking beside some other waters, by the sea, he meets a man – a fisherman, a man who lived on the water – named Simon. When the crowds gather, Jesus steps on Simon's boat, and pushes out into the water, and he teaches the crowds – and from his mouth flow words that are like living waters that will renew their hearts, call them to turn to God and find life. Afterwards, Jesus calls Simon, and when Simon is overwhelmed, thinks he is unworthy, Jesus says "follow me, and from now on we are going to fish for people." Simon, who Jesus renames Peter, has his ups and downs on the journey of faithfulness – much as his people do – and, when Jesus is put to death, Peter abandons him. When Jesus died, we are told that the soldiers pierced his side with a spear and both blood and water poured out of his side – the waters of life, flowing for us and for Peter in his failure, from the heart of our savior.

But Jesus isn't done with Peter. After the resurrection, Jesus calls Peter, and Peter finds his footing amidst the storms of life, and he becomes a leader of the early church. On Pentecost, when the Spirit is given to the church, Peter preaches, and through the words that he preaches, God quenches the people's thirst, gives them a taste of the waters of life, and the people – three thousand of them – say "what should we do now?" And Peter says, "go down into the waters, like Jesus, and be baptized." When they go down into the waters – when we go down into the waters of baptism – a part of them, an old part, the part that is addicted to sin and death – that part is washed away, destroyed, like Noah's neighbors, like the Egyptian army. But, when they rise up – when we rise up – out of the waters, something new is born, we rise up together with Christ – the one who went down into the waters of death to save even Pharoah, even the unrighteous, even those who betrayed him like Peter and killed him like Pilate and the Roman soldiers – Jesus went down into the waters of death so that even sinners like us could rise with him and drink from the wellspring of the water of life.

Peter isn't done yet either – he lives a life of faithfulness, sharing from the blessings of the water of life, and ultimately giving away his life out of faithfulness to his baptism, out of faithfulness to Jesus. But, before he dies, Peter writes the letter we read today, and in it he says that Jesus has become a new ark, one who protects us from the waters of sin, from the dangers of this world. This ark – built from the wood of the cross upon which Jesus died – is a vessel of salvation for all of us. Salvation for those of us who are baptized, who have entered the waters with Jesus, who follow him faithfully – but also salvation for those who have turned away from God, for the ones who came before Jesus, the ones who have come after Jesus, even the enemies of God who were washed away in the flood, even those who killed him – Jesus is the ark, he is the wicker basket in the river, he is the one sent to save all of us, to keep us afloat amidst the world's flood.

So, says Peter, come and join Jesus. Step down into the waters with him, as he washes away your sin, as he puts to death the evil with in you, as he raises you up into something new. Step into his ark, into the boat of protection that we call the church, as we journey together, navigating the floods of this world, moving towards new life.

Jesus Christ, God with us, has been submerged for our sake. He has stepped down into the river of life so that we may be saved from the flood. He holds out his hand and invites us to join him. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Let us pray…

DIRECTIONS FOR BAPTISMAL REMEMBRANCE

Today as we celebrate communion, having told the story of Jesus's baptism, we are also going to take time to remember our own baptism. After you come forward to receive communion, you will return to your seats by the side aisle. Along the way, stop at the table on either side. There, you will see a bowl with some water. As you stop, a person at the table will say, "remember your baptism, and be thankful." When we are baptized, we are joined with Jesus, who stepped down into the waters to save us – and it's worth remembering that truth and being thankful for it. You are invited to touch the water, maybe dip your finger in it and touch it to your forehead, maybe use it to draw a cross on your forehead. If you have not been baptized, you can still stop at the waters – AND I also encourage you to stop and chat with me, after worship, so that we can talk about what baptism means and whether you are interested in experiencing it for yourself.

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