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Psalm 18:2-11, 16-19 -- New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition, adapted
2 The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.3 I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised, so I shall be saved from my enemies.
4 The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of perdition assailed me;5 the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me.
6 In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help. From her temple she heard my voice, and my cry to her reached her ears.
7 Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations also of the mountains trembled and reeled because she was angry.8 Smoke went up from her nostrils and devouring fire from her mouth; glowing coals flamed forth from her.9 She bowed the heavens and came down; thick darkness was under her feet.10 She rode on a cherub and flew; she came swiftly upon the wings of the wind.11 She made darkness her covering around her, her canopy thick clouds dark with water.
16 She reached down from on high; she took me; she drew me out of mighty waters.17 She delivered me from my strong enemy and from those who hated me, for they were too mighty for me.18 They confronted me in the day of my calamity, but the Lord was my support.19 She brought me out into a broad place; she delivered me because she delighted in me.
Matthew 3:1-6, 11-17 -- New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition
3 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’ ”
4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region around the Jordan were going out to him, 6 and they were baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins.
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is more powerful than I, and I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw God’s Spirit descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from the heavens said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
We are taught that David prayed this psalm after he was safely on the other side of the mortal danger posed by King Saul. What do we pray when the dangers don’t subside, when our enemies seem to be raining chaos down upon our heads with no sign of letting up? Is Psalm 18 also our prayer too?
Our Hebrew scriptures are steeped in descriptions of God’s anger at her people manifest in cataclysmic natural weather phenomena. We know differently. We all have some understanding of what causes volcanoes and earthquakes, floods and wildfires. And yet, our knowledge doesn’t preclude finding truth in these scriptures.
How do we define God? For some, we are literally made in God’s likeness and the familiar imagery is of a multi-faceted deity existing in the realm of the Cosmos, heaven to be more precise, in which God omnipotently rules all that they created. Another vision of God is of an ethereal presence imbued in all of Creation, in the beginning, now, and evermore. Thus God is in the wind and the water, the mountains and the valleys, the plants and the animals; including in each one of us.
Psalm 18 offers us such an incredible visual description of the chaos of life. People grabbing at us for attention to get their needs fulfilled. Some wanting to knock us down to get us out of the way, not caring if we live or die.
Our Hebrew scriptures frequently call to my mind, “the wrath of God.” This morning Psalm 18 tells us that God was angry, causing the earth and mountains to reel and rock. The psalmist paints a picture of hot coals glowing with smoke and fire and chaos unleashed by the wind and water of Creation.
We have all seen this proverbial wrath of God in our recent weather events. Mighty, damaging winds, rain, and surf battering our homes, our businesses, and our familiar landscapes.
Our recent storms locally, nationally, and internationally may cause one to conclude that God is angry. Is God angry? Or is our changing and extreme weather the result of decades of recklessly and relentlessly abusing our planet?
Focusing on the second of my two earlier descriptions of God, the one in which God is theologically synonymous with our Universe and with Creation, then yes, our Universe and particularly this planet, are expressing their grief and their anger in the only way possible.
We are experiencing the wrath of a battered and abused planet. Warming temperatures resulting in melting ice caps, resulting in rising seas, resulting in changing weather patterns, resulting in increasingly violent storms, resulting in devastating damage and destruction to this planet and all that populates it.
Water is powerful, arguably the most powerful element on earth. It is complex. It brings life. And it causes death.
More and more frequently we are experiencing water as damaging, punishing, destructive, deadly. And yet, those same waters of the chaos of Creation are the waters of our baptisms.
The same waters of Creation that give life also take it away.
Let us consider the wild waters of the River Jordan which John used to wash away sins.
For the author of Matthew’s gospel, the dove descending on Jesus in the Jordan River is the first fulfillment of John’s words, “I baptize you with water for repentance…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” The dove symbolizes the Holy Spirit. The fire comes later, at Pentecost.
When we baptize we invoke the Trinity to cleanse hearts and souls, to renew spirits, to consecrate a covenant between God and humanity.
Throughout our biblical texts, water is used to symbolize birth or re-birth. In our first Genesis Creation Story, the one in which we mythologize the Creation of the Universe in six days, water is present from the beginning, integral in each of the first three days that God is making order out of the chaos. At the end of each day what is accomplished is declared good. In our Matthew scripture, after John lowers Jesus under the chaotic waters of the Jordan River, God speaks and declares Jesus good: “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
In our scriptures our ancestors enter the water one way, in need, and exit the water another way, transformed. Think of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, entering the Red Sea as captives and emerging on the opposite shore as freed people. Sounds to me like the grace we receive that transforms us at our baptisms… the water and word of God metaphorically free us to begin (again) to live our lives free from dis-harmony with God, Creator, Universe.
This psalmist, traditionally thought to be King David, records being saved from the depths of these waters; saved from being overcome by the hate and evil manifest in King Saul that was threatening to extinguish the life of young David.
Many Christians believe that Hebrew prophets pointed the way to Jesus. The last verse that we read from Psalm 18 concerning King David’s prayer and testimony is, “… she delivered me because she delighted in me.” This can be read as a foreshadowing of Matthew’s scripture, especially the declaration, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Matthew teaches that the one who is to baptize with the Spirit is first anointed by the Spirit.
In the days of our Hebrew prophets, King David was one of those who made way for Jesus. In the days of our Christian prophets, John the Baptist made way for Jesus. In our days? This weekend we commemorate and celebrate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. who followed the way of Jesus, and made way for us.
How many more prophets must come before we take the message to heart?
God has declared the water of Creation good. God has declared each one of us good. We are all God’s beloved children. Let us love one another and all of Creation as God loves us.
Let us live our lives, and let others live their lives, so that God declares to each one of us…
This is my Child, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.
May it be so.
Rev. TJ Mack – January 14, 2024