Avril at Romsey

… and Lancefield and Riddells Creek and Mount Macedon

Sermon: “The Lord sits enthroned over the flood”

Sermon for Romsey Uniting Church

Baptism of Jesus, 9th of January 2011

Psalm 29; Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17

In the NRSV translation of the Bible today’s psalm has been given the title “The voice of God in a great storm”. The psalm describes the powerful voice of God acting like an earthquake or a cyclone: breaking the cedars of Lebanon; making the land move; shaking the wilderness; stripping trees. All of this violence and destruction is described as evidence of God’s glory and strength, as a reason for the heavenly creatures to worship him.

“The Lord sits enthroned over the flood,” the psalm tells us. (Psalm 29:10.) Over the past few weeks parts of Australia have seen very, very great floods. In Queensland, three river systems are in flood; forty towns are isolated or partially under water; seventeen evacuation centres in ten towns are housing four thousand people, and about twelve hundred homes across Queensland are inundated. It’s not just Queensland; in Western Australia the Gascoyne region has been affected by its worst floods on record. Some areas got their entire yearly rainfall in a day. So, how do we read a psalm that tells us that wild weather like this reveals the power of God, and that God’s voice acts like the flood waters that have devastated parts of Western Australia and Queensland?

It won’t surprise you that I’m not going to suggest that God sent the floods; that God made a deliberate decision to show forth His power in these particular mighty waters. We could argue that; maybe suggest that the people of WA and Queensland somehow deserve this, that the floods are a sign of their need to amend their ways. History tells us that that’s occasionally been the explanation given by Christians for natural disasters. But if we made that argument we’d be vulnerable to having the same argument made about us the next time there are bushfires; the people of Queensland and WA pointing at us Victorians and speculating on what we’d done to deserve having our state burnt. I don’t believe that God sends natural disasters, for any reason.

I think that the connection between today’s psalm and natural disasters like the floods is one of metaphor. The combination of today’s psalm with the floods reminds us that the glory of God is unfathomable. The psalmist describes the voice of God as like the power of a great storm because God and storm share a sheer, unutterable “otherness”. I can’t believe that God sends storms, but I can believe that God’s strength and power and transcendence are like the overwhelming power seen in the floods.

Even in the midst of a natural disaster, people sometimes forget just how much more powerful nature is than we human beings are. Of the ten recent flood-related deaths in Queensland, five happened because people tried to drive across flooded roads, and in the past three weeks there have been more than one hundred rescues involving people who have driven into flood water. The floods have reminded us, as the Black Saturday bushfires reminded us, that sometimes the only response we can make to the awesomeness of nature is to get out of its way. By comparing the voice of God to a storm, the psalmist reminds us of the awesomeness of God – and I’m using awesome in its original sense of inspiring terror, dread or reverential fear.

No wonder, then, that when Jesus comes from Galilee to be baptised by John in the Jordan John initially hesitates. The one more powerful than John, the one who will baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire, is asking John for baptism. John is uncertain: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” but Jesus tells him that they need to fulfil all righteousness, to do what God wants of them. (Matthew 3:14-15.) What God appears to want of them is for them to continue the story of the Incarnation. In the Incarnation God became human in the most wonderful act of solidarity with humanity, and in his baptism, Jesus, God-with-us, continues that solidarity. In Jesus the awesome God who sits over the flood, thunders, breaks the cedars, flashes forth flames of fire – that transcendent God has become a human being who seeks baptism. The baptism of Jesus by John that we celebrate today reveals again to us the absolute unlikely scandal of the Incarnation.

The Hebrew Scriptures gave Jesus’ first followers some of the language and concepts they needed to describe this scandal of the Incarnation. The prophecies of Isaiah have been called the fifth gospel because of their importance to Christianity, and today we hear the first of the extremely important Servant Songs of second Isaiah, four songs about an individual whose call by God to bring about justice involved suffering. We don’t know who Second Isaiah thought this Suffering Servant might be when he wrote these songs, but in them the earliest Christians saw descriptions of Jesus. It’s easy to see why. The Servant Song we hear today describes someone chosen by God to bring forth justice; someone in whom God delights, as God delights in his beloved Son; who yet goes about his ministry with astounding gentleness: “He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench”. (Isaiah 42:2-3.) It doesn’t seem to make sense: the task of prophets is to cry out and lift up their voices – the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving from one of the Uniting Church’s Eucharist services, telling the history of our salvation, gives thanks to God because “in the prophets you cried out for justice”. This first Servant Song describes a servant who doesn’t cry out – and yet who won’t grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth. Unlikely; contradictory – like Jesus’ baptism and the Incarnation itself.

The justice that the Servant will establish, God’s justice, includes sight for the blind and freedom for the prisoners and those who sit in darkness. This is the justice that Jesus came to bring; the Servant Song seems to look forward to the same kingdom of God that Jesus came to establish. It’s a vision that we still look forward to with hope and faith. It’s a vision whose fulfilment would be impossible without God, especially since it says that justice will be brought about by gentleness rather than force. Often we believe that some form of force is necessary to ensure that justice prevails; that’s why we accept that nations can have armies and police officers can be armed. But Isaiah prophesies that God’s justice will be brought about through compassion and gentleness. The Song describes this as a “new thing”; it remains as unlikely and “new” to us as it would have been for those to whom Isaiah was prophesying twenty-seven centuries ago.

The fierce power of God described in today’s psalm is seen here in gentleness, but there is no doubt that it’s the same power of the same God: “Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it:  I am the Lord”. (Isaiah 42:5.) The strong and glorious Lord described in today’s psalm is same Creator who put His Spirit in the Servant who will bring about justice through compassion. We see this God in Jesus, who came to John seeking baptism in solidarity with suffering, confused, lost humanity.

Today’s psalm reminds us that in natural disasters like the current floods we are given a metaphor for the frightening magnificence of God. But the psalm also reminds us that this God is the same God who commissioned the Servant to bring about justice, the God we see in Jesus. The psalm ends with a prayer that we can offer for all the victims of the flood, for all the world’s bruised reeds and dimly burning wicks: “May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace!” (Psalm 29:11.)


January 9, 2011 - Posted by | Ministry | , , ,

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