Come join me in the river

A sermon on Luke 3:15-17, 21-22, and Isaiah 43.1-7

[An audio recording of this sermon can be accessed here]

Whoever you are and wherever you find yourself on your journey of faith, know that you are most welcome here, to receive God’s goodness, mercy, and love. Amen.

I’m not going to preach a sermon today. At least… I’m not going to spend the next ten or twelve minutes explaining our scripture readings to you. I’m not going to unpack the historical context or explore the theological themes. I’m not even going to draw parallels to our context and encourage you to apply these lessons in your life.

Those are all good things to do in a sermon – and I hope that my sermons do regularly use these tools to connect you to the power and relevance of the biblical narrative. But today, I’m not going to preach a sermon.

Instead, I want to issue you an invitation. An invitation to join me at the river.

Let me explain. A little over a week ago one of my closest friends left me a phone message. She told me she had been praying for me the night before, and she had seen a vision of me. It was just an image, of me sitting waist deep in a river, letting the water flow around me.

I know visions aren’t usually a Lutheran thing, but she had me at river. Images of water are powerful for me, not least because they are a reminder of my baptism. The physical touch-point for the promise that I am precious and chosen and loved – without doing anything to earn approval.

My friend told me she thought the river in her vision was a gift from God. God’s invitation to refreshment, to just let the cool water wash around me. I started tearing up when I listened to her message – because I so deeply needed that gift, that invitation to sit in the river.

I expect some of you can relate. There isn’t a lot of room in our lives to just sit. It feels like we always need to be doing, achieving, checking tasks off the list. Who are we to indulge in such decadence? To presume that we have the right to just relax and receive? The lies of our performance culture are always clanging in our ears, and telling us that if we don’t work, constantly, to prove our worth, then we will prove ourselves to be chaff – worth nothing better than to be thrown into the fire.

But I’ve been trying to sit in the river this week. Trying to receive the gift, the reminder that whatever is going on in my life or in the world … whatever anxieties, or busy-ness, or distractions are trying to drag me out of the water and into the fire, I’ve been invited here. Invited by my friend’s words; invited by today’s readings; invited by the God who bathes us in water and Spirit – not because we’ve earned it but because we need that baptism.

And so, I want to invite you to join me in the river today.

If it’s comfortable, I encourage you to close your eyes, and let your mind’s eye see the river of God’s welcome flowing at your feet. Notice how the light of Christ dances on its waves and ripples. Trace the curves and bends and see how it shapes itself to the earth – the life – through which it flows, even as it carves a path. Listen to the voice of the water rushing over smooth stones and eddying in shallow pools, singing a song of joy and belonging.

This river is God’s gift to you – a gift of life, and of restoration. An invitation to step out of the thick-soled shoes that you wear to protect yourself from all the jagged edges of your journey, and to wade in the water.

Step into the river. Feel the Son-warmed water rise around your ankles, your knees, your hips. Let the river welcome you, just as it welcomed the people who were baptized along with Jesus.

Jesus was not baptized alone. Did you notice that? He was baptized with the people. And we are among those people. The same water that rose around him, embraces us as well.

Lean back into that water. Feel it wash away whatever fear or guilt or pain you thought had permanently stained your soul. Let the river carry it away.

Listen to the water sing again the promise you received at your baptism: the promise of new birth, of cleansing from sin, of freedom from the power of sin and death, of new life.

The waters are gentle, but they are unrelenting. They strip you clean of any grain of dirt, until your eyes can see the truth that God sees all the time: that you are pure and unpolluted, through the gift of God.

Rest in this water. Lean into it and feel how it supports your weight. Sit, or even float, and feel how the waters of welcome, the waters of baptism buoy you up.

You do not have to strive here. You do not have to beat your arms and legs to stay above the water. The water wraps around you and supports you like a mother’s loving arms. You do not need to be afraid, even if you slip beneath the surface.

Let yourself submerge. Hear the song within the water. The voice of God spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

“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 overcome you.” (Isaiah 43:1-2).

Underneath the surface, the river has another gift for you. The gift of letting go.

Death is a part of baptism, but not a scary death. Not pain and fear. As Frederick Buechner writes, “going under symbolizes the end of everything about your life that is less than human.”[1] So let go of what is less than human. Underneath the water let go of all that is less than the image of God you were created to be. Let go of fear, and pride, and envy, and anger, and everything that turns you in on yourself and cuts you off from love and life.

Embrace the death of all that is broken in you and all that keeps trying to break you.

And when you rise again above the surface of the water take in a deep breath of God’s life-giving Spirit.

The Spirit too is a gift of your baptism. A companion for every step of your walk of faith.The Spirit gives you new life, and the Spirit seals you as a beloved child of God, in or out of the river.

God’s Spirit is why we don’t need to be afraid to step out of the river again, back onto the hard ground, with its dryness and its jagged rocks. Because we have been changed in the water, and because we do not go alone. God is with us, as close as every breath. The Greek word for Spirit also means breath.[2] So breathe deeply. Draw in the gift of God’s Spirit, filling you with strength and hope for the journey.

We can’t stay in the river always, but the gifts of our baptism can go with us as we walk our various paths.

The blessing of the river can drip from our fingers each time we reach out in care to another who is hurting, or dirty, or ashamed.

The cleansing waters can pool in our footsteps, leaving a witness of welcome when we move toward the stranger, the sufferer, the one in need of water.

The breath of God’s Spirit can inhabit our voices when we laugh with a loved one and when we speak calls for justice.

For the final gift of God’s river is the reminder that it is not OUR river. We cannot horde it. It is not a possession around which we can build a wall and claim ownership or priviledge. The river is wild and free, and its blessing is for ALL who enter its waters.

And our task, our invitation and our call, is to sing the song of the river in our lives. To make our lives an extension of the invitation to come, join me in the river.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, New York: Harper One (1993), p.6.

[2] Pneuma: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G4151&t=KJV.

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