Psalm 29, Isaiah 43, Luke 3
by Jordan Farrell
January 13, 2013
Water is awesome. In fact, I struggle to think of anything that is more versatile and awe-inspiring than water. It can lead to some pretty wonderful things. For those of you who have ever listened to the music of a river, chewed on a piece of ice, or brewed a pot of coffee you probably know what I am talking about. You also probably know that water is a basic part of life. It is something that you can’t live without, and frankly I don’t recommend that you try, you won’t last very long if you do. Water: everyone wants it, everyone needs it, but not everyone has access to it, because, despite our best efforts it’s not something that we can control—just ask any farmer during a drought. Water is wonderful, but a lack or over abundance can be devastating; which means that it can represent a whole range of things to a whole range of people. For a young child exploring a nearby creek water can be a source of wonder, for those who gather and share stories with hot or cold beverages in hand water can be a source of hospitality and friendship, and for a farmer watching the skies for a much needed rainstorm water can be a simultaneous source of fear and hope.
Throughout history water has been a symbol and sign of chaos. This is particularly true for the Ancient Babylonians. In Enuma Elish, a popular Babylonian story about how the world came to be, water was just that—chaos. According to this ancient story Tiamat was the god of the salt-water seas, and she was a monster. This monster was slain by her offspring Marduk in a battle against other gods. And from Tiamat’s remains Marduk created the heavens and the earth. From Enuma Elish we learn that the world we inhabit is a product of chaotic violence and is made out of the body of this monstrous god of the sea. Or so the story goes.
While we might be quick to dismiss this story about a battle between the gods as ancient mythology, it doesn’t take too much work to see how water also functions as a contemporary symbol and source of chaos. In June 2008 the small town of Waverly, Iowa experienced its worst flood in over 100 years. Four years after Main St. turned into a rushing river and 25% of the towns population was evacuated, people are still wading through the effects. What, for example, is a family do with their water damaged home that they can neither sell nor afford to repair because it is located in the ominous “Flood Zone”? For the people of Waverly those flood waters didn’t simply symbolize chaos, they were chaos. Then, this past fall we all watched as the waters of Hurricane Sandy washed through the Atlantic Ocean, bringing a similar destruction and chaos to the lives of millions. Maybe the Babylonians were on to something when they described the god of the sea as a monster. I’m sure the people who live in Waverly, Iowa and coastal New Jersey probably wouldn’t disagree.
Scripture itself often connects water with chaos. In Psalm 69, for example the Psalmist cries out to the LORD for deliverance: “Rescue me, God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I have sunk in the slime of the deep, and there is no place to stand. I have entered the watery depths, and the current has swept me away. I am exhausted from my calling out. My throat is hoarse.” Water, here, is a threat. It is an exhausting chaos, an overwhelming monster to which the only response that the Psalmist has is to cry out to the LORD for rescue. We cry aloud to the LORD until our throats are hoarse because we believe that the LORD reigns “over the mighty waters” (Psalm 29). In the Psalm we read today, Psalm 29, we were told that the voice of the LORD thunders over the mighty waters, it breaks the powerful cedars of Lebanon, and it shakes the Kadesh wilderness. Alongside this Psalmist we believe that the very Word of God reigns over the chaos, powers, and fears that so often seem to determine our lives.
Scripture continually testifies that the LORD is over all, even the waters of chaos. Our creation story tells us that from the beginning, even before God spoke light into existence, the Spirit of God was hovering, or sweeping, over the waters. In contrast to the Babylonian story, our creation story tells us that the world is not made from monstrous materials. Our origin is not in the chaotic waters, it is in the LORD who’s Word peacefully spoke life into existence. Since the moment of creation the LORD has been hovering over the waters, dividing them and carving out a place for life.
We can see the LORD’s sovereignty over the waters again in Exodus 14. In Exodus 14 the Israelites are trapped between Pharaoh’s advancing army and the water of the Reed Sea—trapped between violence and chaos—at this fearful moment Scripture tells us that: “The LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided.” (Exodus 14:21). Here, once again the LORD who hovered over the waters made a way through the chaos by turning the sea into dry land. Sometimes, however, the way through the chaos isn’t that obvious and it certainly isn’t that dry. Most of the time life gets us pretty wet. And when we get wet, when it feels as though the waters have come up to our necks and we are overwhelmed by chaos, it is good and right for us to cry out to the LORD. This is what Scripture tells us to do; in fact, such cries for deliverance fill the Psalms. We cry out to the LORD together, with one another and with the Psalmists, when we find ourselves in the midst of chaos and pain brought on by things such as cancer and hatred. We cry out in fear, and in pain, and in anger, and in solidarity. We cry out to the One who hovered over the waters in the beginning and drove back the waters of the Reed Sea. We cry out to the LORD to intervene and to do…something…to do something with these waters that are almost up over our heads.
As the waters rise we would do well to recall the words from Isaiah 43 that were read today: “But now thus said the LORD—who created you, O Jacob, who formed you, O Israel: Fear not, for I will redeem you; I have singled you out by name, you are Mine. When you pass through water, I will be with you; through streams, they shall not overwhelm you” (Isaiah 43:2). The LORD who is over the waters will be with you as you pass through the waters—this is the Word of the LORD. Thanks be to God.
And thanks be to God that this is also the Word communicated to us in Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism. The One who is over the waters is with you in the midst of the waters. According to Luke, Jesus was baptized “when all the people were baptized” (3:21). Therefore, one might say that in Jesus’ baptism we catch a glimpse of what it means for him to be Immanuel, God with us, because in this passage we see people waiting and searching for the Christ, and we see Jesus the Christ, the LORD God, standing right there with them, in the same water as everyone else who was baptized on that day. The one for whom it is said that John the Baptist prepared the way, the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire is right there standing in the water. Part of the beauty of Jesus’ baptism is that communicates to us that the LORD is not simply over the waters in the beginning, but God is with God’s people, with them in the water, accompanying us through the chaos. This is the good news of the Gospel handed down to us—that Jesus of Nazareth is Immanuel, God with us.
In Revelation 21 we catch a glimpse of the hope of this gospel. Here John tells us that the sea will pass away with the first heaven and the first earth. This is a message of great hope because it means there will be no sea in the new heaven and new earth—no body of chaos constantly crashing into our lives. While this is part of our hope, part of what we yearn for, it has not yet come to pass. We live in a world where it feels as though we are constantly either caught in a coercive and manipulative current or slammed by waves of violence. When this happens…better yet…as this happens, as we are struggling together with one another and with the Psalmist to find a place to stand as the chaotic waters of life begin to reach our necks, know that we serve a God who is not simply over those waters but we serve a God who is in these waters, with us, as we pass through them. We serve a God who gets wet.
 Nahum Sarna, Understanding Genesis. (1966). Chapter 1.