Death By Baptism

canstockphoto30611449Message by Larry L. Eubanks, First Baptist Church of Frederick, Maryland. August 21, 2016

Last week we saw the power of water down in Baton Rouge. I watched a video of a woman and her dog being rescued from her car. Did you see it? She’s trapped in a convertible with the top up and rescuers in a boat are trying to break the windows before the car sinks, but they can’t. One of them is able to get an opening in a seam of the top and he jumps in to pull it open wide enough to pull her out. She is underwater and he reaches through the top, grabs her arms and pulls her out. Then he dove in to get her little dog. Poor thing looked so pitiful. So did the woman.

Water presents this big conundrum. It is absolutely essential to life, and it is also a constant threat to life. As we’ve seen the last several weeks in Baton Rouge, in Ellicott City, in West Virginia, when it’s power is unleashed and human beings are in the way, water wins every time, inundating bridges, buildings, and vehicles and anything living trapped in or on them.

You take the biggest, strongest rock and the drip, drip, drip of water, and over a lifetime the rock seems to win, but over tens of thousands of lifetimes the drip wins.

Every single time.

Water is life, and water is death. It is savior, and it is destroyer.

In the Old Testament, the event that provides the paradigm for salvation is the Exodus from the slavery of Egypt. That imagery carries over into the New Testament, the writers all being Jews after all.

When Josephs flees to Egypt to protect Jesus and Mary from the Hebrew king who wants to kill all the baby boys around Bethlehem, it’s the Exodus in reverse, with Herod playing the part of Pharaoh and Egypt the part of the Promised Land.

Tell me God doesn’t like irony.

When Jesus gives the Sermon on the Mount he’s Moses delivering the Law from Mt. Sinai.

When Paul reminds the Jewish Christians in Rome that they were once slaves to sin, he’s using the language of the Exodus. All the language of salvation is in some form the language of the Exodus.

And central to that story is what? The crossing of the Red Sea. Of course, they didn’t really cross anything. You cross the sea in a boat. The Hebrews didn’t cross the Red Sea—they passed through the Red Sea.

They didn’t go over it, they didn’t go around it, they went through it. There they were, standing at the shore, the sea in front of them, the pursuing Egyptian army behind them.

Death before them, death behind them. Death all around them.

Moses lifted up his staff and stretched out his hand over the sea, and it divided, a wall of water on the left, a wall of water on the right, and dry ground in front.

Dry ground.

In a way it’s not really even proper to say that the Israelites passed through the Red Sea, because when you pass through water you get wet. There’s no way to go through water without getting wet, but not a single Hebrew got wet. They got from one side of the Red Sea to the other without anything touching them, neither sea nor soldier.

The way they went in is the way they came out. They were completely unchanged.

Before he walled up the sea, they dumped a whole load of bellyaching on Moses:

“Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” (Exodus 14:11-12 )

And what happens when they get to the other side? Well, at first they have their happy little revival meeting. They watch the walls of water fall on the Egyptians, and they fear God and believe Moses, and then Moses sings a nice little song of praise, and when he’s done his sister Miriam adds a nice little chorus, with the Israelites presumably raising their hands and shouting their Amen’s.

Everybody likes a good old fashioned revival service, right? It’s good to get a spiritual high every once in while, go on a retreat or a spiritual renewal event, a good conference, maybe even a revival.

When I was growing up my pastor scheduled a revival every nine months, Sunday to Sunday, services every night except Saturday. Sinners would get saved and Christians would get their mojo back.

Everybody would get recommitted to reading their Bibles every day and witnessing to the lost and going to church every Sunday morning and Sunday night, as well as Wednesday night prayer meeting and Thursday night visitation.

And nine months later we’d do it all over again. You know why we had to do it again nine months later? Because over the course of that nine months we’d lose our mojo.

We’d skip a day or two of reading our Bible, then a week or so, and pretty soon we were back to not reading our Bibles that much.

And witnessing to the lost? Shoot, that wouldn’t last nine days. Sunday night service would soon dwindle down to all the people who were already at the church 3-4 nights a week anyway—you know, the very people who needed to be at a Sunday night service the least were the only ones who’d be there.

And Thursday night visitation would be the same 2-3 people as always.

So we’d have another revival to get our mojo back, to get our tanks filled up again, but after awhile we started acting like those old Nickel Cadmium batteries, where every time you charged them reduced the capacity to be recharged, until after awhile you could recharge them all day long and nothing would happen.

You always knew when you got to that point spiritually. It was when the pastor announced the next revival in two weeks, and you think, “So soon? Feels like we just finished the last one.”

So the Israelites have their little revival service, but pretty soon things are exactly like they were before the Great Red Sea Revival Services.

Two weeks later the Israelites are in the Wilderness of Sin, and they open up another can of bellyaching on Moses:

“If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exo 16:3 NRS)

You’d think that having lived through the Red Sea Pass-Through that they would have been changed forever, but they weren’t changed at all. Not at all.

Because they were untouched. They didn’t pass through the Red Sea where they would have had to actually get wet and maybe have to struggle against the waves a bit, maybe rely on each other, the strong helping the weak and elderly, the tall helping the vertically-challenged.

Nope, there was none of that. They just walked.

On dry land.

Didn’t even get mud between their toes.

Easy-peasy.

Water will kill you, and that much water will overwhelm you. Got to get rid of the water if you are going to be saved. It’s the water you’re being saved from.

Can’t touch death if you are going to live.

That’s how we like our salvation. Let someone else do all the heavy lifting, let someone else do all the dying, let someone else get all muddy. We’ll thank them and promise to love them and serve them. We’ll have memorial services for them every year and we will celebrate their birthday like we celebrate no one’s birthday.

And all the while we’ll walk around on dry ground, completely unscathed, untouched by death—and unaltered in life.

Living the same lives after the Red Sea as before.

The Exodus story as the story of salvation is lacking, and it’s precisely at this point that it’s lacking, so the New Testament writers, being good Jews whose understanding of everything has been altered by Jesus, take the story and update it.

This is perhaps best seen in a little story involving Jesus and the disciples, the sea and death. All four gospels have their own versions of the story and their own takes on it, but it’s Matthew’s that I want to focus on, because it’s Matthew that draws most extensively on the Exodus story in his explanation of who Jesus is.

In Matthew 8 Jesus and the twelve get into a boat, and before long a great storm comes up and starts battering the boat, so much so that it starts to swamp. They are getting ready to drown, so they wake Jesus up.

Yes, Jesus was asleep. If you are wondering how someone can be asleep in an open boat in a storm when the boat is already filling up with water, well, Matthew not only wants to evoke images of the Exodus story but also of the story of Jonah, and if you don’t know what that means then take some time this afternoon to read the story of Jonah in the Old Testament. Short little story, only four chapters long, take you less than fifteen minutes to read.

Anyway, they wake Jesus up and he rebukes the wind and the storm calms the water, but not before first rebuking the disciples. “What is wrong with you guys? Why are you so afraid? Don’t you have any faith?”

Now, the typical way we interpret this is that Jesus is saying, “What, did you really think I’d let you die? Don’t you have faith that I wouldn’t let something like a storm touch you? What’s wrong with you guys?”

That’s how we normally interpret it, because we’re used to walking through the Red Sea on dry ground and not getting wet. But it really doesn’t make any sense. The disciples don’t nudge Jesus at the first sign of dark clouds. “Hey, Jesus, looks like something’s brewing over there. Better do something about it. We don’t want to get wet after all. We’re Israelites, the Dry-Ground-Walkers. Death-by-water is for Egyptians and Romans and such.”

No, they wait. Maybe they expect that with Jesus in the boat the storm will pass by them, just kind of part in the middle and go around them.

Even when it starts to rain they don’t bother him. “Well, a little rain never hurt anyone.” When it’s more than a little rain they still don’t bother him.

“Okay, we may have to endure this storm, and it looks pretty bad, but there’s no way we’re going to die with Jesus in the boat.”

It’s only when they realize that they are going to die that they wake Jesus up. “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” Not, “We about to perish!” Not, “We’re going to perish real soon if you don’t do something!”

No, present tense: “We. Are. Perishing.”

And Jesus rebukes them. It seems to me they acted pretty responsibly and pretty rationally. I mean, they waited until the last possible moment.

Jesus couldn’t have wanted them to die with him, could he?

Could he?

Could he?

But they weren’t ready to die with him, so he calmed the storm. At least this time, when they got to shore, they were wet, and the ground wasn’t dry. They had to get some mud in their sandals and between their toes.

But they weren’t ready to die with him. Not really. Not yet.

Later, as Jesus got closer and closer to Jerusalem and the inevitable confrontation with Temple leaders and the Romans, the disciples became more and more afraid, but had enough faith that in the end, Jesus would snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Even when it got darkest, they were convinced that Jesus wouldn’t really let himself be killed, and he surely wouldn’t let them die too.

Peter voiced what all of them were thinking: “Even if everyone else deserts you, I will never desert you.” And he proved it—when they came to arrest Jesus, Peter drew his sword, willing to fight against overwhelming odds, sure that Jesus would pull some Red Sea magic and drown the enemies of God while his followers walked through on dry ground.

But Jesus told him to put his sword away, and Peter watched in disbelief and dismay as the waters came crashing down on Jesus.

Three times Peter was given the chance to wade into the sea after Jesus, and three times Peter stayed on dry ground.

That’s the change in the Exodus salvation story that Jesus makes. Now, to get through to the other side, you don’t go around the sea, and you don’t cross over unscathed in a boat.

You walk through it. Not on dry ground with walls of water on each side. You walk through the water.

Everyone wants the resurrection life, but few are willing to die for it.

But the only way to get to resurrection life is to die. In order for something to be resurrected it must die first. That’s just common sense.

The way to life is through death.

What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:1-11)

What died when you became a Christian? Anything? Did you just pass through unscathed, unchanged, unaltered, happy to let Jesus endure the storms you were unwilling to endure and pass through the waters you were unwilling to pass through and die the death you were unwilling to die?

Because I can promise you this, if you passed through on dry ground, you are still living the life of slavery. And when you find yourself in the wilderness you’ll be longing for the good old days of slavery.

But if you always stayed on dry ground, you aren’t experiencing resurrection life.

How could you be if nothing died?

Everyone wants resurrection life, but few are willing to die for it.

Baptism is a religious rite that represents something real–dying with Christ so that we can rise with Christ.

That’s why we get baptized.

Photo by © Can Stock Photo Inc. / kevron2001

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