Luke 3:1-3, 10-17, 21-22
One of the advantages of living on the west side of Iowa City and working here downtown is that each day when I come to the church, I cross the Iowa River. Dare I even say that this is a blessing?
I see the river frozen in the winter. I see it rising along the banks when the snow melts and the rain falls in the spring. I see the waters recede when rain is scarce. Once or twice during these winter months, if I am fortunate, I see a bald eagle soaring over the waters.
A former minister to this congregation, the late Ed Heininger, mused about this river in his wonderful poem that hangs in the narthex downstairs:
Grasp the beauty of the moment.
Life beside the river is a
Life is change.
When I began to study Greek in college, one of the first sentences I learned was panta rei—all things flow. That was how the ancient philosopher Heraclitus put it. “All things flow,” he said, adding, “You cannot step into the same river twice.”
Life is change.
The river and all water invite us into that never-ending change.
Last week I walked the path along the Iowa River between the IMU and Hancher. It was that beautiful Monday and I saw the sun shining on the river as it has for millennia. The river constantly changes.
As the river changes, the land changes.
As the land changes, the people along the river change.
And the people in turn change the land and the river and everything that lives along it and within it.
We needn’t be sentimental about water. While water gives life, we have lived along the banks of the river long enough to know the destructive power of water as well. Floods come and homes are lost; neighbors and neighborhoods are lost. Do remember that sign by the old Taco Bell in Coralville after 2008? “Fifteen Years. Two Floods. We’ll Be Back.” They weren’t.
Last month we saw again the devastation that water brings as the tsunami swept over Java and Indonesia, injuring over fourteen thousand and killing over four hundred people. Water can be—as even baptism tell us—death.
In our time the human impact on water is increasing its devastating and destructive power.
Our actions and ways of life continue to heat up our planet.
Word came this past week that the oceans are warming faster than climate reports have suggested. Oceans cover 70 percent of the globe and absorb 93 percent of the planet’s extra heat from climate change. This has led to disasters like hurricanes Florence and Maria and torrential rainfall around the world. After Hurricane Harvey, researchers found the storm’s deadly and costly effects were probably made worse by warmer oceans.
And paradoxically, our warmer oceans also result in problems caused by a lack of water. The Washington Post reported last month, “a drought in East Africa that left 6 million people in Somalia facing food shortages was caused by dramatic ocean warming that could not have occurred without humans’ impact on the environment.”
As I crossed the river again this morning, I was thinking about life and death—about water and this earth and our changing climate.
In many Protestant churches, such as this one, the weeks between Epiphany and the beginning of Lent have traditionally been a time for congregations to consider their mission in the larger world. For many years our Mission Board has sponsored a series of Sunday morning adult education sessions examining the challenges that we face and how we can respond as people of faith.
Because Easter is late this year—and therefore, too, the beginning of Lent—we are able to take between now and March 6 to give some in-depth consideration to climate change and our mission in the world. Many areas of concern for this congregation—immigration, hunger, and natural disasters to name just a few—are affected by climate change in general and too much or too little water in particular. This global crisis will inform and shape our ministry and mission in all sorts of ways—known and to be made known—in the coming years and decades.
So I invite you—and encourage you—to attend those 9:15 Sunday morning sessions in the coming weeks. Our worship and my sermons during these weeks will often deal with climate change and the care of creation in various ways.
As I crossed the river today I was also thinking about the baptism of Jesus—the story from the Gospel of Luke that I’ve been mulling over this past week and that we heard this morning. Crossing the river I started to see new significance in the baptism of Jesus and our own baptism as well.
While only two gospels tell a Christmas story, all four remember that day at the Jordan River, when Jesus comes to be baptized by John.
John appears in the wilderness around the Jordan River. The wilderness is the place where the heavens seem closed. The wilderness is the time when we know the affliction of human beings and the barrenness of the earth.
Our world, our time are becoming wilderness. But we need to remember that in the wilderness God makes the people ready for the land of promise. In the wilderness God prepares people for the wholeness of life that is coming.
In the wasteland, John speaks words of judgment and good news. And in a sense good news can only be spoken and heard when we stand in the waste places and remember—confess—that we are not the good people we want to think we are, that there is such a thing as “sin” separating us from all that gives life and makes life good.
Look and listen: The good news is connected to water.
Scientists tell us that water is essential for life. That’s why the search for life on other planets begins with the search for water on those planets—or at least the evidence that water was there at some point.
Scripture tells of the Spirit of God hovering over the waters of chaos as God begins to create and bring order to this world, separating the waters and letting them, as Genesis says, “bring forth swarms of living creatures.”
Life begins in water.
And, as you know, water has that strange property: unlike most things, it expands when it freezes. So ice cubes float. If water behaved like most substances, it would sink when it freezes and life on Earth would not be possible. Michael Summers, a professor of planetary science, says that if ice sunk when it freezes, oceans and rivers would freeze from the bottom up and all organisms would be killed. As it is, the ice freezes, creating an insulating layer on top so that the cycle of life can continue.
Over 50% of our bodies is water.
But we human beings have grown increasingly alienated from this source of life, the water that give us life and sustains us. It’s said that most of us spend over 85% of our time indoors. While I cross the river in a car or bus on a regular basis, until last Monday it had been a long time since I’d walked anywhere near the river, a long time since I’d really seen the river.
One person put it this way: “Only when we learn to know the trees, soil types, the birds, the pollinators, and the culture of our locale can we call in love with God’s creation. To be at home is to pay loving and affectionate attention to the gifts of creation.”
I hear those words and I am—what?—convicted of my sin, my alienation from the goodness of creation. At the same time, those words offer hope.
Look again. Jesus is baptized. Luke’s Gospel tells us that the One whose birth in the days of King Herod and the Emperor Augustus was announced by angels, now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judah, is immersed into the very source of life and into all that it means to be alive and human on this planet.
Baptism is commonly understood as an outward and visible sign of the inward and invisible grace of God. It signifies our dying with Christ and our rising with Christ.
But in our current wilderness world, we can see something else: Baptism immerses us into our origins, into all of God’s creation. Baptism is an act that shows our connection as creatures, not just with Christ, but with all living things. Along with all of life, we are watery beings.
We are waking up to the reality of the danger that we are inflicting upon the water, upon the air, upon the land. We are waking up to the reality that the time to act is now.
And that is a daunting perspective.
At one time or another we all have the sense that we are not up to the task, that there’s too much to deal with, that we are in over our heads. This is the growing sense that many have when confronted with the growing awareness of climate change. There are times when the world seems to overwhelm.
At such times, we need to remember our baptisms. Remember that we have already been in over our heads. We remember that the waters of death have overwhelmed us. We remember that the God who is greater than the waters of chaos is with us. The hope of the prophet is that a new creation begins as we acknowledge our responsibility for the destruction of this earth as well as our responsibility to walk in new paths that will restore it.
When God speaks through the prophet, “You are precious in my sight,” we are not given some bland assurance that all will be well or that we will be exempt from the sufferings that we are bringing upon ourselves. But the God who says, “I am with you” frees us and empowers us to take the action needed now to tend creation.
As people of faith—and simply as people—we are called in this days to a critical and central task: the restoration of this planet. Let us start where we are to once more love this earth. Begin this week as you are able: Walk through the snow. Walk in a field. Walk along the river.
And if not able to do such things, remember this: The US Geological Survey defines a watershed as the area of land where all of the water that falls in it, and drains off of it, goes into a common outlet. Watersheds can be a small as a footprint in the dirt, or large enough to encompass all the land that drains water in creeks, rivers, lakes, bays, and oceans. So it has been suggested that wherever we are, we are living, breathing, walking participants in a watershed.
Let us, together, become aware of the renewal, promise, and hope that water conveys and protect the water for use by this generation and all future generations of Creation.