[This is a version of a sermon I preached at Messiah Lutheran Church on the second Sunday of Lent in 2015]
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
It is a season of preparation here at Messiah, as it is for the whole church of Jesus Christ around the world. Our eighth-grade Pathway students are preparing to affirm their baptism on April 26. Starting next week our fifth graders will start preparing to receive and to distribute Holy Communion. And starting last week, our new Christian Basics small group began meeting—and some of the members of that group will be preparing to affirm their baptism as adults this spring, too. And we have a new member class coming up next week.
In all of these things we are returning to our baptism into Jesus Christ. This is the time of year in which for centuries, new believers moved toward baptism, and believers who had lapsed or left the communion of the faithful moved toward being restored. And so we are spending some time each week this season looking at our baptism ritual and at a specific prayer we pray each time we baptize a new child of God:
We give you thanks, O God, for in the beginning your Spirit moved over the waters and by your Word you created the world, calling forth life in which you took delight. Through the waters of the flood you delivered Noah and his family, and through the sea you led your people Israel from slavery into freedom. At the river your Son was baptized by John and anointed with the Holy Spirit. By the baptism of Jesus’ death and resurrection you set us free from the power of sin and death and raise us up to live in you.
Pour out your Holy Spirit, the power of your living Word, that those who are washed in the waters of baptism may be given new life. To you be given honor and praise through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, now and forever.
And this is so important because we aren’t just baptized alone, we aren’t just given some kind of supernatural protection from hell by being washed in some water: we are baptized into a story. We are baptized into the story of a God who was in the middle of creation from the start, whose spirit brooded over the waters and created life out of sheer love and delight, as we heard Pastor Dawn discuss last week.
We are baptized into the story of a God who then destroyed all that life through a mammoth, world-wide flood, except for one ship full of animals and a single family.
That’s what we get to talk about this week.
The great flood is a dreadful story, and that’s probably why we don’t tend to dwell on it. We zero in on the silver lining: “you delivered Noah and his family.” But I’m not going to leave it at that today. This is something we remember every time we baptize, so it’s worth asking: Why the flood?
Now this story comes from the first part of Genesis. It’s part of the more mythical, legendary section of that book. Many, many ancient civilizations record stories of a great flood that destroys almost all life. In the Bible, God sees evil in the hearts of the human beings he’s made, and this evil grieves God’s own heart. The story says that he regrets making us. Think about that for a moment. But Noah alone is righteous, so God warns Noah that the flood is coming. Noah builds a great ship. Then the flood comes. And the creation is drowned.
The ark survives, however. The ark carries humanity and all the animals from the first creation to a new creation. The ark becomes a little world, a microcosm of all life. It’s this tiny thread by which all the future hangs. Now I don’t read this story in a very literal way. But that part is real. Each and every one of us is the result of this incredibly unlikely series of events. At any point along the way, the thread could have been broken, and everything after just doesn’t happen. If Michael and Katie Wagner pick out some other orphan than little baby Irene in 1902 to bring home with them to Kiel, Wisconsin, me and my mom and my grandfather would never have been born. That’s the ark, the little thread, the unlikely vessel that carries life.
The rain eventually stops, and the waters eventually recede. Noah and the universe tumble out onto dry land and give thanks and begin to populate the new creation. The ark carries life from the old creation to the new creation.
And God does something interesting. God makes a covenant with the whole creation, promising never again to destroy the world for the sake of human sinfulness.
So why do we remember this story when we baptize, or any time for that matter?
First because it reminds us of the destructive side of God’s grace. Martin Luther wrote that baptism “signifies that the old person in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned and die through daily sorry for sin and through repentance, and on the other hand that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” Baptism is a symbolic flood, in other words: in it God drowns our wickedness, and delivers us to a new life. God does this, if we wish, every day.
And that’s real, too. Being a faithful person involves some loss. It involves letting the flood of baptism wash some things out of our hands. It involves dying to our desire for domination, dying to our need to always be right and wise in our own minds, dying to our need to have more and do more, dying to our desire to possess the world even at the expense of others. Being a faithful person means letting God rip those things from our hands, just as surely as it means being embraced by God and raised up by God and clothed in righteousness by God.
You don’t need to do this right or do it well. The ark didn’t smell great and I bet there were quarrels onboard. I do not picture the skunks and the badgers getting along. I don’t know how the lions and the lambs both made it for all those months. You just need to let yourself get on that ark. It’s here right now, here in the words of grace, here in baptism—once again I invite you to baptism if you haven’t not been welcomed into God’s family—here in the body and blood of Jesus. Death and life, drowning and deliverance, all here for you now. Don’t harden your hearts.
That’s the first reason—the flood shows us our own need to drown our sinful nature and be raised to new life.
The second reason is a little scarier. Are you ready for this? The first reason we remember the flood in our baptism is because the flood is a story of us being changed.
The second reason we remember the flood in our baptism is because the flood is a story of God changing.
Now as I mentioned God’s heart is grieved, before the flood, at human wickedness. And after the flood, God says in his heart, “I will never do this again; after all, the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth.”
God has saved the most righteous man, but everything is going to get bad again really soon. Even so, God says, no more of this. God will work with us from now on—twisted as our hearts may be! God will find some other way to get through to us. God will find some other way to reach that ark in us. God will find some other way to keep us from hurtling headlong into destruction.
And he does. There will be laws, and prophets; there will be a chosen people, and a child of that chosen people will be God’s Son. And the Son will have a cross, a wooden ark for his followers. But this ark won’t hide a few survivors, it will become great enough to shelter the whole world. This ark won’t be a tiny thread connecting the old world to the new world; this ark will become the new world. This ark will not float above the cries of the wicked and suffering; it will seek out the wicked and suffering. This ark will heal them and offer them every consolation and blessing because no one has needed any less.