Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"When youíre in over your head"

Message preached January 11, 2004
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Isaiah 43:1-7

Order of Worship

            Watching some old family videos the other week, we came across footage from the quick thaw of January in 1996, after the record snowfall. Do you remember? At one point, we all climbed in the van and went exploring. Near where the Gunpowder Falls crosses Harford road, we stopped and watched the rising water. As I videotaped it, I recall becoming aware that our vehicle was sitting on the one dry spot between two wet ones: a not-so-gradually shrinking dry spot. Can you guess how quickly I put down the camera and got us out of there?

            Every year we hear stories of folks who get caught up in a flash flood. They come to water across the road and think they can make it through - in spite of all the warnings to the contrary. Some are not as fortunate as that man out west last week, who spent many chilly hours trapped in his nearly submerged SUV, until he was discovered and rescued. It only takes a moment to make a stupid decision, before you realize youíre in over your head.

            Then again, there are other dumb choices we make that are more planned. In the ongoing saga of the Enron corporation, for instance, this week we witnessed the plea agreements of a husband and wife who are paying the consequences of greed. Andrew and Lea Fastow were trying to arrange their jail sentences so that at least one of them at a time can be home to care for their two young children. A noble effort, though I doubt whether families of lesser means ever have that kind of leverage.

            We can get ourselves into all kinds of messes, canít we? The scripture we just heard from the prophet Isaiah was originally addressed to such folks. Taken out of context, we can miss the fact that the current situation of these people had been brought about by questionable decisions. They were in exile, away from home, because - according to Isaiah and others - they had chosen to drive into high water, so to speak. They thought they could get through, but they found themselves in over their heads. Ever been there? I know I have.

            Actually, to be more accurate with what Isaiah says, it was God who sent them into the river of troubles, in response to their faithlessness. I prefer to think of it, though, in terms of God allowing for the consequences. They did the driving. God just didnít stop them. We donít live in a pre-determined world. Thereís this thing called "free-will," which means all of us have the freedom of choice. We can decide wisely, or we can mess up royally. Just like the people of God in Isaiahís day.

            Oh, there were plenty of warnings, mind you. Prophet after prophet had been sent by the Lord, messenger after messenger. "Warning: high water ahead." Sometimes, however, it seems like there is something built into our psyche (call it "sin") that deafens us to a protective word. The place a toddler is told not to go, for instance, is the very place he or she wants to be. Substitute "teenager" or "adult" for "toddler," and you have part of the human equation. Godís will is not forced upon us. However, there are consequences. Beyond human freedom, though, the Bible makes clear that God will prevail, eventually.

            That was true for Isaiah, the second part of this Old Testament prophecy having to do with Godís people getting out of high water, with them returning home from exile. "By the waters of Babylon," the Psalmist sang, they "wept," remembering how it used to be (137:1). The good news of Isaiah is that God wasnít finished. A rescue was going to take place. Godís people werenít simply left to the consequences of their stupid choices. No, other things were on Godís mind. Out of this situation, God was going to do something brand new. There was going to be a new exodus. Leave behind the waters of Babylon. Letís go home. God is leading the way!

            The bad news was that, in order to get out of high water, Godís people had to go deeper. If they thought they had gotten in over their heads before, Isaiahís call was not leading toward shallow water. What is it about water and Godís people, anyway? A defining image of the Bible is the episode where Moses led the children of Israel out of the grasp of Pharaoh to the very edge of the sea. There, when all hope seemed lost, with the chariots of Egyptís army in hot pursuit, God parted the water and told the children to walk through.

            Talk about feeling in over your head! One moment the thing to fear was that dayís equivalent of a tank bearing down from behind. The next moment nature was itself shifting by the hand of the One who created it. Anyone who has ever lived through an earthquake knows the fear of such an "act of God" - and an earthquake only lasts seconds. No wonder this image of the parted sea defined Godís people. It lies at the heart of the Bible, remembered and revisited again and again. The direction of freedom and promise lay on the other side, but to get there they had to go deeper. Godís people stepped forth way, way over their heads.

            This morningís passage from Isaiah touches that experience, as God - through this prophet - called the children of Israel once again to step into the deep. The direction of freedom and promise lay on the other side. These are images straight out of the book of Exodus, a reminder of what the master of the universe can and will do. This chapter continues the word of comfort begin in Isaiah 40. "Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God" (40:1). Again, let me remind you that the English word "comfort" is not a warm blanket. It is a strength, a fortification - "com" (with) "fort" (as a stronghold).

            "Donít be afraid," God says through Isaiah the people in this morningís scripture. As you step into the deeper water of my call, remember, "I have redeemed you." I have paid the price that sets you free. You may have made wrong decisions, but I have made and will make things right. Listen, "I have called you by name." Not just any old name - your name. "You are mine." As you step into the deep, when you pass through the waters of where I am leading you to go, remember those who also walked through the waters I parted long ago. Furthermore, remember this: "I am with you." Donít take your eyes off me, but believe me when I say - as One walking right with you: "you will not be overwhelmed." Thus says the Lord.

            Powerful words! They take your breath away, or better put - the wind behind them fills our lungs and spirit in a way that makes our heart race. Itís one thing to tell someone not to be afraid. Itís another thing to fill them with courage, to encourage them to step through their fears. Thatís what Isaiah does here.

            The new covenant in Jesus links with this encouragement, as Godís people are called to follow Jesus into the deep water. John the Baptist prepared the way, quoting words from this second portion of Isaiah, by pointing to the water. However, it was Jesus who led Godís people through. Baptism thus becomes less a washing away of sin (which it is also), and more an outward symbol of faith. When we step into the water, my friends, we go in over our heads. We follow Jesus all the way, not just part of the way. To make that clear, Brethren donít just do it one time, we do it three times.

            This is our defining image of new life in Christ. Remembering the water God parted for the children of Israel long ago, we follow Jesus into the deep. Heís leading us home. "Donít be afraid," God continues to say through Isaiah. As you step into the deeper water of my call, remember, "I have redeemed you." In Christ Jesus, I have paid the price that sets you free. You may have made wrong decisions, but I have made and will make things right. Never forget that.

            Listen, "I have called you by name." Not just any old name - your name. "You are mine." In dedicating a child this morning you recalled that she is not your possession. She belongs to me. Well, guess what? So do you. "You are precious in my sight." Each of you and all of you together. As you step into the deep, when you pass through the waters of where I am leading you to go, remember this: "I am with you." Donít take your eyes off me, but believe me when I say - as One walking right with you: "you will not be overwhelmed." Why? Because "I am the Lord your God. I am your Savior." ... So, "donít be afraid, for I am with you."

            Funny how things shifted this morning from this getting "in over your head" being a bad thing to it being a good thing. I hope I havenít confused the issue and caused some to think that itís okay to do bad stuff, to make wrong decisions - all in the name of "going deeper." If you heard me say that, know this is not what I meant. Itís a danger our youth face when they pony up to such words in their lexicon as "extreme," or "radical." These are not synonyms for "stupid," "foolish," or "sinful." Letís be clear about that.

            Still, too many Christians live as if this journey on which God in Jesus Christ leads us is simply a matter of not "getting in over your head," of just obeying the rules, and staying out of trouble. Is that what itís all about, though? Really? Or is Jesus calling us to get in over our heads in the things of God, to live as those who are redeemed - that is, set free? Is he not beckoning us, calling us by name, to live unafraid - encouraged by his very presence? If we, indeed, are precious in his sight, does that influence how we see others along the way?

            Those are questions I leave with you as we together approach his table this morning. As we break the bread, donít just nibble at this life to which we are called. I know, itís just a little piece of an unleavened loaf which reminds us of the passover and the exodus, the crucifixion and the resurrection. As you eat it, though, recall your baptism, and keep stepping deeper, even if youíre in over your head. Likewise, the itty-bitty cup of juice is not a thirst-quencher, I realize. It does, however, point us to the shed blood of the lamb which saved Godís people in Egypt long ago, and of our redeemer Jesus who gave his life for the healing of the nations. Drink deeply of the living water, and step out by faith.

online resources for this scripture text

For commentaries consulted, see Isaiah.


©2004 Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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