Well, it has happened again. Water has been in the news. Lack of water has led to drought conditions throughout much of the State of Kansas and much of the country. Yet other places are experiencing floods. Seasonable rains bring feasting; lack of rain brings famine, flooding brings destruction. Pastors in rural areas are sometimes caught in a dilemma. When I served a rural and small-town parish in southern Illinois back in the 70s I would often get calls on Saturday requesting a prayer for rain at the next day’s service. Then while shaking hands after the service other farmers would complain to me, “I don’t want it to rain! I need to be out on my combine this afternoon!” God would sometimes show His sense of humor and willingness to accommodate all prayers when a farmer out on his combine would look at the next farm over and see that it was raining there! The difference of opinion stemmed from the fact that while combining winter wheat needed dry weather, the corn and the soybeans needed moisture. The newest Lutheran service books have solved the issue by simply including prayers for “seasonable weather,” which basically covers all bases.
Though rain in this area is desperately needed and was appreciated in areas where the storms first started out, it was those very storms which caused the whitecaps and turbulence on Table Rock Lake that led to death. We are saddened and mourn with those who lost loved ones in the duck boat disaster ten days ago. We heard of entire families who were lost in the waters, others who survived. People are hard at work trying to figure out why it happened, whether protocols were not followed as they should have been and trying to assign blame. And that is what we do. We can’t always understand the chaos that comes into our lives seemingly out of nowhere, why some escape and why others are carried away. Even our Lord Himself gives us a stern warning about random death and destruction, using the fall of the tower of Siloam as an example, and then tells us the lesson to be learned: unless you repent you too will likewise perish.
As we await our Lord’s return and the day of judgment, we are told to be sober and to be vigilant lest the day come upon us unawares. Jesus tells us that the Last Days will be like the days of Noah where people were eating and drinking and marrying until the Flood came and swept them all away.
Hard words. Gut-wrenching words. But does this mean that we always need to be watching our backs? Must we always be fearful about enjoying the comforts of life, lest we be blindsided by disaster? Must we always be waiting for the other shoe to drop? Those who believe in everything and anything from karma to blind fate must always be looking out for reasons why evil has come into play in their lives. Does it mean that God is getting them back for doing well in their lives and now is punishing them for being prosperous? After all, God called the prosperous landowner a fool when he looked forward to a life of leisure after a good year of crops. And the rich man in the story of the rich man and Lazarus paid no heed to the poor man at his door as he engaged in his gluttonous ways and paid for that with eternal death.
What does all of this mean for us? Does this mean that it is wrong to marry, to eat and to drink, to enjoy the little pleasures of life? Of course not. Indeed, Christ Himself came eating and drinking. We can celebrate the gifts God gives us, provided we recognize them as God’s gifts. Heedlessly doing so, reflects the pagan attitude, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Paul actually quotes this adage in 1 Corinthians 15:32, not as advice but as a warning. For Paul’s full admonition is this: “If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” As Luther explains the first article of the Apostles’ Creed, he notes that for all of God’s gifts that support this body and life it is our duty to thank and praise, to serve and obey Him. Recognize them for what they are, namely gifts of God, and render thanks.
We can thank, praise, serve and obey God with confidence, even in the midst of calamity, because He has promised us that we are His, even in the midst of such calamity. After the Flood, God have His promise to Noah that as long as this age lasts He will never again bring such destruction on the earth again, and He put His bow in the clouds as a sign and seal that this was true. The rainbow is a sign to the whole world that God will keep His promise even though humanity’s evil will continue. The sign, though, can be understood only by those who have ears to hear, that is, only by those whose trust is in God.
So often, people want to put their own interpretation on the signs of the times. We may desire what we desire and will interpret the signs to meet our own desires and do so in such a way that we put the power into our hands. When we are dealing with the Word of God however, we need to let God Himself, the creator of the signs, tell us what the sign actually signifies. For example, Genesis 9 tells us exactly what the rainbow means. We are not allowed to co-opt the sign to make it stand for something God never intended it to stand for. And we are not to turn the cross simply into an ornament, a piece of jewelry. We can use it as that, of course, but if that is all that it is, it is robbed of its power. So also, if the cross is not the means by which the wrath of God is turned aside from us through Christ’s death, but serves merely as an example of sacrificial living or some such thing, then the cross again is emptied of its power.
In both the OT reading and the Gospel, water serves as a reminder both that water can be a sign of judgment and a sign of God’s grace and preservation of His people.
Even at creation, the waters were a sign of primeval chaos until the Spirit of God stepped in and hovered over the face of the waters. It was at the command of God that the waters and the dry land separated from each other, and the waters above the firmament were separated from the waters below. As God tells Job (putting Job in his place), “Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb, when I made clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed limits for it and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?” (Job 38:8-11). With the coming of the Flood the waters above and the waters below both broke forth again and converged in chaos, but they did so because God Himself set them loose to bring about the destruction of a sinful humanity. And we see the destructive powers of the waters yet today, with the deaths on Table Rock lake, or with the numerous floods, tsunamis, and other disasters in which the waters overstep their boundaries. The duck boat tragedy killed 17, all lives precious to the Lord, all people for whom Christ died. The Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 killed over 230,000 people, all lives precious to the Lord, all people for whom Christ died. Is it any wonder that our Lord says that in the end times nations will be in distress and perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves (Luke 21:25)? And St. John tells us that in his vision of the new heavens and new earth, “the sea was no more.”
That’s a lot of bad news isn’t it? But where is the good news in all of this? The good news is this: The waters that bring judgment to the world also at God’s behest bring deliverance. St. Peter reminds us that the waters of the Flood that destroyed the wicked also saved Noah and his family. In one of the great ancient Easter hymns we sing “Israel’s hosts triumphant go, through the wave that drowns the foe,” referring to Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea. Yet another tells us that God has brought His children into joy from sadness. “Loosed from Pharaoh’s bitter yoke, Jacob’s sons and daughters, led them with unmoistened foot through the Red Sea waters.” Salvation and deliverance come from passing through those waters, which foreshadow the waters of Holy Baptism. Even if God’s children should perish in the waves of the world’s waters, they are saved by the waters of baptism, which avail for eternal life.
Now not every reference to water in the Scriptures should lead us to think it a reference to Baptism. Sometimes water is just water. Even water accompanied by God’s word is not always a referent to Baptism. Yet God often accompanies his healing mercy through the use of water. Naaman the leper was cured when at the prophet’s command he dipped himself seven times in the Jordan River. The blind man was healed when, after Jesus made mud from His own spit he told the man to go wash his eyes in the pool of Siloam (John 9). The word of God, combined with the use of the physical element, brought physical healing. The word of God, combined with waters of baptism, gives life to the one so baptized.
Make no mistake. God has His enemies in this world who are blind guides under the sway of the father of lies. It is only our Lord Himself who can and will open our eyes to see the truth. By His grace He opens even the eyes of His enemies and brings them from death to life.
Chaos and order. Floods cause destruction on the one hand and rains bring seasonable weather and abundant crops on the other. Both come upon the godly and the ungodly. But we who know the grace of God know that whether this life brings adversity or prosperity, nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. In the end, that is all that matters. Amen.