For many summers when I was growing up, my brother and sister and I took swimming lessons, like many kids do. There wasn’t a pool in the town we grew up in, so instead we piled in the car and headed down the highway to the pool in the even tinier town of Belden, NE. We all three eventually learned to swim, but swimming lessons for my sister, Molly, got off to a bit of a rough start.
We were all at the pool for our lessons one day when Molly was really little – like maybe three years old or so. Molly was lined up with all the other kids in the youngest group of swimmers, and they were standing at the edge of the pool, next to the 4ft deep section. The lifeguard teaching her group was in the water, and one by one, she had each of the kids practice jumping into the water, where she would then catch them and help them make their way to where it was shallower.
Eventually, it came to be Molly’s turn. Now, there are two things you need to know about my sister. One is that, when she was growing up, she could sometimes be a bit of a scaredy-cat: thunderstorms, loud noises, water that went over her head, forget about it. The other thing to know is that she was – and, frankly, still kinda is – as stubborn a person as they come. She was not into the idea of jumping into that water. And so little Molly stood at the edge of the pool, crossed her arms, and refused to jump in.
In retrospect, I can’t say I totally blame her. The lifeguard begged and pleaded with her to jump in, saying, hey, look how much fun all the other kids had, I’ll be right here to catch you, it’ll be fine, bla bla bla. But Molly didn’t know the lifeguard – she was a stranger. That was all well and good for those other kids to trust her and jump in, but Molly was not convinced.
So instead, she waited until the lifeguard turned her back – I don’t know where the lifeguard was looking, if maybe she was trying to find our mom or another lifeguard to help, or what. But Molly waited until she turned away, and then she took a leap and plunged into the pool. Now, there’s no need to be worried – Molly is fine, in fact, she just celebrated her 31st birthday last month – everyone survived. But I’m sure you can imagine the panic that ensued when the lifeguard heard that splash, turned around, and saw that Molly was gone. I guess it turns out that Molly was more afraid of lifeguards than she was of the actual pool. Who knows?
At any rate, I couldn’t help but think of this story about my sister’s hesitation to jump all in when I read our gospel story for this morning. When we saw John the Baptist last Sunday, he was out in the wilderness preaching fiery sermons and cussing out religious leaders and calling people to repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near!
But today we see in this passage that things have changed a bit for John. His fiery preaching and his challenging of authority have landed him in prison. And it seems that doubt has begun to gnaw away at his heart. Things with Jesus haven’t exactly gone the way that John imagined they would. He spoke of a Messiah coming in with fire and farm implements, to thresh the wheat out from the chaff! And while Jesus is definitely both revolutionary and extremely divisive, it’s easy to imagine that he’s not exactly what John expected.
So John hesitates – like my three-year-old sister standing at the edge of that pool. John hesitates because he wants to know if Jesus is the one he can put his faith and hope in, before he jumps in over his head. So he sends his disciples to Jesus with that burning question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
I think that anyone who has ever waited and hoped for something – and been disappointed – can feel the ache behind that question. Hope is a risk – one that is not always rewarded. And when the stakes are high – when it’s something near and dear to our hearts, or a matter of life and death – then hope can be truly terrifying. Hope means opening ourselves up to wait and watch for something that isn’t certain; it lays bare the tender places in our soul, and leaves us vulnerable to being wounded by disappointment.
John, the disciples, and the whole people of Israel had been waiting and hoping for a very long time. They had been waiting and hoping for the coming of the Messiah. And I can imagine that they had been disappointed before – I wonder if even John himself had been disappointed before. And so, even after all he’s seen – even after baptizing Jesus himself and seeing the Holy Spirit come down on him and hearing a voice from heaven speak about him, even after everything that John has preached to the crowds about Jesus – John is still afraid to hope. And so he asks Jesus, Are you the one who is to come, or should I keep on waiting?
And Jesus doesn’t just answer his question with a simple, “Yes”; he’s not like, “Seriously, bro?? Do you really need to ask me that?” Instead, he says to John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see.” The signs are all there: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.
These are all signs of the kingdom breaking in, and they are all signs pulled directly out of prophetic writings in Isaiah. And Jesus knows that John will instantly connect those words with Isaiah’s writing, because he quotes it all the time. So this is his way of saying to John, “Yes! This is really happening. This is not a drill! And your hope has not been in vain.” And his words are part of an even longer series of promises from Isaiah that we actually read as our first reading this morning. Isaiah writes:
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,Isaiah 35:1-10 (selected verses)
the desert shall rejoice and blossom…
They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.
Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God… He will come and save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert…
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
And in case there was any room for doubt Jesus punctuates his claim that prophecy is being fulfilled by tying John himself to Isaiah. He repeats the claim that John has made – that he is the one Isaiah wrote about, the one who goes ahead of him to prepare the way of the Lord. Even with all his doubts, John himself has become a sign of the kingdom drawing near. Yes, Jesus says – yes, this is really happening. Don’t be afraid. You have not hoped in vain.
This is the hope that we inherit – the glorious, death-defying, terrifying hope that we have a share in that promise of life and joy everlasting – and that Christ keeps his promises. This is the hope into which each of us has been baptized. And today, it’s the hope into which we are about to baptize a new member of God’s family. Today, we welcome baby Anastasia into the hope of baptism.
And maybe that’s another reason why today seemed like a good day to tell a story about a little girl standing at the edge of waters that go way, way over her head. After all, we speak about baptism as a kind of drowning. The waters go over our head, and beneath that water, we die. We leave behind the fear and hopelessness of our human condition. And then God reaches down beneath the waves and raises us up once more to the bright and terrible hope of life in Christ. You could even think of God as our cosmic lifeguard – because God is the one who literally guards our life.
So as we witness this baptism today, and remember our own baptisms, I invite you to open yourselves anew to the wonder of all that God has promised you. Dare to hope in the one whose arms will always catch you.