IN GOOD COMPANY
Carlos Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
January 10, 2016, Baptism of the Lord, Year C
Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you…”
Isaiah 43:2a

This morning we’ve celebrated a baptism. That’s not so remarkable, for those of you who come here regularly. It happens half-a-dozen times a year or so: the baptismal font moved from the church door to the front of the sanctuary, the gathering of family and friends in the front pews, the adorable baby clad all in white, the parents and sometimes grandparents (and a whole lot of other relatives besides) all hoping everything will go smoothly.

Today it was the turn of little Reese Elizabeth to come into this sanctuary, where literally thousands of other Christians have been baptized over the years of this congregation’s life. Today is her day: her turn to join this fellowship of faith.

It’s a happy occasion, Christian baptism. It’s a hopeful occasion, especially when one so young is brought to the font. Little Reese’s entire life stretches out ahead of her. What sort of person will she grow up to become? What sort of things will she experience? What joys will be part of her life — and what sufferings? (For we have to be very honest about that: every human life is a mix of joy and suffering.)

All of us here today wish for little Reese nothing but the best. We hope her days will be happy and filled with laughter. And we hope that she will grow up to become a woman strong in the faith.

And if it should happen that her days are not all happy — if she should face some terrible struggle or obstacle — it is our fervent hope that she will find in that faith of hers strength to endure and triumph over it.

*****

We have, here in our sanctuary, a symbol of that sort of triumphant faith: and it happens to be located on the baptismal font. I expect most of you barely even know it’s here. It’s a brass plaque, and here is what it says:

In Memoriam
Lt. John Holmes Townley
Born — Emporia, Kansas, August 23, 1920
Died — France, August 3, 1944
He Gave the Last Full Measure of Devotion

Yes, our baptismal font is a war memorial.

If you know anything about the history of this church, you probably recognize the name of John Townley. He was pastor of this congregation for 31 years, prior to the 31-year pastorate of Ken Chittick, who was my predecessor. John Holmes Townley was Dr. Townley’s son. He was a Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, 6th Armored Division, and a pilot. On August 2, 1944, he took off in a Piper L4 observation aircraft. He never returned, and his body was never found. The next day, August 3, the Army declared him killed in action. He was just shy of his 24th birthday.

Surely his death was a heavy loss for his parents, the rest of his family — and for this congregation, who had watched him grow up and graduate from Point Pleasant Beach High School.

I’m interested, today, in what it means for a congregation to put such a memorial plaque on the side of a baptismal font. Lt. Townley was not baptized here — I figure he was about 8 when his family moved to Point Pleasant — but he was a baptized Christian. The manner of his death raises the question of what, exactly, the sacrament of baptism promises to those who are baptized (and to those who love them).

*****

Lots of us would like to think baptism conveys a certain protection to those who are baptized: that — to risk putting it crassly — it’s a sort of divine insurance policy, against sufferings and misfortunes that may take place in this earthly life. It’s sometimes said baptism conveys an “indelible mark” — that those who are baptized are marked forever as children of God. If that’s that case, then wouldn’t it make sense to assume that the Lord keeps a special eye out for those displaying the indelible mark?

Yes, it does. But that doesn’t mean that we who are baptized — and who have later confirmed the baptismal vows our parents made for us — are promised an easier road than other human beings. Baptism does convey a promise of eternal life, by the grace of Jesus Christ, but it didn’t mean for Lt. Townley that his plane was protected — more than any other plane — from anti-aircraft fire, or engine trouble, or whatever it was that brought him down in northern France.

*****

Today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah tells us what baptism does promise during our life on this earth. It doesn’t specifically mention the sacrament, of course — it was hundreds of years too early for that — but it does speak about passing through the waters, and where God may be trusted to be as we do so: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”

A little later, the prophet supplies the reason why the Lord would say such a thing: “…you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you…”

The choir sang those words for us a little while ago: and beautiful, reassuring words they are, indeed.

For the people Israel, the prophet’s words would have called to mind an experience their ancestors had: when Moses led the Hebrew people through the waters of the sea to freedom. The recollection of that experience is all the more poignant, here, because the people to whom Isaiah is writing are exiles in Babylon. If the Lord did lead their ancestors through the waters of the Reed Sea, on their way to claim the promised land, then surely a return to that land is but a distant dream to them now.

But Isaiah won’t let go of that promise. The day will come, he reassures them, when the Lord will lead them through the waters once again.

*****

Notice how close the Lord promises to be: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you…” The Lord may not promise, in baptism, to shield us from the ordinary sufferings of this life, but God does promise to be with us, close at hand, as we endure them. The Lord never vows we won’t get our feet wet; but God does vow that the water will never rise up in a mighty wave and smash us into eternal oblivion.

God promises to accompany us through this life. And isn’t that thought a powerful source of comfort and strength?

I think there are two meanings to this word “accompany.” The first is the sense of one person walking alongside another. That thrilling story from the end of Luke’s Gospel comes to mind: how, on the road to Emmaus, the risen Jesus overtakes two of his disciples who are sadly trudging their way along. At first, they don’t know it’s Jesus who’s walking with them. But then, as they gather for the evening meal and he breaks the bread, their eyes are opened and they recognize him, before he vanishes out of their sight. God accompanies us, one on one, in just that way.

The second sense of the word “accompany” — with respect to the way God accompanies us — is found within that larger word. We who are baptized are members of a larger company: the church, the body of Christian believers. Baptism is the sacrament of entry into that company.

This means that, as we encounter rough patches in life, there are others around us: Christian friends to catch us when we stumble and fall. In seasons of heartache and loss, there are sisters and brothers pledged to walk alongside us, to share with us some of their own strength.

There’s an old story about a woman who was living through the aching pain of bereavement. She kept coming to church during her time of grief, but she would just stand there with the hymnal in her hands, not singing.

A good friend noticed this and said, “I see you’re not singing, and I also know how much you love to sing. Why don’t you just try to join in? It’ll make you feel better.”

“I’m sorry,” said the bereaved woman, “but I just can’t sing right now. I’m sure that I will, eventually. But for now, I know the church is singing the hymns for me, and that’s a great source of comfort.”

Each week, in worship, we symbolically live out this work of being, together, a company of believers. Individual prayer and meditation are wonderful things — and Christian family life is likewise a wonderful thing — but they are no substitute for life together in the larger company that is the church. The Lord promises to be with us as we pass through the waters. And part of the way the Lord accomplishes that is through us all, week after week, as we gather together as God’s people.

We don’t just come here, you see, for individual inspiration. You and I don’t come to worship just to receive. We also come to give: and our presence here is important to others as well. You presence here, week after week — praying, singing, offering your gifts — is a ministry to others, a witness to faith. It just may be that someone else — sitting beside you, or behind you, or in front of you — is silently in pain today, enduring some terrible trouble. You have no way of knowing this. Nor do you have any way of knowing how important it is to that fellow believer to see you — yes, you! — engaging in worship.

What if such a one were to come here of a Sunday, feeling that sort of pain or doubt, and see instead an empty sanctuary, or one so nearly empty that the prayers were to ring hollow and the hymn-singing were entirely lacking in joy? We would be failing to perform that Christlike work of accompanying, making it difficult for our neighbors to believe that when they pass through the waters, God is with them.

How firm a foundation God gives us, in our life together as church, for persevering through hard times!

“When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
the rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;
for I will be near thee, thy troubles to bless,
and sanctify to thee they deepest distress.”

Let us sing our hymn together: and as we do so, let us sing out with joy, knowing we are Christ’s company of disciples here in this place!

Copyright © 2016, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.