The “High Water Sunday” Sermon Rewind

Sunday’s message . . .

  • Shifted the focus from hell to high water;
  • Dealt with a weird section from I Peter 3, a section that has influenced some weird sects as well as two different versions of the Apostles’ Creed;
  • Pointed out the irony in Peter’s claim that the waters of Noah’s flood now symbolize baptism;
  • Decided on further reflection that Peter is neither weird nor ironic but brilliant;
  • Led to a Shane Bishop inspired time of both scheduled and spontaneous baptisms;
  • Landed at this bottom line:  Baptism destroys as it delivers.


OK, we have spent the last three weeks on hell  now that we have finally turned the corner to talk about High Water, we do so with one of the weirdest sections of the bible.  Weird, weird, weird.  Like starts wacky sects weird.  That’s S-E-C-T-S, sects, not the other.  But still weird.  In one version of the Apostles’ Creed but not another weird (do Creed that day).  But I promise you this: if you stay with me as we DE-weird this section, I believe you’llg et to some refreshing, drenching, immersing, life-giving high water.

            The weirdness that I’m talking about comes from I Peter, what is known as a general letter, meaning that it is to Xns everywhere rather than a specific church like Rome or Corinth or Philippi.  And the author, __________, right! was sort of the early church’s punching bag.  When he wasn’t its punch line.  But he starts this section kinda normal in 3:18:


18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.


OK, we’re tracking, that’s fine.  Something happened on the cross that never happened anywhere else, there is no need for a re-do, there is no sense in which it is incomplete.  He took our place in death and he prepares our places in life.  So far, so good … er, so normal.

            Then look at 3:19-20a:

19 After being made alive,[a] he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— 20 to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.

 Wait wait wait.  Now, along with 4:6 (READ) this is why our Presby friends include “he descended into hell” in the Creed.  But what is this in 3:19-20?  Who is Jesus talking to and where did the conversation take place?  Is it the unholy angels that Genesis 6 talks about, reprobate beings who had relations with earthly women?  Or is it the much more generalized population of earth at Noah’s time?  Or just disobedient people for all time and all places?  And did they have a dialog?  Did it involve a second chance?  Or was it more along the lines of proclamation, a celebration of Jesus’ victory and vindication.  Almost a lording it over his vanquished foes just what he has accomplished through suffering?  There’s no real consensus in bible teachers through the years, though it seems to me that emphatic proclamation, a How bout them apples! is at the heart of it.  But now you know why no one EVER EVER EVER goes to a football game holding up a I PETER 3:19 sign.  Not quite the sticking power of John 3:16.

            And then the Noah references continue in 4:20b-21:

In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, 21 and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God.


Hold on a minute right there, Mr. Peter.  The water of the flood symbolizes baptism.  A little bit of symbolic license, don’t ya think?  Metaphorical gymnastics.  Because what did the water in Noah’s day do?  It flooded.  It destroyed.  It came with a tsunami-like force, overwhelming all people, all vegetation, all construction, all of it.  It killed, it uprooted, it leveled mountains.  That water was the ultimate agent of destruction.  Those of you who’ve been in a flood or a hurricane or cleaned up after one no exactly how destructive AND DISGUSTING such water can be.  So how in the world is THAT like baptism?

            When you think about it, Noah and his family are delivered FROM the water as much as they are delivered THRU the water.  And the ark?  Ha.  A floating box.  Like an enormous coffin.  A major league version of our baptismal pool over there.

            But just when I’m ready to send Peter back to his role as the 1st Century church’s punching bag, I remember something else.  The water with such force?  What else did it do?  It cleansed the earth.  It wiped away. It prepared for a new beginning.  It destroyed, yes, but it made new as well.  It’s like the water was two thing simultaneously:  tremendously destructive and thoroughly cleaning.  Saved from the water’s vengeance by the water’s grace.  That’s why baptism – high water! – is itself not a sweet little thing. It’s not a drip or a christening or a naming.  Nope.  It is an act of spiritual violence AND spiritual tenderness AT THE SAME TIME.  Death and life in a moment.  Good Friday’s violence & Easter Sunday’s victory compressed into an instant.  And why why why is baptism all these simultaneously contradictory things?

            Because if we are going to move from hell to high water, it’s not going to because we ADD Jesus to our life.  He is not an accessory to our already put-together life.  It is death followed by life.  Colossians 2:12 says we are “buried in baptism.”  We typically don’t bury things that are alive & vibrant!  We bury dead things!  So you realize that Peter’s not weird, HE IS BRILLIANT, because he understands that baptism has this unique ability to hold together diametrically opposed things, death and life, violence and victory.  Here it is:  Baptism destroys as it delivers.  There is no deliverance to the new without old things being destroyed.  There is no resurrection without crucifixion. 

            The direction of this passage is so cool when you think about it.  Look where Jesus starts out in 3:19: READ.  In prison! Look where he ends up in 3:22: It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.  In paradise!  The trajectory of this high water passage is from prison to paradise; from hell to heaven.  And it’s the water that takes you on the journey.  Baptism destroys as it delivers.

            Because look at 3:21 again: READ pledge of a clear conscience toward God.  That’s how it is when you lay hold of the victory that Jesus won on the cross & through the resurrection, you cling to the comprehensive victory over everything that opposes God.  That’s what Jesus di on Eater and I have a feeling that’s what he did even in that weirdness of 3:19.  Totally vindicated, completely victory, suffering turned into triumph.  And the incredible news here in I Peter is that his direction is now YOURS.  Prison to paradise, hell to heaven is not just for Jesus anymore; it’s for all of you.  And baptism is the declaration to the world that that is the life journey you’re taking.  Baptism destroys as it delivers.

            Because some of you have stuff that needs to be destroyed.  For someone here, it’s the hatred of anyone darker than you. For others here … it’s the suspicion of anyone lighter than you.  For someone else it is the bitterness towards your father than you know paralyzes you now.  Someone else has that behind closed doors compulsion that needs to be confessed, cleansed, and conquered.  Or just this for someone else:  the life you live is wandering without a real purpose because you’re not altogether sure who you are.  You’re still waiting for something important to happen. 

            If that’s you, let me free you up of those expectations: the most important thing in your life didn’t happen in your life.  It happened in Jesus’ life!  His crucifixion, his resurrection, his ascension into heaven are not only the defining realities of his life; they are the defining realities of YOURS.  You can stop looking for significance in what you do, what you own, who you know.  Who you are is not shaped by what YOU DO, but by what JESUS DID. 

            It’s why one of the best notes I’ve ever received was this one in my mailbox:



            See, you join that, and that is how your life and your eternity will venture in the same direction as Jesus: prison to paradise, hell to heaven.  Through the destructive force and delightful freedom that baptism represents. Baptism destroys as it delivers … and who’d like to be delivered today?