Winslow Homer, who lived from 1836 to 1910, is regarded by many as the greatest American painter of the nineteenth century. He began his career by illustrating popular periodicals in Boston. His experiences sent him to cover the Civil War in 1862, to France after the Civil War for ten months during the Realism movement, and his last significant influence came from his time spent on the North Sea coast in England. Homer’s work was centered around rural subjects and his admiration for human bravery and innovation.
The inspiration for his 1884 painting titled The Life Line came while he was on the North Sea coast in England. You can see Homer’s focus on realism, heroics, and human ingenuity.
In the painting, Homer captures a coast guardsman rescuing an unconscious woman with the help of a breeches buoy. A breeches buoy you can see is a type of personal floatation device in which the rescuer sits inside of. It also looks like it is attached to a zip line. That line could run between two ships or between a ship and something onshore.
In the painting, you see the how the unconscious woman is pulled up on top of the personal floatation device. In the original sketch of this painting, the identity of the coast guardsman wasn’t concealed. However, later he adds the scarf in order to emphasize, not only the victim, but also what he consider the true hero … the breeches buoy life line.
I haven’t seen or heard too much lately, but about 5 years ago or so it wasn’t uncommon to hear of people who have survived near-death experiences. There were a whole host of books, movies, and interviews done. The common thread running through them all was how that one moment changed their life forever. The cold and dark reality of death has a way of reshaping the perspective of all those who get too close to it.
In the painting, Homer grants us a glimpse into what surely seems like a near-death experience. The woman appears to be unconscious, but we don’t know for sure. She could be knocking on death’s door as the violent waves are crashing in around her. Who knows, she may already be dead. If she is, then only a timely rescue could possibly bring her back. But really no matter what the extent of her condition is, her hope looms largely in the faceless man who has her secured in his arms. As he risks death to save her, we can only look on in a hopeful anticipation that the cold and dark reality of death will not claim them both.
Paul in Romans 6 describes an experience with death. In fact, he describes the experience that all those who have passed through the treacherous waters of baptism. Now when we look at the baptismal font … it looks perfectly innocent right? When its full of water, when the family and sponsors are gathered around, it’s picturesque right? Family members are smiling and taking pictures. The water in the font it’s warm, it’s perfectly still and calm. The water doesn’t look dangerous as it is only a couple of inches deep. When holding a child or when an adult leans over it, one is definitely not filled with fear or trepidation.
But it could … and really … it should. The calm waters of baptism should fill us with fear, because it is here, through the waters of baptism in which we are personally knocking on death’s door. Paul says, “all of us who have been baptized into Christ were baptized into his death.” We’ve crossed over. We went under. In those calm waters of baptism we are drowned, we experience death with Christ.
As each person is brought forward to the font and the waters of baptism … we catch a glimpse of a moment, of the moment when death rages around that individual. At the moment the baptism occurs … death occurs. Death occurs because in baptism, the old sinful nature is drowned. And as all who been baptized into Christ were baptized into his death, we are also buried with him through baptism into death.
When we look at the painting, we don’t know how that woman got into those raging waters. We don’t know if she was on a deck of a ship walking around when the jostling of ship with the waves threw her overboard. We don’t know if she slipped and fell over the rail. We don’t know if she jumped in. We don’t know if she hit her head and that is why she is unconscious. What we do know though is that her body is dangling limp in the coast guardsman’s arms as they swing on that breeches buoy amidst those raging whitecaps. However she got into the water, she’s there swinging between death and the hope of life … she is now limp, cold, helpless, weak, and lifeless.
We’re reminded this morning of the reason for the predicament we find ourselves in. We all share in the first slip up made by Adam and Eve. With their plunge into the cold darkness of sin … they pass along to us their sin. With their plunge into the cold darkness of sin … they have brought on to all mankind the promise that Satan isn’t going to leave any of us alone until we are in his grasp. With Adam and Eve’s plunge into the cold darkness of sin … they brought upon themselves, all mankind, and all of creation the certain promise of death.
The cold darkness of sin which looms over us, it’s much like the waters in the painting. The waves of sin are too tall, the depths of them are far too deep, and they crash over us far too quickly. No matter how hard we try to stay afloat, no matter how hard we try to fight against them, no matter how hard we try to perfectly swim … the waves of sin are far too much for any of us. Sure, we may try to swim for a while … but it’s to no avail. We may try to breathe … but when we do we only swallow water. Our eyes sting with tears, our muscles fatigue. Light and life seem to only be a distant memory and in the end … we too will sink into death’s dark pit.
In that cold dark pit of sin … that is where Paul proclaims to you the presence of Jesus. Jesus is not faceless; he isn’t shrouded by concealment like the coast guardsman. Jesus is there. He pulls us out of sin, secures us in his arms, and our hope looms. “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe we will also live with him,” Paul says. We rise from the depths of death and return to the riches of life. You freely breathe and richly hope in the resurrection of all who die with Christ because of what he, not you, but because of what Jesus has accomplished for you.
If you have ever talked with someone who has had a near death experiences, you will hear them say how that moment has a way of reshaping one’s perspectives. It causes one to reorganize their priorities. Whatever led this young woman to fall into the water, I don’t imagine she would be quick to do it again. Her view of life and death and all the dangers they contain will probably affect her every step. She will be cautious to let herself fall again.
The same things should happen with those who have been rescued from the cold, dark, raging waters of sin. Jesus reaches in through those hostile waters of baptism from which our old sinful self is drowned and he pulls us out to live a new life in him. Paul says, “the one who has died has been set free from sin.” We know where sin leads. We know that place, we know that place all too well. But thanks be to God that Jesus knows that place too. Thanks be to God that as we drown in that place, Jesus is there to rescue us. Thanks be to God that Jesus continues to repeatedly pull us out of that place when we remember our baptism, when we remember we are children of God, when we remember to trust and have faith in Jesus as our Savior. Thanks be to God that Jesus is also there to carry us on into eternal life. Thanks be to God that Jesus is our life line. Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord, now and forever. Amen.