Sabbath Day Thoughts — Isaiah 43:1-7
Curt lost his job on the assembly line, not long before the pandemic. His employer made a big investment in new technology, and Curt’s work went robotic. He found a new job, no problem, but it pays less, and the benefits aren’t as good. Curt has a good ten years until retirement, so he now has a second part-time job to help with bills. Curt always saw himself as a company man, but now he’s not sure who he is.
Monica was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. She’s a busy single parent with a full-time job and kids in middle school. She has surgery ahead, followed by chemo and radiation. Thankfully, her aging parents are on-hand to help out. Monica puts on a brave face, but when she is alone, she is filled with fear and doubt. Some days, it’s overwhelming.
George and Katherine met in their senior year of high school. George says it was love at first sight. Katherine said he wore her down. They married when they were only twenty. Over the years, they dreamed about one day being snowbirds, buying a little retirement place in Florida or Arizona. But then Katherine got COVID, early in the pandemic. George couldn’t even be with her when she died. Now George feels like his dreams died along with Katherine. The future feels uncertain, lonely, and scary.
We all have times when life serves up a double-helping of unwanted change, crisis, or tragedy. The proverbial rug is pulled out from under our feet. We wonder who we are now, how we will cope, and what the future will bring. We grieve and lament. We question and worry. We fear and doubt. We wrestle with big existential questions. We wonder, “Where are you God?” “Don’t you love me?” “How can I possibly go on?”
The people of Israel were well-versed in unwanted change, crisis, and tragedy. They were a conquered nation, living in exile in Babylon. They had seen the defeat of their army. They had watched as their city walls were breached. They had witnessed their fields and homes being burned. They had watched helplessly as their Temple was destroyed. They had endured the countless unspeakable tragedies that always accompany war, the things that no one wants to talk about or remember.
Cut off from the land that they had loved, exiled from a way of life that had brought them meaning and purpose, mourning untold death and destruction, the Israelites asked themselves big questions. Who are we? How can we cope? Do we have a future? Beneath those big questions were sacred and existential queries that kept them up at night, questions that we know well. Where is God? Does God love us? Can we be redeemed?
Our reading from the Prophet Isaiah allows us to listen in on a holy and intimate conversation. God almighty speaks to the people of Israel. God speaks to those exiles who feel they are going down for the third time amid a raging flood, who fear they are being consumed by unquenchable fires. God speaks words of promise and consolation, saying “I have redeemed you. I know you. You are mine. I will be with you. You are precious in my sight.” Those holy promises must have sounded to the exiles like water in the desert, a lifeline amid the raging seas, a healing balm for the gaping wounds of hardship and loss.
Scripture tells us that God kept those promises. God raised up King Cyrus of Persia. His armies toppled mighty Babylon. Then, Cyrus did the unthinkable. He set the people of Israel free and gave them the resources to go home and rebuild. From the north and the south, from the east and the west, God called the people home to the land that they loved. They endured 500 miles of desert heat. They forded the waters of the Jordan. They returned. Ruined homes were rebuilt. Fields choked with weeds and brambles were cleared. Neglected orchards were pruned and became fruitful. City walls rose again.
It wasn’t easy. It took time. It was hard work. But the people knew who they were and whose they were. They were precious and beloved children of the one true God. They found hope in the promises. They trusted that God was with them in all their hardship and heartache. One day, the people gathered to worship in the shadow of a new Temple and wept with gratitude and humility for all that God had done for them.
On Baptism of the Lord Sunday, we remember the promises of God. We remember the promises made long ago to those lonely and hurting exiles. We remember the promises of Jesus’ baptism. As our Lord emerged from the Rover Jordan, a voice from the heavens thundered, “This is my Beloved Son. I find in him my delight.”
Today we trust that those promises belong to us. The promises belong to those who were sprinkled as infants in the care of parents and congregation. The promises belong to those baptized as adolescents, who claimed Jesus as our Lord and savior as we were confirmed. The promises belong to those who came later to the fount of every blessing, who came to faith as adults and laid claim to their belonging and redemption. The promises belong to each of us.
If we listen with the ear of our heart, today our biggest questions find an answer. God says, “I have redeemed you. I know you. You are mine. I love you. You are precious in my sight.” God’s promises are for us, my friends. Can you hear it?
When we live with the assurance that we are welcomed, loved, and will never be alone, we find the wherewithal to stand amid the flood and come through the fiery trial. It isn’t easy. It doesn’t feel good. It takes time. It’s hard work. Somehow, like Curt, we are able to endure hard times at work. Like Monica, we find strength for those challenges to our health. Like George, we discover comfort in the midst of grief and unspeakable loss. We trust that there is redemption for us, even when we are exiled and cut off from our better selves.
We return today to the waters where it all began. We lay claim to those holy promises, and we find what is needed. We remember who we are and to whom we belong. Amid our worry and big questions, despite our fear and uncertainty, through the grief and anguish, hope is found and a way is made. We are precious in God’s sight, beloved sons and daughters of an infinite and intimate God.
Kathleen M. O’Connor. “Exegetical Perspective on Isaiah 43:1-7” in Feasting on the Word, year C, vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
Valerie Bridgeman Davis. “Homiletical Perspective on Isaiah 43:1-7” in Feasting on the Word, year C, vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
PCUSA Office of Theology and Worship. “Baptism of the Lord” in Book of Common Worship. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018.
But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
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.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
nations in exchange for your life.
Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, “Give them up,”
and to the south, “Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth—
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.”