Baptism of the Lord
Scripture Reading: Isaiah 43:1-7
Israel’s Only Savior
43 But now, this is what the Lord says—
he who created you, Jacob,
he who formed you, Israel:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
3 For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior;
I give Egypt for your ransom,
Cush[a] and Seba in your stead.
4 Since you are precious and honored in my sight,
and because I love you,
I will give people in exchange for you,
nations in exchange for your life.
5 Do not be afraid, for I am with you;
I will bring your children from the east
and gather you from the west.
6 I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’
and to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’
Bring my sons from afar
and my daughters from the ends of the earth—
7 everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.”
- Isaiah 43:3 That is, the upper Nile region
Sermon: “Reasons for Living”
Since we were last together, things have changed. A little bit of snow fell. Christmas decorations came down, too. Children went back to school. Grown ups went back to work. We all coped with a dose of the post-holiday blues.
The biggest factor in the post-holiday blues is what psychologists call the contrast effect. We get amped up for the holidays starting in late summer or early fall. As Christmas decorations fill store shelves, the most organized among us start working on their Christmas shopping. Sometime between August and October, Christmas music fills the air and the airwaves.
These less exciting post-holiday weeks aren’t anything like any of that. The difference between the preholiday build up and the post-holiday business as usual world make us see the days after Christmas as far more depressing and boring than they really are. Our brains exaggerate the difference.
I think the contrast effect can kick in on the spiritual level, too. To understand the joy in today’s Scripture lesson, we have to understand the despair that came before it.
In 598 BCE, the crown prince of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar II, laid siege to Jerusalem. The city held out three months before surrendering. King Jehoiakim, most of the Judean court, and a good part of the country’s elite were all deported to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar appointed Jehoiakim’s brother, Zedekiah, to rule as a vassal king over Judah.
Zedekiah was foolish enough to rebel, so, in 587 or 586 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar and his armies came back to finish what they started.
They destroyed Jerusalem, captured Zedekiah, and executed all his sons in front of him before blinding him, so that his sons’ deaths would be the last thing Zedekiah ever saw.
The exiles lost their nation, their homes, their temple, their neighbors, and, quite often, all or most of their family. In the process, they also lost themselves.
For the next 150 years, their identity as Judeans was constantly under attack from Babylonian culture. And it’s there, I think, we can make our connection with them.
An avalanche of advertising threatens our identity as people of faith, telling us who we are depends on what we have. Here are a couple of classic examples of that.
What about it—truck or car? Which are you—Mac or PC? As the things we own threaten to own us, we also run the danger of forgetting who we are. This clip from The Lion Kingis about just that struggle.
The Lion King
“You have forgotten who you are, and so you have forgotten me.” Those could be God’s words to those long-ago exiles. Second Isaiah’s words come as a reminder and as a hope.
Don’t be afraid, for I’ve redeemed you;
I’ve called you by name; you’re mine.
When you pass through the seas, I’ll be with you;
when you pass over the rivers, you won’t drown.
Walk through fire, and you won’t be singed;
walk through flames, and you won’t be burned.
Notice that Isaiah doesn’t say there won’t be fire and flood. He does promise that we won’t face them alone, and they won’t overpower us. God reminds Judah, as God reminds us, of who we are—people, not of despair, but of hope, a hope we discover and celebrate together.
We learn whowe are Isaiah says, by remembering whosewe are.“Don’t be afraid, for I’ve redeemed you; I’ve called you by name; you’re mine.”
Sometimes I think we believe it’s better if God doesn’tcall us by name—and if nobody else does, either, for that matter. If no one knows our name, we don’t have to risk getting too close. We don’t have to get involved in other people’s messy lives. We don’t have to answer to anyone. No one has a claim on us.
We end up with only ourselves to rely on, only ourselves to trust. There comes a time for all of us when we sense the waters rising, and may even smell something burning. We convince ourselves we can handle it on our own, but the truth is we can’t.
Trusting in our own strength turns out to be condemning rather than freeing. Choosing to be alone means that when we pass through rivers, we drown. When we walk through fire, we burn. In our desperation, we’ll try anything to douse the flames.
This chart shows the rise in deaths related to suicide, alcoholism, and drug overdoses since 2008. These deaths of despair affect some parts of the country more than others, as this next map shows. The darker the shading, the higher the death rate.
What’s fueling this rising tide of death and despair? The opioid epidemic is the spark, but it landed on some very dry kindling.
- The manufacturing boom of the 70’s is long gone, and has left a rust belt in its wake, struggling to survive.
- Shareholder value now takes precedence over the well-being of workers and their families.
- The gap between rich and poor is wider than it’s ever been, squeezing out the middle class.
There’s more to this than just the changing economy, though.
- We spend hours staring into screens, rather than someone else’s eyes.
- Social networks connect us and make us feel alone all at the same time.
- We fill our calendars rather than our souls. We define ourselves by what we own, rather than who are.
- We seek the quick fix over the long-term solution, leaving a debt-ridden economy and a natural world in crisis for future generations to deal with.
Sometimes, the headlines suck joy and hope out of the air. Sometimes, all we hear the world telling us is that we aren’t good enough, smart enough, rich enough, handsome, or beautiful enough. But that’s not what God says.
Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:10)
Each one of you is a child of God because of your faith in Christ Jesus. All of you who have been baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or citizen, male or female. All are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:26-28)
I’m the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. (Isaiah 43:3a)
We see what kind of God and Savior we have in the gospel text for today, which tells the story of Jesus’ baptism. We have a God whose Son was born among us and baptized as one of us.
Jesus suffered the floods and fires that we go through and emerged victorious. His life, his death, and resurrection promise that even if we forget whowe are, even if we forget whosewe are, in Jesus Christ, Godstill knows us.
“I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”