January 10, 2016

Isaiah 43:1-7
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

“Be Not Afraid”

Be not afraid. I go before you always.
Come, follow me, and I will give you rest.

I can’t remember when I first heard that song based on this morning’s passage from the prophet Isaiah, but I remember that I was moved and encouraged both by the words and the melody. In the midst of the challenges of life, whatever has the power to make us afraid, the prophet assures us that God goes before us.

Through the words of the prophet Isaiah, God says to us, “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.”

Perhaps you can remember a time when you were afraid. I am thinking of the day many years ago that I discovered a small lump in my breast. I am remembering the time of waiting and worrying before I got the results of the ultrasound. Maybe you are thinking of a similar experience, when your life was in danger or you thought it might be. Maybe you are remembering a time when someone you loved was in trouble, when you feared for their safety, when you were afraid of losing them.

Sometimes I think that the scariest thing about these experiences is the lack of control. I’m someone who likes to be in the driver’s seat — directing the car, being responsible for my own safe arrival. But sometimes in life, we get into situations in which there is nothing that we can do. Just wait. Just pray. And try not to be overwhelmed by fear.

In those times, Isaiah’s words can bring us some comfort. We are not alone in our struggle. The assurance of the Lord is that we belong to God. God created us, and formed us, and we are God’s children. God will no more leave us than a mother will abandon her babies.

And you know how it is with mothers…. It doesn’t matter how old her children get, or how often they have let her down, they will always be her babies. She will always be there to help them through, to be with them through whatever challenges they must face.

Be not afraid. I go before you always.
Come, follow me, and I will give you rest.

Today’s passage from Isaiah 43 includes some inspiring and encouraging words, and they may help us when the circumstances of life throw us curve balls in the form of illness, accident, grief, or loss. But in order to understand this passage and its implications for our lives more fully, we need to look at what was happening to the People of Israel and the magnitude of the good news that the prophet was bringing. And for that, it helps to read the surrounding chapters.

Beginning at chapter 40, it becomes clear that Isaiah is expressing God’s words to the people of Israel near the end of their exile in Babylon. Over and over, the Lord is calling the people to return to Judah and Jerusalem. “You are my children, and I am forgiving you,” God assures them, “I want you to come home to the place where you belong. And through the Edict of Cyrus, emperor of the Persian Empire and current king of Babylon, I am giving you the freedom to leave Babylon.”

It’s not that the people have corrected their errors, or that they’ve been any more faithful to God than in generations past. God continues to be frustrated with their worship of idols — of money, of carved wood, of things made by human hands. And yet, these people are God’s own children, chosen and beloved, and God pleads (through the prophet’s voice) for them to come home.

One might wonder why the people of Israel were not more anxious to get home to Jerusalem. Why does the prophet need to work so hard to convince them? But we must remember that a lot of time has passed since the leaders and highly educated people of Israel were exiled to Babylon between 598 and 582 BCE. And although the exile seemed like a hardship at first, it wasn’t a completely terrible living situation.

It appears that the Babylonians allowed exiles to own land and gave them much freedom. They could continue to worship, to participate in trade, to remain in tribal groups with their leaders, and to serve on royal projects and in the military forces. Based on what we read about the exilic community in scripture, it seems to have been well organized, able to enjoy the benefits of Babylonian life, and free to maintain its own religious life and worship.

And now it’s 50 or 60 years later, and the prophet is proclaiming that God wants the people to return to Jerusalem. Most of the older generation has died by now. Those who remain have heard the stories of Jerusalem, but this generation is comfortable, settled, and well off… living in a fertile and cultured country. They are safe. They have freedom. And many have obtained wealth and status.

The question is, how do you get a group of people to move who are comfortable and settled in a land? Their children have been born in Babylon, but you want them to move back to a wreck of a city (Jerusalem) that has been taken over by people from the surrounding countries. You want to transport them back to a rocky and barren landscape where there are no immediate opportunities for making a living.

No wonder it takes the prophet sixteen chapters of convincing! Who would want to leave Babylon to go back to Jerusalem, to the ruined city, to the huge task of rebuilding the temple, to the uncertainty and challenge that such a decision would entail?

Be not afraid. I go before you always.
Come, follow me, and I will give you rest.

The people of Israel in Babylon were well aware that God had helped their people through many challenges in the past. The story of the exodus from slavery in Egypt pretty much defined their identity as the people of God. And as the prophet tried to convince them that they needed to return to Jerusalem, they would have been reminded of that identity. They could hardly miss the imagery of “passing through the waters” recalling how God parted the sea to let their people escape.

When the prophet said, “I give Egypt as your ransom,” they could hardly deny the fact that God had done it already. And then Isaiah has God saying, “I am the Lord your God,” and these Jewish people would have remembered that this was the first line of the covenant at Sinai, when God said, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”

One commentator points out that these people in Babylon are being asked to undergo a second exodus event. They are being asked to pick up their lives and go, with the assurance that God will be with them to help them through, just like the first time.

But there’s something different about this exodus. It’s not out of slavery, through the wilderness, and into the promised land. Instead, it’s from relative prosperity into risk, uncertainty, and undoubted hardship.

The only promise is that God will be as faithful as God was during the first exodus. They may have to go through water and fire, but God will be there — guiding and leading — just as God was on the journey from Egypt into the promised land.

Be not afraid. I go before you always.
Come, follow me, and I will give you rest.

I think the lectionary has made an interesting choice in pairing this text from Isaiah with the story of Jesus’ baptism in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus goes through the waters of baptism, and the Spirit is poured out on him in power.

Those of us who know the challenges that lay ahead for Jesus in his life and ministry recognize that his baptism was so very important. Jesus needed the very presence of God within him to make it through the tiring work, the constant demands, the frequent debates with the authorities, and eventually the rejection and torture and death that he endured.

But there, at the beginning of it all, he stood up to his knees in mud and water, and he heard God’s voice so clearly: “You are my son, the beloved, I am pleased with you.”

Doesn’t it sound just like God’s message to the exiles? “I have called you by name. You are mine. I love you.”

I wonder how many of those exiles stayed put — comfortable in their lives — pleased, perhaps, that they did belong to God. But I’m sure glad that Jesus didn’t stay put — that he went out with the Spirit’s power to teach, and to heal, and to challenge the status quo. What a different story we would have to tell if Jesus had simply enjoyed his status as God’s beloved son and done nothing in response!

You’ve probably figured out where I’m going with this by now. The good news for us is not only that God loves us. It’s not only that we belong to God and that God is with us through our challenges. The good news is that God is calling us to follow the way of Jesus — to go where God is sending us, to take risks, to try new things, to face challenges that may seem beyond us at first.

Things like caring for the sick or the dying. Things like helping the poor, and changing the system so they don’t stay poor. Things like digging a little deeper to help welcome refugees into our community. Things like taking care of our planet, preserving God’s creation for the coming generations. Things like sharing our faith with our children, with our friends, with our co-workers.

This morning, three of our church members are marking the beginning of a new and challenging part of their journeys of faith and service to Jesus Christ. Like Jesus, each of them have been baptized and received the gift of the Holy Spirit. They know that they are deeply loved and treasured by God, and they have experienced God’s presence and help through the challenges of life.

And like Jesus, each of these women have been sent on a mission – a mission to follow Jesus as disciples, a mission to serve God in and through the church… in Christian Education and Ministry with Children and Youth, in Prayer, Outreach and Native Ministry, in Service and Hospitality in the church, and beyond it in the wider community.

But today they begin a new part of their journey as they respond to the call to serve as Ruling Elders on the Session of St. Andrew’s.

Rose, Martha, and Sharon, today I want to invite you to think of your service as elders as part of your joyful and committed response to the good news that you belong to God. You are equipped for this ministry because of the Holy Spirit that you have received as a gift, the Spirit that has blessed you with gifts of leadership, wisdom, and discernment to share.

The rest of us are invited today to surround these new elders with our prayers, and to support them in the Christian ministry that we share together as a congregation, and together with all Christians and Churches as the Body of Christ in the world today.

We give thanks and praise to God who gives us the gift of the Spirit, and promises that when we go out to risk and to serve in Jesus’ name, that we will never go alone.

Be not afraid. I go before you always.
Come, follow me, and I will give you rest.