January 7, 2007

Isaiah 43:1-7
Psalm 29, Refrain #1
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Reflection on the scripture texts of today’s lectionary readings, the immediate message that came to my mind was of God’s promise to be with us through all the challenges that lie ahead of us in our life and ministry. Just as God promised care and provision for the People of Israel, just as God declared love for Jesus, his son, so God loves and cares for us, the Church, as we seek to follow Jesus and continue his ministry in the world.

Since I am a musician, and a long-time church choir member, when I hear a scripture text, it is often a scripture song or hymn or anthem that comes to mind. When I read Isaiah 43 earlier this week, the song that came to mind was the one our choir sang today…

sing: You shall cross the barren desert, but you shall not die of thirst.
You shall wander far in safety though you do not know the way.
You shall speak your words in foreign lands and all will understand.
You shall see the face of God and live.

The first time I heard that song, it was at the ordination of a friend to the Roman Catholic priesthood. I remember thinking about all the challenges that would be ahead of him as he worked to fulfil his calling, and as we sang “Be not afraid” there was an assurance from God to be with him and help him through his years of ministry.

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

When it was time for my ordination a few years later, I asked the choir at my church to sing the same song. I knew that I would need that assurance as well.

Before and since then, the song has been sung many times in many churches. It has encouraged Christian students beginning a new year. It has inspired missionaries being sent out on new projects. It has upheld grieving families who needed God’s help and courage to go on with life.

Today, the text from Isaiah and the song meet us in yet another time and place and circumstance. We are at the beginning of a new year, thinking about all the joys and challenges that this next year may bring. And here at St. Andrew’s, we are in a time of transition, a time of decision-making, a time of wondering about the future, thinking, praying, and asking God to help us to find a vision of our future as a congregation.

The promise of God in Isaiah 43 is that God will lead God’s people through waters and rivers, and they will not be overwhelmed. They will pass through fire and flame, and they will not be burned. The prophet reminds us that God is the one who created and formed us, and we are precious in God’s sight. He tells us that we are called by God’s name, created for God’s glory, and God has plans for us.

Unfortunately, God doesn’t always spell out for us the details of those plans. There are questions that we need to sort through together, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to figure out… what programs to offer, what staff to call, which ministries to focus on in Christian education, evangelism, outreach, pastoral care, and mission. As we think and pray together as a community, we trust that those details will become clear so that we can move forward together.

But there’s a little more to this text from Isaiah than just God’s promise to be with God’s people through challenges and trials. You notice it if you look back to the previous chapter in which Israel has been disobedient to God. And you notice it if you start thinking about those images of water and rivers, fire and flame.

As always, God’s people have been disobedient. They have turned away from God, neglected justice, and lived for themselves. It’s the repeated description of Israel throughout the Old Testament, and the same trouble that all people have when we try to live in relationship with God. We mess up. We choose to love ourselves more than we love our neighbours. We choose to go our own ways instead of living God’s ways.

The thing is, God hasn’t just let all that slide. God hasn’t said to us, “Oh, I know you people can’t handle being good, so I’m just going to change my standards. You don’t need to love each other anymore.” No, God has judged Israel, and found them guilty. God has judged us, and seen every flaw, every self-centred, hurtful, destructive and uncaring thought and word and action. That’s why John appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins… because God loves us, and God wants our lives to actually change.

But change is not easy, either for us as individuals or for us as a church. Change is work. Change hurts. And change can be scary.

Think of the parent whose habit is to insult and hit when his child disobeys. Think of the child who goes into a temper tantrum when she doesn’t get her way. Think of the friend who cuts off contact and won’t answer the phone when he feels betrayed. Those patterns of behaviour, and so many others, are hard to change, even when we know that what we’re doing is wrong — even when we know there’s a better way.

Think of the things you know you should be doing with your money. Think of the things you know you should be doing with your time and your talent. Think of the people in your life that you have hurt over and over, because of jealousy, because of pride, because of insecurity. Change is hard, even when we know the ways in which we ought to change.

But God promises not only to be with us through the challenges that life throws at us, but also through the transformation of our lives. When we pass through the waters of baptismal repentance, when we go through the rivers of cleansing our lives, washing away our past sins and failures, reconciling relationships, beginning afresh, God will be with us. God will not let us be overwhelmed.

When we walk through the fire that burns away the chaff of our lives, when we go through the flame that purifies our hearts, being transformed, finding new ways of being and living in the world, we will not be burned. We will not be consumed.

God called Israel, and God calls us to repentance… to turn, to change, to be transformed. God’s promise is that the process will not kill us — even though it may well be difficult and challenging. It will only strengthen us to live out our calling in Christ.

Let us trust in God’s power and God’s love, as we move forward into this new year, into this new stage of our ministry together. Let us journey forward with confidence and courage into all of God’s plans for us as individuals and as a congregation of God’s church.

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