January 9, 2022

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

“Still With Us”

Seven months ago, I preached on the same texts that appear in the lectionary for today – Isaiah 43 and Luke 3. They were the texts that I chose for the opening worship of the online General Assembly of The Presbyterian Church in Canada as I finished my term as Moderator.

On that Sunday at the beginning of June, I sat alone in our sanctuary here at First Church in front of my laptop computer, and preached to Presbyterians across the country as we began the important meeting in the strange and new context of an online forum.

Normally, General Assemblies begin with the celebration of Holy Communion together. And as we gather around the Lord’s Table, we remember that Christ is present with us – the host at the meal. We are united with one another and with Christ through the shared Sacrament, and nourished for the days ahead of meeting, deliberating, and deciding with the assurance of the Spirit’s presence and help.

But since we couldn’t do that, we remembered our Baptisms instead. Reading one of the accounts of Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan River, we could almost see that Holy Spirit coming down from the sky to rest on Jesus. We could almost hear the voice of God over the waters assuring him, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

I poured and splashed water here in our sanctuary, and invited us each to remember that in Baptism we were named and claimed by God too – cleansed of our sin, welcomed into the family of God, blessed with the gift of the Holy Spirit, and empowered together as the church to be Christ’s ongoing presence in the world.

And here we are again, seven months later. I’m here in the church with just a few others, and you are all at home – staying safe from the rapidly spreading Omicron variant of Covid-19. We were planning to celebrate Holy Communion today too, but instead let us remember our Baptisms and be assured once again that God is still with us.

In our mid-week Bible study on Wednesday, a hand full of church folk gathered on Zoom to read and discuss today’s passage from Isaiah 43. It was the same passage that I had spent so much time with last Spring as I prepared for the General Assembly. But as always, our conversation opened my eyes to notice some new things.

But first, let me tell you a little about the context of the passage. It’s the Sixth Century BCE, and the Prophet Isaiah is writing to the People of Israel who are in Exile in Babylon. They’ve been struggling there for a couple of generations already, since the Babylonian Empire conquered their land and carried many of them away.

They are weary. They are despairing. They are beginning to think that God has completely abandoned them. The contemporary word we have begun to use during the Pandemic that would best describe the people in Exile might be “languishing.”

When I think of the Exiles, a little song from our hymn book based on Psalm 137 comes to mind. It expresses very well the feelings they might have had:
By the waters, the waters of Babylon,
we sat down and wept, and wept for you, Zion.
We remember, we remember, we remember Zion.

But now comes the prophet’s message of hope from God for the Exiles in today’s passage. You see, the even more powerful Persian Empire, first under King Cyrus and then others, is conquering many nations. The Persians are taking over Babylon, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Seba. And as a result, in 539 BCE, the Jews in exile in Babylon are allowed to return to their homeland.

For Isaiah, what was happening with the empires was evidence of the saving power of God on behalf of Israel, who was willing to “give Egypt as [their] ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for [them]… and [other] nations in exchange for [their lives].”

One of our members noticed that offer of a ransom. She thought of a kidnapping, and a ransom being offered to get the child back. That’s something that only happens with someone who is very important, very special, and very much loved. Paying a ransom is not something you do for someone you don’t care about. Paying a ransom, especially a big one, shows that the person is deeply loved.

And I think that is the message that Isaiah wanted to get across to the Exiles. No, you’re not abandoned. You’ve made all kinds of mistakes and done wrong things. You’ve turned away from God again and again, but God still loves you. God would do anything for you. God is still with you.

But I get hung up on the idea of a ransom or an exchange, because the suggestion seems to be that God cares about some people more than others. I think that’s the most difficult part of this text. It’s the part that I didn’t really address the last time I preached on it – the fact that the prophet is suggesting that God was willing to sacrifice other people in order to save and protect one group that was particularly precious and close to God’s heart.

The danger of this text is that some of us might read it and put ourselves in the place of the beloved People of God to the exclusion of others. We ask God to keep us safe and warm in our homes, while others put themselves at risk in public service or struggle with poverty and need. We give thanks for God’s provision of vaccines, booster shots, and rapid tests for our communities, while showing little concern for the many people of the world who cannot access these life-saving measures. We pray for God to protect us from getting sick, while the reality is that many people will get sick because viruses spread, and Omicron is particularly good at getting around.

But if we read carefully, we will notice that the good news that the prophet is bringing to the Exiles is not a removal of their every trouble or hardship. God’s promise is to be WITH God’s precious people as they go through the challenges and difficulties of life.

“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…
Because you are precious in my sight,
and honoured, and I love you…
Do not fear, for I am with you.”

Most of you, as people of faith, already know that God does not favour certain people and wipe away all their troubles. Receiving the blessing of God does not protect you from illness, sorrow, or grief. Following Jesus and knowing the presence of the Holy Spirit in your life does not shield you from the struggles of life.

What it does do is provide you with the assurance that you are not alone. The God who created you and formed you will be with you through every hill and valley, through every storm or drought. You are precious. You are loved. You belong to God.

And that message is not just for you who are faithful, not just for Christians, not just for people of faith. Not only are we invited to know our belovedness and the presence of our Creator through the challenges of daily life, but the prophet tells us that God is gathering all God’s precious people.

Towards the end of the passage, we read that God is gathering all God’s children, everyone that God created and formed. God is going to the north and the south, to the east and the west. God is reaching out to far away places and to the ends of the earth to gather us all back into God’s fold.

It reminds me of that invitation that we often hear as we gather around the Communion Table – the vision of all God’s diverse people together in the Kingdom of God. And it reminds me of my Baptism – that day on which I heard God’s voice in my heart saying just to me, “You are my Child, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

I knew I was special on that day, but I soon learned that I was also joining a big family in which I would have many, many precious siblings. And the fact that my siblings are loved too does not reduce God’s care and concern for me.

Friends, remember today that you also belong to this family of God. Remember your Baptism, and give thanks that God is still with you by the power of the Holy Spirit. In the weeks ahead, as Omicron makes its way through our province, and no matter what happens next… whether we are together in the church or staying home, working or isolating, enduring challenges or helping others, God will be with us.