Sunday, January 10, 2016
1But 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.
2When 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.
3For 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.
4Because 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.
5Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you;
6I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons and daughters from the end of the earth -
7Everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear the threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.
Some passages are difficult to preach because they’re confusing and need tons of explanation to figure out what going on in the text.
Our Isaiah passage this morning has the opposite problem.
This passage is difficult to preach because it says it all. This promise of hope is so profound that poetic turns of phrase and studied exegesis can only stand in the way of the gift of this passage. It resists definitive explanation. The power of this passage is the way it intersects with our lives. Those intersection allow us to read the world through this text, like a pair of glasses that help us see God’s world more clearly.
Our vision is often clouded by the soot and mud we pass through, all the mess that we imperfect humans make when we create new problems in the process of solving old ones. We see ourselves as the good guys, and therefore everyone who is against us are the bad guys. We survey the problems of the world and announce that if “I” was in charge, everything would be different, and all the problems would melt away. We jump on power fantasies that tell us that we don’t have to answer to anyone because we have lifted ourselves up.
Or we face the other way, and are overwhelmed by all the problems that are beyond our control. We drop into despair because the burdens of our lives are too great to bear. We run from any potential struggle, because we are already overwhelmed, and one more thing might end us forever.
The twin idols of power and helplessness stand in the same place, and block us from seeing the world beyond the water and the fire.
“But now thus says the LORD”
I don’t know why Isaiah begins this prophetic poem with a contrasting conjunction, “but.” I suspect Isaiah is watching the same patterns of behavior roll past that we are. He sees the pettiness that lives in me, and you, and in his own community. Into the noise of all that muddied existence, he has been given the Word of the LORD so that he can remind us who we are, and whose we are.
“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.”
We belong to the God who created everything that exists, the all-powerful ruler of the universe who spins the whirling planets and keeps the stars in their courses. We belong to the infinite God who is beyond our capacity to understand. Yet for all that grandeur, God calls us by name, intimately, lovingly.
I heard a story a couple of years ago. A family ended in divorce, husband and wife went their separate ways, and cut off from one another completely. The husband didn’t hear from his kids for over a decade. An ocean of history separated them. One day, the man’s daughter reached out to him, wanting to come for a visit. They got together, and the daughter stayed long enough for a major family event.
The day of the event came, and the stern matriarch, who was known to have no sense of humor, entered and was seated. The daughter approached her grandmother’s unsmiling chair, and began to introduce herself after the twenty-year absence. The matriarch stopped her mid-introduction:
“Child, I’d have known you in a crowd that looked just like you. You’re my granddaughter.”
“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.”
Our identity is sure, and none of the soot or the mud that obscures our vision from time to time can erase our relationship with the God who claims us.
“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.”
These words of assurance are some of the most comforting in scripture, and extend all the way to the beginning of verse five. I think it’s important to note that our special relationship with the LORD does not mean that we are exempt from passing through water and fire. The people of God will always face challenges. But we know that the rivers will not overwhelm us. We know that the flame will not consume us. Doesn’t mean it won’t be unpleasant, but it does mean that we are not lost in the soot and the mud. God is still with us, even in the painful parts of our lives. “For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
But even more than that, God is ransoming us back from the things we let separate us from God.“I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.” Now that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care about Egypt, or Ethiopia, or Seba. They were the superpowers of Isaiah’s day, and God is speaking to a very particular people. This is Israel in exile, all but destroyed, barely surviving in the wake catastrophe. The water and fire are more than imagery to them, they are memories of burning homes and flooded farmlands. To this people, Isaiah promises a future beyond imagination, where they are seen as worth more than powerful empires and vast economies. “… Isaiah’s poem is a vision of re-creation. It tells of ‘new things’ God is doing for an enslaved despairing people left for dead at the hand of their conquerors.”
God is redeeming these people for a very simple reason, even though it defies understanding. “Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” Nothing about deserving, nothing about worthiness. Just the love of a grandmother for her granddaughter. Just the grace of God for his adopted family. This is a promise that not matter what rivers we are passing through, no matter what flames threaten us, we can still keep the faith. “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 and 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.’”
The world will be made right again. The family will be made whole again. We are passing through water and fire to get there, but God goes with us to bring us all home again. We are not consumed by the water or fire, we are not overwhelmed by the rivers or flames. We are claimed through them. Isaiah is not the only prophet whose words we read today. “John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear the threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’”
The chaotic instruments of water and fire are signs of the presence of the Holy Spirit, and John promises that they too are on their way, as the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled before our imperfect vision.
This passage has long been misused to tell folks that some go to heaven and others go to hell. On the surface that looks good, you’ve got a sorting and you’ve got unquenchable fire. But that ignores the relationship between wheat and chaff. For folks who have as much experience with harvesting grain as I do (being none), the chaff is a protective husk over the fruitful wheat. It keeps it from being scorched by the sun or ruined by the rain. But it’s also not very useful for food. John is promising that all the empty husks we use to protect ourselves will be cast off, because we will not need them anymore. We will not need the power fantasies that tell us we are our own masters, for we will know who our true master is. We will not need the despairing helplessness to hold back our grief, because the source of our help is already gathering us in.
This promise finds its fullness in Christ, to whom John has knowingly been pointing. Christ’s baptism joins him in the continuing saga of humanity’s repentance and renewal. There’s not much fanfare for Luke’s account, not confrontation about John’s worthiness like there are in other gospels. Jesus joins the crowds in baptism, but passing through that water anoints him for the work that lays ahead. “[Jesus] quietly withdraws in prayer, and then all heaven breaks loose… The baptism may have been routine, but the aftermath surely was not.”
We join the crowds in seeing the dove, we join the people in hearing the voice from heaven, and then we are left wondering where this Jesus, the anointed one of God, is leading us next. In Jesus, God has joined the human condition. In Christ’s baptism, Jesus has joined our story. We are passing through water, and rivers, and fire, and flame even now. In our baptism, we have also joined in Christ’s story, a story of flames that do not consume, rivers that do not overwhelm.
Most importantly, a grave that does not remain closed.