Isaiah 43:1-7. The Sermon begins at 9’20”.
Look for your name in the word cloud! We tried to include the church family as best we could. This is a visual way to show that you are important to your family in Christ, and a reminder that your name is precious to God.
When you think about being precious to God, think of value, think of uniqueness, think about God being overwhelmingly interested in, concerned about, even willing to pay any price for, YOU. That can be an inspiration. Me? Me, who sometimes questions God? Me, who sometimes forgets about God entirely? Me, who sometimes feels I’ve got it all covered. Me, who feels like I have to constantly be asking forgiveness? God is that interested in ME?The people of Israel must have felt the same way. They knew that to be precious was not just being an object of affection. To be precious was life over death. In 1 Samuel, when David spares Saul’s life instead of killing him, Saul says, “my life was precious in your eyes today.” The people of Israel must have been surprised to hear that they were precious in God’s eyes, that God knows them by name. Anyone paying close attention to the prophet’s words had just been lambasted for messing up royally, for reneging on his covenant promises to stick with God, and her ears would have been ringing with a tongue lashing from God through Isaiah in the previous chapter. And suddenly, there appears this poem of comfort. These words would have fallen like a soft blanket around their shoulders, wrapping the people of Israel in words of hope and encouragement despite their difficult place in the world.
Isaiah starts his poem off with, BUT NOW. Yes, Israel has messed up. Yes, they did not obey the Lord’s law. Yes, God sent Israel into exile in Babylon as punishment. Yes, they are living between a rock and a hard place in a foreign land. BUT NOW, now hear these words of comfort, says Isaiah. This is what God says to God’s people who are stuck: No matter how bad things look, no matter how bad things really are, do not fear, I am with you, says the Lord. When it seems like you are drowning in debt or grief or despair, do not fear, I am with you. When it seems like the water is rising and you are getting really tired of treading water, do not fear, I will be there. When it seems like the fires of controversy or conflict or discouragement are licking at your feet, do not fear, I will keep you safe. It is important to see that God never says those kinds of dangers and difficulties are going to disappear. The promise instead is, WHEN they come, I will be there. It is also important to acknowledge that this is a poem, not a legally binding document signed by God and the people. We all know that there are people who get swept away by the waters either physically or metaphorically. There are people all around us who have been burned by the fires of life. The promise is still: I will be there.
And why? Why can the people of Israel count on not being abandoned by God? Because God is the holy one of Israel, their Savior. Because they are precious to God, because God knows their names, because God has called them, chosen them, and because God loves them so much that God will do anything to redeem them, to buy them back from slavery, to free them for a return home. Even to the extent of using other world leaders to overcome the Babylonian empire so that Israel can be freed to go home. God works out a deal to make it possible for Israel to go home. Remember, God is the God of all the nations. Amazingly, God works behind the scenes of the world political stage to free this beleaguered, broken group of men and women. I like the words of theologian and scholar Claus Westermann as he describes them: “A tiny, miserable and insignificant band of uprooted men and women are assured that they—precisely they—are the people to whom God has turned in love; they just as they are, are dear and precious in his sight.” This is Isaiah’s good news of comfort for them and for all of God’s people throughout history.
Surely today we need the reminder that God still works in the world, that even as bad as things look in the halls of our government, along the border with Mexico, in Cameroon, in Myanmar, in Puerto Rico, in Baltimore, the same words are spoken, falling like a soft blanket around us: I know your name. I have called you and redeemed you. You are valuable and precious to me. Do not be afraid. God turns toward God’s people. The people of Israel needed a reminder because they could not see it at the moment. Life was pretty bleak. There was no way they could redeem themselves. They were stuck under foreign control. They needed God to redeem them, to pull them out of exile. And we too need reminders again and again. We are precious in God’s eyes. God calls us by name. That is who we are: GOD’S. And that should make a difference in the way we live, in the way we look at the world, in the way we look at ourselves. Daily. Hourly. Every minute.
Listen to this story shared by a pastor in Virginia: a youth choir was learning an anthem with these words from Isaiah 43, which we read this morning. They found out that a member of their choir was in a serious car accident and was not expected to live. The young people went to the hospital to be with their fellow choir member, gathered around the bed, and sang through their tears: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned.” They were walking through the waters. They were engulfed with grief and pain. Yet, despite all evidence to the contrary, the Lord God is above all other powers, continuing to offer hope, encouragement, healing and love.
There are times when we are not so sure about the presence of God. Times when we wonder where God is anyway, times when we are unclear as to what the Spirit is doing, times when we feel as if we are on our own, abandoned by God. Some people call those the winter times. The dry times. The empty times. Or, as one of my favorite seminary professors, Wellford Hobbie, used to call it in his prayers at the start of class: “the dark night of the soul”.
It is in those times that we especially need to be reminded of the good news of comfort from the prophet. We need that soft warm blanket. The pronouns in this poem are second person singular. It is like we are listening in on a personal conversation between God and individual members of the people of God. It is like God is addressing each one of us individually, calling us by name. I have called you by name. You are mine. Do not fear.
I invite you to imagine for a bit about what your name sounds like when God’s voice calls it. Is it your given name, your whole name, your middle name, your nick name, your private name that only a few people use for you? Some of us only have heard our whole name when we were in trouble. But might God use your whole name out of great love and respect for who you are? Is your name spoken with love, with joy, with confidence, with hope? And when God calls you by name, how do you answer? What do you do or say or think or sing in response? Does your heart beat faster with excitement or slower with calmness when you hear God call you by name? Perhaps you can take some time to reflect on these things in the week ahead. While you are doing the dishes or driving the car. While you are exercising or sitting quietly in your prayer corner. Wherever you are, you belong to God. Whatever you are doing, you belong to God. Whatever is swirling around you, you belong to God. Do not fear. You are precious in God’s eyes. Amen.
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