Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 13, 2019
Isaiah 43:1-7 Commentary
On this second Sunday in the Epiphany season, the church focuses on the Baptism of Jesus, arguably one of the greatest manifestations of his glory. This Old Testament reading was undoubtedly chosen because of its baptismal echoes of passing through the waters and being called by name. In the same way that Isaiah 60 anticipated Matthew 2 last week, Isaiah 43 reads like an early script of Luke 3 (and the other synoptic accounts of Jesus’ baptism). Indeed, like Isaiah 60, Isaiah 43 helps us celebrate the Gospel of Jesus in deeper ways.
We see that immediately in the first two words of Isaiah 43, those gospel saturated words, “But now.” Isaiah 42 has ended with a solemn reminder of Israel’s sinful history and God’s angry response. “So he poured out on them his burning anger, the violence of war. It enveloped them in flames, yet they did not understand; it consumed them, but they did not take it to heart.” Indeed, they didn’t. As they sat in exile, Israel did not understand what had happened to them, or why. So, they did not amend their ways. They simply sat in silence, unable to sing the Lord’s songs in a foreign land. And there was no word from the Lord—just silence, dead silence.
That’s what Isaiah 43:1 is addressing with these prophetic words, “But now, this is what the Lord says….” That’s good news; God is speaking again. What will God say to his sinful, sin blasted people? Will it be another word of judgment to a people seemingly abandoned by their God? Or will it be a word of salvation? The words “but now” point to the latter.
Isaiah has many comforting words for people ruined by sin, but the one word that stands out for me is the word, mine—“you are mine.” You might think that I have rejected you forever because you have been there in exile a long time. (Most scholars think that these words from God are addressed to Israel toward the end of the Exile, just before anyone went back home.) Having lost everything in the war that displaced you, you might have concluded that you have been cut loose forever, that you are condemned to be orphans the rest of your life. But now, the Lord says, “you are mine.”
Sometimes the word “mine” is spoken in selfish possessiveness, as when little children battle over a toy or, worse, when nations struggle for resources or territory. Many a war has been started by a bellicose “mine.” But the word is also used in loving relationships to indicate a special bond. That’s how God used it at Jesus’ baptism. “This is my Son in whom I am well pleased.” That is the sense here. After all your sin against me, says the Lord, and even after I have punished you so severely that you thought I had abandoned you, you are still “mine.”
This will be the most tender preaching point in this text, because you will be talking to many people who feel abandoned. The sufferings of life will have made many people wonder if God still loves them. So, you will have to excavate this text to convince them that he still calls them his sons and daughters in whom he is well pleased.
How do we know God still loves us? What is the evidence? Isaiah 43 offers two pieces of evidence. First, says Yahweh, I have created and formed you. More than a reference to the kind of Genesis 1 creation that gives physical life, this is probably a reference to the creation of Israel as a nation, beginning with the call of Abraham and climaxing with the Exodus from Egypt. I have created you not just as human beings, but even more as my chosen, covenant people. The very fact that you exist as a separate people showered with covenant blessings is proof of my love for you.
“But you sent us away from you, Lord. You virtually destroyed us as a nation. We are now a scattered people without country, home, temple, or even God, it seems.” Thus, God gives them the second proof that they are still his. “Fear not, for I have redeemed you….” The word “redeemed” has the sense of “buy” or “purchase.” And so God says, “I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush and Seba in your stead…. I will give men in exchange for you and people in exchange for your life.” God speaks of those nations as a way of conveying that no price is too high to set them free. “I will pay anything.”
Yes, you’ve been sold into slavery, as in the days of the Egyptian bondage, but I set you free then and I will set you free now. God speaks as though it has already happened, because it is about to happen and it is absolutely certain that it will. “Fear not, for I have redeemed you.”
This, of course, is an anticipation of our redemption, our ransom, our purchase “not with perishable things such as silver or gold…, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect (I Peter 1:18, 19).”
In spite of it all, in spite of your persistent sin and God’s terrible anger against it resulting in the temporary ruin of your lives, God says, “you are mine… you are precious and honored and… I love you.” Here’s the proof: I have created you and I have redeemed you. Whatever happens in your life, remember those twin truths. They are the foundation of your life.
Here’s the difference those truths make in your life. “I have summoned you by name….” Out there in the vast melting pot of the nations, you are not anonymous and you have not lost your identity. I know that the Babylonians have given you new names; for example, Daniel (meaning “God is my judge”) was renamed Belteshazzar (meaning “Bel, protect his life”), a sign that Daniel’s god had failed him, so he now has a new one, Bel.
But I still know your name, your real name, all of you and each of you. That matters a great deal. It means we’re not alone, not lost, not ciphers in the crowd. My wife often tells the story about shopping at Christmas time in a huge mall near us. The aisles were packed with people. She was bumped and pushed like a calf in a stampede. She was about to escape to her car and her home, when she heard a voice from above. “Sharon, hey Sharon.” She looked up and there, above her on the escalator, was an old friend who had seen her in the mob. She felt instant relief and joy. “I have summoned you by name, you are mine.”
But it’s not just the mob that makes us want to escape; it’s also the water and fire that threaten to destroy us. The words of verse 2 are some of the most realistically powerful Gospel words in the Bible. The images of water and fire emerge in many crucial places in the Scripture. Israel is delivered from Egypt be the exodus through the Red Sea and ushered into the Promised Land through the parting of Jordan. They are led by a pillar of fire in the wilderness and Daniel’s three friends survive the blazing furnace through the intervention of a mysterious companion in the fire. Jesus went down into the waters of the Jordan and John the Baptist said that Jesus would baptize with fire.
In Isaiah 43, however, those images suggest trial, trial by water and by fire. Here God says, when you go through trials (not “if” but “when”), you might think you will drown or burn up. But I will be with you, so even if you come up gasping for air and emerge smelling of smoke, you will survive. This captivity is the hardest trial you will ever have to endure, and you don’t think you will ever make it out, but I am with you here, even here.
And I will lead you out of your prison. Not only do I know you by name as you languish there in your captivity, not only am I with you in your terrible suffering, but also “I will bring your children from the east and the west, the north and the south, from the ends of the earth….”
This was a wonderful promise for ancient Israel, and God did bring a remnant back to the Promised Land. But that wasn’t the end of it. Many remained in the land of their exile, having become accustomed to living in a far country. And, of course, there were and are all those natives of distant lands who didn’t even know the name of Yahweh, including us and our ancestors.
That’s why I’m glad that verse 7 says, “everyone who is called by my name,” or to change the words a bit to echo Romans 10:13, “all who call on the name of the Lord.” Jesus sent his Jewish disciples into all world to proclaim that the Lord has redeemed his people, so that all of those people could come back home. Here is a wonderful promise for God’s people of all nations and languages: your lost loved ones are not too far away for God to redeem. He can and will bring them from afar. “Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth—everyone who is called by my name….”
All of this depends on God and God alone. At the center of these foundational truths and comforting promises stands God, who identifies himself in verse 3, “For I am Yahweh, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” He saves us not by standing aloof and speaking words from afar, but by entering our captivity, plunging under the baptismal waters, and enduring the fire of God’s fierce anger against the sin that ruins our lives. The beloved Son of God was destined to hang on a cross where he experienced the God forsakenness of Israel in Babylon and of us in our sin-created captivity.
The central command in this passage full of promises is repeated twice: “Do not be afraid… fear not, for I am with you,” in the mobs of the far country, in the trials of fire and water, and in the long journey home.
One of the year’s most powerful movies is “The Hate U Give,” a movie about race and racial injustice in America. It focuses on Starr, a black girl who lives in an all-black urban neighborhood, but attends an all-white high school in the suburbs. Part of the conflict in the movie occurs in Starr who acts white in her school and black in her neighborhood. Who is she, really? Her struggle to find and express her true identity in the swirling crowds of her school and her neighborhood arches back to exilic Israel and over into the lives of all children in this confusing world. “I have called you by name. You are mine.”
Speaking of movies, I have never forgotten the seagulls in the delightful animated film, “Finding Nemo.” Perched on posts that dot the harbor, the seagulls are always looking for a scrap of food. I laughed out loud when a piece of bread hits the water and all the seagulls dive for it, screaming, “Mine, mine, mine, mine.” It’s a hilarious picture of the very unfunny human lust to make it all mine. How comforting to know that God has dived into the waters of chaos and the fire of judgment to prove that, “You are mine.”
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