January 10, 2020 | When God Is Near • Isaiah 43:1-7

 Isaiah 43:1-7 (NIV)

But now, this is what the Lord says—
    he who created you, Jacob,
    he who formed you, Israel:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
    I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
    I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
    they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
    you will not be burned;
    the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel, your Savior;
I give Egypt for your ransom,
    Cush and Seba in your stead.
Since you are precious and honored in my sight,
    and because I love you,
I will give people in exchange for you,
    nations in exchange for your life.
Do not be afraid, for I am with you;
    I will bring your children from the east
    and gather you from the west.
I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’
    and to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’
Bring my sons from afar
    and my daughters from the ends of the earth—
everyone who is called by my name,
    whom I created for my glory,
    whom I formed and made.”

 

Man, this is one strange year for preaching. 

I get an idea for a direction to go on Monday and later in the week something big happens … something it seems like if the church really cares about God, God’s love for the world, and good news we really shouldn’t be quiet about. I start to wonder if I should scrap everything I prepared and find a new bible passage, something that might do a better job speaking to whatever it is that happened, or should I stick with what I have been studying. 

Often, but not all the time, it seems helpful to look at the passage in light of current events and ask what the passage has to say to our situation. 

The danger with this can be that I have something I want to say and manhandle the passage to make it say what I want it to. I would bet that at one time or another we have heard sermons or read things where it seems like there are a lot of acrobatics happening to make scripture say what someone wants it to say. I hope I don’t do that. 

The Holy Spirit is good though.

The Spirit has this knack for helping us see how God’s word really can speak to the things we are experiencing without forcing our will on scripture.

Scripture speaks to life experience, because God cares about people and encounters us in the midst of the everyday stuff of our lives. Even in the difficult stuff. Actually, it is much more Biblically accurate to say God encounters us especially in the difficult stuff. Sometimes we have the feeling that hard stuff is the exception to faith. When we look at the Bible, the people we meet, the stories we hear, the ways we see God moving, God’s people, and God, are not strangers to hard times. 

Honestly, if we took all the stuff about hard times or that was written during hard times out of the Bible, I don’t know that we would have all that much Bible left.

I mean how many stories are there in the Bible about people being stuck, people not where they want to be and for sure doing what they want to be doing, people encountering resistance and trouble, people dealing with people and institutions that seem set against them? 

Hard times are not strangers to scripture. 

I say that intending for you to hear it as good news. 

Maybe that is why the Bible is so interested in good news — because there has always been bad news?

God is no stranger to humanity’s hard times. 

Our hard times don’t scare God away. God is not squeamish!

We don’t experience hard stuff because God is avoiding us or mad at us.

More often than not, in scripture we see God’s presence in the midst of hard stuff. 

Jesus is Emmanuel. God with us through it all, even when the road is bumpy, the trail is kind of confusing, even when we don’t know if we will ever be able to find our way out of a mess.

This week, I have been noticing the ways people talk to and about people they disagree with. Maybe you have noticed it too? This is not a recent development. It has been brewing for a long time. Maybe now the pressure cooker is so hot and so intense that it is impossible to overlook it. Our words matter. They way we talk to people makes a difference.

This might be controversial, but as far as I am concerned the rhyme we grew up hearing, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” is absolute garbage. Words sting. Words hurt. The words we hear about ourselves go a long way in shaping us. 

In Isaiah 43, the prophet speaks to people who must have felt like they were waist deep in messes. They were hearing things that weren’t true. There was all this stuff being said about them, there were all these words, all this garbage they were listening to that was shaping their understanding of themselves, their situation, their communities, all these things that that weren’t true, but stung and weighed on them. Loser. Slave. Failure. Weak. Worthless. Maybe the one that would sting the most for God’s people – Abandoned. 

God speaks through this prophet to offer a different word. A word that means more. A word that should carry more weight than anything they were hearing from their neighbors … even the words that came from that haunting voice of doubt that kept popping up in the back of their heads.

These people weren’t where they wanted to be. They weren’t doing what they wanted to be doing. Even worse, they had this nagging feeling God had abandoned them, everything had fallen apart, and this was all their fault. It wasn’t that they wound up where they were by accident. They experienced consequences for their actions. God gave them agency. They could make choices that were real and mattered. Turning from God’s way was real and painful. Turning away from the messengers God sent to draw them back to relationship with God didn’t help. 

Their nation had fallen. Their homes had been burnt down, reduced to rubble. They must have felt weak and out of control. Maybe they experienced doubt and despair? How could they be God’s people without the land they had been promised so long ago? How could they be God’s people without a temple? How could they be God’s people without their own king? 

Who knows what people were saying about them? Maybe the Babylonians, the nation that had conquered them said they were losers, they were captives, or prisoners? Maybe Babylonians were saying, “You are ours” in the most menacing way possible? What would that be like to be mostly known as Babylonian possessions? Maybe the nations that were their neighbors mocked them, saying now they were nothing more than Babylon’s slaves? Maybe guilt and fault weighed on them? Who was to blame for all of this? I bet they felt abandoned. Maybe they didn’t feel like themselves? Maybe they felt despised … worthless … unworthy? Maybe they felt contempt, scorn and disrespect, coming from all those Babylonian side-eyes and face-palms?

But God hadn’t abandoned them.

God hadn’t thrown hands up in the air, sighed and given up on them.

Sure, they had turned away from God, but God hadn’t turned away from them. They were far away from home, but God was there moving and working. Yes, there were consequences to their rebellion against God’s ways, but God hadn’t abandoned or forgotten them. Here, in Isaiah, God’s messenger announces good news to people who really needed good news.

You are mine. 

This isn’t the creepy way someone might say something like this. Hear this is in the most loving way you can imagine someone would say this. You are mine. It makes me think of the time my family drove all night to see my granddad when he was in the hospital. When we finally walked into his room, he looked at us and said to his nurse, “These are my people.” My Granddad was so awesome, who wouldn’t want to be one of Granddad’s people? 

You are mine.

They were still God’s people. Not Babylon’s possession. Not losers. Not homeless slaves. Speaking for God, the prophet says, “Do not fear for I have redeemed you: I have summoned you by name; you are mine.”

In her commentary on these verses, and really her reflections on this section of Isaiah, Rev. Callie Plunket-Brewton, writes:

The words of the prophet of Isa 40-55 to the people living in exile in Babylon are some of the most deeply comforting and profoundly transformative words of Scripture.

To the community, described in [Isaiah] 49:7 as “deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, a slave of the rulers,” the prophet claims unequivocally that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, they are not the despised slaves of Babylon. They belong to no one but God. Isa 41-44 is a closely bound group of poems in which the prophet attempts to reshape the people’s self-understanding … To a community in exile, which viewed itself — and was likely viewed by others in the same way — as a “despised … slave of rulers,” these words of love and honor would serve as an9 antidote to counteract the poisonous and destructive messages heaped on it by the Babylonian conquerors. (Working Preacher, 01.10.2016)

It is like God is saying, “No matter how you feel, no matter what people are saying, you are mine, you are valuable in my sight, I love you.” 

This is how God relates to us … this is the message, the good news we have to share … we are not alone … we are God’s and God will go to amazing lengths to pursue us.

I think about all the words people must have said about the Israelites when they were stuck in exile — all the ways they must have experienced contempt and felt rejected. I think about all the words people are saying about each other now. All the words that make us feel small … that make us feel little and rejected. Those words sting, but these words from Isaiah, these words from God to God’s people are the words that matter most — hold onto these words from God to you, “You are mine, you are precious, I’m with you, I love you.”