Isaiah 43:1-7, the first reading for January 13th, addresses the exiles in Babylon, assuring them of God’s loving presence, repeating God’s message, Do not fear…. I will be with you. It is a counterintuitive message: the Babylonians have overrun Jerusalem, taken the leaders captive, blinded the king and destroyed the temple. Virtually everything on which the Israelites had based their faith and hope was gone.
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.
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.
The author wrote the first verse as though God was speaking directly to Jacob, but the whole people of Israel are eavesdropping on the intimate conversation, which applies to them as well.
Without making an explicit promise, God implies that he will re-create the nation by gathering the dispersed people back. The most significant promise is that I will be with you, at all times, for the waters shall not overwhelm you. Yet the promise that I will be with you does not eliminate fearsome things — the waters, the rivers, fire, flame –but relativizes them to insignificance. It is a promise of God’s presence.
The second significant message of this reading occurs in the next verses:
For 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.
Because 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.
Despite the deaths, destruction and deportations that the Israelites have experienced at the hands of the Babylonians, God assures them through the prophet that you are precious in my sight, … and I love you. It is an unqualified and encouraging message. (And it foreshadows the words of John the Baptist in this morning’s gospel in several ways.)
The first reading concludes with an echo of the opening words:
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 from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth—
These verses also promise a return of your offspring from the east… west and… north to Jerusalem. The promise does not include a timeline but is clear that the return will happen.
The words of this passage were a wholehearted assurance of God’s love to the captive Israelites at the lowest point of their morale.
While the passage makes no direct reference to baptism or to a Messiah there are a number of allusions to this morning’s gospel on the baptism of Jesus (Luke 3.15-17, 21-22). The reference to passing through waters suggests the Moses-led passage through the Red Sea and the transformation of the former slaves into the People of God. It also hints at the spiritual transformation that begins with baptism.
Similarly, walking through fire but not being burned also suggests the coming of the Holy Spirit. While there is no indication of a flame in this morning’s gospel, the Holy Spirit does appear in the form of a dove and, in Acts, does appear as a tongue of flame on Pentecost.
Finally, and perhaps most clearly, God’s words in the gospel, as Jesus emerged from the Jordan, You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased seem to echo you are precious in my sight … and I love you from Isaiah.
- Can you recall a time when you experienced fear and danger in the face of a threat of some kind… but passed through it? Did the experience of “survival” give you confidence for future instances of threat?
- In the bleakness of captivity, saddened by loss, how do you think the Israelites heard Isaiah’s words? Did they reject them as being obviously wrong? Did they fuel hope? Did they reassure the Jews that God still loved them? (Clearly, the words were memorable enough that they became part of the Canon of scripture for both Jews and Christians.)
- Consider that these words, you are precious in my sight … and I love you are addressed to us as a congregation. If we take them seriously and collectively as being a direct reference, what difference would this make? If you thought of the words as being addressed to you, personally, would they make a difference to you?