Grace to you and peace, from God our Creator and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“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.”
Things weren’t going well. Their numbers were shrinking. Their leaders weren’t following the rules. The way they used to do it was threatened by competition from new cultural and societal norms. If they didn’t change their ways, they would see the end of their existence.
It might sound like I’m talking about the harsh realities facing the Church today — and some of those descriptions might be true of many congregations. But actually, I’m talking of Yisrael, those people to whom Isaiah is speaking in our first reading for today.
They had been enslaved by Egypt, then led out of captivity. They were given a law and were unable to follow it. And so as a new empire was assembling on the east, threatening to devour the nation, the prophet Isaiah spoke.
“Thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear. 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. ”
But being the people of God isn’t that easy, is it? Here, Isaiah is telling those people who are full of fear, huddled together in their last moments of life as they knew it: you belong to God. And while that doesn’t mean you won’t face water, and fire, and pain, and suffering, and exile — it does mean you won’t face it alone.
Well, today is the second epiphany (manifestation). First, the three wise men searching for the Christ-child. Now God speaks from heaven, declaring who Jesus is. And throughout this season, we will hear many more epiphanies as Jesus’ public ministry unfolds.
There’s both possibility and danger in epiphanies. Remember that as the wise men searched for Jesus, so did Herod. The wise men sought out the Christ-child to acknowledge him as the Messiah, bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But Herod sought out the Christ-child to maintain his political status, bringing armies and swords to slaughters all the male children.
If we really think about it, a similar contrast happens in today’s reading. We’re all out in the wilderness being baptized, even though John the baptizer is already in prison. Then we see Jesus enter the water, and the heavens tear open.
Now, remember, this isn’t as glorious as it sounds; in ancient cosmology, heaven was a dome that separated creation from the chaos that was “in the beginning.” So idea of the heavens opening could have meant the un-creation of creation — or, worded differently, the end of their existence.
But no, instead, the spirit of God, in the form of a dove, descends upon Jesus. And God speaks, claiming Jesus as God’s own child, in whom God is well pleased.
Woah. The heavens open, and right when we have accepted our fate as mere piles of clay, God speaks. It’s scary — terrifying, really — but it was in the midst of fear and danger that God came among us in a manger in Bethlehem. It’s in the midst of fear and danger that God spoke, claiming Jesus as a loved child. It’s in the midst of fear and danger that God speaks, claiming us as loved children.
But being the people of God isn’t that easy, is it?
“Thus says the Lord, he who created you, O people of Trenton; he who formed you, O St Michael’s Church: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
“And although you feel like you’re drowning, and the waters are up to your neck, and you walk through fire, and the mortgage is late, and the children are moving out, and the marriage is falling apart, and you wonder just how you will make it through one more day…
“Do not fear. Because I am with you. I have claimed you. You are mine. You are loved.”
Of course, we don’t hear those words in quite the same way, do we? A voice from heaven. What we would give to have such an experience! If we could just hear God’s voice — then we would know our calling, we would know what to do, how to live, what decisions to make.
A voice from heaven could tell us which college to attend, which major to choose, which career to pursue. It could guide us in our relationships — whom to date, how to parent.
If God would just open the heavens and speak to us, then we would know when to volunteer, when to retire, when to say yes, and when to say no. If God would just speak already, right now. Life would be so much easier.
But most of us are not so blessed, are we? Oh, that is not to say we never hear voices. Indeed, most days there are more voices than we can handle. Ours is a culture that calls out to us from every corner — the voices from our work, our family, our friendships, our church — from the TV, the phone, the Internet.
Voices telling us we don’t have enough, voices telling us we don’t make enough, voices telling us we aren’t enough. So many voices that we just want to give up. And yet! And yet, in that chaos, in that fear and terror — that’s precisely where we hear God speak.
The word God spoke over the waters at creation — the word God spoke over the waters at your baptism — those are the words God is still speaking right here and now. Words of forgiveness. Words of love. Words that claim you as a child of God.
But being a child of God isn’t easy, is it? You will leave this place and life will continue as usual. You will wake up tomorrow and go to work, and the same daily challenges will assault you. But remember: before you are a teacher or a social worker or a lawyer or a student or anything else, you are a loved child of God.
“Do not be afraid,” God says. “Do not be afraid, for I am with you. I have called you by name, and you are mine.”
“Do not be afraid,” God says, “for when you pass when you pass through the waters, I will be with you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”
“Do not be afraid,” God says. “Do not be afraid, because you are precious in my sight; I love you, and you are mine.” Amen.