“But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, 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. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Cush and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you, I give men in return for you, peoples in exchange for your life. Fear not, 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 up, and to the south, Do not withhold; bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” Bring out the people who are blind, yet have eyes, who are deaf, yet have ears! All the nations gather together, and the peoples assemble. Who among them can declare this, and show us the former things? Let them bring their witnesses to prove them right, and let them hear and say, It is true. “You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. I, I am the LORD, and besides me there is no savior. I declared and saved and proclaimed, when there was no strange god among you; and you are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and I am God.”
– Isaiah 43:1-12 ESV
This morning I’d like to talk about a love story. It’s not your typical love story: it doesn’t involve hearts or flowers or people singing songs below windows or anything like that. Isaiah talks about this love story in the scripture we read a few moments ago.
First, the setting: this story was written after the fall of Jerusalem when the people of Judah were carried away into captivity in Babylon. And the message God sends the captives through Isaiah is that He will not abandon them there. He will restore His people to their home land.
But what does that have to do with a love story? Check this out: If you had to guess, what would you say the most frequently-used words in the reading above are? Including variations, I counted 26 each of the words “I” and “you”. Take a look at verse 1 for example: “I have called you by name, you are mine.” Or verse 3: “I am the Lord your God”. So you are mine, and I am yours. Or verse 4: “because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you…” This is a love story.
There is a sub-plot to this love story – at least it looks like a sub-plot at first. As time unfolds it will become the surprise main theme. The sub-plot is the promise of the coming Messiah. Our reading for today is a small part of a much larger story that starts in Isaiah 40 with the words “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned…” You may recognize these words as the opening words of Handel’s Messiah, or at least as words you hear around Christmastime, which is appropriate because these words look forward to Jesus.
So this is a love story. Of course then there’s a question that needs to be asked, and that is: Who is God talking to here? Who is the “you” that God loves? There are at least four answers I can think of, and they all apply. Follow with me…
First, the word you can, and does, apply to the people of Israel. That’s the original meaning of this passage, and it’s how the captives in Babylon would have understood it. Israel is God’s chosen people, who have also become His suffering servant. They go through the things they go through in order to be His witnesses in the world. They have been chosen both to be holy and to bring the Gentile nations to God. Through Israel came the Ten Commandments and the prophets, and through them will come the Messiah. God is encouraging them with promises of better days ahead. “Fear not, for I have redeemed you,” God says to Israel. “I have called you by name, you are mine.”
Secondly the word you can, and does, apply to the Messiah. That’s the meaning the Anglican lectionary gives it, which is why we read this passage during the season of Easter. Look at verse 10: “You are my witnesses” – that’s plural, referring to Israel – “and my servant” – that’s singular. One servant: “my servant whom I have chosen that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he.” That is the Messiah’s mission – that’s why Jesus came – so that all people could know and believe and understand that there is only one true God.
Many of the other verses in this passage can also be interpreted in terms of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Verse 3 for example: “when you pass through the waters I will be with you”. This can be interpreted as passing through the ‘waters’ of death. It’s like in the old spiritual Michael Row the Boat Ashore, the one verse that says “the river Jordan is chilly and cold, chills the body but not the soul. Alleluia!” The song is talking about death, and God says to the Messiah the waters of death “will not overwhelm you”. When God says “the flame will not consume you” this could be interpreted as Jesus’ descent into hell where he preached to the captives and led them to freedom. The Messiah will pass through death and hell – has passed, now, through death and hell – to stand alive on the other side, so that all people will know and believe in the one true God.
Third, the word you can, and does, apply to us… you and me. Granted, Isaiah had no idea that twenty-five hundred years later his words would be read by people half a world away. But these words do apply to us. God says to each one of us: “Fear not. I have redeemed you; you are mine.” As it says in verse 1, God created us, He formed us. And He chooses us.
Fourth, the word you can, and does, apply to the church. The Christian faith is not just for individuals but for believers as a group, taken together. Looking at it from this perspective, Isaiah’s message takes on a future aspect. In verses 6 and 7 God says:
I will say to the north, Give up, and to the south, Do not withhold; bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”
God says: there will come a day when all His children will come and live together in His kingdom. He will bring every one of them home to the New Jerusalem.
I caught a small foretaste of this when I visited Jerusalem a few years ago. In the heart of an olive grove on a mountainside in the region called Gethsemane, across the Kidron Valley from the Temple Mount, there is a church called the Church of All Nations. It’s the only church in all of Israel that isn’t owned by one denomination or another… and the reason for that is, it’s built over a large rock that tradition says was the rock Jesus prayed on the night before He was crucified. The churches all agreed that no one church could lay claim to such a holy place. And people from all over the world come to stand on that spot and pray and sing praise to God. On the day I was there I heard people worshipping in Hebrew and Russian and Japanese and Slovak and English and a number of languages I couldn’t identify – all at the same time! It was deeply moving – a foretaste of what heaven will be like, as it says in Revelation, “…and there… was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne…” (Rev. 7:9)
That’s the future God has in store for His people.
So how should we in the 21st century understand these words that were written 2500 years ago?
First, I think we should listen alongside the Israelites and hear Isaiah’s words the way they did. When God said “when you pass through the waters I will be with you” the Israelites would have remembered the parting of the Red Sea, and how Moses had led them out of slavery. When God said “and through rivers they shall not overwhelm you” the Israelites would have remembered how Joshua led them across the Jordan River into the Promised Land. The Israelites would have remembered how God had chosen them and guided them and protected them. He hadn’t deserted them back then, and He was not going to abandon them now. And we who have walked with God for many years can also remember times when God has intervened in our lives and made a way where we could see no way. God has never abandoned us before and He won’t abandon us now.
Second, God says “when you pass through the waters”and “when you pass through the fire”. Notice He doesn’t say “if”. He says “when”. In this life there will always be trouble. God does not promise to take us out of this world. In fact before He died, Jesus prayed for just the opposite. He said, “Father… I do not pray that thou shouldst take them out of the world, but that thou shouldst keep them from the evil one.” (John 17:15) God the Father has answered Jesus’ prayer in the past, He is answering it in the present, and He will answer it in the future. He says: “The waters will not overwhelm you. The fire will not consume you. Fear not, for I am with you.” In times like these, when the future seems uncertain, when we don’t know what next week or next month will bring, I take comfort in these words. When trouble comes, God will be with us, and it will not overwhelm us.
Finally, God says in verses 10 through 12: “you are my witnesses”. That’s what we are here for. Israel was chosen for this: to bear witness to God their Savior. Jesus was born for this: so that people would know and believe in the one true God. We are called to this: God says, “every one who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory” – we were created to bring glory to God. And that’s what the church is called to do: to be God’s witnesses that “He is the Lord, and besides Him there is no savior”. The church acknowledges no other god and preaches no other gospel. Israel… and the Messiah… and we his people… and the church… all of us bear witness and stand true to our Lord.
Because this is, after all, a love story. AMEN.
– Preached at Church of the Atonement, 5/8/11 8AM service