I have to admit that politically, emotionally and theologically the past two years have been a grind. With COVID setting the context, we have watched as the inequalities of our world have presented themselves, one at a time and all at once. The shocking murders in the United States of people of colour, Residential School burial site discoveries here in Canada, the embarrassing inequality of global vaccine distribution, and the political divisiveness in this province and around the world, have all underlined that while we are all experiencing the same storm, we are most definitely not all in the same boat.
Into that context, we have this beautiful, affirming reading from the 43rd chapter of Isaiah, which speaks a word of belovedness and delight to each and every hearer… and yet, because of the relentlessness of these past two years, amidst these glorious words I find that what catches my attention is something else. I’ll get around to that “something else” later on in this message, but for the moment I need, not so much to proclaim these words, as to hear them. I need to hear, once again, that the God of the ages, the God of all creation, is also the Divine presence who loves us fiercely, personally, specifically. I need to hear, once again, that the God of sunshine and light, the God who brings us to the light of Christ in this season of Epiphany, is the same holy one who will walk with us through fires and floods and our gloomiest, most shadowy times.
So I step back for a bit, and listen as three Bible scholars share what has moved them in these words from Isaiah. First, we hear from Anathea E. Portier-Young, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Duke University Divinity School. “In these verses” she writes, “God speaks to God’s people not like a king on a throne pronouncing an edict, but like a lover whose heart is bursting, who has waited an eternity just to say their name. In this act of speaking their name, God claims Israel as God’s own and sets them free. Maker, lover, and redeemer, God will pay any price and overcome every obstacle to be reunited with God’s own. God says to Israel, “You are precious in my eyes, you are honored, and I have loved you” (verse 4).”
Lutheran Pastor and Commentator Glenn Monson writes that these words in Isaiah “are some of the most glorious words of gospel ever spoken. Promises abound, even specifically for those times when we ‘pass through the waters’ or ‘walk through fire.’ Both sons and daughters are mentioned as well, ‘everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.’ Who, we might ask, is excluded from these promises? No one.
“With whom [do we] identify in the text? We are those who have been in bondage. We are those who have been living in the far country. We are those who stand in desperate need of a redeemer, a champion, a protector, and a lover. We are those who hear this good news.
He concludes by saying, “If this text isn’t a cause to celebrate none is. Nothing is left for us to do but sing the praises of God and glory in God’s amazing power and love.”
And finally, these words from Patricia Tull, a Bible scholar at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary:
“Composed for exiled people, just as the international tide is turning, just as the possibility of returning to the broken city of Jerusalem is reopening, Second Isaiah soars with inviting poetry of hope, offering to pave the way homeward with confidence and expectancy. Into this despair comes a preposterous word — neither fire nor flood will separate exiles from God and God’s saving acts of grace. The passage doesn’t promise there won’t be fire and flood, but rather that they will not be faced alone, and they will not overpower the faithful.
“Believers in every generation have seen in fire and flood all that is larger than ourselves, all that consumes not only hope but life and limb as well. Yet Scripture, including Isaiah 43:1-7, transforms these elements from threats into sources of healing through adversity.”
As I hear these scholars express the good news of this passage, it lifts me for it rings true. Hearing of God’s presence in our most difficult times brings me back to Julian of Norwich, as she recalled a vision of Christ on the cross: “And this word: you shall not be overcome, was said sharply and mightily, for sureness and comfort against all tribulations that may come. He did not say: you shall not be troubled, he did not say you shall not struggle, he did not say you shall not be diseased; but he did say: you shall not be overcome. God wills that we take heed at this word, and that our faithful trust be strong in well and woe, for he loves us and delights in us…and all shall be well.”
Amidst our struggles, God is there, and Isaiah goes even further, telling us of how precious we are in God’s sight. We know how important it is for children to grow up, knowing that they are unconditionally loved, and to picture God in that same love-light can be life-changing, whether you grew up in a loving household or did not. For those with heavy existential angst, about their own self-worth or about the condition of this planet, hearing once again of a tangible, personal Divine presence who walks with you through all crises, with the express hope of affirming your life and the life of the world, may well be the thing you need to hear right now. There is abundant, personal, truly expressed good news in these words of Isaiah.
And yet, even amidst all this good news there is still that “something else” in this scripture passage which needs to be faced. Right in the middle, verses 3 and 4, the author acknowledges that in those times when God was most present to these beloved people, someone else – also God’s children – did not prosper. The example cited here recalls that when the Hebrew people made their safe escape through the Exodus, a heavy price was paid by the Egyptians. In a rather chilling equation, Isaiah more or less says, “there are times when we make difficult choices in order to deliver the vulnerable from danger …and there are times when God makes these big, costly choices as well.” Looking at it from a Christian standpoint, we may well see the story of Christ’s crucifixion in this light: a hard, desperate time when sacrificial love paid an ultimate price.
When we were in the Land of the Holy One, nearly four years ago, Richard LeSueur reminded us that the vast majority of the Bible, including Isaiah 43, was written in a time of despair, when the people needed to know that they had not been abandoned by the God they loved so much and relied upon so fully. These words, then, about Israel’s deliverance and redemption are not intended as stories of imperial victors, shouting “we are mighty and God loves us more than you/them;” these are the stories by, for and of the overrun, the enslaved, those needing justice, equity and liberation. Jesus repeatedly talked about his new realm that favours the poor, the vulnerable, the excluded, the desperate, and that’s what we need to hear in this passage as well. For when a culture mishears the words of God’s complete and unconditional love and acts as if God loves “us” more than God loves “those people over there” we end up with terrible situations, like the overrunning of Indigenous lands and disrespect of Indigenous cultures, or the widespread persecution of LGBTQ persons, all done unashamedly in the name of God. Misconstruing God’s word and God’s purpose in these ways, twisting the concept of God’s belovedness of all people into something that only an elite group actually possess, is pretty much the definition of wilful sin: knowing the heart of God, and doing the exact opposite.
So, my friends, with those reminders in place about what this scripture is not intending to convey – may the joyous clarity of these words do what they are intended to do, and brighten the path ahead. For those who are worried, anxious, ill or in pain, may the words of God’s parental presence be true. For those who have always wondered if they are “good enough” let God answer that with a resounding YES, and may our communities of faith be places that echo that affirmation of goodness. For those feeling divided, separated into camps, let God’s words of coming together from north and south, east and west speak of the holy desire for harmony. For those pushed aside by the dominant culture, may God’s intention for your best interests be clear. These words of ongoing hope, promise and reconciliation have for millennia spoken so strongly to our Jewish sisters and brothers; may they touch your heart, my heart, our hearts on this day. Amen, and amen.
Manton, Karen (text) and Muir, Lynne (illustrations/calligraphy). The Gift of Julian of Norwich. Leominster, UK: Gracewing, 2005. P.110.
Monson, Glenn. http://gluthermonson.blogspot.com/2019/01/you-are-mine.html
© 2022 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.