When thou passeth through the waters I will be with thee. When thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not burn. Neither shall the flames kindle upon thee for I am the Lord thy God, the Holy One of Israel and thou art mine.
I cannot tell you how many times I have sung these verses in my head. I learned them as a song when I was in college and they have become the background music for much of my life. Even before I understood the depth of their meaning, these words spoke to my soul.
I grew up in a church that didn’t say much about the saving power of Christ or the need to have a personal relationship with God. They did, however, show up in times of need. The reasons why were just never clearly identified. So when I got to college and heard a more conservative theology, I was convinced that I was not “good enough” to be included in the saving acts of Christ. If I was saved, then I would not experience the often overwhelming pain I carried around; I would be free and whole, right?
Not exactly. These words from Isaiah reached out and grabbed me again and again. These are the verses that got me through difficult pastorates, a decade of searching for a fulltime call, rejection from too many churches, painful personal times, and more. These verses make it clear that God cares about each one of us. The God who spoke these words to ancient Israel through the prophet Isaiah is the same God who spoke as baptismal waters dripped off of Jesus. “Beloved. You are mine.” There’s no question for God about who and whose we are. We are God’s beloved. God has given not just countries in ransom for God’s beloved. God has given God’s very own self to show just how deeply personal, particular, specific God’s love is for each and every one of us.
This passage in Isaiah is the Gospel in the proverbial nutshell. The promise of survival, the promise of wholeness, the promise of loving-kindness, and so much more is contained in these words. Are you drowning in a sea of stress? God will keep your head above water if you allow for it. Are you burning in the flames of anger? God will keep you from being destroyed if you allow it. God’s love is there. When we don’t feel it or experience, it’s because we have closed ourselves off by choice or by circumstances beyond our control. However, God does not withdraw love from us; we withdraw from God.
I wish the world could hear these words, breathe them in, and then live in them. God loved Israel when Israel was in captivity and when she was powerfully oppressing others. Jesus loved the Pharisee, the tax collector, the prostitute, and the leper. God pursued wayward Israel over and over again. God does the same for the church even now. God is on the side of the oppressed without question. God is the one who liberates. However, God also loves the powerful ones and would like to set us all free from our need to have power over others. It doesn’t matter if we are overwhelmed or burning up, love can save us as many times as we need saving. Giving up the notion that we are in control of our little corner of the world and our addictions to the illusions of power is the trick and the risk. On the other hand, drowning or burning is not a pleasant experience. What have we really got to lose?
As much as I’ve been focused on community and communal responsibility these days, it is important to remember that God’s love is a love that covers the whole of creation and the specificity of every human being, including you and me. What we do, what we say, who we are matters. There is absolutely no reason to keep things as they have always been and there is every reason to participate in liberation and justice for every last one of God’s people. Because, you know, it really is personal with God.
RCL – Year C – First Sunday after Epiphany – January 10, 2016
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22