January 13, 2013

Because I love you

Passage: Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

49Because you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.*


I attended primary school in a one-room country school house located just over 2 miles (about 4 kilometers) from the family farm; a distance that my older brother and I walked each day.  It was a mild winter morning when we left for school one day; as many children are prone today, so back then—we had on clothing that reflected the mildness of the day.  Over the course of that day the temperature dropped considerably and it started to snow.  The snow had accumulated so quickly that by early afternoon our teacher decided we should dismiss classes early.  I presume some telephone system was in place to alert parents.  So we were dismissed and sent all together to walk home.  (I know it hard for children today to imagine a time before school busses but it actually existed).

As we began our homeward journey it was snowing sufficiently that visibility was somewhat limited; snow had drifted such that now no cars travelled the road; I recall being very cold (having resisted parental advice to wear warmer gear) and maybe a little bit frightened.  We weren’t very far into this journey and I could see through the blowing snow what looked like a team of horses approaching us.  As those horses came nearer I recognized them.  Behind the team was my father driving that large flatbed sleigh from our farm; it was plied with blankets and, of course, the warmer clothing his sons needed for the journey home.  There were about thirty children who attended that school; everyone climbed on to the sleigh, covered ourselves with the blankets, and all were delivered to their homes.

Now it may be that the storm that day was not as daunting as it seemed to this seven year-old boy at the time.  What sticks with me, though, is this very intense feeling of being important, of being loved.  When the situation seemed difficult my Dad came for me.

The storms of life are of a different nature as I face them today; the uneasiness and fears that accompany them are commensurate to the kind storm.  Whenever I read the opening section of Isaiah 43 that same sense of being important, of being loved warms my heart—I’m on that sleigh again covered with blankets, as it were.  Listen again to this text and listen for the number of times the personal pronoun “you” is spoken.

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.
2 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.
3 For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia* and Seba in exchange for you.
4 Because you are precious in my sight,
and honoured, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
nations in exchange for your life.
5 Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
6 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—
7 everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.’

1. This great word of hope from the Isaiah prophesies was written (and preached) to the Israelite people during the days of their Babylonian captivity.  The Israelite people have been carried off into exile, their captors, the Babylonians, make fun of them, taunt them, humiliate them, and despise them. The Israelite people feel themselves so far from home they couldn't feel stranger. What compounds their strangeness in the midst of the Babylonians is their feeling that God has abandoned them. It's bad enough to be a non-citizen in a land where you don't belong and have no rights; how much worse it is to endure this plus the haunting impression that God has forgotten you. They couldn't help asking themselves, "Would anything ever jog his memory? Was he ever going to return to them?"

It was Israel’s disobedience that led to their captivity.  “But now”, the prophet begins; even in the mire of the consequences of their disobedience God has not abandoned them.  This message prefigures the cross of Jesus Christ; while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.  Though mired in the consequences of our own sinfulness God does not abandon humanity. “Because you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you,” says our God.

Imagine yourself one of these Israelites living in captivity.  Your hear this too-good-to-be-true sounding prophesy but your experience does not appear to square with the proclamation that you are not in fact abandoned; the promise of a return from captivity to the land appears impossible.  The point being that there are some Israelites hearing this promise of God who will die in captivity and not know release. How did Jesus understand the promise held out in these texts of scripture?

Jesus does not tell us directly; however, let me offer to you some other things Jesus said that will point us to how I believe he understood them.  One day Jesus was being questioned by some Sadducees who did not believe in the resurrection; resurrection, in Jewish thought, meaning being raised to bodily existence after dying.  Jesus replied that they knew neither the scriptures nor the power of God and affirmed, based on these things, there was indeed a resurrection to come. (Matthew 22:23-33)

On the day Jesus met Martha after her brother Lazarus had died Jesus said to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.”  Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” (John 11:23-24)  In this word from Martha you hear the way the older Testament was read with respect to the question of resurrection.  There would be a resurrection of God’s own people on the last day when God would set everything right.  Jesus affirms this when he responds to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life”.

Now come back to Isaiah.  God promises a great day of gathering his people home from the ends of the earth “everyone who is called by my name” (Isaiah 43:5-7).  What the Jewish people reasoned, from this and many texts like it, was that a resurrection was implied in God’s promise.

Come back to the word “you” in these promises of God.  “2When 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 I have seen believers lose their lives in water and fire,” one might respond.  The point of the text is that “you” are preserved.  The idea is the same as when Jesus said it to Martha, “everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”  Jesus did not mean that believers would not face physical death any more than Isaiah meant that believers would not be subject to the difficulties of life.  What they both mean is that you are never lost to God no matter what happens—not even dying.

Given the character of God that he keeps his promises and the nature of life that God created and promises—you have never had an experience of you except in your physical body—these promises of God were understood by Jewish people to imply a resurrection to life.  Remember that none of you got your life on your own; it was a gift of grace to you and the God who gave us this life can do it again.

And all of this “because I love you”, says our God.  I want to ask you a question about the overarching narrative of life you hold on to that keeps you steady in the storms; or perhaps to ask it another way, what is that foundation on which you stand to secure your footing?  Think again about that young boy shivering in the snowstorm a little fearful about what would unfold on the journey home.  That boy used to think that as he got older and became an adult he would be able to be in control of so much more; fear of storms would disappear.  As I have matured I have discovered that I am in control of very little. The “what if’s” of life are so vast they cannot be prepared for; no contingency list could ever account for all that might unfold; no insurance policy can fully indemnify life.  Life is precarious on a good day.

What do you hold on to?  Do you ever have that sense that what I am clinging to is a bit like the ostrich with head buried in the sand; or like guy who concludes that if I simply don’t go to the mailbox and get the mail (or open email) I don’t have bills to pay?  Life can be like a snowstorm; things are swirling around in the wind; visibility is poor and footing feels treacherous.  I find great solace in clinging to Jesus Christ who is the resurrection and the life.

2.  There a saying common enough among us that many of you can complete the sentence if I give you the first half: “When the going gets tough, (the tough get going).”  I have heard another saying that has expresses a similar sentiment: “Tough times never last, but tough people do.”  I understand, I think, the idea being promoted in these sayings.  We know that attitude has much to do with how we face problems; if we perceive the mountain too high to climb we never venture to begin.  Still, I wonder if these saying are true.

First, there are altogether too many people in our churches whose lives are altogether Job-like in terms of their enduring one long, tough stretch of bad things. Like the exiled Israelites there are reasons why people today feel themselves exiled, far from home. They don't feel "at home" with life, with themselves, ultimately with God, inasmuch as too many negativities have piled up too quickly.  Maybe it’s one bad thing after the next. Maybe it’s one overarching bad thing that goes on and on for decades and that colors everything else in this person’s life. But the fact is that sometimes tough times do last. They really do.

But in the Christian context—whether tough times come and stay for years or whether they prove to be more fleeting—it’s not finally the toughness of the people that makes the difference but the unrelenting providential love and care of God that makes the difference. Nowhere in Scripture are we thrown back onto our own resources. We’re not told that our own optimism or strength of character is what will see us through. When the waters get deep, when the rivers in which we’re sunk neck-deep get violent, when the fires of life’s trials lick at our flesh, it is the abiding presence of God that reassures us. We may not know why God permits such tough times and trials, but they come. And when they do, our assurance is not derived from our own toughness. What matters is how closely God sticks with us.

When trials come it is a common response to wonder why such trials would come if God is on our side (yet we’re never promised to be spared such things—Jesus even promised persecutions for this followers!).  In addition to that question, the pain that accompanies such things can so easily blind us to whatever signs of God’s presence we might be able to find.  It is more than good to know, in short, that God sticks with us in life’s trials.  That fact, however, hardly renders the trials themselves feeble or easy-to-take after all.

Yet there it is. Isaiah 43 reminds us of the facts in which we properly take comfort: first, God loves us because he made us. And even if we exist mostly to witness to God and to give him the glory for all he is and does, the fact is that we are held by loving hands.  Secondly, when we abandon ourselves to the God who made us, we may know that this God will in turn never abandon us, even when trials come for whatever the reason.  Third, God has a future in mind for us when all will be set right.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us”.  Again I would beg to differ.  The matters are not necessarily tiny and it is the One who lies within is us who makes all the difference, our Lord Jesus Christ.

4. In his book Jesus in the Margins, Rick McKinley shares stories of people who have experienced difficulty in life’s journey. One of those stories comes from 31-year-old Tiffany. She writes:

When I was 9-years-old, I was molested by a family member. At the time I really didn’t understand what was happening, but I knew it wasn’t normal. I was too scared to tell anyone, and because he was a family member, I felt that somehow my mom and dad allowed it to happen. Looking back, I can see that wasn’t true, but at the time I didn’t know any better.  The abuse continued until I was 12, and I told my mom what was happening. ...

I’m kind of angry with God. Why did he let it happen to me? He couldn’t really love me…. I hope one day I can be honest with someone about my life and about what has happened to me, even the things I’ve done. And I hope that person can love me anyway.

At the end of the book, McKinley includes another letter from Tiffany, who is now at a different stage in her journey.

I am always amazed at how God has met me in the deepest parts of me.…I realize that God has loved me the whole time. The abuse taught me that I was worthless, but Christ has taught me that I am precious to him.

“Because you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you,” says our God.