Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22; Isaiah 43 1-7
“Do not fear; for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine”
This is one of my very favourite verses from scripture and possible my favourite one from the Old Testament. In four short phrases these words provide me with reassurance, with support, with a sense of belonging and with a realisation that I am loved. Every so often I use this passage from Isaiah as the basis of the short address I give at baptisms but it occurred to me that I have never preached a whole sermon on it. As today is the day on which we celebrate the Baptism of Christ it feels like a good opportunity to reflect more fully on the passage and its relationship to the Gospel.
“Do not fear”. Fear is such a powerful yet debilitating emotion. People speak of being paralysed with fear, unable to move such is weight of that feeling. All sorts of things can frighten us, some may seem ridiculous to other people, (yes I know that it’s silly to be frightened of spiders!) many can be rationalised (yes, I know that the spider is probably more afraid of me than I am of it!), many can be overcome (no I don’t want to stroke a tarantula as part of spider aversion therapy). Fear is subjective not objective – what frightens me may not frighten you and vice versa. For some, fear is a constant in their lives. Every second of every minute of every hour of every day is filled with fear. People cope with fear in different ways – “how brave” we say when we hear how someone has overcome a fear that has detrimentally affected their lives. “Why don’t they pull themselves together” we say when we feel someone is allowing what we perceive as an irrational fear to dominate their lives. In both cases we have no idea of the true impact of fear – we have not walked a few feet, let alone a mile, in those peoples’ shoes. Admitting to being afraid can be a cause of fear in itself. Fear that people may regard us as weak, see us in a different light. Yet I think that witnessing to fear is a strength and takes courage. After all Jesus admitted to fear – as he hung on the cross he cried out in fear to God “Father why have you forsaken me”. In moments of great pain and distress even the Son of God felt abandoned. Yet here in Isaiah are the words that we need to hold in our hearts – Do not fear! I have redeemed you – I have saved you, I have freed you from fear, I have released you from that which has weighed you down. Or I would if you would allow me to. We live in fearful times. These past two years have caused great fear in so many and continue to do so. Where is God in this? Why has he allowed this to happen? Why doesn’t he stop this? Phrases that have been repeated by so many since the beginning of time, in so many different places, to describe so many different situations.
In this season as in those that have past God is right here in it. We may not immediately recognise him but he’s here, he’s holding us. In those darkest moments He is by our side whether we realise it or not.
“I have called you by name”. Names are important. The names that we go by have a history and a meaning unique to each of us. I am named for my maternal grandmother who died some years before I was born. My name connects me to my past and roots me in my sense of self. Some of us may not like our names – I have to confess when I was a child, I thought my name very dull, not helped by my mother sometimes referring to me as Plain Jane and no nonsense! But as I grew older I came to appreciate my name for its meaning – Gift of God – and for the way in which it helps me understand who I truly am. I know that God calls me by my name – he knows exactly who I am, he sees every part of me, body and soul, even the parts I don’t very much like and most importantly he loves me and he accepts me completely.
“You are mine”. Belonging, feeling included is a fundamental desire in most people. To be excluded, unwanted, brings deep sadness and pain. Loneliness is one of the most destructive emotions that anyone can experience – the feeling that no one cares, that we don’t belong, can have catastrophic effects. But we do belong – God tells us that, not just in this passage but throughout the Bible. You are mine – I am your parent, you belong in my family, I am always here for you, you have nothing to fear.
A New Year can bring all sorts of emotions – excitement, anticipation, a sense of new beginnings but within that there can also be fear, perhaps especially as we embark on a third year in the pandemic season.
I wonder if Jesus felt any fear as he began a new phase in his life through his baptism by John in the river Jordan. After all he knew that that this beginning also heralded his end? We can feel the sense of anticipation
“The people were waiting expectantly” – everyone knew something awesome was about to be set in motion hence their questioning of John. And John knows this too – he knows that it is not he who has been sent to redeem God’s people. He been sent to prepare the way, to encourage people to open their hearts and minds to the possibilities that are about to be made clear through Jesus’ ministry. John is very honest about what this will mean – the one who is about to enter their world will indeed baptise those who believe – baptise them not merely with water but with the Holy Spirit and with fire. John is also very clear that there will be no compromise in the judgement that will result from this new radical ministry that is about to commence. Those who accept the message that Jesus will bring will be judged very differently from those who fail to accept this opportunity to enter into a relationship with God. The wheat will be separated from the chaff – and the consequences for the chaff do not make for comfortable reading.
John is throwing out a challenge to those who have come to hear him and that challenge is still being thrown out to us today – and that is quite scary!
God is claiming us for his own, which is wonderful, but how can we reflect this inclusion to encompass everyone.
Jesus approaches John and asks him to baptise Him as well. Luke does not go into any detail about this – it simply happens. Verse 21 “when all the people were being baptised Jesus was baptised too” no special circumstances, no separate ceremony – we see here very clearly how truly human Jesus was as he is baptised in the same way that many of us have been, very simply, with water, a sign of our being welcomed into God’s family here on earth. But what happened next was pretty special and unique. As Jesus is praying “heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on Him in bodily form like a dove” – a beautiful dove, symbol of peace, symbol of God’s covenant with Noah after the flood – settles over Him and a voice comes from Heaven – “You are My Son whom I love, with you I am well pleased”. Just like the words in Isaiah – God calls Jesus by name, He is with him and in him. God knew what was going to happen as a result of Jesus commencing His ministry. He had already written the narrative of Jesus’s life on earth. And he has already written the narrative of our lives. He has called us by name – we simply need to heed that call and follow. Scary stuff – but God has already told us that we need not be afraid. At yesterday’s prayer breakfast David led us in a time of reflection and prayer focusing on the changes that God may be asking us to make both as individuals and as members of this parish family. These scribbles are the result of my prayer and reflection! Looks pretty messy and confused doesn’t it! As I jotted down my thoughts it all felt a bit scary as well! If fact I wrote “where to start” and “overwhelmed”! But I also wrote “focus” “what is really important” “what does God ask of me”. I do feel a bit afraid, and not just of spiders, but I know that gradually these scribbles will make sense and that God will make everything clear. I know that while there may be challenges, there may be tough times, God is right there in it with me – I just need to hold those words from Isaiah in my heart and allow God to scoop me up as he always does every time I need him.
“Do not be afraid for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, you are mine”.