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Sermon on Isaiah 43:1-7, Luke 3: 21-22
Baptism of the Lord, Year C/Ordination of Elders & Deacons
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” These words of God to the exiles of Israel break a 50-year silence. The people had been deported out of their homeland 50 years earlier, after their beautiful city was burned to the ground by the invading Babylonian army.
It felt like the end of the world. Certainly, everyone thought it would be the end of the people called Israel. Every trace of their former life was gone: the royal palace, the temple, and the civic structures. The only thing left for the people to do, it seemed, was to assimilate, become part of the Babylonian culture and forget about their former identity.
The experience of exile almost always seems to touch in some way on questions of identity: Who am I when I am away from my home and my people? It’s a painful question for literal exiles, like refugees, but every immigrant knows something of this sense of dislocation: I don’t quite belong here, but I no longer belong in my old country either.
Israel’s exile lasted long enough for a couple of generations to grow up who had never known anything but Babylon. But then, into the silence and paralysis of the exile came a word of hope: the prophet Isaiah announced that God was turning the international tide, that Babylon would be defeated and all the captured people could go home. Isaiah announces this stunning good news from God in words of amazing tenderness: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” The words “do not fear” are repeated twice in the short passage we read today, and over and over again in the surrounding verses. They seem to be God’s favorite words to God’s people: “Do not fear,…for I am your God.” (41:10) “Do not fear, I will help you.” (41:13) “Do not fear, for I am with you.” (43:5)
In fact, one of the most frequently recurring commands in the entire Bible is the directive not to be afraid. God says it to Moses and the kings of Israel and the prophets: “Do not be afraid of Pharaoh.” “Do not be afraid of the king of Assyria and his armies.” “Do not be afraid of the Babylonians.” “Do not be afraid of the people who can curse you and imprison you.” It’s what Gabriel says to unmarried Mary when he tells her she will have a child. It’s what Jesus says to his disciples: “Do not be afraid of the storm.” “Do not be afraid of the Romans.” “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that have no more they can do.” “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” And he says to all of us, “Do not be afraid, for you belong to me.” That is your identity.
When you think about it, that is the assurance we need to hear above all the others, and we don’t hear it very often. Consumer culture tells us about all the ways we can fix our fears: how to hedge against a market crash; how to make ourselves more attractive and thereby avoid rejection; how to stave off the losses of old age for as long as possible. The market has a solution for every kind of fearsome situation. But the underlying message is “Life is actually pretty terrifying – you should be afraid.” Sellers of consumer products and services are not the only ones who play to our fears, of course; many political campaigns are based on exploiting fear, and authoritarian leaders maintain power by keeping fear alive.
It’s possible that some of us, perhaps many of us, have not heard the words “don’t be afraid” since our parents said them to us. Maybe we’d had a nightmare and called out in our sleep and they came to comfort us. Maybe we were afraid of monsters lurking in our rooms and our parents would say “don’t be afraid, I’m here with you.” Or maybe we’d just figured out that the people close to us would die someday, and we would die, and our parents said, “Don’t be afraid, nothing like that will happen for a long, long time.” Why did we believe these words when our parents said them? Because when they said they’d be there with us, if they were the right kind of parents, we knew they would be. As we grew up we realized that there would be bad things that would happen that they couldn’t protect us from, but that they would never abandon us, they would never just leave us to fend for ourselves. We had that assurance because we knew we belonged to them. They said to us what God said to the children of Israel: “You are precious in my sight, and I love you.”
Those very words may have been echoing in Jesus’s head on the day he was baptized. What God said on that day was very similar: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus heard God’s voice
claiming him, establishing his identity. Maybe Jesus also heard those other words from long ago: “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…the flame shall not consume you.”
He needed to keep remembering these words, because the very next thing that happened after his baptism was that he was driven into the wilderness, another place of exile, to be tempted and tested. Through all those forty days of hunger and loneliness, frigid nights and scorching midday heat, and the ever-present threat of wild animals, Jesus must have clung to those words: “You are my Son, the Beloved…You are precious in my sight, and I love you.”
Every time we baptize a baby or a child or an adult, we affirm once again these words of God to the children of God: “You are my beloved. You are precious in my sight. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.” And we say prayers for the person being baptized: prayers that God will watch over them and protect them, defend them from evil, and help them to grow in the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ. We say these prayers knowing that there are certain things in life they cannot be protected from. They can’t be protected from loss and heartbreak, they can’t be protected from certain kinds of failure and disappointment, they can’t be fully protected from sickness or injury, and they can’t ultimately be protected even from death itself. In other words, they cannot be protected from the human condition.
But they don’t have to be afraid. For in our baptism God says to each one of us, “I have redeemed you, you are mine.” The way Paul says it is that nothing in all creation, not even the depths of loss or sorrow or sickness or weakness or failure, not even death, will be able to separate us from God’s love. John Calvin put it yet another way: “God refuses to be deprived of his rightful possession.”
The elders and deacons who are being ordained and installed today may sometimes have reason to feel afraid. After all, the responsibility of leading and caring for a 320-member congregation falls to them. Their ordination calls them to lives of service, witness, and “a manner of life …[that is] a demonstration of the Christian gospel in the church and in the world.” Ordination confers awesome responsibility and, by the grace of God, the gifts of the Spirit to carry out this responsibility. Remember, though, that ordination, to whatever office, is secondary to baptism. Baptism is what gives us our Christian identity; ordination is simply one way of living out our baptismal identity. In fact, in our denomination’s ordination service, there is an option for not only the new church leaders but the whole congregation to reaffirm its baptismal vows. (We’ll be doing a shorthand version of this by reciting the Apostles’ Creed together, and will reaffirm our baptism in a service later this year, in Lent.) The point is that baptism is the basis of our first calling, the call to love and serve God whatever we do, because we belong to God. The deacons and elders being ordained today are responding to that first call in a special way.
Whether we are elders or deacons, clergy or faithful congregation members, we are God’s rightful possession. That is our baptismal assurance. We have been “sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.” We are bound to him and he is bound to us, through life and death and life again.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
January 20, 2019