Let us pray: “Do not be afraid; I am with you. I have called you each by name. Come and follow me. I will lead you home. I love you and you are mine.” Your providence and your care for us never ceases, and yet we are prone to wander: wander to the grass that looks better to us; wander towards the streams that appear more refreshing. Draw us close, and when we stray, may we, your flock, hear your unwavering assurance of your love and presence in our lives. O God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing and acceptable to you. For you, O LORD, are our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
If ever there were twelve words that raise our anxiety as soon as we hear them, they are: “We are going to break up into groups of two or three.” Immediately, we begin to scan our surroundings, hoping that we are close enough to a familiar person that we can form our groups quickly. It doesn’t matter whether we are forming pairs in our group exercise class, small groups to process new material we have just learned in a larger group setting, or a small group to pray together. No one wants to be left standing without a place or a group with whom they belong. We are wired to belong: whether we are extroverted or introverted, we, like other mammals and animals grow, learn, and thrive when we are part of a larger community.
As humans we derive our sense of belonging from a variety of means. Certainly, our DNA identifies us, and for a small price, we can take a test at home and learn the history of our genetics and ancestry. Sometimes, we derive our sense of belonging from external factors: a high school varsity sports team, our academic pursuits, our professions, our accomplishments, and/or our acquisitions. Ultimately, each one of us needs to hear who it is who gives us our identity and value.
The prophet poet in the second book of Isaiah is addressing a nation who, for all intents and purposes, has been stripped of its identity—at least they believe that they have been stripped of their identity. In the first book of Isaiah, the prophet is sent to warn the people of Judah that they have broken covenant with God; they have treated their servants harshly in order to line their own pockets. As the prophet lays out God’s judgment, the people of Israel implore the prophet to speak flattering words and truthful visions. Israel continued to disregard the prophet’s words, and by the time the poem from Isaiah 43 is recorded, the people of Israel find themselves robbed, plundered, trapped in holes, and imprisoned. Marginalized and nearly extinct, exiled in the Babylonian Empire, the people of Israel begin question whether the promises of God, the Holy One of Israel is still present to them and can be believed. They wonder if God has left them for a nation of more righteous people, or if they are but a pawn that will once again be ransomed away.
In their history, Israel had seen waters cover their heads and God had delivered them. They had walked in a cloud by day and a pillar by night, in the safety and provision of God. But, Israel had turned its back on God; the people had broken covenant, and so now how could they but wonder whether they would be singed as they walked through the flames?
God, like a parent, does not forget the child. A couple of weeks ago, I flipped through the TV channels, looking for a program with which to veg out. I happened upon the program “The First 48.” It is a show that follows homicide detectives as they work their cases. The premise is that if the detectives do not come up with a lead within the first 48 hours, then the odds of solving the case are cut in half. This particular episode featured the murder of a woman committed by her ex-boyfriend. That, in and of itself, was horrible, but what made this case even more heinous is that the primary witness was the 4 year old daughter of this couple. As I watched the program, I could not help but think of our 4 year old daughter, and how as parents, we would sacrifice our lives in order to ensure the safety and security of her brother and her. As parents, our natural inclination is to love and to protect our children.
If we, as humans, have the expectation that a parent’s role is love and to protect and a child’s role is to be loved, be protected, and to flourish, then why do we not have the same expectation of God? Why does it move us and surprise us that God, the speaker, in this poem from Isaiah 43, says, “Don’t fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine.” Dr. Roy Heller, an Old Testament theologian asserts that one of the characteristics of God is that God is possessive. In fact, he says, that more love God has for humanity, the more possessive God will be. God is protective and possessive, and because God is faithful in his covenant with humanity, we are to trust unabashedly that our identity resides in the one God who has created us.
Yet, like the Israelites, when we find ourselves distanced from God with our souls plundered, we ask, “How did we end up in Babylon? Why does it feel like God has abandoned us?” When we witness communities of people in the Philippines living in a dump, we wonder, “Has God abandoned us?” When a dictator in Syria engages in chemical warfare against his own country, we wonder, “Has God abandoned us?” When our elected officials are in gridlock over border security and more than 800,000 workers are furloughed or on unpaid leave, we wonder, “Has God abandoned us?” When a thirteen year old girl is kidnapped after her parents are murdered, we wonder, “Has God abandoned us?” When we feel lonely, isolated, and misunderstood, we ask, “Has God abandoned us?”
God’s response to this question, is “I am God, your personal God,
The Holy of Israel, your Savior. I paid a huge price for you: all of Egypt, with rich Cush and Seba thrown in! That’s how much you mean to me! That’s how much I love you! I’d sell off the whole world to get you back, trade the creation just for you.” God does not act on a whim, but is intentional in the activity and care of Israel. God does not act on a whim in the activity and care of each one of us, but loves us enough to come down and dwell among us in the person of Jesus, and through Jesus demonstrates love in the crucifixion, death, and resurrection. God does not act in this matter for a select few; God has no qualifiers for who is able to experience this radical care and love. This love is available to persons of all ages, nations, genders, and races.
Years ago, I sat in the trailer home of my brother and former sister-in-law. My oldest niece, then age 2, was pointing and naming everyone in the room: Daddy, Mommy, Baby Love (her younger sister), Nanny (my mom), Aunt Carmen. I could not believe what I heard. I kept asking her, “Who am I? Who am I?” There was nothing like having this little human being name me as one who was known by her and belonged to her.
It does not surprise me then, that God does not leave Israel to drown its own squalor. A God who loves what and who has been created, a God who is faithful and loving would not and does not do that. In fact, God so desires to be reconciled to humanity that he calls us from the east, the west, the north, and the south. God calls us from the ends of the earth. God calls all who have been created for God’s glory and whom God formed and made. That is everybody or as I like to say, “all y’all.” Beloved, listen. Listen to the one who created you, the one who formed you, “Don’t fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine. Hold fast to this promise and allow the water of our baptism to form us and re-form us a children of God, born to offer ourselves for the glory of God. Amen.