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. 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. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; 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— everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”â€‹
Pastor Marc's sermon for Baptism of Jesus (January 13, 2019) on Isaiah 43:1-7. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below.
It’s a bit scary to be a newborn...
Because you enter the world exactly as you are. You’re small, defenseless, and a little bit confused because you’re now “outside,” away from that precious inner sanctum where there was warmth and food. A newborn might spend its first few moments being poked and prodded by strangers who are wearing white clothes and shining bright lights in their face. Some newborns enter the world with a cry and a scream while others are completely silent. Every newborn goes through their own unique experience when they enter the world but one thing unites them: they come completely vulnerable. A newborn needs to be taken care of - and that’s, sometimes, a frightening way to live. But newborns, of course, know no other kind of existence. They just...are. And God willing, a community of family, friends, medical professionals, and others commitment themselves to do for this newborn what this newborn can’t do for themselves. A newborn needs a community but that community can be a bit...odd. Many, when meeting a newborn for the first time, can’t help themselves but say “awww.” Some feel an incredible urge to pinch their cheeks while others want to tug at their toes. Still more, without even thinking about it, say frightening things like “they’re so cute - I could just bite them.” Being a newborn isn’t scary only because they need to be taken care of. Being a newborn is scary because so many people in the community around them all seem to come down with what scientists call “cute aggression.”
Cute aggression is pretty common and it’s the catch-all term for when we want to “bite, nibble, squeeze, or smoosh the face of something completely adorable.” Studies show that when people look at photos of tiny and adorable things, we often react with pretty aggressive language. If we suffer from cute aggression, we might find ourselves being flooded by an incredible amount of positive emotions whenever we see a newborn baby or videos of baby otters having fun at the zoo. That feeling of wanting to bite a baby’s thighs doesn’t mean we’re suddenly becoming cannibals. It’s a trick used by our brains to help regulate, release, and moderate those moments when we’re flooded with “positive emotions and caretaking desires.” This experience is pretty much universal and some languages even have specific words to describe it. If it’s cute, a little furry, and a bit helpless, we can go over the top with our feelings of compassion, love, and care. It’s a reaction that, for many of us, is just built into who we are. And that’s okay - because, as we see in our reading from Isaiah today, God sometimes does the exact same thing.
God, in these seven verses, expresses God’s “defining and uncompromising love” for God’s people. Written while a large part of ancient Israel was living in exile, this text affirmed God’s “profound commitment…[a commitment] that persists… and is undisturbed by any circumstance.” God’s words began with a very simple but also very overwhelming command to “do not fear” because God is God - and God’s people will belong to God forever. We can imagine the community who first heard these words being a bit… confused. Because they were living in Babylon, having been forcefully deported by the empire that destroyed Jerusalem and burned God’s Temple. They were far from home and had no idea if they would ever return. So the community was spending a lot of time asking themselves “why?” Why did God let Jerusalem fall? Why did God let their loved ones be hurt, killed, and driven far from home? Why did God, in the face of struggle, fear, doubt, and worry, seem to abandon them to their fate? The community felt, at that very moment, as if they were nothing because everything they held dear - their wealth, their power, their homes, their health, their well-being, and their identity - all of that was basically gone. They weren’t only asking themselves why they were living in exile; they were also wondering who they actually were. They were a community that had lost - and they were now tiny, miserable, and insignificant. Yet it’s to them, to those who are nothing, that God does something that happens no where else in the Bible. God says, forcefully, and explicitly: “I love you.” It isn’t to the mighty or powerful or faithful or perfect that God says these words. Instead, they’re delivered to those who are broken, confused, questioning, and doubting. God declares, vividly, that they have an “intimate and nonnegotiable relationship” with God. God’s promise is that no matter where you are, no matter what you’ve experienced, no matter what you’ve gone through, you are God’s. And God’s love, commitment, and devotion to God’s people will be what defines them. It’s not their doubts, troubles, or circumstances that make them who they are. Their identity is centered in the God who loves and claims them. That love is God’s promise made real and for us who are Christians, that promise is made publically and explicitly in our baptism.
When we pass through the waters and when we hear our name on God’s lips, that’s when we discover exactly who God is for us. In the words of Walter Brueggemann, we read these verses from Isaiah as “illuminations of baptism, a sacrament of relationship whereby we are inducted into the protective and sure care of God.” This claim of relationship doesn’t eliminate the promise first made to the Jewish people. Rather, the words first written for the Israelites in exile are a reminder that God’s faithfulness towards us doesn’t depend on anything we do. Instead, God comes to us first because we are precious in God’s sight. We are, through God’s promise, brought into God’s beloved family through God’s Son, who was born, lived, and who knew what it meant to be broken. When confronted by the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the lost, God could only do what God always does: and that’s just love. God’s love for us ends up being more than just an affirmation of who we are. God’s love also challenges, changes, and transforms us so that we can take seriously what it means to be God’s beloved. If we are loved, if we are claimed by God, and if we truly believe that we are precious in God’s sight, then we are invited to do more than just live our lives; we are invited to discover what it means to live out our identity as the beloved. God’s cute aggression towards those whom God loves is not the limit of God’s relationship. Rather, God keeps telling us over and over again “I love you” because God knows that love is the one thing that will change us into who God knows we can be. We are, no matter our age, always a newborn. We need care. We need attention. And we need love even though we spend much of our lives pretending like we don’t. Yet in our baptism, in our worship, in our faith, and at Jesus’ table, we are reminded that God will never stop saying, “I love you” because God knows that that promise is what will carry us through.
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