“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... because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”
(Isaiah 43:1b-2a, 4b)
Edvard Munch is an expressionist painter from the turn of the 20th century who tried to capture human emotion in much of his artwork. He is best known for his painting “The Scream.” The painting captures the anxiety of a person walking on a boardwalk in the tranquility of sunset. The fear on the face of the person stands in stark contrast to the peacefulness of day’s end.
This painting has found a resurgence of popularity in our modern society. Reproductions of the painting can be bought in stores, the face can be found copied onto t-shirts and coffee mugs, even onto socks! People resonate with this painting. Why?
Fear and anxiety are especially prevalent in this day and age. People are plagued by a multitude of fears ‒ disease and sickness, economic hardship, global warming, gun violence, racial division, racial prejudice, political unrest, domestic violence, sexual abuse, the workload at school, the workload at work. And fear is experienced internally but not necessarily expressed externally, which means there are many people walking around in our midst who are overwhelmed by fear, but we don’t see it on their faces. So, the scream is real but it’s internal.
Ancient Israel would have identified with this painting. They were screaming inside as they walked the foreign streets of Babylon. This nation-state of God felt abandoned by God and stripped of their identity as God’s people. How could they believe their own story of being God’s chosen people when their nation was overrun by a foreign army, the Temple demolished stone by stone, and the people led away as slaves of another nation? Oh, they remembered the stories of how God delivered from the waters when they were freed from Egypt, and how they were led by a pillar of fire through the wilderness to the Promised Land... but where was their hope now? Where was their future now? Fear and anxiety were their diet and faith languished. For when fear creeps into your soul, it eats away at your faith.
So, the prophet Isaiah speaks a word of hope to pierce their fear and anxiety. “It is I who created you. It is I who formed you,” says God. God claims responsibility for their existence as their Creator. Could a birth mother ever forget her child? So how could God ever forget God’s own people? The One who lovingly shaped each of us and breathed life into our bodies could never forsake us. “You are mine. I have redeemed you. I have called you by name.” So just as Israel had no need to fear the chaotic waters or the dangers of fire, neither does she need to fear the plight of her foes. As God created a nation once, so God can re-create that nation again... God can gather her up and bring Israel home once more.
The prophet makes it clear that God is willing to bargain away every other nation in exchange for this one. God loves all creation deeply; but this nation has a special place in God’s heart and a special part in God’s plan of salvation, so God is willing to do whatever it takes, including sacrifice God’s creation in exchange for Israel. So, as dark as it is around them presently, as difficult as it is not to fear, Israel must trust in God’s love and believe God’s promise of redemption. God never quits loving us and claiming us!
It’s appropriate that this passage from Isaiah is coupled with Luke’s story of the baptism of Jesus because Luke’s story reminds us that the waters of baptism are how we are marked and claimed by God. This is how we know we are loved by God and claimed as children of God. The baptism of Jesus is an act of solidarity... he jumps into the waters of life with us – into the chaos and confusion of it all, because it is through these waters that salvation comes. And while he is in the water, the heavens are opened, and the Holy Spirit descends upon him like a dove. And Jesus hears a voice from heaven say: “You are my child, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.” And with those words Christ is ordained as Messiah by God who loves him and who tells him so.
So, we are invited to jump into the waters as well where God claims us as God’s own and calls us, too. Professor and theologian John Leith says: “In baptism, the child’s name is called because our faith is that God thought of this child before the child was, that God gave to this child an identity, an individuality, a name and a dignity that no one should dare abuse. Human existence has its origin not in the accidents of history and biology, but in the will and intention of the Lord God, creator of heaven and earth.”
Beautiful words, wonderful words, wonderful words of life. “You are my child whom I love. With you I am well pleased.” When Jesus heard those words, it changed his life forever. And they will change us too and the life of our children and grandchildren and all who come to the waters. They clarify our identity. They take away our fears. They allow us to follow God through the wilderness of life in faith. The good news for each of us is – you are a child of God!
New Testament professor and preacher Fred Craddock told the story of a time he was on holiday in Tennessee. He and his wife were eating at a table in a restaurant when an elderly man came into the restaurant and started working the room ‒ talking to people and asking them how their holiday was going. Fred secretly hoped he wouldn’t bother with them, but he did. He came right over, shook Fred’s hand and asked him what he did for a living. Fred saw the chance to get rid of him – “I am a preacher!” he said.
The man paused and said, "Oh, you’re a preacher? Have I got a good story for you.” And with that, the gentleman pulled up a chair and sat down at their table. He explained that he was born an illegitimate child... never had a father ‒ a source of great shame in a small town in the early twentieth century. He too was ashamed of who he was and the children at school seemed to know it. Some even taunted him in the schoolyard saying: “Who’s your daddy?”
One day a new preacher came to the local church. The youngster he had never gone to church, but he’d heard this preacher was good, so he decided to go check him out one Sunday. He was good! The boy went back again, and again. In fact, he started attending just about every week. But his shame went with him, so he would always arrive late and leave early in order to avoid having to greet anyone. He didn’t want them to know who he was.
One Sunday he got so caught up in the sermon that he forgot to leave ahead of time. Before he knew it, the service was over, and the aisles were filling. He rushed to get past people and out the door, but as he did, he felt a heavy hand land upon his shoulder. He turned around to see the preacher, a big tall man, looking down at him asking, “Son, who’s your daddy?” The little boy died inside, when that question was asked... it was the very thing he wanted to avoid about himself. It felt like every eye in the church was upon him. He tensed and went red at the prospect of having to answer. And the preacher, sensing the situation was awkward, responded with a discernment that only the Spirit could have given, saying: “Wait a minute ‒ I know who you are! Yes, the resemblance is striking... You are a child of God. That’s it!” With that, he patted the boy on his shoulder and said, “Boy, you've got a great inheritance – now go and claim it.”
With that, the boy smiled for the first time in a long time and walked out the door a changed person. And after that whenever anybody asked him, “'Who's your daddy?” he'd just tell them, “God is! I am a child of God.”
The distinguished gentleman got up from the table and said, "Isn't that a great story?" Fred nodded in agreement. He turned and started to leave, but then turned back and said: "You know, if that new preacher hadn't told me that I was a child of God, I probably would never have amounted to anything!" And he walked away. Fred and his wife sat in stunned silence at their table.
After he was gone, Fred called the waitress over to his table and said, “Do you know who that was who was sitting at our table?” She grinned and said, "Of course. Everybody here knows him. That's Ben Hooper ‒ former governor of Tennessee!"
We are living in an age of deep anxiety today. People are concerned about many things and for some life seems to be spiraling out of control. They’re lost and they’re lonely, despite how connected we all are with social media. Problem is, you can’t always see it on their faces because fear is an inward experience, but it’s real.
I had a person ask me this week ask me this week to pray for a member of their family because they’re struggling with life and having thoughts of suicide. If you saw this person, you’d never guess they were struggling this way... young, talented, and physically healthy. I told them ‒ “whatever else you do, make sure you remind them how much they are loved.”
So, let me assure you of that too. Remember that God made you, God knit you together in your mother’s womb and gave you an identity, a personality, and many gifts, and God loves you with a love beyond all measure. People sometimes think their value comes from the shoes they wear, or the shirts they put on, or the car they drive. Our value is far more permanent that that. Our value comes from God who claims us as God’s own.
And at your baptism, God claimed you as a child of God and gave you a name that God never forgets. Ever. You may forget God, but God never forgets you! Let God’s love be your foundation because no child of God is ever without hope.
So, go from here and remind others who they are – a child of God... there’s nothing more foundational and blessed than that.