I Have Called You By Name; You Are Mine

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Baptism of Our Lord
January 10, 2016
Isaiah 43:1-7
Peder Stenslie

Over the last few years that we’ve had game night on Thursdays, I’ve enjoyed going from cottage to cottage and playing ping pong (like I did this last Thursday in Brown).  I have lost a fair number of these ping pong games, but I’ve won some as well.

And more than once, I’ve heard the comment, after I’ve won a couple games:  “It’s not fair; he’s got Jesus on his side.”

That’s a funny comment!  And maybe it raises some important questions.  For example, it really would be good to have Jesus on our side, wouldn’t it?  And… what would it mean to have Jesus on our side?  How would things change for us?  Would we really win more ping pong games?

I think it’s safe to say that Jesus really isn’t interested in strengthening anyone’s ping pong game.  However, Jesus is interested in filling our lives with healing and hope and strength.  And… it’s important to know… Jesus is and always has been on your side.

It’s important to know that, because life can be brutal and unfair.  As you all know, even in a society as rich and peaceful and stable as ours, life is full of trouble.  There is pain, illness, failure, fear, loss and grief.  Sometimes… it is really overwhelming.

Just as the world is that way today, so is the bible full of stories of people who are overwhelmed with trouble.

The people the prophet Isaiah spoke to in today’s O.T. lesson had known great pain and sorrow for many years.  They had lost their freedom to a foreign power and were living in forced exile in Babylon.  They felt lost and forsaken.  They felt like they had no future, no hope.

To these grieving people the prophet Isaiah announces powerful news.  They are told to remember, in these times of trouble, who they are and who God is.  Isaiah writes: “Thus says the Lord… he who created you… he who formed you:  Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”

This truth is where our hope always springs from… the truth that you and I share the breath of life that comes from the same source…the creator of all that is… the author of life.  We live because God, in great love, called us into being… formed us into the creatures we are.

Because he created us, he calls us by name and declares that we belong to him.  And from all our pain and trouble… and from everything that has ever threatened, or ever will threaten, to tear us away from our creator and deny his will for us… God redeems us.  He has declared that despair, grief, shame, loss, sin, death… these things cannot have us.  The first and final acts of life belong to God, and he will always act to save what is his.

The prophet Isaiah sees and knows the pain of God’s people.  Neither he, nor any other prophet, ever declares that people of God will not suffer. Sometimes, we think that’s the way it should be, and therefore assume that those who suffer must be forsaken by God.  In truth, God’s people often suffer greatly.

That is what God means when he promises through Isaiah: “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.”

Walking through water and flame refer to living through painful and hard times.  These are common experiences for God’s people.

We continue to grieve the loss of our wonderful brother Bill… and also others who are dear to us who have died… whose loss we still feel sharply… and probably will our whole lives.  In African American spirituals, which Bill enjoyed so much, crossing the River Jordan was metaphor for dying and coming to God… passing through waters.

We are mindful of the terrible suffering faced by people all across the planet due to war, poverty, hatred and hunger, especially in Syria where reports are now coming of starvation deaths in areas that have been completely cut off by war.

In two days, it will be the 6th anniversary of the devastating Haiti earthquake which killed over a quarter of a million Haitians, as well as Pastor Renee’s first Husband, Ben Larson.  He died, while doing ministry there, in the name of Christ.  Who can comprehend such tragedy, destruction and death?  It is not possible.

Your time of incarceration… and the circumstances and choices that brought you here… these are times of walking through water and flame for you.

Yet as we walk through water and flame, the word of God fills us with hope and strength… and even joy.  God is with us, as we… or those we love… face hard and painful times.  This is not his will for you.  He is calling you forward to something new.

Isaiah’s words in today’s Old Testament lesson are meant to sustain God’s people who suffer or are in trouble.  They are meant to give them strength and hope.  They are meant to remind them where they come from, where they are, and where they are going.  God’s people are never lost or forsaken. They are never alone.  They are never without hope.   They are always in the hand and heart of God.

Listen to these words from our Isaiah passage that explain why we are never lost or without hope: “Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you….  Do not fear, for I am with you.”

All one has to do is look at the world around us… the sun and stars, the hills and rivers and all living things… to know that nothing can be more powerful than the love of God that powers creation.

And there is no greater expression of God’s love for us than Jesus Christ.  There is no greater expression of his will to be with us or of his work to redeem us from sin and suffering.

Christ was the very being of God in human flesh.  He walked among us, tending to the sick and outcast, raising the dead (sharing with us the Kingdom of God in his words and actions).  To make his identification with us complete and total, he suffered rejection and cruel hatred.  He entered the darkest anguish that people can know… the anguish of feeling completely forsaken by God… as he endured painful death on the cross.  He did this to be with us wholly through all things, and to redeem us from sin and death in all its forms.

That is what is proclaimed to us today through scripture.  All of us, in times of trouble, need to take strength and hope from the Word of God that we hear today: “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you….  Do not fear, for I am with you….  I created you.  I formed you.  I have called you by name, you are mine.”