The powerful words of the prophet, Isaiah, spoken so long ago to a people in exile, are ones I have carried close to my heart for more than half my life. At least in part, I expect this is so because of how they first came to me. (To read that story, click on this to reach a blog post from a few years back.) It is more than that by now, though. Committed to memory as they are, I cannot count the number of times I have spoken them to people who similarly find themselves in ‘far from home’ in any number of ways.
A few weeks back it was in a stark white visiting room at the county jail. In these last weeks, it has been mine to call upon a young woman who has found herself there, cut off from family and friends: from a life she loved. I had brought her a Bible, but quickly learned she was not familiar with much of the story you and I take for granted. So I turned to these words which I love deeply, sensing they might speak to her. And so they did — these powerful words of God’s claim on her and God’s promised protection come what may. In the midst of an otherwise heartbreaking hour, her eyes just shone to hear the wonder of these words.
And then on New Year’s Eve, I bent over the hospital bed of one too young to find himself so close to death. His wife stood beside me, his children and daughter-in-law leaned in close from the other side of the bed. And again, I spoke these words of God’s claim and God’s love and God’s enduring promise.
Indeed, these are powerful, comforting, hope-filled words for people who find themselves in threatening circumstances. And yet, for all my love of these promises, at times I cannot help but wonder how it is they are heard. What I mean to say is that young woman in the county jail is facing a potentially long prison term, perhaps with unthinkable dangers. And the husband and father and grandfather in that hospital bed has now gone on hospice care. By all the measures you and I know, they are not only walking through fire, but we might understand that fire to be not only burning them, but consuming them. To outside eyes it is clear that the water is, in fact, on the verge of overwhelming them. Oh it is so that I struggle with this realizing that too many of those who share the faith I hold do so in a way which understands that God will protect them from all that threatens. Only it would appear that it just doesn’t always work that way.
Indeed, it is telling for me now that these powerful words of promise are paired today with Luke’s account of the baptism of Jesus. Jesus whose life did not measure up to much by those standards you and I often hold dear. He never married or had a family. From all we can tell he owned no property, had no wealth to pass on once he died. The results of his work were awfully hard to measure: unless you kept track of the numbers healed and taught and fed. A whole lot of the time the crowd he hung around with was not the sort that could help him ‘get ahead.’ In fact, they were those most respectable folks then and now might mostly avoid. In the end, Jesus died a painful, shameful death, abandoned by his closest followers. If we stop shy of Easter it is certainly hard to understand how God kept the promises which resound for us now.
Of course, we do not, we cannot stop shy of Easter, though. And that alone reminds us that God’s protection is something far greater than what we see on the surface.
For this is so. Each and every one of us will find ourselves journeying a path which ends in death: not likely death on a cross, of course, but one where the fire has burned and the river has finally overwhelmed. Indeed, many of those who first took these words of promise from the prophet to heart no doubt knew powerful struggle and suffering before they finally reclaimed their homes. Without a doubt, some never lived long enough to see their dream of home come true. And in the end, all of them eventually experienced consuming fire and rivers which overwhelmed. So these words of promise must be about protection from a different kind of fire, mustn’t they? They must speak of protection from being overwhelmed by a different kind of river altogether…
Now I certainly don’t know for sure, but I imagine instead that this promised protection is:
- from suffering that is devoid of meaning — from fire that only consumes which does not refine…
- from days and lives lived without purpose — where that very purpose is drowned out by doubt or fear…
- from hearts which only survive instead of thriving on hope — where the loneliness overwhelms and we forget God’s presence altogether…
Oh, don’t you suppose that this promised protection is from lives which are only existing and not truly living?
For being claimed and loved by God brings power and purpose — to Jesus, yes, but also to each and every one of us who have heard even a whisper of the promise Jesus hears today: “You are my Child, the beloved…” But that power and purpose are not only for this like alone. Oh, these must be promises which extend far beyond the physical and must carry us not only through this life but into life eternal, don’t you think? And isn’t it ours to begin and end each day wondering at the meaning of having been called by name… and belonging to God.
For that must mean something for all that has gone before and everything that follows, doesn’t it?
Oh, surely that means something for our “every day,” even now don’t you think?
- How do you hear the words of the prophet Isaiah today?
- What water is God accompanying you through?
- What river is God not allowing to overwhelm you?
- What flames are somehow not consuming you?
- Why do you think these promises are paired with the story of Jesus’ baptism?
- The words of Isaiah are ones which I have carried close to my heart for a very long time. Sometimes they are words of powerful comfort and other days I wrestle with them. Are there promises from scripture which you carry especially close? What are they? What is your relationship with them?