The second of the group of prophets we know as Isaiah had a message from God. God told him to tell it to the people. So Isaiah told all the people. And Isaiah, or his scribe, wrote it down, so that the message could be passed on, so that we could hear God’s message today, 2,556 years (approx.) later.
And God really wants you to hear this message today. So close your eyes and listen hard to the message again. This is for you:
Do not be afraid, 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.
The hymn we sang just now is based on this message from God. Let’s think about what it means for us.
God has called you by name. God knows you, personally. You belong to God. He loves you and cares for you. This takes us to our baptism. You may have been baptised as a small child, or you may have been baptised as a young person or as an adult. God claimed you at that point, even if you didn’t make your own commitment to following Jesus until some time later. We are already part of God’s family, because God made us in the first place. At baptism, our families made a corporate decision that we should be part of the body of Christ, or we made that decision for ourselves some time later. A lot of the families who bring their children to baptism here probably don’t really understand that. They want the best for their children, and that’s why they bring them. People in the church grumble that we never see them again. That is not our business. Our responsibility is to welcome the families, help them to understand as much as they can take on, and give them a good experience of church. Then we have to leave it to the Holy Spirit, though there are a number of things we can do in the meantime to help support and encourage the families, by trying to keep in touch, by inviting them to things that might interest them, such as Fun @ 4 or the Christingle service. If they ever heard us moaning about them, even if they picked it up through our non-verbal signals, that would put them off even more. So we have to be quite humble about this. If they don’t come back, it could be partly our fault. And of course, it reflects on the nature of our world and our culture today. God has called each of us by name, and he calls each child and each family who come to church for baptism. Let us honour the tiny little bit of faith that brings the families to church.
God says “Do not be afraid”. We are full of fear. Fear for ourselves and our futures. As young adults, we have fears about employment or lack of it, of paying the bills, fears for our families. As older people, we fear for our health and the way we can’t do the things we used to any more. God says, “Do not be afraid”. We are in God’s hands. The only thing we should fear is the state of our relationship with God. Everything else flows from that. God has saved us, saved us from ourselves and the way we mess up over and over again. God always helps us to start over again.
That doesn’t mean that we will have an easy life when we put our faith in Jesus, quite the opposite, but the only thing that matters is sorted.
Isaiah’s message from God goes on: When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you. That seems a bit ironic after the flooding in different parts of Britain over the last 3 weeks! Here in Gateshead, we haven’t had it too bad, not like 3 years ago when many families were made homeless. This could lead to a whole debate about the causes of flooding, and what should or should not have been done to prevent it. The fact is that weather patterns are changing and we need to be wiser about the way we respond as a society. I pray that God will help our governments and local authorities make those big decisions.
The message continues: When you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. Fortunately, the threat from fire is limited – because over the years, we have as a nation attended to fire safety and to having a good fire and rescue service. However, in the countries in the middle east where there is war and violence, the bombing makes fire a real and constant threat.
Fire and water also have a spiritual meaning in God’s message. This reading from Isaiah, proclaimed around 570 years before Jesus was baptised has helped Christians to think about baptism, because in baptism, we are brought through the waters, whether by immersion into them or symbolically by having water poured over us. Water is a symbol of the chaos that existed before God intervened, just as the recent floods have brought chaos. God will bring us safely through that turmoil. Fire is a symbol of spiritual danger and of sin. God will save us from that. God has already saved us.
Jesus himself entered into the water and was baptised. At the end of his life on earth, he entered into the fire of torture and death. And he did that for us. God was showing us how much he loved us. God was telling us through Jesus not to be afraid, not to be overwhelmed. God has saved us. God has called us. We belong to God. And now we need to live out our baptisms in our own lives and in this church – without fear.