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.
2 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.
3 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.
4 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.
5 Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
6 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—
7 everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.” – Isaiah 43:1-7
Today’s passage from Isaiah is a beautiful piece of poetry. If I didn’t know this was from Isaiah, I might think it is from one of the Psalms, with the images offered and the way the lyrics flow – even though we aren’t reading them in the original language.
Isaiah is one of the prophets, but prophetic voice is not about predicting the future or fortune-telling. The prophetic voice is about speaking truth to power.
This passage in particular explores the power that fear and uncertainty can have over us.
So – let’s set the scene for this text. Jerusalem had been destroyed three generations earlier, and the majority of the Hebrew people taken away in exile to the Babylonian Empire. And at this point, a small remnant of the people is allowed to return to Jerusalem – to resettle and rebuild.
Now I say “return” – but most the people who returned had actually been born in exile, more than a thousand miles from this homeland they had only known in stories and other people’s memories.
And what did they find when they entered the area of Jerusalem? The Temple was mostly destroyed, and the city was mostly in ruins. It is important to note that there were people living there – the Samaritans – which might give you some insight about how Samaritans were treated during the time of Jesus.
And so today’s text – it’s one of promise and comfort during uncertain times. This return to Jerusalem was fraught with danger and uncertainty. It was absolutely a scary time – the people had no idea how things would turn out.
How do you rebuild a broken land?
I think many of us have thought these same words this past week, as we marked the one year anniversary of January 6 – a day that armed militants stormed the Capitol – a violent and deadly attack, unlike anything we could have ever imagined.
In the days after the attack last year, one article that stayed with me was about New Jersey Rep. Ted Lieu, an Asian American man. Rep. Lieu went out to the Rotunda once it was safe – around midnight. He saw the mass devastation. While still dressed in his suit, he quietly got down on his hands and knees, putting the wreckage into trash bags. He worked for an hour and a half, until the House was back in Session at 3am to certify the election.
Lieu didn’t tell anyone what he did, but a journalist captured a photo – not realizing this was a member of Congress. Lieu was soon recognized in the photo, and people asked why he was doing that – especially when he still had work to do as an elected official. He replied that he wanted to do something to help repair the damage that has been done.
How do you rebuild a broken land?
Today’s text is focused on reassurance for people trying to rebuild a broken land. We can think about children when they get scared. When my daughter was little, she seriously did not like clowns or people in costumes, like a mascot at a ball game. If one came near, I’d hold her while she turned her head away and cry. I’d tell her I loved her and that things would be alright. That’s what we do when a child is scared or uncertain.
That’s essentially what today’s poem is doing – letting the people know that things will be alright. God is with them and will guide them.
The first verse lets us know that God “created” and “formed” us – the Hebrew words for created and formed are the same ones used in the creation narratives in Genesis. God created humanity in God’s own image, and declared that it was good!
Let’s remember that when Isaiah is talking about creating and forming – it wasn’t just individuals. The community is also created and formed by God!
Isaiah continues to say that the people should not be afraid, because God has redeemed them. Here in the Bible Belt, people often associate “redemption” with eradicating sin. That’s not really what this Hebrew word means – It’s about being freed from a debt.
What kind of things do we want to be freed from? What is weighing us down, causing us to live in fear? What keeps us from rebuilding a broken land?
The scripture not only says that the people are “redeemed” – freed – but also “called.” We are God’s children, called for purpose in this world. People often talk about a “calling” – a way of being in that we know there is something beyond ourselves – a mission. The people who heard these words when they were spoken and written – they knew God had called them to go to a homeland they had never known, and to rebuild the Temple and the city around it.
A calling isn’t usually easy, and oftentimes there are moments we don’t want to answer the call. For those of us in the ministry, we often talk about “call” – God has called us for this work in our lives. And we can’t find peace unless we answer that call.
But this scripture lets us know that God’s calling is a good thing – God has redeemed us – freed us from fear – and we were created and formed as God’s own beloved children. God is always with us.
Cleaning up a terrible mess isn’t easy. The Jewish people of this time period knew that. I have read words by Rep. Ted Lieu in recent days – that he has spent the last year trying to clean up in a variety of ways.
How do we rebuild a broken land?
I don’t have all the answers for that – whether it is our country or brokenness in our own lives. But I do know that God is always with us – loving, guiding, supporting. God journeys with us. Rebuild….
(sermon preached on January 9, 2022)