“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 the flame shall not consume you.” What perfect and necessary words at the beginning of another year in which the writing on the wall is again prophetically challenging and unrelenting. We are not promised ease or even rescue but we are promised that we are known, named, loved and companioned through the water and the fire. As we were promised at our baptism. As Jesus was promised at his baptism. (RCL Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17: and Luke 3:15-22)
As we begin another year in which none of the urgent issues of last year seem to have resolved or gone away – the pandemic, the alarming out-workings of climate change, the political landscape of unapologetic greed and lack of vision, and the widening gap between those who have much and those who have not nearly enough – what sweet sustaining and potent words to have spoken over us: “When you pass through the waters I will be with you ... and the flame shall not consume you.” There is no promise that we shall be spared the water and the fire only that we shall be companioned through it and not be consumed. For any who have been through any of the terrible disasters that the world has endured in recent weeks let alone months and years we know that this is no small promise. For many it may feel as though the world has been left to our own devices and that those processes now in momentum are very impersonal – a virus blind to any distinction except its own opportunity, the contagious spirit of fear and anger, a world on fire even in the northern hemisphere’s winter, and the thousand personal disasters we are aware of. But we are promised at the beginning of this year and at our baptism that these are exactly the situations in which we are to be reassured that we are known and ultimately cared for, that rather than afraid we are to trust that we are being called home, that we are being redeemed.
Whenever I listen to one of the promises of God I have learnt to hear it as though someone who has suffered terribly is listening beside me – someone who has lost a loved one through drowning or through fire or equally terrible circumstance – to see if the words will still ring true in the presence of suffering. I am reminded that in the baptism service we are told that the gentle sprinkling of water (or controlled immersion in deeper water) is a ritual that reminds us of the deep waters of death through which our own Lord passed and that because of his journey through death we can trust that in our baptism into his fold, that in our joining of our Lord Jesus Christ in his life and death, that we are promised life that will not end with our death. We are not so much promised being exempt from the terrible suffering that this life can bring but we are promised that we are known, loved, companioned and ultimately claimed as God’s precious Beloved ones no matter how completely this world forgets our name, is indifferent or impotent to end our suffering, and even when we seem alone.
Isaiah’s words also claim that all are being brought home by whatever winding and long road is necessary. I dare to say all because the prophet says everyone who is called by my name, whom I formed and made – and surely that is all of us even when we do not acknowledge the name of God until our dying breath, we are all formed and made by the hand of God our creator. We are all being claimed and called home, even those of us who are from far away, even those of us who are at the ends of the earth. We are all called and being gathered up. This is why I dare to have hope even though the evening news is alarming. This is why I believe that I am called to make peace with all my neighbours and view all I meet as chosen by God even when it would be easier to regard them as different and less important than my chosen ones.
To be baptised is to find out that we belong to the most precious family there is – all of God’s chosen beloved ones (which is everyone and everything!). To be baptised is not to belong to an elite group but to find out that we belong with everyone else and to feel honoured and blessed to do so! If we have any advantage then it is that we get to know that we are loved and belong and need not suffer from the mistaken belief that we are without value. This is not a small blessing or advantage in life!
Some may feel slighted that our club or family is not exclusive or excluding of others who are not good enough or right enough. And some may be confused given that the church has a lot of rules about who can take communion and who can vote and who can or can’t be ordained – we have unfortunately become very good at excluding others! I claim this because not only is this inherent in the words of Isaiah but also in the manner of Jesus’ own baptism. After all John was preaching a baptism of repentance and forgiveness and surely Jesus did not need either. But Jesus lined up with the great unwashed of his time and was baptised with sinners and no one noticed anything until during his baptism a voice was heard and the spirit was perceived as a bird visible to others (only in the gospel of John does the Baptist discern who Jesus is before the actual baptism). Jesus declared his belonging among the very human, the very ordinary, and those in need of a physician. And as we will be reminded in the year to come, as we follow the life and teaching of Jesus, that he chose to spend most of his time with the family of those who did not easily fit in society, who were often ritually unclean, and who were on the edge of proper society. If this is where Jesus chose to live his earthly life who are we to decide who is in and who is out?
And of course we know that the declaration of his Belovedness by God did not spare Jesus from great suffering and death. Jesus did not get to die of dignified old age. He did not get to die a heroic death saving someone from a burning building. He did not even get to die a religious death at the altar. He died at the hands of the oppressors because of the fear and resentment of his own people. He died because he loved so recklessly and completely those who were precious to God. He died as one of us, for us. And in so doing he saved us - not from dying when our time comes but from being dead to ourselves and to God. His way of living and dying brings us into life without end. All of this is told us at our baptism – in poetic ancient words and in ritual actions and in water, the mark of the oil, and in the fire of the candle.
And so at the beginning of another year, for some of us maybe our last year, let us be comforted and encouraged that whatever joy and suffering, plenty or hardship, success or apparent failure, lies ahead that we are known, named, companioned and being gathered into the embrace of God. All is well, all manner of things are well.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, be our companion and dearest redeemer in this year to come.
You may like to also check out last year's blog on the Baptism of Jesus.