Isaiah 43 But now, this is what the Lord says—he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. 2 When you pass through the waters,I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers,they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned;the flames will not set you ablaze. 3 For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior; I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush and Seba in your stead. 4 Since you are precious and honored in my sight and because I love you, I will give people in exchange for you,nations in exchange for your life. 5 Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bring your children from the east and gather you from the west. 6 I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’and to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’ Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth—7 everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”
Who are you? That was a question I had to stand and answer in the Fellowship Hall of this church a few weeks ago. I went for the first time to a meeting of Narcotics Anonymous, which meets here every Friday night. I had told a few people there who I was and why I had come—not because I’m a narcotics addict (I’m not), but to meet them and learn about what they do. Was that okay? I asked.
“Sure,” they said. “Its an open meeting.”
There were about 40 people when the meeting started, and it began with each person saying, “Hi! I’m Mike—or Ralph—or Sheila– and I’m an addict!” Everyone would reply, “Hi, Mike!” or “Hi Ralph” and “Keep on coming! It works!”
When it came my turn, I stood up and said, “Hi. I’m Matt, and I’m an addict…” I was just gearing up to say, “And I pastor the church that meets in this building, and narcotics are not my issue, although whenever I lose control, or whenever I lose certainty, or lose face and status, or lose time and am late to something, I go through something like withdrawal. Those must be my addictions.” But I hesitated, and they immediately said, “Hi, Matt,” and “Keep on coming; It works!” And then the next person stood up to say, “Hi, I’m Keith, and I’m an addict.” So, to about 35 people here in South Minneapolis, my face will register as a fellow narcotics addict in recovery. Should I pass them on the street, they might smile and say, “Hi Matt,” and “Keep on coming!”
But you know, I really don’t mind being counted among them. Jesus didn’t shrink from being counted among repentant sinners, in the waters of baptism, as we heard today. Nor did he shrink from being counted among rebels, bandits and slaves on a cross reserved for them. And I’m not sinless like he was. I actually found it inspiring to be among strugglers and survivors like the folks at N.A. I like how they answer the question, “Who are you?” with “I’m an addict,” or “I’m a grateful, recovering addict,” they said. That’s an identity based not on the transient, temporary things that divide us, not on things that advertisers or their former drug pushers pushed on them, but in real, honest-to-God things that can unite us.
In the words of today’s passage from Isaiah 43, they are “fire and water” people. They have been through the rising waters and raging rivers of Isaiah 43: 2 and have lived to tell the tale. They have been through the fires of verse 3, so they might be a bit crisp and smoky around the edges. But they have not been consumed, like so many of their friends who are now six feet under the snow. Some of their scars come from the hand they were dealt in life: being born and raised in poverty, racism and cycles of trauma, shame, abuse and neglect. But they’ll be the first to admit that they also wasted some of the few good cards they had, that they brought some of the floods and fires of life upon themselves. Some of their scars, burns and watermarks are self-inflicted.
I thought of them all this week as I pondered today’s passage from Isaiah 43. It answers the question, “Who are you?” We need to come back to that question from time to time, because so many people stand ready to answer it for us. Usually they’re wrong. For those of us in junior high, everyone may be telling us that we’re really popular, and can do no wrong,” or “You’re unpopular, and you can never do right.” Advertisers, drug pushers alike tell us we’re incomplete, or insufficient until we buy their product. Either way, they’re dead wrong about us.
Ask somebody, “Who are you?” and you’re likely to hear: “I’m a teacher” or “an office manager.” But in the face of a doctor’s dreaded diagnosis, or a pink slip from the boss, that answer to the question, “Who am I?” is suddenly up in the air. “Who am I?” is the question people try to answer with those bumper stickers that say, “I smoke and I vote” or “I own guns and I vote.” We just came through another year of identity politics, in which political parties and their consultants spent vast sums of money and did in-depth research to define us, and so tailor their campaigns at us, depending on how much we earn, where we live, who we love, what we like, what we watch, what we do, and what we consume.
But those kinds of identities don’t really tell anybody who we are, deep down. I’m convinced that they do more to set us up, against each other, than to build us up, together. They’re nothing we can base our Christian lives on, or churches, let alone countries or communities. So many of our problems in life are based on such cases of mistaken identities.
This passage from Isaiah 43 also reminded me of lots of people, myself included, who could also say that at some point in our lives we too have been through hell and high water, or who are going through it even now, whether we were totally innocent and undeserving of those flames and floods, or whether we brought them on ourselves, or a combination of the two. Maybe it was a breakdown in physical or mental health, like anxiety or depression, or the breakup of an intimate relationship, a marriage or a family. Temptations that we dare not name, unless we sense that someone else has gone through them too. Or hostility and estrangement where you’d least expect it, such as from family or the church.
For much of the world church, it would be a luxury to have such problems. Their fires and floods have to do with poverty, persecution and war. In fact, the title of a book we read in adult Christian Education, Through Fire and Water, was drawn from this very passage. It was about early Anabaptist history and all that our spiritual ancestors suffered five centuries ago. And when we looked at this passage in last Tuesday morning’s sermon roundtable breakfast, we agreed, “Hey, that’s my story, both the disaster and the deliverance.”
But if we’re going to call ourselves Isaiah 43 people, we should remember three things: 1) this passage was originally not about any of us, personally; 2) its about a people before its about any individual persons; and 3) its about God before its about us. Get those three things down, and then it can help us answer the question, “Who are you?”
If Isaiah 43 was not originally about us, who is it for? Some 2700 years ago when the prophet uttered and recorded these words, he was thinking about his Hebrew people, the nation, who were either in exile, or who would soon go into exile in Babylon.
First, he names them Jacob, or “heel-grabber,” after their ancestor, the trickster, shyster, con artist and thief who stole his brother Esau’s blessing and inheritance. That’s so they’ll remember why they are going into exile. They too have played fast and loose with God. Their day of reckoning is at hand, like when Jacob had to flee the uncle he had cheated, and return to face his estranged and offended brother.
But then Isaiah calls them, “Israel,” which means, “He has struggled with God.” or “God’s struggler.” That was the new name given to Jacob after he wrestled with God all night before he faced up to his brother. In that progression, from the name Jacob to the name, Israel, is our first hint that there will be a morning after the day of reckoning.
The waters and rivers in this passage are symbols or metaphors of suffering, yes, but they’re also literal waters. Isaiah is reminding them of when God brought their ancestors through the Red Sea and the Jordan River. But he’s also pointing their attention eastward, to when they’ll have to go through the Jordan again, and then the mighty rivers and canals of Babylon.
As for going through the fire, there’s a literal aspect to that, too. The Babylonians made a bonfire of Jerusalem. There was the fiery furnace through which Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego passed in the time of Daniel. And no, they would not all survive the fiery trial and the disastrous flood they were soon to endure. Many persons would vanish or die in exile. But God is promising that the nation and the people of Israel would survive and return from their hell and high water. And they have.
But even then, those ancient Hebrews were not the subject of this passage and these promises. The words are addressed to them, but the passage is actually about God, who names himself at least eight different ways in this passage: as Israel’s creator, redeemer, rescuer, Israel’s master, lover, father, protector and guide through the fire and water. God is the subject; the nation is the object of God’s faithful, saving actions and affections.
Now if we have that all down, that this passage is about God before its about us, and that it was first addressed to our Hebrew spiritual ancestors, as a nation, then we can begin seeing if and how we too might be Isaiah 43 people. And if we’re looking for permission to apply the identities and destinies of Isaiah 43 to ourselves, Jesus gave it to us when he taught us his prayer, the one that begins with, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”
“Father” as in the great parenting, mothering, fathering God of Isaiah 43, who says to Babylon and Egypt and everywhere else that his people are scattered, “Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth.” Whenever Jesus prayed to his Abba Father God, and when he taught his disciples to so pray to his Abba Father God, they would have thought of Isaiah 43 and of this act and identity of God: the one who calls and gathers his scattered children in exile. So whenever we pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven….” we are responding to the God who is calling all his children home.
Like on those summer evenings some of us may remember, when the street lights came on and the night hawks began calling and we’d hear the familiar voice interrupting our games with the neighboring children, like “Kick the can,” “Freeze Tag” or “Bear Around the Corner,” (anybody remember those games?) calling our names, and we would call back, “Woops! Gotta Go! I’m coming, Mom!” God, who gave us the family name, and is calling us homeward.
So, who are we? Who are you? Our true, real, eternal identity is based on who God is, on what God does, and how God calls us and names us. We are sinners like Jacob, becoming strugglers and survivors like Israel; we are the beloved of God, God’s ransomed, rescued and redeemed, survivors of hell and high water, bearing scars, burns and water marks, yet also honored and esteemed by God, for whom God will ransack even the remotest nations and empires to find us, redeem us, to gather us, and to bring us home.
The same goes for everyone we meet. Remember that, especially when something about someone else gets our goat and we just so want to load up our verbal guns for bear and let them have it. They too are sinners, like Jacob, but they are also strugglers and survivors like Israel. What we’re seeing in their shortcomings that scare us or offend us just might be the scars and burns and watermarks of all the hell and high water they’ve been through, too. It may also be that their scars and water marks remind us of our own scars and marks that we’re trying to hide, or ignore. And while we may have legitimate grievances to air, never forget that the words of endearment in Isaiah 43 apply to them too, that they are just as precious, honored, beloved and esteemed of God as are we.
I remind us too of how our church council has sought to answer that question for this congregation this year, lest we be dragged in a million different directions by competing, mistaken identities. In our bulletin every week is the vision statement recommended to us all: “AS FOLLOWERS OF CHRIST, EMMANUEL MENNONITE CHURCH COMMITS TO WORSHIPING GOD, CHOOSING PEACE, NURTURING COMMUNITY AND EXTENDING HOSPITALITY.” I think that’s a clear and biblical statement of who we are, and therefore, what we do.
I close with a Yiddish folk tale about a king who sent out a runner with an important message, just before sunrise. The fog was so thick that morning that the runner could barely see the ground, let alone the trail ahead. As the darkness gave way to daybreak, he began to worry that maybe he had taken a wrong turn. His suspicion was confirmed when he ran face first into the wall of the city he had left an hour earlier, just below the very place atop the city wall where the Rabbi Ytzakh Ben Levi was saying his morning prayers.
“Ow!” the rabbi heard the runner say some thirty feet below him.
“Are you all right?” the rabbi called out into the fog.
“That depends on where I am and who you are,” said the runner. “Who are you?”
“I’m Rabbi Ytzakh Ben Levi,” said the rabbi. “Who are you?” he asked.
“I’m Shasha, messenger of the king. And I seem to have lost my way.”
“How much does your king pay you to carry his messages?” the rabbi asked.
“Twelve drachma a month, plus room and board,” replied the messenger.
“I’ll pay you twice that much to come here every morning and ask me that same question,” the rabbi replied.
“You mean, how much do you get paid?” asked the runner.
“No,” said the rabbi. “’Who are you?’ Whenever I forget the answer to that question, I lose my way, too.”
Whatever the cost, its worth it to stop and remember who God says we are. For Oh, how the trials and temptations of life can make us forget just who we are and how precious we are to God. But if we would hold onto our name and identity while the floods rage about us, there must already be a river of life flowing within us, the Spirit of God. If we would survive the fires of life, there must be a fire already within us, the flame of God’s Spirit. Drink deeply of the water of life and it will help keep the world’s waters of chaos outside ourselves, where they belong. Attend to the flame of the Spirit on the altar of our souls; feed it and fan it with worship, the Word, prayer and fellowship, and it will burn hot enough to keep the fires of life from consuming us.