Fear not, for I have redeemed you

Baptism of Christ,  January 10, 2016

Isaiah 43:1-7    Luke 3:15-17,21-22 

In our lectionary group this Tuesday, it was the Old Testament reading that occupied most of our attention. From Second Isaiah, that prophet who speaks most clearly and intensely the language of the gospel, the language of God’s tenderness and compassion for his people.  And so it is in today’s reading:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. Because you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you.”  The image of passing safely through floods and fire have spoken to people’s faith throughout the centuries, and have inspired at least a couple of popular hymns. And yet there are also words we found troubling in this reading: that God, for example, would give up other nations as a ransom for his people. This whole chosen people business: what do we do with that in an age when we are coming to understand that God does not play favourites, when our only hope for peace is to recognize that God is the God of all people? How do we put those together, the tenderness and the exclusivity of this passage?  And what, if anything, does it have to do with Jesus’s baptism, or with ours?

As is always the case in understanding a Bible passage, context is everything.  And in this case, to understand the context, we need to step back and see the big picture.  The whole story of the Old Testament, that huge ungainly collection of ancient voices, is centred around two historical poles. If you remember your high school geometry, we can picture the Old Testament  not as a circle with one centre, but an ellipse with two centres.  And those two centres are the two great events of captivity and redemption, one toward the beginning, one toward the end of the Old Testament  story.  Towards the beginning is the story of Israel’s enslavement in Egypt, and their liberation under the leadership of Moses, who lead them through the Red Sea and across the burning desert.  It is their formative myth as a people. They went down into Egypt as a family, Joseph and his brothers; they came out as a great nation. Having been set free, they received the Law on the mountaintop, and the land promised to them as a home. No wonder that, to this day, Jews celebrate the Passover as their most important holiday.

But the Old Testament is not a lived-happily-ever-after kind of story. Because at the other end of the Old Testament is another event of captivity and redemption, the mirror image of the first: the great Babylonian captivity.  This is the world of the great prophets.  Jeremiah and Ezekiel, especially, commentated the slow collapse of the kingdom of Judah, its corruption and social injustice, its disastrous foreign policy, its eventual defeat by the Babylonian empire, which destroyed Jerusalem and took the people away to exile in Babylon.  And it is especially the prophet we call Second Isaiah, whose distinctive voice we hear in the later chapters of the book of Isaiah, who was the prophet of hope, who gave the promise of God’s faithfulness and redemption.  This prophet connects this promised redemption with that first redemption from Egypt.  The language of these chapters is saturated with images of the Exodus: make straight in the desert a highway for our God. If you pass through the waters, they will not overwhelm you.  Or, most explicitly, just a few verses after our reading today:

Thus says the Lord,
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse,
army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

Now all of this longish excursus on the shape of the Old Testament  story is to make the point that these words are addressed to a people in exile: a broken people who have lost their homeland, their cities, their livelihood, perhaps their families; a people who are in danger of losing their faith. Their whole world has collapsed, and with it the conviction that God cares about them.  Context is everything. God does not address these words of intimate love to the smug and the powerful. When Israel was powerful, the prophets’ words were a call to justice and responsibility. But that Israel was powerful was just temporary.  Israel’s fundamental identity, the bedrock of their relationship with God, moving around the twin centres of the Old Testament, is a story of redeemed slaves.  God’s story with his chosen people is a story of God’s preferential option for the poor, the broken, the bereaved and grief-stricken. It is for them that God will give great empires like Egypt as a ransom.

When John the Baptist appears preaching a baptism of repentance, he is connecting with this great Old Testament  tradition of captivity and redemption.  The gospels identify him directly as the voice crying in the wilderness of Isaiah 40. He has gone out into the wilderness, the place of the Exodus, to call people back to that basic story of exile and redemption. He is calling them to their true identity as God’s people: it is not their power as a nation, not the splendour of the temple built by Herod, not their success or lack of success in the new economy of the Roman Empire, that is a sign of God’s favour.  They are God’s people not by their own doings or success; not even because of their heritage (do not say, we have Abraham as our ancestor), but by joining themselves with the old story of God’s people as slaves and exiles redeemed by God.  When Jesus came to be baptised by John, he was entering into this new identity, together with the crowds who had come to hear John.  And when we were baptised, we too entered this identity as slaves and exiles redeemed by God.

Three things in this passage from Isaiah speak to me of baptism, both Jesus’s and ours.

First, there is the imagery of passing through water.  Yes, for Isaiah this hearkened back to the crossing of the Red Sea and of the Jordan, and that too is part of the meaning of baptism.  When we are baptised, when we descend into the water and come out the other side as new and free people, we are enacting the old story when Israel was born a free people out of the waters of the Red Sea.

Secondly, there is the calling by name.   “I have called you by name, you are mine.” Baptism was traditionally the ceremony in which our names are conferred. The name we receive is our “Christian” name, the name known to God, the name written on the palm of God’s hand, the name of a beloved child of God.  Just as Jesus, emerging from the water, heard the voice from heaven naming his true identity: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

Thirdly, there is the theme of redemption. “Redemption” is a word we use a lot in church; we use it so commonly and so automatically that we have mostly forgotten its original meaning. Redemption, in its root Old Testament meaning, is what happens when someone is bought out of slavery.  A price is paid, and they are free.  God redeemed his people out of Egypt, and he will redeem them out of Babylon as well.

And when we are baptised, the same thing happens: we are redeemed by God, we are set free from all other claims on us. We enter into the old story, as old as Moses, as old as Isaiah, as old as Jesus, the story of slaves and exiles set free and given a home.  That story becomes our story, it names our true identity, an identity that doesn’t change no matter what is happening in our lives.

When we find ourselves in difficult situations, powerless and despairing, then these words are spoken directly to us:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.

And when things are going well with us, when we are prospering and in control; well, then, this is still our core identity, slaves and exiles redeemed by God to freedom, and we are called to live with gratitude, compassion, and solidarity with the broken.

Isaiah reminds us that baptism is not just about the washing away of sins, or the initiation ritual for the church.  It is about the identity we receive from God, who has called us by name.  We are his.