I have read the passage from Isaiah many times. It comes up in the lectionary every three years. And yet this week it was like I was reading the words for the first time. Tears welled up in my eyes and I was overwhelmed by the beauty and the promise of it. It was like God was speaking directly to me reminding me that I, Miriam, am precious and honoured and loved. And somehow down through the ages these words have spoken to hearts reminding all of us that we are precious in God’s sight – beloved children of God.
This particular passage of scripture from Isaiah was written during the Babylonian captivity. After the destruction of the temple, after the people of Israel had been dragged from their homeland to some strange land where they were not really welcomed. Isaiah 49 describes the people of God as, “deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers” (Isaiah 49:7) It was a time when they wondered how to worship God in a strange land. And this is God’s word to them, “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 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. … Because you are precious in my sight, and honoured and I love you.” (Isaiah 43:1 – 2, 4)
In the time since those words were written, many things have changed, but one things remains firm. God says to each one of us, “you are precious in my sight, and honoured and I love you.” (Isaiah 43:4) It’s not always easy to take these words to heart. After all it is much easier to believe the worst about ourselves. But God says no to that. God says, “I have called you by name, you are mine.” When we say ugly, or dumb or screw up or idiot or worthless or shameful, God says, “precious, honoured, loved, mine.”
Talk about good news. The kind of news that changes hearts and lives. Callie Plunket-Brewton tells this story. “A month or so ago, I met a man who has two names. His given name is Jeremy. He’s been called “Twitch” for years. Twitch, he told me when we met, was the name he went by when he was in and out of jail before he got clean. I said that I would call him Jeremy, thinking he wouldn’t want to be called a name associated with his pretty harsh past. He then said the most extraordinary thing. He said he wanted people to keep calling him Twitch so that it would be clear to the people who had known him before that he was a transformed man. He was afraid that if he started to go by Jeremy people might not realize that he was the same Twitch who’d been in jail with them, used with them. He comes around pretty regularly to the homeless ministry where I sometimes serve and hangs out with our homeless guests. Many of them know him. He wants them to recognize him and to take heart that God can transform their lives, too.” (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2747)
There are so many things that come with terms and conditions – but God’s love is not one of those things. It is gift. It is grace. It is promise. It is new life. One of the ways we recognize that grace is through baptism which is a visible reminder of the invisible grace. Baptism is so important that each of the Gospels begins Jesus’ ministry with his baptism in the Jordan River. Matthew and Luke both tell stories of Jesus birth, John’s begins with poetry, “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God.” Mark skips all that stuff and goes right to the heart of the matter – baptism. In all found Gospels, the waters of baptism are barely dry when Jesus begins his teaching and healing ministry.
In Luke’s gospel, John the Baptist is preaching up a storm in the wilderness. He is preparing the way for Jesus. He says “‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.’” (Luke 3:16) What happens next is a powerful reminder that Baptism is God’s work alone. John the Baptist was arrested by Herod and in jail and does not baptize Jesus. It is the work of God through the Holy Spirit.
Luke describes it this way, “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21 – 22) With that promise ringing in his ears Jesus sets out on his ministry of healing and teaching.
Baptism is the daily reminder that "You are my child, with you I am well pleased." This is not just a message for Jesus it is for us today. God said this to us the day we were baptized and every day since then. A lifetime of ups and downs cannot erase that promise, that gift of grace. Whether you remember your baptism or not it doesn’t matter. The grace that comes with baptism has no expiry date. With the sign of the cross, we are chosen, claimed forever as God’s beloved children.
That is the good news. On those bad days, those days when we are tempted to believe the worst about ourselves, we can remember the words that Gods speaks to us all, “You are my child with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22) “I have called you by name, you are mine. Because you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you.” (Isaiah 43: 1, 4) Everyday God whispers those powerful words in our ears. How can we not share them with others? Precious, honoured, loved, mine. Say them to yourself everyday – tell them to others. So everyone knows deep in their hearts that God’s love is for all. Precious. Honoured. Loved. Mine. Precious. Honoured. Loved. Mine. Amen.