If I was given free rein to choose a bible reading for a baptism service the passage from the Old Testament today would probably be at the top of my list. The words of God spoken through the prophet Isaiah are really quite mind blowing. Listen to the God who created you. Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you. I have called you by name; you are mine. When you go through deep waters I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty you will not drown. And he continues further into the passage I traded other lives for yours because you are precious to me. You are honoured and I love you.
I think that these are amongst some of the most beautiful words that God speaks to Israel in the Old Testament. The God who created all the world, who created each individual, who knows each of those individuals by name, loves each individual dearly and will stand by them whatever difficulty they are facing.
What is probably even more incredible is that God is speaking to the Israelites at probably the lowest point in their history. The Israelites have continually rebelled against God until eventually despite warning after warning the Israelites have succumbed to foreign invasion. The Temple has been desecrated and they have been captured and taken away into exile in Babylon. The Israelites are as morally far from God as they possibly can be, they have abandoned him in their daily lives, even if they have kept up empty and meaningless rituals in the Temple, and yet God turns to them and says no matter how hard the difficulty in your life, I am with you. No matter all the things they have done he tells them that they are precious to him, that they are honoured and he loves them.
And if you don’t take anything else away from this morning, take away this, it doesn’t matter what you have done (good, bad or indifferent), or what you haven’t done, it doesn’t matter how faithful, or how faithless you have been, you are still precious to the God who created you, he still honours you and he still loves you. It doesn’t matter how difficult events in your life may be, he will be there with you.
This week I have been to London to a conference about fitness and faith. One of the speakers was a lady who did triathlons and ran marathons and then when she was 50 she discovered she had breast cancer. She was telling us how she continued to run throughout her treatment but that during her illness she felt that God was very far away, she didn’t know how to pray and she relied on the prayers of others for her. After her treatment was finished she went to the Holy Land and to the Garden of Gethsemane. As she sat in the quiet chapel there she imagined the story of Jesus praying in the garden and his disciples who were supposed to be keeping watch falling asleep, time and time again. And she became aware of God speaking to her, “I kept watch with you” and she went on to describe how over the next few months she became aware of how throughout all her journey with cancer from pre diagnosis to successful treatment how God had been there with her, watching over her, and unlike the disciples, he hadn’t fallen asleep. God with us in the difficult times.
This passage from Isaiah can help us to understand adversity in the world, something that none of us will be immune from. That’s part of the reason I like to use it in baptisms. A reminder that baptism itself isn’t simply a superstitious ceremony to try and win favour with God, that if we are baptised suddenly our life will be easy and God will sort out all our problems. In fact after Jesus baptism which we heard about in our gospel reading today, Jesus, whilst still filled with the Holy Spirit was led out into the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil.
Isaiah tells us that God is not causing the adversity, neither is Satan causing all the bad things that happen and God causing all the good things that happen, although this can be an easy trap to fall into thinking. Actually many events in life are a natural cause and consequence of human motivation. It would have been very easy for the Israelites to fall into thinking that the Babylonian gods of their captors are stronger than the God of Israel. But in the preceding passage Isaiah explains how actually God could just smooth out their paths and let them walk home to Israel. But God chooses not to. These are consequences to their sinful actions and God isn’t going to step in supernaturally and stop them. BUT, he will be there with them. They will neither drown in the deep waters of difficulty or be burnt up in the fire of oppression. Because despite requiring them to suffer the consequences of their actions God still loves them.
He describes how he has already paid the ransom for them. Exchanged lives for theirs. And we see in the person of Jesus how this is true. The life of God, whilst living as a human on earth, the one perfect human, the only human who should not have needed consequences for sinful actions, has their life taken away in exchange for our life, so we can live in full relationship with God. Or as Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, God demonstrates his own love for us in this, whilst we were still sinners Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through Christ.
God giving up his own life for us WHILST we are still sinners is the crux of what makes the Christian faith different to all other religions. We will never be good enough, or do enough good words to make God love us. But he loves us anyway, calls us precious and honours us anyway. He wants to be in relationship with us, not because we are worthy of that relationship, or because he even needs that relationship, but because he loves us, even though we are sinners. His creation is precious to him and he loves it dearly.
Isaiah tells us at the end of the passage that God created us for his glory, all we need to do is acknowledge him as king in our lives and accept the gift of eternal life he gives in paying our ransom. Our purpose in life is therefore very simple, to bring glory to the God who created us, not to try and earn his favour but because he loves us and we are precious to him.