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“BeLoved”

Isaiah 43:1-7
Acts 8:14-17

 

Isaiah 43:1-7

But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
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.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
nations in exchange for your life.
Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, “Give them up,”
and to the south, “Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth—
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.”

Acts 8:14-17

Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.


 

In college I had the joy of studying the Bible and learning about God through various Christian perspectives.  And one of the most impactful teachings I remember from that time was to read God’s words to the people of Israel, as if they were to you and me.  Why?  Because we too are now God’s chosen people.  As believers, we have been adopted into the family of God.

This made Isaiah 43 one of my favorite passages.  Favorite because it tells of God’s utter love for and commitment to us.  God claims us:  “You are mine.”  And God speaks tenderly to us, “you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”

I loved these verses.  They helped me understand God in a more personal way.  You see, in my final years of high school, my home church had hired a youth director who we all adored.  She was funny and spunky and fun.  The Bible was alive for her, and she was opening it up to us, for the first time in our lives.  She used to always say, “Christianity is not a religion.  It’s a relationship.”  Of all the things she taught us, this was most profound.  For the first time, we were beginning to realize that the juicy goodness of faith was lived out in relationship with God.  And the way we best got to know God was by studying the Bible and growing in fellowship with one another.

And so this life-giving new path was opening to me.  So then when I learned in college that we could read God’s words to the people of Israel, as if they were written to us, so much more of the Bible opened up to me.  It meant that the Bible was overflowing with God’s words of love and promise.  And I was coming to adore this God who was everything needed, respected, trusted and yearned for.

Listen to these verses from Isaiah again, and whenever you hear Israel or Jacob, instead hear your own name.

But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
hen 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.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia[a] and Seba in exchange for you.
because you are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
nations in exchange for your life.
Do not fear, for I am with you;

 

This is utterly beautiful.  This is the commitment we may seek from one another our whole lives.  This is the commitment shown us by our Beautiful Lord.

 

But what I didn’t delve into at the time were the words about God exchanging others for my life.

After college and while in seminary at Union, I became friends with an Egyptian family.  The husband was also a seminary student, and our families became good friends.  They explained that the Bible is hard to read for them because it makes such negative mention of Egypt, time after time.  And yet these Egyptian friends of mine were also believers, and their families had been for many generations.

I had never before thought about those countries and people who are labeled negatively in these stories.  And here, right in the middle of one of my favorite passages, is a section about God exchanging others for us, for God’s chosen people.

And this was hard to digest.

 

First we have the trouble of being God’s chosen.  If some are chosen, does that mean others are not?  And why?  Other parts of scripture made it clear that God’s heart is for the whole world and that God came so that ALL might know God’s saving love.  And yet, there is this element of choosing.  What does it mean?

On the one hand, I love this idea of choosing.  Choice means that God’s involvement in our lives is voluntary.  It shows us that GOD WANTS US.  And that is part of what’s so beautiful about these words of God, shared through the prophet Isaiah.

At the same time, choice seems to imply that others are not chosen.  And these verses about exchanging whole other people groups for the chosen ones, seems to support that idea.

I was torn.

 

And yet, in the very chapter just preceding this one, Isaiah writes of the Lord,

Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations

A light to the nations.  God called the nation of Israel, took it by the hand, and kept it IN ORDER TO give them as a covenant to the people, a LIGHT to the nations.

So again, there is this idea that God chose the people SO THAT they might shed God’s light on the nations, everyone!

 

To this people who has been taught for so many years to avoid other nations, these hints throughout the prophets that Israel would be a gift FOR the nations come as a great surprise.  The people had internalized this notion that God’s choosing them somehow meant they were better than others.  But here, we see that God’s choosing them is part of God’s whole plan to save everyone.  God was keeping them, taking them by the hand, that they themselves might be the fulfillment of God’s promise, God’s covenant, to all creation.

The chosen people were the means by which God’s light would come!  Through them, a tiny baby would be born, of a virgin, in a backyard stable barn.  And through him, God’s Spirit would be poured out on all flesh, spilling out beyond the boundaries of the people of Israel and spreading to people far and wide.

We are here today because of how God spoke through and came through the people of Israel.  Through them, Jesus came into this world, and we have come to believe!

 

Perhaps this is what helped my Egyptian friends.  Perhaps they could hear God’s love for them and their nation, amidst all the negative press their nation gets in the Bible.  Perhaps they too had learned to read God’s words to the Israelites, as also being God’s words to them.  Perhaps their identities as Children of God had become the main identity with which they read God’s Word.

 

 

There is much in the Bible to digest.  There are mysteries that may remain mysteries our whole life long.  There is Mystery and there always will be, as long as we are seeking the one true God, the One whom we cannot ever fully know or understand.  And so our relationship with God will never be one of full knowing.  This God who we serve is far above and beyond all our understanding.  If we think we fully know God, then we must question whether we know GOD at all.  Our God is above all.  Our God is beyond our understanding.  God’s ways are not our ways.

And so we walk by faith.  We place our trust in the One who is above all and in all and through all.  We decide that this One who loves us with a never-stopping, never-giving-up love is worthy of all our praise.  We choose back this One who has claimed us in the waters of baptism and chosen us as God’s own.  We bind our lives to the One who came that we might have life and have it to the full!

“You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you” says the Lord.

This is the One whom I have placed my trust.  With Timothy, I proclaim,

“I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him.”

 

With our faith and our doubts,

With our fears and our hopes,

In understanding and in awe,

In mystery and in knowing,

We come

Before the One who knows us

And chooses us

And loves us

Just as we are.

 

You are precious in God’s sight.  Honored.  And beloved.

 

Believe it.

And be loved.

“Change My Shame Into Praise”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Zephaniah 3:14-20
Luke 3:7-18

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgments against you,
he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall fear disaster no more.
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak.
The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you[d] in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
as on a day of festival.[e]
I will remove disaster from you,[f]
so that you will not bear reproach for it.
I will deal with all your oppressors
at that time.
And I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
At that time I will bring you home,
at the time when I gather you;
for I will make you renowned and praised
among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
before your eyes, says the Lord.

Luke 3:7-18

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “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. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.


 

When I read these verses from Luke about John’s ministry to the people in the wilderness, I am a tad perplexed when this chapter wraps up with the words, “So,…he proclaimed the good news to the people.”  It feels wrong.

 

All my life I’ve been hearing this story.  All my life, I’ve heard the good news of Jesus, and honestly, this story of John’s words and ministry does not sound to me like good news.  He proclaims a hard word.  He does not mince words.  He is a strait shooter.

To those who have been swindling others for personal gain, he tells them to stop.  He tells them to curb their own insatiable desire for more and to be content with what they have.  To those who have food and clothing, he commands them to share with those who have none.

When folks come overconfident and haughty – reasoning that they don’t need to worry about their souls because they are children of Abraham & thus heirs to the promises of God – John shoots right through their false sense of security.  Yes, God is faithful, but God also prunes away the branches that do not bear fruit.  The ax lies at the foot of the tree.  And God can raise up descendants of Abraham from the stones of the earth.  In other words, God does not need them in order to be faithful.  If they are unfaithful, God is still faithful, and God will do the work God intends through others.  And indeed God has done this – raising up descendants of Abraham from among the Gentiles – raising up all – whomever they are – who believe in him as children of God, members of the family of God.

 

From the beginning of time, we humans can become complacent.  And when we have known the love and belonging of God, we can take that for granted.  We can think that nothing we do really matters anymore.  But God continues to teach us that what we do DOES matter.

It’s not the kind of mattering that keeps us strung out on a thin thread of good grace.  It’s not the kind of mattering where God threatens to stop loving us, in order to get us to behave

No, it is not the kind of mattering that we’re used to – where grace is extended conditionally, where love is shown with strings attached.  It’s the kind of mattering that says our actions and inactions matter.  We have purpose in the world.  Our lives have consequence.

We matter.

 

And so God is continually inviting us to put the blessing of our lives to do good in this world.  And not to do evil.

 

And so here is John stirring the people out of their false sense of security, out of their complacence, and reminding them that their lives matter.  He implores them to do justice.  He implores them to live rightly, to change their crooked ways and return to God.

IF they are truly returning to God, truly repentant, their lives will bear the fruit of repentance, in justice, in goodness, in mercy, in righteousness.

And John is calling each one to take a hard and honest look at their lives.

 

Are their lives bearing the fruit of repentance?  Or not?

 

God is faithful.  God is sending someone more powerful than John, but will the people be a part of it?  Will they see him when he comes?  Will they receive him when he comes?

Or will they continue in their complacent, blinded, self-righteousness?  Will they persist in sin?  Will they harden their hearts and miss God’s voice, breaking through cloud and space, saying, “this is my Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

Christ is on the way, but the gift of this child will only be received by those who are ready – by the wise men who have watched the night sky and waited and journeyed for this very night – by the shepherds who are staring at the night sky (and not at their phones) and hear the angels of heaven proclaiming the Messiah’s birth – by Anna and Simeon who have waited, trusting God’s word that they would see the Messiah in their lifetimes…

The gift is here for the taking.

But who receives it?

 

We may think that there is nothing to do while we cry out to God to make things right in this world.  We may think that because we are Christians that our eternity is pretty much set & we don’t really need to be concerned with questions of right and wrong.  We may think that God is far more concerned with big ticket sins than with our seemingly small and insignificant lives.

But John is here, reminding us that our lives matter.  Our lives matter.  And that if we are not actively participating in God’s work in the world, we are likely working against it.  God will still be faithful, but we just may miss out.  And he is here, crying out in the wilderness our aimless busyness for us to stop and listen, for us to look ourselves honestly in the mirror.

Do our lives bear the fruit of repentance?

Repentance is a 180 degree turn.  It is a turning away from sin and a turning back toward God.  Repentance is not a way of earning God’s love.  Repentance does not make us holy.  Repentance isn’t our litmus test of holiness.

No, repentance is simply the one thing we can do to be ready for God.  It is the way we open our stubborn selves, again and again, to the Holy One, who loves us with a never-stopping, never-giving-up love.

 

Everyone wants John to give them the magic ticket to eternal security.  Folks want to know what they can DO.  And John points them to the only thing they CAN do, repent.

Repentance does not make things right, but it points us back toward the ONE who makes all things right, the ONE who heals all our infirmities, the ONE who came from heaven as a little babe that we might know the GOD SAVES!

 

As we prepare for Christmas, may we hear again this strait-shooting, wilderness call to look ourselves truthfully in the mirror and to return to God.

 

The Lord of Heaven and Earth awaits, ever yearning to gather us in, to welcome us home and rejoice over us with singing.

You are of great worth to God.

Your life truly matters.

 

May you ever return to God,

repenting and returning,

and may you know the sweet joy of our Lord God,

rejoicing over you with singing,

as God renews you in God’s love

and changes your shame into praise.

 

 

The Good News of God!

 

Let us ready ourselves.