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.’
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Welcome to the Baptism of the Lord Sunday in the season of Epiphany. Epiphany comes from the Greek word, epiphaneia, which means revealing. In this season between Christmas and Lent we leave behind the angelic choirs and miraculous births to instead find God revealed in the ordinary. And today we look at the gift and call of the waters of baptism on our lives.
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you… when you walk through fire you shall not be burned.” The prophet Isaiah is speaking these words to an oppressed and exiled people and is not intending them to be a futuristic prophecy as some people think prophets do. Instead the prophet is recalling the history of God and Israel and speaking to a lonely people who have lost sight of God. Within this declaration the Israelite people would hear the most significant moments in God’s liberative history as the prophet Isaiah says these words. “When you pass through the waters of the Red Sea and the River Jordan, I will be with you… when you walk through fire, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, you shall not be burned.”
This is a divine romance and history between God and God’s people. It is a beautiful promise to those who are oppressed and exiled, in need of liberation. For God says, “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you!” The prophet needs Israel, needs the oppressed and the exiled, to know that God is always on their side and has never left them, even in captivity. Despite everything that seems to be stacked against them in a foreign land, despite not being able to worship at their holy sites, despite it seeming like every other god was winning more than theirs. God is always on their side.
However before we go further, I must talk about how this beautiful romance is disturbed in my mind. The prophet uses outdated language of ransom to talk about this love. The prophet talks about the purchasing and selling of slaves or even nations to get Israel back, as if they owed a debt. This problematic metaphor has been used and abused over time especially since it seems that God says to sell three African countries to “buy” Israel. And of course, this metaphor gets especially abused when it is used by people who are determined to keep Africa as a real, literal place but use Israel metaphorically to mean white people in America. The myth of America as the promised land and white folx as Israel has long been used and is continued to be used to oppress and exile people. People who need liberation from these harmful myths.
So we, white people in the United States, must be cautious to read ourselves directly into the center of every biblical story of liberation. We must be careful to put ourselves at the center because sometimes, oftentimes, the liberative story points us to center the oppressed and the exiled. We must be reluctant to say this text written to a people in exile fits our 21st century experience. Because if we are honest with the text, the United States looks more similar to Babylon than it does with Israel as a metaphor.
And at the same time as we carefully remove ourselves from the center, we see Jesus get down in the muck of the river to be baptised with all of us, the exiled, the oppressed, the Romans, the Babylonians, the religious leaders, the tax collectors, the sex workers, all the people. And Jesus did this, not because he needed to be baptised, not because it was required, but simply because he loved us and wanted to be with us – all of us. This God who gets into the muck of life with us is the same God who walks with us through the fire and the floods. This is the God who loves us into liberation for all. God liberates the oppressed from their chains but also liberates the oppressors from those violent and harmful mindsets.
This love of God is for each and every single one of us from the bottom to the top. It certainly means different things to different people. It calls each one of us to our own paths but also calls us to the path of community and connectedness. This baptism of love is for every single person. It is a reminder and a promise that you are deeply loved! No matter where you go, what you do, who you love, where you live, who you work for or vote for – you are loved. You are loved. You are deeply, deeply loved.
And through the waters of baptism, as it is revealed that we are loved, we find that we are called to unity and equality. But this oneness does not look the same for everyone. It is not a false call to unity that sounds pious but never actually changes the status quo or expects everyone else to change to be like them. If we believe in the love that equalizes in baptism, if we are called to that unity, then we have to work to shift the material conditions of our world that keep some lifted up and others held down. Unity is not something you say or something you think. It does not happen passively. It happens when we are washed in the baptismal waters, claimed as God’s beloved, and as we work to end the conditions that create disunity and disparity in the first place.
The good news of the gospel is that you are loved more deeply than you can ever comprehend, that God is always with you and cares so much about you. And we get to participate in that good news. Through baptism we are called to create a world where all can feel that they are loved, where all can find food and shelter, where all can find safety and security, where all can survive the floods and the fires. Through baptism we are called to love ourselves and love others as much as God has loved us. And then perhaps we can walk safely through the waters and the fires because we go with God and with one another. Amen.