“Passing through the Waters” (Isaiah 43:1-7)
Water is plentiful where you and I live. It falls readily and regularly from the sky. It runs freely down the hillsides into the Snohomish and Stillaguamish and on into the Sound. While water is so necessary for life and for our lovely green landscape, it can also bring destruction. Once in a while our rivers overflow their banks and wreak havoc upon homeowners who live in the lowlands. Every so often, inexperienced swimmers are swept away to their death.
People in other regions are also familiar with the effects of water. In desert climates, a few drops of rain are welcome, yet monsoons bring destructive flash floods. Beach communities are lovely until hurricanes or tsunamis rush in and drown lives and livelihoods.
Water has both life-giving and life-destroying power.
The same can be said of fire. It provides warmth. It cooks our food. Yet it also burns and obliterates.
The people of Israel in Isaiah’s day were familiar with the powers of water and fire. The stories were retold to them many times. How the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters at creation. How the world was destroyed in the Flood and how Noah and his family were kept safe in the Ark. How their ancestors had been rescued from Egypt when Yahweh parted the waters of the Red Sea. How their ancestors witnessed God’s holiness at Sinai as the Lord descended upon the mountain in fire. How no one was to approach the mountain, lest an unholy person face the holy God’s wrath and die. How their ancient fathers crossed into the Promised Land when God held back the waters of the Jordan River. How the Assyrians would scatter the current generation back across the waters because of their wickedness and unbelief. How a coming generation would be hauled back to the other side of the Jordan on their way to exile in Babylon as a result of their sinful rebellion against the Lord.
Isaiah, like all the prophets, was sent to call the people to repentance. God’s discipline over their sin was sure to come. Yet, Isaiah also brought a message of hope. A message of Good News. God was not going to abandon his people. “Fear not, 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.” Daniel’s three friends had not yet been in the fiery furnace when God inspired Isaiah to write those words, but it’s hard for us not to think of that event when we hear those words. The point is, Yahweh will be present with and will ultimately rescue his beloved people and bring them back through the waters of the Jordan and settle them back in the Promised Land. “For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Cush and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you, I give men in return for you, peoples in exchange for your life.” Persia would conquer Babylon and allow God's people to return to their homeland. Not long afterwards, they would also defeat Egypt. It was as if wicked Egypt was to be given as spoil to the Persians in exchange for the life of Israel. A redemption price. A ransom.
Fast forward now some 700 years. The people are being called once again to the banks of the Jordan. A prophet named John has come to prepare the way for the promised Messiah. And like all good prophets, he tells the people to repent. Be washed in the waters of the Jordan. Enter into a new life as you faithfully await the appearance of the Savior.
There was no one more surprised than John when the Savior met him in the wilderness to be baptized. Luke doesn’t record this for us, but Matthew does. “I need to be baptized by you,” John said, “and do you come to me?” (Matt. 3:14). John recognized that this Man standing in front of him had no need to repent of any sins. He had none. And yet, this Man Jesus – the sinless Son of God – comes to John and acts as if he were a sinner. “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15). Jesus steps into the water and identifies with each and every sinner in the world. Instead of leaving the Jordan cleansed, he leaves filthy. Fouled with the sin of every human being whom he came to redeem. Bearing those sins all the way to the cross. Dying for those sins. Dying for your sins. Fulfilling all righteousness in order to give you his righteousness. A redemption price. A ransom.
God redeemed Israel through water. The Red Sea. The Jordan River.
God redeems YOU through water. In the Baptism of Jesus, God sanctified all water in every font where the name of the Triune God is confessed. In your baptism, you pass through the waters and enter into a new life of faith and forgiveness.
God gave nations and peoples in exchange for the life of his people Israel. Egypt. Sheba. Cush.
God gave Jesus in exchange for your life. He took your sin. He gives you his righteousness. Jesus was abandoned at the cross so you will never be abandoned. Jesus endured the fiery wrath of God over sin in your place.
God created and gathered his people Israel for his glorious purpose of bringing the Savior into the world. “I have called you by name, you are mine … you are precious in my eyes, honored, and I love you,” Yahweh says through Isaiah … and all for the sake of his “beloved Son.”
God creates and gathers his Church for his glorious purposes. Through water and the Word, God the Holy Spirit calls and gathers the Holy Church together. In Baptism, God calls your name when the pastor says, “How are you named?” You say it, or parents and sponsors say it on behalf of children, and your name takes on new significance. You are marked with the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. You are his. You are precious in his eyes, honored, and he loves you. The same Holy Spirit who hovered over the face of the waters at creation hovers over each and every font from east to west and north to south and he gathers you into his kingdom. In every heart that is “without form and void” (Gen. 1:2) of faith … in every heart that is full of the “darkness” (Gen. 1:2) of unbelief … the Holy Spirit creates faith and gives new life. God says “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3) in your heart … the light of faith, the light of Christ. And he sends you forth washed, cleansed, forgiven, and ready to shine the light of Christ to an unbelieving world.
Baptized into Christ, the destructive waters of sin and death will not overwhelm you. Baptized into Christ, the fire of God’s wrath will not consume you on the Day of Judgment. Baptized into Christ, you have the “shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one” (Eph. 6:16) and stand up under temptation. And now, when any trouble or trial comes your way, be it flood or fire or famine or family conflict, recall the Word of the Lord: “Fear not, 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 … you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you.”