Year C, Epiphany 1
In 2002, the newly formed Department of Homeland Security created a tool that they hoped would warn people of potential terrorist threats. It was color coded with 5 levels. At the top was red, which meant there was a severe risk. At the bottom was green which indicated a low risk. I remember seeing these color coded messages mostly in airports, occasionally on highway signs and really any form of public transportation. In the 9 years it was in use, I don’t ever remember seeing anything below orange, which means there was always a high risk. Every time I saw it, I felt as though I had walked into some dystopian world. I knew orange was bad, but that was all I knew.
One of the primary things this color coded reminder of potential doom accomplished was making people more anxious and afraid. It seemed I was not the only one who was dubious of the system. It was highly criticized until 2011, when they created a new system based on bulletins. (I only know that because I looked it up when thinking about this sermon. I didn’t even know the color coded system was no longer in use.) One of the criticisms was that the color coded warnings didn’t provide any helpful information…it just put people on edge.
While we no longer have that color coded system, that culture of fear is still present, perhaps even more so. There is good reason for this. We can find reasons to be afraid every time we watch or read the news. Fear is everywhere. While it seems more acute now than it has at any other point in my lifetime, I know this culture of fear is not a new thing. Even back when the Book of Isaiah was written (about 2500 years ago), fear was a very real part of life. The people of Israel lived in constant fear. Our reading for today comes after the Babylonian exile. The entire Israelite community had been exiled in a foreign land for over 50 years. The prophets had warned them that this would happen if they did not change their ways. But they preferred to ignore those warnings as they were not convenient for their lifestyle. But then the worst happened. Their homes and temple were destroyed. Their lives were uprooted. They were driven from their home and became slaves for their enemy. When Isaiah spoke the words that we heard in the first reading, that memory was fresh in their minds. They were still picking up the pieces of their pillaged land. They knew fear, much better than most of us do.
So I wonder how they heard these words from Isaiah: “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 and you are mine.” Were those words a comfort or were they easily dismissed because they were so hard to accept? Keep in mind that this is Isaiah speaking. This was the same prophet who had warned them all about the horrible things that were going to happen….the horrible things that happened. He had been with them through the difficult times. He had seen them turn away from God and had experienced the exile with them. He was never one to sugar coat things. While they might not have always enjoyed what he said, they knew that he could be trusted. Perhaps those words were a comfort.
In this text Isaiah is speaking for God. In other parts of the Book of Isaiah, he relays what God has said, he even talks to God. But here, he speaks for God. There is an intimacy in this. It is as though God knew that they would need to hear from him…they would need a new relationship with God if they were ever going to find peace.
It is not just the words, “Do not fear” that provided comfort, it was the motive behind those words. “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine.” This was the assurance that grace had triumphed. While there had been some troubling times and distance between God and his people, grace and love had the final word. God had the power to redeem them and he did. That is why there was no reason to fear. It was not because there was no longer a threat. The people of Israel were still very vulnerable to attack; but they knew that God had claimed them as his own. He had renewed a promise that he made so very long ago.
Some variation of the words, “Do not fear” occur in the Bible hundreds of time, but God said something else in this reading that was unique. He said, “Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” This is the only place in the Bible where God directly says to his people, “I love you.” There are other places where God indicates his love. But this is the place where he says, “I love you.” And we all know how precious those words are. It reminds me of those stories where one person says “I love you” for the first time and the other person responds, “And I love being with you.” The words “I love you” are irreplaceable and these are the words that God shared with his people then and now. That is why we read the Bible, so we can hear these words whenever we want.
Hearing those words from God and believing them is an important thing. This is not some kind of hallmark emotion that God throws out to people to keep them happy. If you read the chapter right before this one, you will hear God refer to the people as deaf and blind. It’s pretty harsh. But in the end, God’s grace always overcomes the judgment. That doesn’t mean we can skip judgement, but we can rest assured that God’s judgment has a purpose and as long as we do all we can to love God in return and love God’s people, God’s grace will triumph.
Our world is a complicated place right now, but it’s nothing that God has not handled before. The important thing is that we, the children of God, cannot let fear control us in our day to day lives. There is only one power that truly matters…God’s power, the power to love a people who are hard to love. The power of an omnipotent God to tell his undisciplined children that he loves them. So instead of letting fear control us, perhaps we can channel the emotion behind that fear into something sacred and holy. Let’s look at the worst case scenario…the world will end tomorrow. If that is the case, then we better get busy today. Today is the time to show our love for one another. Tell people you love them. Tell people you don’t normally tell. Don’t stop there. Because even though God is all powerful, he still likes to hear from us. Tell God in prayer, in song, in art, in mumbling….whatever, that him that you love him. Then listen and wait. I can guarantee that he is saying it to you as well. “Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”