Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
January 10, 2016
Today, in the church’s calendar, is the Baptism of the Lord. It’s a date to remember that Jesus, in solidarity with us, was baptized by John the Baptist. This is also a day to think about our baptisms. Baptism is not just the rite one undergoes to join the church; it is a sacrament. Sacraments are defined in the Westminster Confession of Faith as “holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace.” They have been instituted by God to represent Christ and his benefits, to confirm our faith in Christ, and to distinguish members of the church. However, the sacrament itself doesn’t have any power outside of the work of the Holy Spirit. Our baptism points to the atoning work Christ has done for us and the ongoing work of the Spirit in our lives.
We’re going to look at a passage from Isaiah for today’s sermon, the opening verses of the 43rd Chapter. Let me put this in context. Starting with chapter 40, this section of Isaiah is often referred to as a Book of Consolation. Scholars generally divide Isaiah into three different books with each addressing a different time in Israel’s history. The first 39 chapters form one unit—as Isaiah speaks of Israel’s pending judgment by the Assyrians. The next section focuses on the Babylonian exile and the last section looks to the future. But things are not as clear-cut as you’d think for in the opening chapters, while there is a lot about judgment, there are also passages of consolation. And within the “Book of Consolation,” there are passages about judgment such as Chapter 42.
In the chapter just before where I’ll begin my reading, Isaiah calls his people blind and deaf. They do not realize what they’ve done and now they’ve become plunder as the Babylonian army has destroyed Jerusalem and its people are sent into exile. However, the prophet reminds them that Babylon wasn’t the real source of their trouble. Their problem is with idolatry and an unwillingness to follow God’s way. Therefore, God hands them over to be looted and plundered. Pretty harsh, right? But as we begin with the 43rd chapter, we’re see a different side of God. This is a beautiful passage that shows the tenderness of God. Like a parent, God can both be loving and a disciplinarian. Read Isaiah 43:1-7.
I don’t remember my baptism, but I know I was baptized on Easter Sunday, just three months after my birth, at the old Culdee Presbyterian Church. At the time, we worshipped in a small white-clapboard church-building in the Sandhills of North Carolina. The Reverend Thomas Young officiated. He was busy that day, as there was a slew of us baby boomers being baptized. Like me, I am sure many of you do not remember your baptism, although there are others of us, who come from traditions that baptize those who are older, do have memories. Regardless, what is important is not the act itself, or the way the act was carried out (whether sprinkled or dunked) but what the act signifies.
Baptism is the sign, the initiation rite, into which we enter the church. But it is not what happens during baptism that is important, the amount of water that is used or how it is administered. What’s important is what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. Baptism does not save us; only Christ can do that. Baptism shows that we trust Christ and his death and resurrection… It is therefore something to be treasured and stands as a sign to the world of where we place our faith.
Our passage today, from the 43rd Chapter of Isaiah, opens with verses that remind us of our baptism. We have been created by God and because of that, we are not to be afraid. Remember now, the Hebrew people are in (or going to be heading into) exile. They have every reason to be afraid. But they are being reassured that, because God is with them, they should be bold and put fear aside. We are called to trust the God who redeems, the God who calls us by name, the God who goes beside us when we pass through the “waters.” Here, in Isaiah, centuries before Jesus’ birth, provides an example of the incarnation, of God being with us. God the Creator sticks with his people even when they are being punished. We are not abandoned!
God, through Isaiah, goes on to tell Israel that his presence will be there, not only through the waters, but also through the fire. Regardless of what calamity we face, a flood or fire, we can be sure of God’s presence. We can hold on to this promise. Obviously, God won’t keep such calamities from our lives. After all, the Hebrew people heard this oracle of salvation as they were in exile. But God assures them that although he arranged for them to be chastised, he was not going to leave them in some foreign country. They are still his people. Likewise, for those of us on this side of the resurrection, God through Jesus Christ, has adopted us as children and promises his presence despite whatever challenges we face.
Additionally, as we see in Verse 3, God is willing to go to great lengths to ransom his people, including offering up Israel’s old oppressor, Egypt along with other rich kingdoms of Northern Africa. I don’t think this has to do with God having anything against these people; instead, God shows just how far he’s willing to go to free Israel. These countries are remote, showing just how far the God of creation would go to free his people. God’s willingness to go to great lengths to redeem his people is later demonstrated in the sending of the Son, Jesus Christ.
This boasting leads to the climax of the passage in verse 4, where God speaks of his people as precious in his sight and expresses his love for them. I’ll return to this verse in a minute. First, let me give a brief overview of the ending of the passage.
The final three verses somewhat mirror the first three, as God again reassures Israel of his presence. God promises to bring back the offspring of the people of exile. This promise isn’t going to benefit those sent to exile; it’s for their descendants. They will again be led home by God. The passage then closes, as it opened, with a reassurance that God knows the name of his people and that he created him for his glory.
Let’s go back to the heart of his passage. In verse 4, God expresses love for the Hebrew people in a very intimate way. It sounds as something that could be taken from messages passed back and forth by young lovers: “you are precious, you are honored, and I love you.” Now remember, as I’ve pointed out, just what was going on with the Hebrew people when this was penned. They have been defeated by Babylon. Like so many other people and nations, they are being sent into exile. This policy of Babylon, sending defeated peoples into exile, strengthen their position by mixing up the nations they conquered. But most of the other defeated people who had been sent to Babylon disappeared from the annals of history, but not Israel.
Even though Israel was a small insignificant nation when compared to the other world powers of the era, God chose them and assigned them an important task. Eventually, it would be to this group of people that Jesus came. One commentator suggests that this is one of the best passages for the support of God’s election (or to use that “P” word favored by the Apostle Paul, predestination). God chose this defeated and humbled nation to enter into the world as a child bringing hope and offering a new chance through Jesus Christ. God, it appears, loves the underdog!
What should we learn from this passage? Although this passage isn’t directly about baptism, as we heard earlier in our reading from Luke’s gospel, the imagery is there. Knowing us by name and being with us as we pass through the waters brings baptism to the forefront of our imaginations. It used to be that at baptism, the child was given his name, a reminder that the child belonged to God, the one who knows him or her by name. We should hold on tightly to the promises made by God to us through baptism, knowing that there is nothing that can separate us from God’s love and that although there will be trials and tribulations in our lives, God promises to be with us. In the end, it isn’t what we do that’s important, it’s what God does for us.
There was a man who died and arrived before the Pearly Gates and started to strut right on into heaven when St. Peter stopped him.
“Hold on Partner,” Peter said. “Where do you think you’re going? You can’t just waltz in here, we got procedures. I need to know how many points you have.”
“Points?” the man cried. “What do you mean by points?”
“You have to have at least 100 points to get in,” Peter said.
“Well, how do I get points?” the man asked.
“By doing good things in your life,” Peter replied. “What kind of good things did you do?”
The man thought for a moment and said, “I was a member of the Presbyterian Church for sixty years.”
“That’s good,” Peter said with a smile, “that’s worth a point.”
“And I was an elder for nearly twenty years.”
“And I taught the Middle School Sunday School class for years, even though the kids drove me nuts.”
“Not the best attitude,” Peter noted, “but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. That’s another point, you only need 97 more.
“I once brought a meal for a man who was hungry.” “96 more,” Peter said.
The man started scratching his head, thinking harder and harder but nothing was coming to his mind. Then he said, “I was married for fifty years and never cheated on my wife.”
“Well, that’s expected, Peter said, but I’ll give you a point anyway, 95 to go.
The man thought harder and harder. Sweat beaded down his brow, for he felt as if he was about to blow the most important test of his life. Finally, he sighed and said, “I give up, if I’m to get in here, it’ll only be by God’s grace.”
Peter smiled and said, “That’s worth 95 points.”
Take comfort in the knowledge that God promises to be with us and that our salvation is in his hands and not our own. Yes, we will have troubles in this life, but the God who created us, who knows us by name, will be there with us, and for that we can give thanks even in the face of adversity. Amen.
 Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XXVII (Book of Order, 6.149 and 6.151)
 John L. McKenzie, Second Isaiah (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1968), 50.
 Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969), 118.